Wednesday, March 4, 2009


Actually I think there are problems in approaching food through literature. Authors have the tendency to make their food over-symbolic. Sometimes a sausage is just a sausage.

When I was a teenager, Joyce’s Ulysses was one of the first pieces of “literature” I read by myself, without a teacher leaning over my shoulder. I can’t really remember what the experience was like – confusing no doubt – but I do remember the books seemed to be full of food.

Somehow I already knew about Leopold Bloom eating with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowl, but the passage that really got to me was in the “Lestrygonians” chapter when Bloom goes into Davy Byrne’s “moral pub” and orders a glass of Burgundy and a Gorgonzola sandwich. This struck me as almost insanely exotic.

I came from a family that preferred its food not to taste of anything. Blue cheese was regarded as a horror; a glass of wine at lunchtime would have been considered both decadent and pretentious.

Of course, in retrospect, I guess you that Bloom only orders Gorgonzola because it contains the word “gorgon” and so Joyce can keep up his patterning based on the Odyssey. It wouldn’t have worked with Gouda.

The passage also contains that line “Cheese digests all but itself,” which I’ve never understood, because cheese DOESN’T digest all but itself, does it? “Ulysses Annotated” by Gifford and Seidman tells us the phrase originated in the 16th century and that cheese making “was popularly regarded as a process of digestion because it involved the use of rennet,” but that sounds to me like cheese is digesting itself and not everything else.

In any case, I suspect food is best in literature when it’s bad rather than good, just like bad restaurant reviews are so much more entertaining than good ones.

And while we’re still with Gorgonzola and the Irish, I think my favorite literary bad food passage appears in Samuel Beckett’s Dante and The Lobster.

What he wanted was a good green stenching rotten lump of Gorgonzola cheese, alive, and by God he would have it.
He looked fiercely at the grocer.
“What's that?” he demanded.
The grocer writhed.
“Well?” demanded Belacqua, he was without fear when roused, “is that the best you can do?”
“In the length and breadth of Dublin” said the grocer “you won't find a rottener bit this minute.”

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