Our collective human memory reaches far back through many doors, many hallways and rooms, and alway we find, though never that first room, a place to cook and a place to sit down and eat with each other. In Homer’s the Odyssey, Odysseus portrays this action and place as the best life has to offer.
Nothing we do is sweeter than this—
A cheerful gathering of all the people
Sitting side by side throughout the halls,
Feasting and listening to a singer of tales,
The tables filled with food and drink,
The server drawing wine from the bowl
And bringing it around to fill our cups.
For me, this is the finest thing in the world. (9.5-12)
A model of home, a model of civilization if you will. Happiness within people called together, a community formed by a host’s invitation and response by the guests. Camaraderie sets the table as all rest next to each other, emphasizing friendship, emphasizing security. No austerity here, no attempt at Protestant refusal as in Babette’s Feast, no here there’s an abundance of food and there’s no shame in reaching out for more and more, as the digestive system receives a sweet gift from lyre and voice as stories of the community, of the meal make the feast. Cups receive attention so that festivity and mirth reign. Before he begins recounting his tales to the Phaeacians who will eventually sail Odysseus home, before he begins to entertain his host who has set out a meal before him, our hero from Troy emphasizes what they are all in the midst of is the best life affords us. Remember, this is exactly what all the Greeks destroyed when they burned Troy in revenge for Paris’ lack of good manners.
Dancers at a Village Inn by David Teniers the Younger (circa 1660s) in the North Carolina Museum of Art permanent collection presents such a “cheerful gathering,” which reminds how food and its preparation, serving and dining helps to create “civilization,” that it is only by such actions, habits and rituals we become our better harmonious and graceful selves. Of course, this is not the last word on dining in Homer’s epic. Eating also endangers us.
On the tenth day we came
To the land of the Lotus-Eaters.
We went ashore,
And the crews lost no time in drawing water
And preparing a meal beside their ships.
After they had filled up on food and drink,
I sent out a team—two picked men and a herald—
To reconnoiter and sound out the locals.
They headed out and made contact with the Lotus-Eaters,
Who meant no harm but did give my men
Some lotus to eat. Whoever ate that sweet fruit
Lost the will to report back, preferring instead
To stay there, munching lotus, oblivious of home. (9.85-96)
Food is a drug. We eat to energize ourselves, to medicate, to comfort, to forget. We may choose dark chocolate, sea salt and vinegar potato chips, mint chocolate ice cream, popcorn drowning in butter, coffee in the morning, scotch in the afternoon, red wine at night. So much to forget, so much pain to avoid. It can be so difficult to arrive at our desired destination, or the destination we’re told we must set our compass toward. What if we could let go? What if we could give up? What if, whatever “home” might be, we never tried to get back? Let’s order a Still Life with Strawberries and Chocolate (1775-90) by Juan Bautista Romero.
This brought no response from his pitiless heart
But a sudden assault upon my men. His hands
Reached out, seized two of them, and smashed them
To the ground like puppies. Their brains spattered out
And oozed into the dirt. He tore them limb from limb
To make his supper, gulping them down
Like a mountain lion, leaving nothing behind—
Guts, flesh, or marrowy bones. (9.279-286)
Xenia resides as the great code of being in the Odyssey, that which binds the divine, humans and nature. Zeus guards this most precious of etiquettes. You appear on my doorstep, I am to feed you before asking who you are and what brings you to my home. As my guest, you honor this offering of drink and food without taking more than what lies on the table. Yet, Polyphemus does not worship the gods, does not abide etiquette and good manners, certainly does not cook, and so he plunges human beings down his gullet. I do like the detail of marrowy bones, they are so good.
Cannibalism, or damn close to it. Granted, Polyphemus is a Cyclops, meaning a giant with one eye, so let’s say human-like; however, I believe the great affront is as much to the gods and reverence for the codes and the rituals they protect as downing humans whole without much chewing involved. More than the food we eat, we are also the taste we demonstrate in eating that food, as Brillat-Savarin reminds us. Let’s see if the Odyssey offers something a bit closer to the human bone.
In front of the city
They met a girl drawing water. Her father
Was named Antiphates, and she had come down
To the flowing spring Artacia,
From which they carried water to the town.
When my men came up to her and asked her
Who the people there were and who was their king,
She showed them her father’s high-roofed house.
They entered the house and found his wife inside,
A woman, to their horror, as huge as a mountain top.
At once she called her husband, Antiphates,
Who meant business when he came. He seized
One of my men and made him into dinner.
The other two got out of there and back to the ships,
But Antiphates had raised a cry throughout the city,
And when they heard it, the Laestrygonians
Came up on all sides, thousands of them,
Not like men but like the Sons of the Earth,
The Giants. They pelted us from the cliffs
With rocks too large for a man to lift.
The sounds that came from the ships were sickening,
Sounds of men dying and boats being crushed.
The Laestrygonians speared the bodies like fish,
And carried them back for their ghastly meal. (10.118-141)
Jan Brueghel the Elder’s painting Harbor Scene with St. Paul’s Departure From Caesarea (1596), also in the collection of the NCMA, gives us a visual take on the fishing metaphor Homer deploys. All around the first century CE prophet, the work of hauling in the catch occupies the foreground with fish topping baskets and spilling onto the wharf. Here’s the horror of the Laestrygonians fishing, human beings turned into what is lured, caught in mass with no distinction made; turned into food, turned into what seagulls circle in Brueghel’s painting. Transforming humans into animals features prominently in the Odyssey. Consider, the witch Circe.
They all filed in naively behind her,
Except Eurylochus, who suspected a trap.
When she had led them in and seated them
She brewed up a potion of Pramnian wine
With cheese, barley, and pale honey stirred in,
And she laced this potion with insidious drugs
That would make them forget their own native land.
When they had eaten and drunk, she struck them
With her wand and herded them into the sties outside.
Grunting, their bodies covered with bristles,
They looked just like pigs, but their minds were intact.
Once in the pens, they squealed with dismay,
And Circe threw them acorns and berries—
The usual fare for wallowing swine. (10.248-261)
Entering a home puts the guest at a disadvantage, they depend upon the good will of their host. They believe a strong division between who is served and what is served exists in the house. Here the dangers of walking through a door changes Odysseus’ men from those who farm, to that which is farmed. Puts a bit of a horrific edge on Winslow Homer’s Twainesque farm scene, Weaning the Calf (1875)
Finally, a terrifying banquet scene that haunts the entire poem appears through the voice of Agamemnon, the leader of the Greeks at Troy, as his shade relates a horror for any hero returning home.
Aegisthus was the cause of my death.
He killed me with the help of my cursed wife
After inviting me to a feast in his house,
Slaughtered me like a bull at a manger.
So I died a most pitiable death,
And all around me my men were killed
Relentlessly, like white-tusked swine
For a wedding banquet or dinner party
In the house of a rich and powerful man.
You have seen many men cut down, both
In single combat and in the crush of battle,
But your heart would have grieved
As never before at the sight of us lying
Around the wine-bowl and the laden tables
In that great hall. The floor steamed with blood. (11.420-434)
Agamemnon warns Odysseus about his own homecoming by detailing his gruesome feast. Again, hospitality, xenia, relationship between host and guest sets the table for a transformation. In this way, we may consider the dining room table as a threshold. Here’s what Mircea Eliadae has to say in The Sacred and Profane: The Nature of Religion,
The threshold is the limit, the boundary, the frontier that distinguishes and opposes two worlds–and at the same time the paradoxical place where those worlds communicate, where passage from the profane to the sacred world becomes possible. (25)
And, of course, the reverse is true–we move from the sacred invitation to the table, from the place of feast to the profane–the irreverent, the disrespectful, the sacrilegious. Two worlds aware of each other, though usually divided–knives and food as security and health, knives and food as death and a menu that makes us the main course.
And all around me my men were killed
Relentlessly, like white-tusked swine
For a wedding banquet or dinner party.
Transformation again sits at the head of the banquet, Agamemnon is slaughtered like a bull at a manger, and his men turned into side dishes. Consider this powerful metaphoric quality of dining in other works–at the Mad Hatter’s tea party in Alice in Wonderland, the constant flow of time changes to a perpetual six pm when the hatter has a difficult time singing “Twinkle, Twinkle.”
“Well, I ’d hardly finished the first verse,”
said the Hatter, “when the Queen bawled out
‘He’s murdering the time! Off with his head!’”
“How dreadfully savage !” exclaimed Alice.
“And ever since that,” the Hatter went on
in a mournful tone, “ he won’t do a thing I
ask! It ’s always six o’clock now.”
A bright idea came into Alice’s head. “ Is
that the reason so many tea-things are put out
here?” she asked.
“Yes, that’s it,” said the Hatter with a sigh:
“ it ’s always tea-time, and we ’ve no time to
wash the things between whiles.”
Gathering for drink and food marks our calendars and our clocks as we move through our days, but here at the Mad Hatter’s table, all time stills to one time–a type of permanence to prevent change, but in that, something decidedly not human. Cocktail hour will arrive at 4pm, but if the hands on our wrists don’t move forward, then we become as lost in an hour as the Lotus Eaters.
Sometimes the transformation of a family takes place at the dinner table, which may depict an ideal family vision as in Norman Rockwell’s Freedom From Want painting of 1943, world war transformed into a Thanksgiving dinner exuding plenty.
Sometimes the soon to be served dinner takes on an even larger transformation as in Guess Who’s Coming to Dinner.
The dinner brings together those who were never to break bread with each other, brings together an apartheid state and puts forward a vision of the future. To dine is to form a community better than we are now. The dishes and glasses may become the finest thing in the world. Bread and wine may also become what we hope for in the next life as in Matthew 26.
While they were eating, Jesus took a loaf of bread, and after blessing it he broke it, gave it to the disciples, and said, “Take, eat; this is my body.” 27 Then he took a cup, and after giving thanks he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you;28 for this is my blood of the covenant, which is poured out for many for the forgiveness of sins. 29 I tell you, I will never again drink of this fruit of the vine until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father’s kingdom.”
Eating serves as a central action for early Christianity. As Rachel Laudan writes in Cuisine and Empire: Cooking in World History.
A frugal meal celebrating community, the Eucharist of bread and wine, became the central Christian act. After eating, the participants lit the lamps, confessed their sins, and offered gifts of flour, grapes, lamp oil, bread and wine at the altar. The apostle or other officiant broke the bread, consecrated the bread and wine, and then the baptized, chanting a hymn of thanks, received the bread and the wine.
Bread, the everyday staple, was used as a metaphor to explain Christian beliefs. Christians were united in the body of Christ as the grains of wheat were united in a loaf of bread. Christ was bread for hungering humans. Christ digested Christians, binding them to his body. Spiritual progress was like cooking, as Augustine explained in a much quoted sermon in the fourth century, using symbolism similar to that found in Buddhism and islam. “When you received exorcism you were ‘ground.’ When you were baptized, you were ‘leavened.’ When you received the fire of the Holy Spirit, you were ‘baked.’ (168)
Christian cuisine incorporated the Roman dining tradition of food, wine and conversation. To keep themselves a secret and safe they would dine in the Roman Catacombs, bringing the dead to dinner as depicted in the above fresco from the Catacombs of St. Marcellinus and Peter. Humans turned into animals, men devoured by “human” giants, murder at the dinner table turning guests into swine, meals involving conversations about the nature of being human, cannibalism as a metaphor for religious transformation, and eating with the dead. Time to turn to Hannibal Lecter.
In the novel Hannibal, Thomas Harris constructs an aesthete who knows his way around a kitchen.
He lit a fire of shaggy chunk charcoal and made himself a drink, Lillet and a slice of orange over ice, while he considered the fond he had been working on for days. Dr. Lecter followed the inspired lead of Alexandre Dumas in fashioning his stock. Only three days ago, upon his return from the deer-lease woods, he had added to the stockpot a fat crow what had been stuffing itself with juniper berries. Small black feathers swam on the calm waters of the bay. The primary feathers he saved to make a pectra for his harpsichord.
Now Dr. Lecter crushed juniper berries of his own and began to sweat shallots in a copper saucepan. With a neat surgical knot, he tied a piece of cotton string around a fresh bouquet garni and ladled stock over it in the saucepan. (321-22)
The TV series Hannibal takes this artistic and “foodie” predilection to another level by serving each episode as part of a 13 course French classical menu–the classical menu which Auguste Escoffier constructs his Le Guide Culinaire around. The first episode Apéritif immediately lets us know the focus.
Why would he cut it out, if he was going to sew it back in again?
There was something wrong with the meat.
She has liver cancer.
He’s, um, he’s eating them.
Following the episodic menu of the first season, let’s explore the culinary and murderous skill of one Hannibal Lecter with the help of the Larousse Gastronomique and The Professional Chef from the Culinary Institute of America.
- Apéritif: Here’s a lovely entry from Larousse–The old pharmacopoeia recognized major bitters (roots of parsley, fennel, asparagus and butcher’s broom) and minor bitters (roots of maidenhair fern, couch-grass, thistle, rest-harrow and strawberry-plant). The term used today only applies to stimulants of appetite. The CIA glosses apéritif as a light alcoholic beverage consumed before the meal to stimulate appetite.
- Amuse-bouche meaning “mouth amuser” is not listed in the Larousse nor The Professional Chef. It serves as an hors-d’oeuvre much like the apéritif to stimulate appetite.
- Potage: Let’s consider the words of August Escoffier from Le Guide Culinaire— I shall not make any lengthy attempts here to refute the argument of certain autocrats of the dinner-table, who not so many years ago, urged the total abolition of soups. I shall only submit to their notice the following quotation from Grimod de La Reynière , one of our most illustrious gastronomists: “Soup is to a dinner what the porch or gateway is to a building.” (107)
- Oeufs: The Larousse devotes twenty-six pages to oeufs. The Professional Chef devotes an entire chapter to eggs. Enough said.
- Coquilles: Larousse says, Kitchen utensil which is filled with charcoal. Used for roasting various joints cooked on a spit. The name is also given to little dishes made in the form of a shell. This episode features a debate on foie gras and Hannibal’s statement that he believes in ethical butchery.
- Entrée: From Madame Larousse: The “Entrée” is the course, which in a full French menu, follows the relevés (remove) or intermediate course which, in its turn follows the fish (or whatever dish may be served in place of it). In other words the Entrée is the third course. Right, so let’s understand that the rules of French Classical cuisine morph before all the morphing happening in this episode menu because contrary to the above advice, we haven’t arrived at the Relevés episode.
- Sorbet: The Escoffier Online International Culinary Academy defines sorbet as such, A common food that is eaten in small quantities between meals or beverages in France is sorbet. This lightly-flavored treat is known in the U.S. as a sweet dessert, but when made without sugar can help to refresh your mouth and remove leftover flavors. Many people will make their own version of sorbet with citrus fruits such as lemon or grapefruit to neutralize any tastes that still linger. A palate cleanser.
8. Fromage: Before or after a sweet course, sample an array of cheese. Here is Monsieur Larousse on cheese: Brillat-Savarin used to say that a desert without cheese is a beautiful woman with only one eye,” and Briffault enunciated this aphorism: ‘Cheese complements a good meal and supplements a bad one.”
9. Trou Normand: The restaurant Trou Normand in San Francisco defines the word this way, Trou Normand is the northern French tradition of a small drink of brandy, usually Calvados, between courses to settle the stomach and reawaken the palate. Many restoratives in this season of Hannibal. This might be a reason why.
10. Buffet Froid: A cold buffet. Why not serve . . . Poulet roti, Ham in Parsley Aspic, Caneton Roti, or . . .
11. Rôti: Sound advice from Escoffier, Recipes may be found consummate in detail and in accuracy, and still they will be found wanting in the matter of roasts; for experience alone can tell the operator whether the joint he is treating be old or young, fresh or stale; whether it must be cooked quickly or slowly, and all the theories that I might advance on this subject , though perhaps they might not be useless, would at least prove impractical nine times out of ten.
12. Relevé: I found a simple defintion on a blog entitled The Language of Food. Relevé is defined thus, After the soup was eaten, it was taken away, and it was replaced on the table by another dish, called the relevé in French or the remove in English. A remove might be a fish, a joint, or a dish of veal. Removes happen in many styles in Hannibal.
13. Savoureux: The Larousse family offers this, In England this term describes a range of light preparations. Served right at the end of dinner, even after dessert, these might be called post-oeuvre as distinct from hors-d’oeuvre, served at the beginning of the meal. They may offer a pungent taste. I have two special savories for you. Janice Poon is the food stylist for Hannibal and maintains a blog about all her work at Feeding Hannibal. She documents creating the particular meals and feasts for the show as well as sharing all her sketches. Of course, she is coming out with a book featuring the recipes entitled Feeding Hannibal: A Connoisseur’s Cookbook. And yes, I’ve ordered it. The other? Glenn Gould playing Bach’s Goldberg Variations, Hannibal’s favorite. Bon Appétit!