The sun is shining. I am eating a mango. Ideologies fade like miasma.
I am firmly of the conviction that the pleasure of eating good food puts one in direct contact with the ineffable Good, which is too often mediated to us through mere theory or guesswork – it is posited as something Out There which has nothing to do with bodily pleasure. Indeed, this mango right now is, according to such theories, interfering with my contact with the Good, because it is distracting me through base pleasure. You know what I say to that? Hooray for base pleasure! I know that the taste of this mango is good with the same certainty that I know I exist. It is a comforting thought.
I’ve spent years recovering from the philosophical prejudice about bodily pleasure. But recovery is complete! No longer will I apologize for enjoying a ripe tomato or a succulent bloody steak. I won’t try to make shameful excuses: “it’s okay as long as it’s nourishing the body that sustains the mind that enables me to read Hegel” – or the “merely subjectively satisfying is neutral as long as it does not distract one from the objective good” or “I have to eat this tomato because a nice old lady offered it to me, and I don’t want to offend her, but I promise I am NOT enjoying it. I am thinking about Higher Things.”
Incidentally, the tomato was first mentioned in a European cookbook in 1692 – the same year Descartes’ Meditations on First Philosophy was translated into English. I love Descartes, but it seems that a lot of ripe tomatoes are necessary, occasionally, to balance out the psychological effect of too much Cartesian meditation. Reading Descartes gives me the distinct impression a) that he is right; and b) that I am sort of disintegrating like the Cumaean Sybil, one bit of me over there washing dishes, the other bit of me huddled over a hot stove in Sweden, some snippet of me (a nose, perhaps) galloping across golden fields at dusk, far away, over there.
I ascribe to a Schelerian view of a hierarchy of goods, according to which sometimes a lower good should be eschewed for the sake of a higher one. Thus it is of course acceptable to give up the pleasure of food for the sake of fasting, or for the sake of health. Gluttony involves pursuing the pleasure of eating to so inordinate an extent that other goods are harmed or neglected. But that doesn’t mean gastronomic pleasure isn’t good; it simply means that it is not the highest good.
One pleasant thing about eating is that you can romanticize it as much as you want, and it still won’t disappoint you. Romanticization of marriage, or pregnancy, or traveling in France, or having a kickass career, can lead to despondency. But there is something about a good meal that prevents one from trying to make it into anything other than what it is…a good meal. This may be because a glass of wine is not a person – it is finite and contained, and we are not in danger of pretending that it is more or less than what it is. We often make the error of reducing a person to a mere object of pleasure, or trying to transmute him or her into an Ideal (also a sort of reduction, really: if anyone ever says “you’re my ideal” you should RUN SCREAMING AWAY). It’s fine to regard a chocolate cake as an object, though. And no one I know has ever pretended that a cake is a Platonic Form (and I’ve known some pretty loopy people).
No matter how many glorious literary descriptions of feasts I read, I am still not downcast over real feasts in real life.
This leads one to reflect upon memorable literary meals. I present these, in no particular order. Feel free to add more:
1) “Babette’s Feast,” by Isak Dinesen. The amazing banquet cooked up by the mysterious French chef, Babette, for a host of simple, kindly, Puritanical Danish Christians. Almost as good as the descriptions of the meal: descriptions of the aging, cautious sisters’ terror of the heathenish ingredients in store for them, their determination NOT to speak a word about the food, not even to enjoy it. Best of all, though: the true communion and love experienced, at the close of the feast. “Justice and peace shall kiss.”
2) Brideshead Revisited, by Evelyn Waugh. Here we have two memorable feasts: Charles and Sebastian drinking wine and eating strawberries one golden Arcadian day, and the exquisitely sophisticated Parisian meal Charles orders for the clueless Rex. Especially the description of the pearls or caviar in melted butter on blinis.
3) The Odyssey, by Homer. The Cyclops’ “feast” does a lot to explain the hero’s relief to finally be again among “men who eat bread.” For a change.
4) The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, by C.S. Lewis. The breakfast Mr. Tumnus serves Lucy. So many different things to serve on toast!
5) The Satyricon, by Petronius. Trimalchio’s Feast is a monument of vulgarity, especially when they slice open the roast pig and out come all the sausages. Also, here we find that memorable quotation about the Sybil (suspended in her jar):
One interesting thing about this book is that in the Loeb classical edition, prudish scholars wouldn’t translate certain bits; this gives the curious Latin student impetus to brush up on grammar and vocabulary to find out just WHAT happened after Encolpius meets Arquilla. Nothing salutary, you can bet on that. After you have translated as much as you can you will reject these silly notions about contemporary literature breaking with the high-minded purity of the sacred Tradition.
6) The Bible. Speaking of mangoes: the Forbidden Fruit in the garden of Eden. Probably NOT an apple. Most likely a mango. Also, the rapid-fire meal Abraham prepares for his heavenly visitors. The man runs out, slaughters a calf, roasts it up on a fire, grinds grain, makes bread, runs back in, serves his guests…in the time it would take most of us, presumably, to throw together a PB & J sandwich. Oh, and of course, the Last Supper.
I could go on and on, but I will leave it to you all to supply further examples: because I have to go make lunch for my kids. Incidentally, isn’t it nice that we can read all about these feasts, in graphic sensual detail, without ever feeling one bit guilty for our delectation? Nothing about food needs to be left untranslated, by even the most dusty and pedantic classicist.