FOOD: ETHICS AND AESTHETICS
I open Facebook and among the usual cats I find plenty of photos depicting all kinds of dishes that friends of min have enjoyed. I why a good meal is worth remembering. Not only the food, but also the atmosphere that supports culinary pleasures; the ambiance, the friends with whom you enjoyed the food, the spirit of the place, and not least the look and composition of the food.
There is an intimate connection between food and aesthetics, from the Greek αισθησις, aisthesis, “perception”, denoting how we experience beauty and pleasure, i.e. everything connected to sensory sensations. Aesthetics is the philosophy of sensuality and art and it is conceivable to consider Epicurus (341-270 BC) as its first and greatest philosopher. He was obviously a friendly and sympathetic man whose Athenian home lay in a lush garden where he on a daily basis received friends and students, both men and women, and entertained them with stimulating conversations accompanied by simple but abundant and good food. Everything enjoyed in moderation, nothing in abundance, but adapted and combined in such a way that it provided joy and well-being, as well as intellectual and aesthetic stimulation. For Epicurus, it was important to spend time with other people and he had a sincere interest in their well-being. Among other things, he considered it a reprehensible habit to eat alone.
According to Epicurus, the main task of philosophy was to make people live a happy and quiet life, liberated from pain and fear. Something made possible by a sincere pursuit of an existence aiming at making us self-sufficient and thus independent of the income and power of others. A good life is to feel free and to be surrounded by good friends, who we feel at ease with since we do not feel an urge to gain material benefits from their friendship. Our reason to associate ourselves with them is is based on our own free will. As we help each other and have fun together, we should do so solely for the sake of our friendship. Admittedly, such a striving is selfish in the sense that we seek a good and happy life for ourselves, but if we strive for such an existence at the expense of others it will bring infallibly lead to misfortune. The well-being of others contributes to our own happiness and security. The degree of pleasure and pain, our own and others', is a sure measure of what is good and bad, respectively.
It is our senses that help us to understand what is ugly or beautiful, evil or good. It is through the senses that the intellect
realizes the limitations of the body, an insight that drives it away from the horror of the future and provides us with a complete and perfect life within which we no longer need any unlimited time. The senses do not avoid pleasure, and even when unforeseen circumstances make pain and death imminent, our consciousness does not lack the ability to rejoice in the good things of life.
When he felt the end of his life was approaching, Epicurus wrote in a letter to his friend Idomeneus that even if his acute prostate problems and dysentery were difficult to endure, he nevertheless that presence of his beloved friends´ concern, care and presence offset his pain. He also assured Idomeneus that while dying he found comfort in “all the conversations we have had.”
Epiciurus was no otherworldly dreamer, but a practical logician. Like Immanuel Kant, more than a thousand years later, Epicurus believed that we should act in such a way that our conduct could become a law for others:
Justice was never an entity in it itself. It is a kind of agreement not to harm or be harmed, made when men associate with each other at any time and in communities of any size whatsoever. […] If somebody lays down a law and it does not prove to be of advantage in human relations, then such a law no longer has the true character of justice. And even if the element of utility should undergo a change after harmonizing for a time with the conception of justice, the law was still just during that period, in the judgment of those who are not confused by meaningless words but who look at the actualities.
Epicurus has groundlessly been accused of advocating greed, selfishness and hedonism. Although he set pleasure as a central goal of human endeavors, it was to him unacceptable that pleasure should be experienced at the expense of others and in excess, i.e.without respecting the limitations of nature. According to Epicurus, pleasure meant not going to exaggeration, taking care of all that is good, happy and beautiful, and sharing all that with others. Thus, a good meal with good friends in an enjoyable atmosphere was something that according to Epicurus was an essential part of the good things in life.
After being confronted with all those Facebook photos of food and dinners, I searched among my own disordered collection of photographs and did of course not find the pictures I was looking for, though there quite a lot depicting meals well worth remembering. I have not “posted” a single one of them on Facebook, but I might share some of them here:
A sumptuous meal shared with Italian friends in the open. They had obtained wine and food through their own hard work with animals and crops, which they had slaughtered and harvested to produce and cook the delicacies we enjoyed together.
Preparations for a big dinner in an Italian village:
A restaurant visit together with friends in Siracusa, or maybe it was in Palermo? My memory fails, though I remember the food and the conversations.
Alone with Rose in Bodrum:
At a rustic restaurant in a small town in former Etruria with one of my daughters:
One of our traditional Christmas family meals:
I'm not a big cook, though I generally find great pleasure in cooking, especially when we have invited friends to our home. As the great food writer Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin wrote two hundred years ago:
He who receives his friends and does not give any personal care to the meal he prepares for them is not worthy of having friends.
I did not find any photographs documenting evenings I spent with my old pals, when the conversations flew around freely and unbound, the food was good and plentiful, not to mention the beer and wines. Brillat-Savarin again:
The pleasure of the table is the reflective sensation that arises from the various circumstances of deeds, places, things, and people that accompany the meal.
The events Brillat-Savarin described were far from being the modest dinners I generally attend. It was certainly more luxurious events the French lawyer and politician had in mind:
Whoever has been a guest at a sumptuous banquet, i a hall adorned with mirrors, paintings, statues and flowers, a hall balmy with scents, beautified by the presence of pretty women, and filled with the strains of sweet music – then may we say it requires no great effort of the imagination to be conversation all the sciences have been pressed into the service to enhance and set off the pleasures of taste.
Brillat-Savarin's Physiology of Taste, which he wrote two years before his death in 1826, is a highly cultured gourmet's Song of Songs dedicated to the culinary arts. According to Brillat-Savarin, cooking is one of humanity's outstanding achievements. A culinary master might be compared to the fixed stars of art; a Leonardo da Vinci, a Raphael, a Mozart, or a Beethoven, Shakespeare or Dante.
Animals feed; people eat; only those with wit know how to dine – l´homme d´esprit seul sait manger.
A bon vivant, aesthete and gourmet like Brillat-Savarin would undoubtedly be terrified if he was confronted with the bland and ugly dish that tormented me in school - and military canteens, namely får i kål, sheep in cabbage. Just he memory of it makes me shudder.
However, that does not hinder me from regarding that Michelin-starred meals, which I on a rare occasions were treated with during my time in Paris were significantly exaggerated and not at all as delicious as they promised to be. No, instead of the subdued atmosphere in luxurious restaurants that have been awarded three Michelin stars I prefer the lively atmosphere of Italian outdoor trattorias.
Or in the interestingly decorated, rather small and musty family tavernas with delicious food and friendly service that may still be found in Rome and elsewhere in the culinary-perfect Italy, where food is not only enjoyed in the solemnly subdued environment of expensive, luxury restaurants, or in the hustle, bustle and public mess on popular trattorias, but also around the kitchen tables in the homes of ordinary people.
If Brillat-Savarin's food culture may related to extravagant, Dutch still lives, then the Italian food may be associated with Lubin Baugin's seductively simple nature mortes, where bread and wine are presented as something sacred, probably related to the mystery of The Last Supper.
Baugin was a master at depicting bread and his quiet calmness and reverence for food seem to be repeated in a modern master's somewhat unexpected rendering of bread – Salvador Dalí, who probably knew his austere Spanish predecessor Luis Meléndez's severe and serene bodegones.
Bread is also present in the paintings of a fairly unknown Italian master who dedicated several of his paintings to the same motifs as Lubin Baugin and Luis Meléndez – Antonio Bueno who did his best work during the fascist era of the 1930s and 1940s.
Despite its hyper-realism, Bueno's still lives seems to be related to Giorgio Morandi's somewhat earlier, more modernist interpretations of similar subjects.
A friend of mine from Tanzania has to me described how a constant presence of hunger tormented him during his childhood by. When hunger at its worst make him feel as if his stomach had been squeezed into a hard knot pressing against his spine, the rest of his interior was like a void of emptiness, which in spite of an apparent vacuum was extremely painful. However, he also told me about how great his joy and satisfaction had been when there was plenty of food around, which could be shared between family members, friends and acquaintances. I believe that some of this reverence for food and drink shared by poor people is reflected in, for example, the French brothers Le Nain's paintings depicting the meager dinners of peasants living in early seventeenth century France.
A reverence for food also appears to be present in the above-mentioned Luis Meléndez´s depictions of food that to such a high degree differ from the sumptuous food landscapes that adorned the homes of the bourgeoisie in Flanders and Holland.
Meléndez's seemingly simple, though extremely relistic renderings of fruits, meat, wine and eggs seem to reflect an elemental hunger apparent in Spanish picaresque novels, where the longing for food or voracious gluttony and drunkenness often occurs. Mostly, however, it is hunger that is at the centre of these stories about witty and inventive, but impoverished picaros, petty villains, who move from employer to employer in what was then a prosperous and equally destitute Spain. One master was worse than the other and they all coveted greedily with food and wages. As in Lazarillo de Tormes (anonymously published in 1554), where the protagonist habitually complains about his evil employers, as here where he has ended up with a priest:
I was nearing my end from hunger. Actually, if he was very mean to me he was a lot more generous to himself. He spent five blancas on meat for his dinner and evening meal every single day. I must confess that he did share the gravy with me but as for the meat I had no hope! All I got was a piece of bread and I wished to God it´d satisfied half my hunger. In those parts, on Saturdays, they eat sheep´s heads and he used to send me to buy one for about three maravadís. He boiled it and ate the eyes, the tongue, the neck, the brains and the meat on the jawbones and then he gave me all the bones he´d been gnawing on a plate and said: ”Take them eat and be happy. The world´s your oyster. You live better than the pope himself.” ”I hope God give you a life like mine,” I muttered to myself. After I´d been with him for three weeks I was so week couldn´t stand on my own two feet out of sheer hunger. I saw quite clearly that unless God and my common sense helped me, the next step would be to the grave.
Similarly, the protagonist of Francesco de Quevedo's Historia de la vida del Buscón, The Story of a Swindler's Life, from 1626, suffers from acute hunger. Quevedo is one of the great poets of world literature. For example, have a taste of an old man's nocturnal thoughts about life, which my crude translation can hardly make any justice:
Alas … life! Why is no one answering me?
All those years I lived,
time ate them away.
Madness has hidden by-gone hours.
I don´t know
where health and age have fled!
Lack of life makes my past disappear.
There´s no calamity that´s not haunting me.
Yesterday is gone, tomorrow is not here,
though it comes, time goes on.
I´m a ”gone” and a ”now”, and very tired.
My today is yesterday and tomorrow,
dipers and a shroud, that´s all;
forsaken in an empty house.
The poem reflects only a tiny part of Quevedo's multifaceted poetry, filled as it is with black humor, sharp satire, beautiful love poems and intellectual speculations. He was passionate and easily irritated, admired and persecuted, became involved in duels, one with a fatal outcome and even ended up in the Inquisition's net, followed by imprisonment. Much of this is reflected in his novel, where life affirmation, petty crime and not the least hunger take up a lot of space. For example, here when the main character, like the early on orphaned Quevedo, ends up in a boarding school run by a rude principal called The Goat:
what could you say to a your belly to persuade it that it had eaten, because it would not believe you. Your guts were as full of air in that house as they were overstuffed in others. Suppertime came; teatime had already come, but no tea. For supper we had less than for lunch, and not mutton either but a bit of our tutor´s name, Roast Goat. I think it must be like that in Hell. ”It´s very healthy and good for you.” said Dr. Goat, ”to have a light supper. The stomach isn´t overworked.” And he cited a list of blasted doctors. He praised diets and said that they stopped you having bad dreams.
The portrait above is a copy of an original painted by Quevedo's friend, the incomparable Diego Velázquez, master of Bacchi Triumph, among others masterpieces where where his excellent craftsmanship comes forth. Velázquez was like Quevedo familiar with both court life and noisy folk culture andhas divided his painting into two fields, where we on the left side are confronted with the palefaced and relaxed upper-class cronies of Bacchus, to the right contrasted by the down-to-earth and realistically individualized peasants, whose features have become furrowed, red or browned by hard work and drunkenness.
This is something completely different from Carl van Loos´s Halte de Chasse, a company in which Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin would feel well treated and satisfied.
Thoughtless excess within a class society where the privileged seemed unaware of the hunger and misery of the working masses. Perhaps not entirely unlike the world we are living in, where a privileged fellow like me is comfortably enclosed by a fairly large consumer society and for the most part completely unaware of my reckless waste of food and the huge range of delicacies I might enjoy, of which an enormous amount is destined for perdition, or rather – to deplete our natural resources and suffocate the earth.
Brillat-Savarin is right when he states that we must show reverence for our food and treat it with love and respect. I think there is something fundamentally wrong with our culture when we so thoughtlessly abuse and throw away food. Even worse is when it becomes entertainment. All the "humor" that goes into destroying food is extremely unpleasant to me, especially considering the hunger that prevails around us.
An artist like Paul McCarthy, who despite his fascination with disgust and humiliation, is highly respected and has taught art at the University of California for half a century. McCarthy uses his own body, grotesque costumes, excesses in food and liquids, during performances that depict sex, violence and abuse, mixed with pop cultural and art historical references. At the center of some of his happenings is sloppy play with food. Maybe a form of protest against the consumer society? What do I know? One thing is for sure and that is that I personally find it difficult to appreciate such spectacles, neither from an aesthetic point of view, nor as an expression of social protest.
It was different with Marco Ferreri's La Grande Abbuffata, Blow-out, which is about how four extremely wealthy friends decide to take their own lives by reveling in food and sex without restraint. I saw the film in the mid-seventies and became quite upset. Some scenes linger in my memory and I do not want to watch the spectacle once more, though I think the film still holds up as a devastating critique of the vulgarity and gluttony that continues to rage among the upper and “privileged” classes.
Lack of reflection and aesthetics was already portrayed by Petronius (27 - 66 CE) in his still readable adventure novel Satyricon and there especially in the story Trimalchio's Feast, in which a filthy rich, uneducated glutton indulges himself in a self-righteous exposure of superabundance, something that serves as nothing else but an unscrupulous disclosure of him as the distasteful lout he really is. Extravagance and tastelessness celebrate triumphs while Petronius demonstrates that such grotesque display of wealth as a kind of moral merit, is highly disgusting to him. The depiction of the culinary excesses is unparalleled in world literature and one infamous dish after another surpasses each other in vulgar madness:
a server carrying a massive pig was put on the table. We started to express our amazement at this speed and swear that not even an ordinary rooster could be cooked so quickly, the more so as this pig seemed larger than it had appeared before. Trimalchio looked closer and closer at it, and then shouted ”What is this? Isn´t this pig gutted? I´m damn certain it isn´t. Call the chef in here, go on, call him!”
Trimalchio scolds and yells at the chef, who comes up with weak excuses until Trimalchio furiously orders him to take off his shirt and then calls in two slaves with whips to scourge the negligent chef in front of the table guests. But, then the host smiles and notes that such a performance is utterly inappropriate during what he intended to be a festive event. He decides to show clemency and commands the chef to, after all, cut up the roast pork… here and now:
The chef recovered his shirt, took up a knife and with a nervous hand cut the pig´s belly left and right. Suddenly, as the slits widened with the pressure, out poured sausages and blood-puddings.
Sometime in the late seventies, I watched with a friend Fellini's film adaptation of Satyricon and I remember how upset she became with me for dragging her to see such a grotesquely tasteless film. Even then I thought that Fellini had excellently succeeded in portraying the cruelty, misery, and much of the grotesque primitiveness that lurked beneath the surface of the Roman Empire. A few months ago I watched the movie once more and it hold its worth as a unique and masterful depiction of Antiquity, seen through the eyes of a visual artist with an entiley unique imagination.
Food gluttony is easily combined with culinary ingenuity and artistry. While living in Paris, a colleague of mine suggested that we visit La Fontaine Gaillon, a chic restaurant owned by the famous actor Gerard Depardieu, in France also known as a prominent gourmand/gourmet. Apparently he not only loves to feast on food, it was rumored that he during a dinner easily could devour four grilled chickens and gulp down several bottles of wine, it was also said that Depardieau was an enthusiast and a great connoisseur of everything concerning haute cuisine. A master chef who with great ease was able to prepare a delicious roast pork for an informal lunch, a respected winery owner with a dozen reputable wines in his name and in Paris, Depardieu was known for being capable of unannounced entering the kitchen regions of luxury restaurants to find out about ingredients and preparations of dishes he had appreciated.
It turned out, however, that La Fontaine Gaillon, as expected, was far too expensive for us and instead my friend invited me and some other colleagues to her home for a nice dinner that ended with an apple cake she claimed was based on one of Depardieu's recipes. When I came to think of that and searched the internet for a recipe for Depardieu's apple cake I came to suspect that my friend's cake was probably reminiscent of the one described by the actor in a New York Times article.
”The other day we made a fondant of apples with three different kinds of apples – Canada, Granny Smith and Calville,” Depardieu said. ”We did a white caramel sauce, put that on the plate. Then in the compote of apples, slightly reduced, I put a bit of butter and an egg yolk, and put that in the oven. It's not at all like a compote because it's lightly gratinée on top. We served it with a crème anglaise and a caramel ice cream, and I said: 'It's far too sweet, too rich. Nothing explodes, there is no subtlety.' So what we did is put an apple sorbet and a drop of rum – old rum that Fidel Castro took from the cave of Battista 50 years ago. He gave me a few bottles. And that” – he paused with a theatrical flourish – ”that is God in velvet underwear.”
Castro, Depardieu and gastronomy? In Oliver Stone's, in my opinion, far too devout documentary Commandante from 2002, which is based on three days of interviews with Fidel Castro, Stone asks the Cuban dictator about his favorite films. Fidel ponders for a moment and then says that he was fond of the film Vatel with Gerard Depardieu in the lead role as the master chef and party organizer Françoise Vatel. The film takes place in 1671 when Louis XIV, The Sun King, visits the castle of Chantilly, whose owner does everything in his power to impress the spectacle-loving king and thus come into his favor. The events will be Françoise Vatel's responsibility – delicious food, spectacles and fireworks. Behind the scenes, Vatel works obsessively to make every detail perfect, though during the course of the film we understand that Vatel is tormented by his low birth, which makes social advancement impossible, and his hopeless love for the king's mistress. This make his life meaningless and he finally takes his own life.
Maybe it was like that, though Vatel´s contemporary, Marie de Rabutin Chantal, Madame de Sévigne, who was present at the party, describes in a letter to her friend Madame de Grignan what happened in a different manner:
The fireworks were a little dimmed by the light of our friend the moon but the evening, the supper, the gaming, went of perfectly. The weather we have had today gave grounds for hoping for a continuation worthy of such a pleasant beginning. But now I learn, on coming here, something I can´t get over and which drives out of my head what I am writing. It is that Vatel, mâitre d´hôtel to M. Fouquet and now to Monsieur le Prince, this man whose ability surpassed all others, whose mental capacity was capable of carrying all the cares of the state – this man, then, whom I knew, seeing at eight o´clock this morning that the fish had not come, was unable to face the humiliation he saw about to overwhelm him, in a word stabbed himself. You can imagine the horrible disorganization such a terrible occurrence brought about in this festivity.
After she had come back to Paris, Madame de Sévigne wrote another letter to her friend where she further developed her portrayal of the tragic event, adding some details:
Night falls. The fireworks are a failure owing to fog, and they cost 16,000 franc. By four in the morning Vatel was rushing round everywhere and finding everything wrapped in slumber. He found a small supplier who only had two loads of fish. “Is that all?” he asked. “Yes, Sir.” He did not know that Vatel had sent round to all the seaports. Vatel waited a short time, the other suppliers did not turn up, he lost his head and thought there would be no more fish. He went and found Gourville and said: “Sir, I shall never survive this disgrace, my honour and my reputation are at stake.” Gourville laughed at him. Vatel went to his room, put his sword up against the door and ran it through his heart. But that was only at the third attempt, for the first two were not mortal. Then he fell dead. Meanwhile the fish was coming in from all quarters.
Roland Joffé's film is a sumptuous costume drama, but with more costumes than drama. At the center are the arrangements, especially the creation of the elaborate dishes and their imaginative presentation to Louis XIV and the précieuse aristocrats he surrounded himself with. Vatel's torment becomes less prominent. Was it perhaps the extravagant luxury, the food and Depardieu's certainly excellent acting that appealed to the Cuban dictator? Castro was very fond of play acting, well-cooked food and was also a good friend of Depardieu.
Gerard Depardieu met Castro in 1992 when he served him a delicious pâté, which according to Depardieu was the beginning of a lifelong friendship with the Cuban dictator and the entrance ticket to his inner circle. According to the French actor:
[Castro] also loves to eat, and is very curious about food. He is a friend and I go hunting with him and with his brother Raúl. They know everything about everything and they are normal people.
Shortly before Depardieu met Castro, the flow of money from the newly abolished Soviet Union had ceased, soon the Cubans queued up to buy the increasingly rare food, while the State kept track of every fish caught, every pig slaughtered, and everything harvested. Control and hunger increased, but that did not stop the country's dictator from abstaining from quail eggs for breakfast and fattened piglets for lunch.
While working at Sida, my good friend Mats Lundahl, who then was professor at the Stockholm School of Economics, and I were sometime in 2002 invited by the Cuban embassy to dine at the Restaurant Gondolen located by Katarinahissen with a magnificent view of Stockholm's inlet, Slussen, The Lock and Gamla Stan, The Old Town.
The reason was that I worked at the Swedish International Development Cooperation´s research department and happened to speak an acceptable Spanish, while Mats was known as a well-versed, Spanish-speaking economist. Sweden's support for Cuba had been withdrawn and the country's representatives in Sweden were keen to at least ensure cultural and scientific cooperation. Among the Cuban guests were high-ranking politicians, if I remember correctly, even a minister. I myself ended up next to a nice lady who was Deputy Minister of Culture. I wondered if she knew Castro. “Sure, I do,” she answered. She and her colleagues met with him almost every week. I wondered if it was true that Castro could speak continuously for several hours.
- Yes, that's right.
- But can it not be tiring to be forced to listen to his long monologues?
- For the most part, he comes up with interesting comments and valuable information. Nevertheless, you're right, a person like me who has heard him speaking often and for a long time cannot avoid losing the thread and the interest. However, over time I have learned not to be bothered by that at all.
- I daydream and think of all the excellent food we are going to be served afterwards.
Castro was delighted with all well-prepared food. He was addicted to various spaghetti dishes, grilled lamb, candied duck and red snapper. He also liked whiskey, Chivas Regal. However, the Cuban dictator was particularly fond of various forms of dairy products, something that Gabriel Garcia Márquez, among others, noticed. In one of several articles he devoted to his friend, Carcia Márquez wrote that Castro ended up ”sumptuous lunch” with no less than 18 scoops of ice cream.
The dictator was particularly fond of milkshakes served at the Havana Libre Hotel, an appetite that almost caused his death in the late 1960s when one of the waiters had been paid by the CIA to spice up Castro´s milkshake with the bacterial toxin botulinum (a glass of pure botulinum toxin would suffice for to kill the entire population of Sweden). Like a large number of other more or less imaginative CIA-planned assassination attempts that poisoning attempt did fail. Castro happily drank his milkshake and when he had left the restaurant the poison pill was found frozen into the wall of the hotel freezer. When the presumptive killer had tried to throw the pill into the dictator's chocolate milkshake, he had missed the glass.
One personal achievement Castro was particularly proud of was the insemination of a Cuban Zebu cow with the semen from an award-winning Canadian Holstein bull. The result was Ubre Blanca, the White Udder, which in 1982 after producing 110 liters of milk in one day ended up in the Guinness Book of Records. Castro could spend days visiting Ubre Blanca, carefully monitoring her care and being informed about her appetite and daily routines. Ubre Blanca lived for the most part on a diet of fresh fruit, especially oranges and grapefruit, while restful classical music was played uninterruptedly in the air-conditioned stable where she spent most of her time. When she became thirteen years old, Ubre Blanca's milk dried up, she thinned out and was killed when she was no longer “benefiting the Cuban revolution.”
When she had died, Castro had a marble statue of Ubre Blanca erected in her hometown, a stamp was issued in her memory, and the party organ Granma devoted an entire page to her obituary. She was stuffed and is still put on display in a “climate-controlled” glass stand by the entrance to Cuba's National Center for Animal Health.
Castro's appetite for good food and gastronomic excesses may appear to be morally questionable, especially given that he did not abstain from them while the majority of Cuba's citizens suffered from food shortages. However, the Cuban dictator's shortcomings in this regard were overshadowed by his even worse communist counterparts – Stalin and Mao Zedong.
The Ukrainian mass starvation Holdomor, Murder by Starvation, claimed more than 3.5 million victims in 1932 and 1933 and was largely a result of politics implemented by the Soviet regime. It was far from the only example of mass starvation during Stalin's terrorist regime, during World War II and in the GULAG camps, millions more people died of starvation, which could have been prevented, or mitigated, without difficulty. None of this, however, prevented Stalin from arranging grotesque dinner parties up until his death in 1953.
Stalin organized these nightly banquets on his dacha Kuntsevo 10 kilomtres outside of Moscow. He called these binges to “eat a bite” and they generally started around midnight and could last for up to six hours. None of the guests looked forward to such an occasion with any joy, mostly due to the fact that the diners generally were forced to drink themselves into a stupor and in the meantime were exposed to Stalin's insults and sarcastically denigrating jokes. The lengthy bacchanalia took place in a spacious dining room with a long table, which on each side was flanked by fourteen upholstered chairs. Along the walls, armchairs were placed in front of tall windows with drawn curtains. Chandeliers hung from the ceiling and the lighting was generally dim in the dark room which floors, walls and ceiling were covered with Karelian pine. Before drinking and dining took off, a visitor could feel separated from the rest of the world in what appeared to be a clinically clean hospital.
Present were mostly Stalin's closest companions – Beria, Molotov, Voroshilov, Khrushchev, Zhukov, Malenkov and Shcherbokov, until his death of alcoholism in 1945. The other habitues survived the Vozhd, “Great Leader”, “Generalisimus”, “Man of Steel”, “Brilliant Genius of Humanity”, “Great Architect of Communism”, “Gardener of Human Happiness”, and “Dear Father” – i.e. the murderous tyrant Ioseph Vissarionovič Džugašvili, a.k.a Jospeh Stalin. A motley crew of political veterans and survivors of countless purges who hated and feared each other. The regulars were expanded with several more or less regular guests, as well as frightened first-time visitors. The drinking began with Stalin forcing a couple of drinks into everyone present “to loosen our tongues”. Then they began in earnest to pour in various drinks, constantly watched over by Stalin, who kept careful control over the toasting so no one could escape. “Come on, drink now like everyone else,” he urged on the laggards in an evil tone of voice.
An excess of dishes had been set up on one side of the long table, where the guests lined up to avail themselves, after they had settled down at the table, or in the side chairs, their glasses were refilled by the discreet serving staff.
The older he got, the more Stalin became interested in food. The dinner began with hearty soups and Stalin, as was his custom in his home village, always crumbled bread in his soup. The dictator appreciated great variety in his diet and insisted that everything should be well cooked and carefully tasted. Stalin was especially fond of fish and various forms of “game”, but also poultry such as guinea fowl, duck, chicken and boiled quail. Aragvi was never missing at the table, a dish invented by the Vozhd himself and consisting of eggplant, tomato, potatoes and black pepper served in a strong sauce. Stalin had bad teeth and could only eat the tenderest meat and ripe fruits.
Adjacent to Kuntsevo, Stalin had established a large farm with extensive fields, pastures with cows, sheep, pigs and chickens, and a small lake with implanted fish. The estate was supervised by three highly trained agronomists.
Although Stalin could have agreed with Epicurus and Brillat-Savarin that dinners should be enjoyed in the company of others, his carousals, which took place without female participation and generally degenerated into drunken antics and vomiting, can hardly be considered a witty and brilliant form of socializing between friends. It is doubtful whether even Stalin perceived them as such – he probably, like several other dictators, did not even like any of the bootlickers he surrounded himself with and the question is whether he even liked himself. Apparently, deep down, Stalin was a very lonely and terrified person.
One who did not follow the advice of Epicurus and Brillat-Savarin to enjoy dinners with others was Mao Zedong. He generally ate his gourmet meals alone beside the huge bed in which he spent most of his time, accompanied by a multitude of books and papers, occasionally also with one and the other, usually casual and under-aged, female bed mate.
Mao Zedong's unhealthy, yes disgusting, life style has been extensively described by his personal physician Zhisui Li, who for twenty-two years monitored the dictator's health and towards the end of The Great Helmsman's life had at his disposal a team of 16 doctors and 24 nurses. Despite this, Mao was hardly in any good health and vigor. He was a chain smoker and fond of overly fatty foods. He hated bathing, apart from Noccasional dip in his private swimming pool and could at most moisten his body with a warm terry towel. Mao Zedong never brushed his teeth but only rinsed them with tea in the morning. As a result, at the age of seventy, he had lost all his teeth in his upper jaw and what was left were rotten stumps, with their gums often severely infected. The Great Leader's skin was in a deplorable state and despite his self-imposed and exalted seclusion, he was often attacked by lice and other body parasites, as well as recurring, severe boils. Mao's sleep was irregular and he occasionally stayed awake for twenty-four hours, engaged in reading or sexual excesses.
Throughout his life, Mao was fond of food and spent a lot of time making sure that the best of everything was acquired and he enjoyed it with solitary pleasure. His gluttony got worse over time. During his years as leader of a revolutionary army, Mao's habits, at least according to the devote Edgar Snow, who followed Mao´s guerrilla unit for a couple of months in 1936, were much more frugal than it became in later years. Mao then ate much the same food as his soldiers. However, even then he demanded that all his food had to be be seasoned with lots of chili pepper, which was also baked into the bread he ate. According to Snow, Mao liked to talk about gastronomy and at one point he explained that his preference for chili peppers not only stemmed from the fact that it spiced the dishes of his home province of Hunan, but because the people of that province, like other districts that had created fervent revolutionaries appreciated spicy food and he mentioned Spain, Mexico, Russia and France as examples of countries where chili peppers were appreciated and revolutions were born.
Over time, Mao's appetite became more and more refined and another foreign reporter who visited him in Yunnan in 1945 described how the Leader now appreciated rice cooked especially for him, bamboo shoots, fish and even meat prepared in a´the “European manner”. Mao explained that he “most of all was a Chinese man and we Chinese love good food.” Something he may have been right about. The few Chinese novels I have read rarely lack descriptions of food and appetizing meals.
The great religious founder Confucius (551-479 BCE) did in his conversations paraise harmony and moderation in a manner reminiscent of Epicurus. The Lúnyǔ, Edited Conversations, which after Confucius' death was compiled by his students and acquaintances and did not obtain its final form until around 220 BCE, includes the following description of the philosopher's dietary habits:
Rise that has become putrid and sour, fish that has been spoiled, and meat that has gone bad he does not eat. Food that is discoloured he does not eat, and food with bad odour he does not eat. Under-cooked foods he does not eat, and foods served at improper times he does not eat. Meat that is improperly carved, he does not eat, and if he does not obtain the proper sauce he does not eat it. Though there is plenty of meat, he will not allow it to overcome the vitalizing power of the rice. Only in the case of wine he does not set a limit. But he never drinks to the point of becoming disorderly. Purchased wine or dried meat from the market, he does not eat. He never dispense with ginger when he eats. He does not eat in excess.
My good friend Mats Olin, whose book tips are never dissatisfactory, made me in the early eighties with fascination devour Göran Malmqvist's masterful Swedish translations of Outlaws of the Marsh, written sometime in the 14th century CE by Shi Nai´An, and probably also by one or two other authors.
It is a marvelous tall story in every sense of the word, dealing with the varied exploits of 108 robbers who lived on Mount Liang in the Liangshan marshes of the Sichuan Province in southwest China. Exciting adventure stories about murders, kidnappings, battles, drinking, duels, torture and brave jailbreaks.
The robbers of these stories have generally ended up outside the law's raw marks after coming into conflict with corrupt officials and powerful warlords. Several of them were originally soldiers, bureaucrats, peasants and monks, or bandits from other gangs. The righteousness, friendship and fidelity which prevails within the close-knit group of bandits, contrasts with the violence and murderous caprice of representatives of the law and makes its adventurously anarchist lifestyle into a protest against an inhibiting social life.
The good mood and joy of storytelling in Outlaws of the Marsh make me think of the stories about Robin Hood. The characters are well carved and after initially having been identified in a rather schematic manner, they gradually become sharper in the contours. The protagonists personality is reflected, as in my childhood books about Native Americans, by their names, like Dry Land Crocodile, The Master Hand, Heaven-Shaking Thunder, The Flying Divinity, the Oily Bark Fin, the Heartbreaker, and the huge and unruly former monk, as well as constantly drunk gourmand Lu Zhishen, Sagacious Lu, undeniably a sympathetic person who is just as bad at being good as he is bad at being evil, this motley crew is headed by the righteous Song Jian, Punctual Rain.
Unlike the stories about Robin Hood, philosophical speculations and accurate observations about the conditions of life occasionally appear in Outlaws of the Marsh, as in this little poem about the basic needs of life:
Any food when you're hungry,
When you're cold rags save life;
Any road when you're frightened,
When you're poor any wife.
As with Robin Hood's cheerful companions, Song Jian's men appreciate food and wild binges. Their favorite dishes generally include, just like with Robin Hood´s men, illegally shot deer. During the Song Dynasty (960-1279 CE) when Outlaws of the Marsh take place, it was forbidden for common people to eat both deer and beef.
A recipe for venison from Jian's gang of bandits, also applicable to steak, is to marinate it in a mixture of ginger, leek, peppercorns, cinnamon sticks, anise, dried mandarin peel, bay leaves, salt, white wine, soy and sugar. The meat is then grilled and served with the marinade, which has been allowed to cook for fifteen minutes with a suitable addition of liquid. When the meat has become so soft that you can easily stick a chopstick through it – it is ready to be enjoyed.
Mao, like Hitler and Stalin, was a bookworm of great proportions, and Outlaws of the Marsh had a prominent place among his favorites. I assume, however, that its lush zest for life contrasted with the crooked and absurd mood that seemed to prevail around The Great Helmsman, particularly during his later years. An absurd existence overshadowed by the murderous chaos emerging from Mao's ill-conceived and slavishly applied decisions, including the realization of the madcap Cultural Revolution and not least the aftermath of the catastrophic famine that between 1959 and 1962 led to approximately 15 to 55 million people being killed and which was mainly caused of the so-called Great Leap Forward; forced collectivization, improper agricultural practices, and a host of other catastrophic efforts implemented by the Chinese Communist Party. A policy which misery was fervently denied by Mao and his syncopates while the Great Leader isolated himself in a bubble of escapism and narcissism, in which he, among other things, comforted and strengthened his self-confidence through a ruthless sex life and feasting on luxury food.
Mao rarely went to restaurants, there were not many left after the Chinese Revolution, and preferred to enjoy his food alone. Among other things, he was fond of a special fish that in plastic bags was brought from the 1,000 kilometres far-away Yuhan and during the journey was monitored by a companion who made sure that the water was oxygenated to the desired extent. Mao was also fussy about the rice he ate – the membrane that exists between the shell and the core must, for the sake of taste and health, be preserved, which meant that the peeling and rinsing of the rice was done manually and with the utmost care. In addition, Mao ate only rice from a special cultivation hidden away in the hills of the Jade Spring, where the Chinese emperors had had their fresh spring water fetched and which Mao now used for his exclusive rice fields. All his dairy products and poultry originated from a special farm called Jushan, while the Great Leader's tea was produced on special farms where the leaves were harvested at specific times of the year and day, personally established by Mao. All the stir-fried dishes must be served hot and immediately, which meant that the servants had to run with them from the kitchen to Mao's bedroom, which was located far away because he did not want to be bothered by any cooking odors.
I'm not a great moralist, but I find it hard not to be upset by Mao's fussy diet, especially given that it was linked to a frightening lack of empathy for the victims of famines and massacres caused by Mao´s poorly thought out decrees. It is not without reason that I am reminded of Mao's Swedish and utterly devout weapon bearer, Jan Myrdal, who like his idol is a gourmet of great proportions. Without difficulty, Myrdal defends Mao's and Pol Pot's grotesque genocides while at the same time he justly resents the pitiful Swedish diet, characterized as it is by “capitalist depredation”, paired with bourgeois and puritanical contempt for delicious food. According to Myrdal Sweden is a country where it is considered “ugly to speak loudly and with reverence about food and drink as an art for the people.” In addition, Swedes believe:
that broiler tastes of young rooster! Powdered soup! Ice cream made of coconut fat! Swedish children do not know what real ice cream tastes like. Real ice cream! The one you eat in Italy or Iran. The over-prized meat! In the charcuterie counter rest, wrapped in plastic, old corpses delivered from animal factories. Quick-aged cheese made from old milk and imported rennet.
It is different in China where cuisine is a recognized art form; one of the fine arts and where a “real” master chef is considered to be on the same elevated level as great composers and symphony orchestra conductors.
Han-Chinese will even after a thousand years turn their backs on kalvdans [a classical Scandinavian dessert made from unpasteurized colostrum milk, i.e. the first milk produced by a cow after giving birth], but I appreciate not only blood sausages of various kinds, but also a properly aged and fermented Chinese bean “cheese”. I am also a wine-drinking man. But no more sophisticated than I am not looking forward to enjoy a Brachetto spumante from Nizza Monferrrato in Asti. It is a bubbling peasant wine. To be drunk young. It does not travel. Tastes like a carbonated lingonberry drink within a higher potency. Nevertheless, that taste remains individual.
During the Chinese Cultural Revolution Jan Myrdal could fully satisfy his gourmet leanings, while Mao was insisting that “revisionists” had to be “removed” through violent class struggles led by “China's youth”. The result of this whim was that hundreds of thousands of people succumbed, some estimates go as high as a total death toll of 20 million between 1966 and 1976.
During those turbulent times Myrdal visited China, though he did apparently not experience any mayhem. On the other hand, he received “during the Chinese Cultural Revolutiona large forty-litre jar with a ten-year-old Shaosing wine,” which he had not yet drunk twenty years later, as it according to him had not yet become ripe enough but had to be further “risen at the right temperature.” During the Cultural Revolution's period of violence and mass starvation Jan Myrdal also visited:
the master chef education in the Shantung Province (where one of the four classical schools of Chinese cuisine had been developed during the Ming Dynasty). What was then discussed was not that this high art ought to be abolished but how it could be developed to serve the people and how the masses could become involved in the work of the culinary masters.
While reading Myrdal's tributes to the refined Chinese cuisine and his appreciation of Mao's and Pol Pot's terror regimes, I found a frightening, grotesque, perhaps even disgusting, though yet fascinating novel about gluttony and totalitarian authorities' lack of empathy and cynicism while facing human catastrophes – Mo Yans Jiŭgó, Republic of Wine, from 1992.
Ding Gouer, social investigator of the Higher Procuratorate, has by the authorities been sent to the mining town of the Land of Spirits in the heart of the Republic of Wine to investigate the truthfulness of rumors about an alleged “breeding of infants for consumption.” Simultaneously with the account of Ding Gouer's adventures among the city's wealthy and corrupt politicians, there runs a parallel story about how author Mo Yan over the mail receives nine rather poorly written short stories by a young man with authorial ambitions. This Li Yidou is a doctoral student at the Land of Spirit´s Brewery University and has, after watching the movie Red Sorghum, based on one of Mo Yan's novels, decided to ask the famous author for advice before a possible publication of his short stories.
Strangely enough, Li Yidou's stories deal with the breeding of infants intended to be slaughtered as food for the Land of Spirits corrupt rulers, just as in the novel that Mo Yuan is in the process of writing. Soon Mo Yan begins to wonder if those short stories really are just a kind of perverted fiction – Li Yidou labels his storytelling as “demonic realism”, or maybe they are, after all, depictions of a nasty reality.
In his novel, Mo Yan tells how investigator Ding Gouer, after his arrival in the mining town, is by the city's rulers honoured with an incomparable meal. Abundant drinks make Ding Gouer unsure about what he sees and hears really are taking place around him:
as they drank, an unending succession of steaming, mouth-waterting dishes was trundled into the room by three red serving girls, like three tongues of flame, like three balls rolling here and there, lighting-fast. He vaguely recalled eating a red crab the size of his hand; thick juicy prawns covered in red oil; a green-shelled turtle steeped in celery broth; a stewed chicken, golden yellow in colour, its eyes reduced to tiny slits, like a new variety of camouflaged tank; a red carp, slick with oil, gaping mouth still moving; steemed scallops stacked in the shape of a little pagoda; as well as red-skinned turnips, so fresh they could have been plucked from the garden.
Two serving girls enter carrying a large, round tray in which sat a "golden, incrediby fragrant little boy"
cross-legged in the middle of the gold-edged platter, golden brown and ozing sweet-smelling oil, a giddy smile frozen on his face. Lovely, naive. Around him was spread a garland of green vegetable leaves and bright red radish blossoms ... A pair of limpid eyes gazed back at [Ding Gouer], steam puffed out of the boy´s nostrils, and the lips quivered as if he were about to speak.
Ding Gouer becomes frightened, in drunken stupor he pulls his gun and threatens to shoot down the diners. However, he calms down when his hosts convince that the boy is a culinary masterpiece created from pork, which has been carefully molded into the shape of a real child. Ding Gouer then lets himself be served the extremely tender meat that seems to melt in his mouth.
Author Mo Yan is beginning to get confused by his own story. What is he really writing about? From where do his fantasies emerge? His confusion increases through the short stories he has received from Li Yidou. One of them, The Meat Boy, tells how a poor farmer, Jin Yuanbao, takes his one-year-old son to the Special Acquisition Section at the Culinary Academy. There he waits together with other parents and their babies, somewhat worried by the presence of a “red demon”. Finally, Jin Yuanbao and his son are brought before a review committee, which, after appreciatively reviewing the boy reward him the “highest grade” and pays his father 2,140 yuan for him.
Short story after short story becomes increasingly grotesque with even more accurate accounts of slaughter, and intricate recipes for how to best cut up and prepare babies for exquisite meals. At the end of the novel, the author Mo Yan seems to merge with his main character – State Inspector Ding Gouer and through an inner monologue the lets reader experience how Ding Gouer forgets everything his initial tasks and an lose himself indulgemnet in the gastronomic enjoyment of “possibly” slaughtered infants.
The Republic of Wine is a dizzying and multifaceted novel that seems to constitute a fairly obvious critique of a top-down, completely ruthless and extremely anti-human state apparatus, where the centre of power rapes and exploits a poor and oppressed countryside. At the same time, Mo Yan appears to question the role of the author – is he really by indulging in his unhinged imaginations after all not contributing to a certain acceptance, and thus a kind of defense of an oppressive reality, which in its grotesque absurdity surpasses anything literature might create?
It is inevitable to consider both Stalin's and Mao's gastronomic excesses against the background of the terrible famines their misrule caused in their homelands. Both MoYan's grotesque novel and Vladimir Vojnovich's absurd short story A Circle of Friends, based on Stalin's grotesque dinners, should be read in view of the famine and repression that flourished around these dictators and their gastronomic excesses.
Mo Yan's novel was apparently inspired by Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal, which in 1729 was published as a newspaper article. Its full title was A Modest Proposal For Preventing the Children of Poor People From Being a Burthen to Their Parents or Country, and For Making Them Beneficial to the Publick. The Irish priest Jonathan Swift (1667-1745), author of Gulliver's Travels, was furious at the poverty and starvation created by the English Empire, with its trade restrictions, discrimination and ruthless taxation of his homeland.
Swift´s criticism of the English treatment of the Irish was expressed in satirical newspaper articles, pamphlets and petitions to Parliament. His anger and frustration flourished in his Modest Proposal, which allegedly tried to convince poor Irishmen to improve their financial situation by selling their own children delicacies to the wealthy exploiters and leeches, who already had sucked pride and property out their progenitors. Swift bases his “proposal” on careful argumentation for which he used statistics and ideas about community planning, combined with various recipes for how to prepare infants for delicious meals, while rejecting the risk that his “unassuming” proposal would lead to the depopulation of Ireland , on the contrary – a vigorous reduction in the surplus of the starving but fecund population would benefit both Ireland and the United Kingdom.
A Modest Proposal provides an impression of being an entirely “logical” and unbiased presentation of a complicated problem and not everyone noticed Swift's furious argument that anti-human politics and cold politicization are abominable and that any proposal involving massmurder and unilateral exploitation of fellow human beings is utterly disgusting.
The chilly bureaucratic and mundane style of A Modest Proposal is repeated in Mo Yan's novel, in which humans are likewise transformed into cattle destined for slaughter. An excerpt from Swift's proposal gives an idea of the insensitive tone that permeates the entire pamphlet:
I have been assured by a very knowing American of my acquaintance in London, that a young healthy child well nursed, is, at a year old, a most delicious nourishing and wholesome food, whether stewed, roasted, baked, or boiled; and I make no doubt that it will equally serve in a fricasie, or a ragoust. I do therefore humbly offer it to public consideration, that of the hundred and twenty thousand children, already computed, twenty thousand may be reserved for breed, whereof only one fourth part to be males; which is more than we allow to sheep, black cattle, or swine, and my reason is, that these children are seldom the fruits of marriage, a circumstance not much regarded by our savages, therefore, one male will be sufficient to a highly seasoned dish of pieces of meat stewed with vegetables, serving four females. That the remaining hundred thousand may, at a year old, be offered in sale to the persons of quality and fortune, through the kingdom, always advising the mother to let them suck plentifully in the last month, so as to render them plump, and fat for a good table. A child will make two dishes at an entertainment for friends, and when the family dines alone, the fore or hind quarter will make a reasonable dish, and seasoned with a little pepper or salt, will be very good boiled on the fourth day, especially in winter.
Let me now leave dictators' dietary habits, their grotesquely ego-tripped culinary habits and pitiful notions of the rest of the humanity and instead devote myself to the more ethical dimensions of gastronomy as a path to enjoyment and fellowship. However, not forgetting its aesthetic dimensions, in line with Nietzsche's dictum: "Only as an aesthetic phenomenon are existence and the world justified.”
In the early eighties, I taught Swedish and religion at a high scholl in Malmö and had as a colleague Bernth Dagerklint. Like me he was a bookworm and we became friends for life. Although we rarely met after I had left my teaching job, we kept in touch by letter and e-mail. In addition to his educational activities Bernth was a reserve officer and served as military adviser during several UN missions – in the Palestine, former Yugoslavia and Afghanistan. Despite his great knowledge and interesting life experience Bernth was a humble and constantly curious person and when he died suddenly a few years ago it was a great personal loss to me.
While we were still colleagues Bernth became fascinated in Karen Blixen and her pencraft. He delved into anything he could get his hands written by her and/or about her. We often discussed Bernth's theory that Blixen might had been affceted by anorexia and that this apparently affected her authorship. On several occasions he traveled to Denmark and interviewed people who had known Karen Blixen personally and he became finally fully convinced about the fact that she had suffered from severe anorexia, Bernth wrote an interesting licentiate thesis thesis he called Anorexia nevosa in Karen Blixen's life and writing and asked me to accompany him to the seminar at which he presented his thesis at the Department of Literary Studies at Lund University.
It turned into a quite scary event. His rabid opponents consodyted of a group of vociferous young women who ruthlessly attacked the timid and very friendly Bernth: "How can a man come with the preposterous idea of treating such a fantastic, feminist authorship as that of Karen Blixen as being based on a medical condition! This is just another annoying example of how male chauvinists, completely lacking an ability to understand a woman's emotional life, usurp their artistic creativity and interpret their inner feelings as if they were thier own. Preposterous, rude, utterly reprehensible and emotionally cold!" Bernth was shocked, humiliated and almost speechless. However, his supervisor could not fail such a substantiated and well-written essay. All she could do was to lament that it had been written by a man and not a woman.
For several years afterwards, Bernth tried to get his constantly revised dissertation published, perhaps as a way to vindicate himself. After eight years ge was fanlly able to place a significantly reduced version in a respected scientific publication – Nordica: Tidskrift for nordisk teksthistoria og aestetik published by the Danish Odense University. I have since found how Bernth's theory of how Blixen's writing was characterized by her anorexia has been confirmed by several literary scholars, not least feminists who have increasingly come to point out how women's social position may be shaped by their specific physical constitution and unique body consciousness, and how this has been influenced by prejudices rampant within their social habitat – exactly as Bernth had claimed in his so savagely attacked thesis .
I was reminded of Bernth's essay when I a year ago Santo Domingo shared a lunch with my food-loving friend Antonio Lluberes. Padre Ton is a Jesuit priest and shares a villa in the city centre with some other members of his Order. When I asked him how they use to spend their evenings, he told me that they generally remained in their rooms where they read and studied, but that they used to have a common, well-prepared supper and tafter that they generally watched a movie together, or a documentary on Netflix. I already knew that Padre Ton was a great moviefan and when I now asked him about his favorite film he stated that he was particularly fond of the Danish film Babette's Feast, which is based on a short story by Karen Blixen.
Bernth devotes a large part of his analysis of Blixen's authorship to Babette's Feast. The story takes place in a small Norwegian town and at the centre are two sisters. members of a fundamentalist Puritan sect. The girls' father was a priest and founder of the movement. He raised his beautiful daughters to become "strangers to earthly love." Nevertheless, they were courted by two "worldly" men – a young lieutenant named Löwenhielm and a French opera singer by the name of Achille Papin. Their father´s struct upbringing made the two sisters worried by the sensuality and "worldliness" of their suitors and soon the father advised against all contact with them and the suitors disappeared from sight. The father died, though the sisters persevered in their self-disciplining faith, while their congregation dwindled.
Sixteen years after the two suitors had left the small town, the French opera singer Papin sent a cook to the two sisters. Babette was escaping war and revolution in the Paris of 1871. However, she is not just any cook but has been in charge of the kitchen at Café Anglais, the Mecca of culinary art, and for her gastronomy equaled an ability to transform:
a dinner into a kind of love affair – into a love affair of the noble and romantic category in which one no longer distinguishes between bodily and spiritual appetite or satiety. that makes no distinction between bodily and spiritual appetite.
The disciplined but good-natured Babette submitted herself to the two sisters' strict puritanism, though she continued to prepare delicious food, but now it was healthy home cooking and not any passionate culinary excesses that might bring about a difficult-to-master pathos. Fourteen years pass, Babette settles in the sleepy, small town while surpress her memories of the glamour and esprit of La Ville-Lumiere. Howver, one day amazing news arrive from Paris – Babette has won 10,000 francs from the French state lottery. Monsieur Papin has secretely every year bought a ticket in Babette's name. The luckily surpised Babette now suggests to the two sisters that they ought to let her prepare a feast to commemorate the hundred years of the birth of the sect founder and invite the few remaining sect members. The sisters reluctantly agree to Babette's proposal.
When exotic ingredients appear in their kitchen, mediated by a nephew of Babette, the Puritan sisters are dazzled by all the extravagance, even Babette seems to have been transformed:
By this time Babette, like the bottled demon of the fairy tale, had swelled and grown to such dimensions that her mistresses felt small before her. They now saw the French dinner coming upon them, a thing of incalculable nature and range. But they had never in their life broken a promise; they gave themselves into their cook´s hands.
The divine force that works through Babette is not the God of Christianity, the one who rejects sensualism and earthly passions, but rather powers beyond good and evil which unite spiritual and bodily dimensions.
The old ladies even dare to invite one of their old suitors, the former lieutenant Lorens Löwenhielm who they have not seen for ages and now with his wife is living far away in another town. He has become a retired, but still handsome general.
When the grand banquet kicks off, the black-clad sect members show up one by one. They have carefully instructed each other that through behaviour and mimicry they must not reveal if they have been influenced by all the flair and luxury that so far have been denied them. Neverthess, when all the exquisite food and divine drinks become united in their bodies and rise to their heads, everyone, including the urbane general, experiences how this meal has something mysterious and liberating about it. The happiness and satisfaction they feel is specifically symbolized by one of the dishes – Caille en sarcophage, Quail in sarcophagus, where the gold roasted quail stands for spring and resurrection as it rises from its shortbread sarcophagus like a reborn bird Phoenix:
Life and death, flowering and withering, reproduction and decay are parts of life and existence. That a flower blooms and a fruit ripens means at the same time that they will one day wither and rot ... We must have the courage to mature fully and learn to accept our own death.
The diners experience a miracle:
None of the guests later on had any clear remembrance of it. They only knew that the rooms had been filled with a heavenly light, as if a number of small halos had blended into one glorious radiance. Taciturn old people were blessed with the gift of tongues; ears that for years had been almost deaf were opened up. Time itself merged into eternity. Long after midnight the windows of the house shone like gold, and merry songs flowed into the winter air.
As the tumultuous, blessed guests leave the old sisters' house, they are met by a quiet snowfall. The snow becomes a symbol of purity and innocence. The former life-denying Puritans become like children:
as if they had indeed had their sins washed white as wool, and in this regained innocent attire were gamboling like little lambs. It was, to each of them, blissful to have become as a small child; it was also a blessed joke to watch old Brothers and Sisters, who had been taking themselves so seriously, in this kind of celestial second childhood.
It is as if a curse had left the parishioners. Body and soul had becomewhile they ate and drank without guilt, without inhibition they enjoyed the marvellous dishes and fabulous wine. Bernth stated that when Blixen liberated herself through this story, it was as if she had:
formulated the fundamental dilemma of anorexia, expressed in a split between body and soul, and then provided a solution through a sumptuous feast-day that became a guilt-free abolition of this division.
As the master chef Babette was, she had placed a great emphasis on the composition and colour combinations of her dishes. It is a well-known fact that taste and aesthetics have an intimate connection. If some wild plants and animals protect themselves by hiding, or by being endowed with a protective colour or pattern that make them appear as if they are almost identical with their surroundings, others may openly signal the fact that they are poisonous or distasteful and thus scare away predators that might harm and devour them. If they by displaying certain colours reveal their toxicity or bad taste it is called aposematism. In addition to certain colours aposematism may also be expressed through sounds, odors, or anything else that is easily recognizable. Warning colours are for example wasps' black and yellow-striped hind bodies, the dots and different colours of the poisonous thimble flower, or the stripes of a coral snake.
The most common aposematic colours seem to be different combinations of red, yellow, black and white. Such colours contrast most effectively with greenery. They are eye-catching in both shade and strong sunshine and are thus as far from an effective camouflage as possible. Different animal species perceive colours in different ways. Grazing cows can probably through different colour signals assess whether a plant can be eaten or not and if, for example, they happen to ingest water hemlock there is a risk that they will die of poisoning, other plant cows should watch out for and in generally avoid eating are horsetail plants, lupines, buttercups, and melde/goosefoot and it can also be dangerous if they happen to ingest oak leaves, or acorns.
Oviously, colour and aesthetics have a useful function, they affect desire and joy, as well as anxiety and other negative states of mind. Babette's Feast and other tributes to food and fellowship remind us of the importance of enjoyable meals and dreams. How much time of our existence meals and their preparation take up and how the lack of them torments us.
I recently read an article about an Italian nutritionist, Angelo Bianco's, thoughts on food and aesthetics. Bianco described how important food colour and arrangement are for our health and well-being. What I found particularly interesting were his descriptions of how colours may signal certain benefits various foods might have for body and soul. Some examples:
White and beige food reminds us of childhood and can have a comforting effect. It is the colour of milk, cheese, eggs and yogurt and signals their content of vitamin D and calcium, important for the health of bones and teeth, for muscles and blood coagulation. White vegetables and fruits such as onions, leeks, garlic, apples and pears contain mineral salts such as potassium carbonate and magnesium, sulphate and the like, which counteract the build-up of cholesterol and thus facilitate blood flow. White fish meat is a source of selenium, iodine, protein, vitamin D and vitamin B12. Howver, the levels vary between different fish species. High levels of vitamin D are found in fish with all fat levels, such as herring. Seafood and mussels are lean and often sources of protein, vitamin B12, iodine, selenium and vitamin E.
Green food makes us associate with freshness, renewal and purification. Here we find artichokes, endives, green salad, spinach, broccoli, asparagus, parsley, cucumber and kiwi. They are green due to their concentration of chlorophyll, which is an antioxidant. They also contain lutein which protects the retina of the eye, counteracts cataracts and improves night vision, it also protects the skin from ultraviolet radiation.
Yellow food makes us associate with sun, desire, sweetness and acidity. It is generally rich in vitamins A, C and B5, important for energy and cell renewal. They contain zinc which, among other things, stimulates and regulates sexual development. Vegetal oils such as olive oil are also yellowish, signaling abundant and beneficial fatty acids such as polyphenols, phytosterols and carotenoid, which are antioxidant and some of these oils are also anti-inflammatory. Carrots and melons contain beta-carotene, a molecule that contributes to the development of vitamin A and protects the skin from ultraviolet radiation.
Red food is reminiscent of activity, dominance, passion, courage and blood. Meat is red and contains iron, which counteracts anemia, and contains lots of protein. However, since it also contains a large amount of cholesterol and saturated fats, it should be enjoyed only three times a week. Red vegetables and fruits such as radishes, rhubarb, tomatoes, cherries and strawberries are also rich in iron, carotenoid and vitamin C. Fish such as char and salmon have red, or pink, flesh, rich in omega-3 fats, DHA and EPA, which may reduce the risk of cardiovascular disease. For their brain and vision to develop normally children need omega-3 fats.
Violet and blue food evoke associations to mysteries and seduction, but also calm, reflection and confidence. Eggplants, figs, blueberries, plums, wine and grapes contain energy-providing sugar, antioxidants, anti-allergics and antiviral substances, as well as a variety of useful minerals.
Brown food is comforting, like coffee and cocoa. Brown vegetables such as beans and among them especially soy, have a variety of vegetal protein. Several spices are brown, such as pepper, cinnamon, nutmeg and cloves, as well as nuts and they all contain substances that contribute to the metabolism and breakdown of fat. Coffee and chocolate are nerve-stimulating and are also good for blood circulation, while cocoa contains a lot of vitamin E. Cocoa also contains the amino acid trypophan, which helps to build serotonin, a neurotransmitter regulating feelings of well-being and sexual desire.
Of course, food and drink play an extremely important role for us all. They are undeniably the basis and prerequisite for our entire existence and survival, thus they are also associated with more subtle peculiarities than just survival, like ethics and aesthetics, something that makes us human – for better or worse. L´homme d´esprit only sait manger.
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