In our food-besotted culture, chefs and cookbook authors get far more respect, by and large, than poets or classical musicias or scholars ever did before post-modernism had undermined the prestige of the “high” arts. Even a poet as successful as W.H. Auden found it expedient to conceal his "profession" from strangers seated next to him on planes.
What did he “do”? Medieval history. He had found that telling the truth about himself aroused incredulity and dialogues of unbearable tedium. But at least Auden would have been treated with wondering respect.
Now we have the bewildering phenomenon of the star chef, a fast-talking prestidigitator of improbably conjoined ingredients, famous primarily for his performances on television, rather than for the food his restaurant kitchen serves to a more limited and traditionally discriminating audience of gastronomes.
Few equivalent stars of old-fashioned literature, music and art ever existed. And even Chopin or Picasso or Dickens never penetrated the world audience to the same extent as that lout Gordon Ramsay. Well, maybe Dickens dominated his potential audience as decisively as Ramsay, but it was a smaller audience.
Perhaps it will give comfort to fogey esthetes (I am one) to consider how low the status of cooking was across the pre-video millennia, especially in literature. Before the modern era, even within the culinary profession, only a few cookbooks achieved high status. And during the heydays of Careme (1784 – 1833) and his follower Escoffier (1846 –1935), not even their most devoted acolytes would have considered their written work part of literature.
Food does inevitably appear in works of high literature from the very beginning. Those “equal feasts” on the banks of the Scamander in the Iliad are serious events, as important to the unfolding of the epic poem as is the laundry expedition to the seashore that leads Nausicaa to the shipwrecked Odysseus. But such interruptions of the main heroic fighting and manly adventure are Homer’s way of giving extra shock value to his bellicose story by contrasting it with the charm and safety of everyday life. The similes, with their celebrated outward expansion from a pinpoint in the bloody foreground to a barely related full image of peace and beauty, are the most intense examples of this approach.
But Homer treats the humblest things with respect; his barbecues are dignified, religious in fact. But in the hands of other classical writers, food, when it does get mentioned, is usually either a joke or a symbol of gross appetite and carnality.
Perhaps the earliest food poem is a culinary parody of the opening lines of the Odyssey, in which the much-traveled (polytropon) hero (andra) is replaced by a copious (polytrophon) and metrically equivalent banquet (deipnon).
Aristophanes frequently uses food as a tool of mockery. The plot of The Acharnians hinges on the protagonist’s passion for the eels of Lake Copais in Boeotia, off limits to Athenian epicures because of the war with Sparta. Dicaeopolis solves this problem by declaring a unilateral peace.
The most important work of gastronomy from antiquity, really the only important work of gastronomy from antiquity, is the Deipnosophistae (The Feasting Philosophers) by the Greek-Egyptian anthologist Athenaeus (fl. 200 ad). A grab-bag of mostly food-related quotations from hundreds of authors, it would be dismissible as frivolous pedantry if it did not also preserve fragments from serious writers who would be lost to us if they had not happened to mention a turnip or a stew.
The most ambitious food poem that survives from the ancient world is Moretum, a versified recipe for what may be pesto, that is included with other minor poems in the so-called Pseudo-Vergilian Appendix. Most authorities do not believe that Vergil composed the 124-hexameter account of a peasant toiling at his mortar and pestle.
The best food poem in either Greek or Latin is a tongue-in-cheek invitation to a dinner where the host will not provide any food at all, just good cheer and revelry. Catullus couches his mock invitation in the most august language, of prayer and elegiac romance:
You’ll dine well at my place, Fabullus,
In a few days, if the gods favor you,
And if you remember to bring along a fine big meal,
As well as a lovely girl and wine and salt
And lots of laughs.
If, I stress, you bring all these things, beloved friend,
You’ll dine quite well: because the wallet of your Catullus is
Full of spiders.
But in return you will receive unadulterated love,
Or whatever there is as elegant or fine:
I’ll give you a lotion,
Which Venus and Cupid gave my girlfriend,
And when you smell it, you’ll beseech the gods, Fabullus,
To make you
So far, I’ve left out the other main literary food genre, cannibalism, the mythographic dark side of the banquet. . For example, there is the dinner at which Thyestes is served his own sons, in a horrific profanation of the ideal feast. Such scenes are, I suppose, food literature, but far from the positive, non-satirical treatment of cooking and eating that enters literature in modern times.
Perhaps there already exists a study of the rise in respectability of gastronomy in the novel. It would inevitably show how the kitchen and its products gradually lost their trappings of Rabelaisian and Falstaffian debauchery in an arc of embourgeoisement that eventually gave us Proust’s madeleine and Virginia Woolf’s nod to gourmet cookery in To The Lighthouse, the boeuf en daube.
Neither Mrs. Woolf nor her character Mrs. Ramsay seems to know much about the actual cooking of the dish, as the British chef Rowley Leigh has shown in a clever analysis. The Ramsays’ cook Marthe does the actual cooking, which may excuse the self-satisfied if faintly idiotic warnings from Mrs. R. about the need for scientific precision in making this extremely forgiving, long-simmering classic of Provençe. Perhaps Woolf meant to satirize Mrs. Ramsay’s pretensions as an upper middle class non-cook dining out, as it were, on the skills of her domestic employee.
Today, the equivalent person wouldn’t be cooking either. She would either order takeout or make a reservation. But we may doubt that she would be able to supply Catullan wit or an odor more divine than what emanates from a eucalyptus-spearmint aromatherapy candle ordered from the gods of the internet.