Jesus answered, “It is written, ‘Man shall not live
on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.’”
—The Gospel According to Matthew
It is a hard matter, my fellow citizens, to argue with the belly, since it has no ears.
—Cato the Elder
In both the periodical and tabloid press these days, the discussion tends to dwell on the bread alone—its scarcity or abundance, its price, provenance, authenticity, presentation, calorie count, social status, political agenda, and carbon footprint. The celebrity guest on camera with Rachael Ray or an Iron Chef, the missing ingredient in the recipes for five-star environmental collapse. Either way, sous vide or sans tout, the preoccupation with food is front-page news, and in line with the current set of talking points, this issue of Lapham’s Quarterly offers various proofs of the proposition that the belly has no ears.
No ears but many friends and admirers, who spread out on the following pages a cornucopia of concerns about which I knew little or nothing before setting the table of contents. My ignorance I attribute to a coming of age in the America of the late 1940s, its cows grazing on grass, the citizenry fed by farmers growing unpatented crops. Accustomed to the restrictions imposed on the country’s appetite by the Second World War’s ration books, and raised in a Protestant household that didn’t give much thought to fine dining (one ate to live, one didn’t live to eat), I acquired a laissez-faire attitude toward food that I learn from Michael Pollan resembles that of the Australian koala. The koala contents itself with the eating of eucalyptus leaves, choosing to ignore whatever else shows up in or around its tree. Similarly, the few primitive tastes met with before my tenth birthday—peanut butter and jelly, creamed chicken and rice, the Fig Newton—have remained securely in place for the last sixty-six years, faith-based and conservative, apt to be viewed with suspicion at trendsetting New York restaurants, in one of which last winter my asking about the chance of seeing a baked or mashed potato prompted the waiter to remove the menu from my hand, gently but firmly retrieving the pearl from a swine. The judgment was served à la haute bourgeoisie, with a sprig of disdain and a drizzle of disgust. Thirty years ago I would have been surprised, but thirty years ago trendsetting restaurants hadn’t yet become art galleries, obesity wasn’t a crime, and at the airports there weren’t any Homeland Security agents confiscating Coca-Cola.
Times change, and with them what, where, and how people eat. In fifteenth-century London a man could be hanged for eating meat on Friday. An ancient Roman was expected to wear a wreath to a banquet. The potato in sixteenth-century Europe was believed to cause leprosy and syphilis. As of two years ago, 19 percent of America’s meals were being eaten in cars.
Prior to the twentieth century, the changes were relatively slow in coming. The text and illustration in this issue of the Quarterly reach across a span of four thousand years, during most of which time the global economy is agrarian. Man is the tenant of nature, food the measure of both his wealth and well-being. The earliest metal currencies (the shekel, the talent, the mina) represent weights and units of grain. Allowing for cultural difference and regional availability, the human family sits down to meals made of what it finds in the forest or grows in the field, the tables set from one generation to the next in accordance with the changing of the seasons and the benevolence of Ashnan or Ceres. To Achilles and Priam circa the twelfth century bc, Homer brings the meat “pierced with spits,” the bread “in ample wicker baskets” with the same meaning and intent that Alexandre Dumas in nineteenth-century France imparts to the ripe fruit and the rare fish presented by the Count of Monte Cristo to Monsieur Danglars.
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