Transformative fictions, moveable feasts

Floris van Dyck, Still-Life, 1610 (oil on oak board; public domain, via Wikimedia Commons).

The stretch from winter solstice to vernal equinox is a stop-start time — a limbo, a suspension, up to its ankles in mud. Once, anarchic jamborees broke up the bleakness, from the Saturnalia of ancient Rome and Twelfth Night to the Celtic Imbolc at the start of February, inching us further towards spring with a festival of light, fire and feasting. And with the inching, summoning the moment when we can wonder, as Hopkins did, “What is all this juice and all this joy?”

I feel that we need all the festivals we can get. The drear reaches of 2020, the ongoing lockdowns and political chaos, have left people not just hungering for chowdown and shindig, but reaching for the intellectual nutrients and unruly insights in books. Plenty of works conflate the two, of course. Fiction sometimes seems like one long journey through Green Eggs and Ham and The Tiger Who Came to Tea to Little Women’s pickled limes, the duck Rochambeau in Walker Percy’s The Moviegoer, and sandwiches eaten or uneaten in the oeuvre of J.D. Salinger (whose father, it seems, was a food importer).

But what interests me most is the transformational role of food in fiction and literary memoir. The gustatory epiphanies, the complex longings fed — even at a banquet of one, eaten off a single plate.

In Jane Eyre, we are shown what feasting means for someone starved of everything. As Jane fights her way out of oppression, the food coming her way is often scraps — crusts, burnt porridge — while sudden plenty marks momentous turning points in her life. Seedcake with Miss Temple, her mentor at Lowood, is a repast of equals, while the glass of hot spiced negus Mrs Fairfax greets her with at Thornfield Hall is an entrée to Rochester’s heady domain. Yet at the end, Jane re-enters Rochester’s life with nothing more than half a glass of water and a candle on the side. Jane, after all, is a being of fire (and air), and the real nourishment offered in this great Victorian Bildungsoman is love and empathy, riches seen by the inner eye.

There are more suppressed appetites — and very different revelations — in Isaak Dinesen’s ‘Babette’s Feast’. In the story Dinesen, a Danish Scheherazade, creates a deliciously improbable situation. Three women are holed up in a remote Lutheran enclave in Norway: the chaste daughters of the sect’s deceased prophet and their “maid-of-all-work” Babette, an exiled Communard. In their youth, the sisters Martine and Philippa had spurned two suitors who ventured to their village — the dissolute officer Loewenhielm and Achille Papin, a famous baritone — choosing instead to follow their father’s narrow path.

Over the years, the siblings have admired Babette’s ingenious frugality, but sense something transgressive: “that in the soundings of her being there were passions, there were memories and longings of which they knew nothing at all”. Those floodgates open with the feast Babette cooks to celebrate the prophet’s centenary — a stupendous blowout featuring turtle soup, caviar, quail en sarcophage and a Clos de Vougeot 1845. Loewenhielm, now a general and a guest at the table, recognizes the signature of a great Parisian chef even as he and the fractious villagers ascend to a state of exquisite harmony. Babette, artist and alchemist, has transformed raw ingredients into joy.

Claude Monet, Les Galettes, 1882 (oil on canvas; public domain, via Wikimedia Commons).

‘Babette’s Feast’ was published in Anecdotes of Destiny, Dinesen’s last collection. Hemingway’s first, In Our Time, emerged over 30 years earlier in 1925. Its finale, ‘Big Two-Hearted River’, is a work of pared brilliance, its experimental style gaining power through omission. As Hemingway noted in a Paris Review essay, ‘The Art of the Short Story’, his protagonist Nick Adams is a “boy coming home beat to the wide from a war”. There is an echo of blasted battlefields in the burned-over Michigan landscape Nick treks. Beyond that, however, is a river full of fish. Over two days and a night, some hungers and impulses are assuaged, others perhaps wisely put aside.

Hemingway, who had hunted and fished from childhood, knew how to read nature. That shows in his trout, hovering nose to current, shifting position “by quick angles” through Nick’s lens, “the glassy convex surface of the pool”. But the fish are future food. It’s the mundane groceries in Nick’s pack that become the stuff of micro-epiphanies — the buckwheat pancakes and onion sandwiches, and the pièce de résistance, a ketchupped mess of tinned pork-and-beans and spaghetti, slung together after an all-day hike. There is a final intent wait for it to cool before he takes a spoonful. “‘Chrise,’ Nick said, ‘Cheezus Chrise’, he said happily.”

That pattern — samurai self-discipline giving way to satiety — is there in A Moveable Feast too, Hemingway’s memoir of his years in 1920s Paris, posthumously published in 1964. Here we’re a long way from canned spaghetti, as Hemingway succumbs to lunch with F. Scott Fitzgerald (“an excellent truffled roast chicken, delicious bread and white Mâcon wine”) and “crab mexicane with glasses of Sancerre” at Prunier’s. But in among the excess is the stripped-back story of an emerging writer taking the measure of his powers in the limbo between the wars. The paintings in the Luxembourg Museum (which included many of Cézanne’s) “were sharpened and clearer and more beautiful if you were belly-empty, hollow-hungry”. When paid for a story, Hemingway luxuriates in cold beer, potato salad, sausage in mustard at Lipp’s, described in sensual detail. But he is writing as he eats: ‘Big Two-Hearted River’, in fact. “Hunger,” he notes, “is good discipline.”

Sybille Bedford, however, insures against it in A Visit to Don Otavio, a part-fictionalized account of her mid-1940s sojourn in Mexico. She begins the epic journey from Grand Central Station with her own moveable feast — “a hunk of salami and a hunk of provolone”, a roasted chicken, tinned tuna and pink wine, Tellichery pepper in a wooden mill. As the writer Caleb Crain has noted, she was a hedonist, but it is an “enlightened, civilized, and even prudent hedonism”.

A Visit to Don Otavio is an immersion in a maverick sensibility. Bedford’s life was marked by family suicide and addiction, much criss-crossing of continents, a boho precarity — yet she emerged a writer of miraculous lightness, clarity, wit and perception. Mexico City, more than 7,000 feet up, is a crowded, dazzling “rapids of doing, hooting, selling” where the “layers of the air remain inviolate like mountain streams”. Her first restaurant meal begins with “a delicious cream of vegetable that would have done honour to a private house in the French Provinces before the war of 1870”. And she has an eye for incongruities, such as the avocado seller who, rearranging his produce at dusk, looks as if he’s playing with “trained mice”.

Then there is her aplomb. When her Lake Chapala host Don Otavio sends along a servant bearing an Edwardian tea basket packed with cucumber sandwiches and Patum Peperium, she lights the spirit lamp and brews up by the road. It’s effectively a meeting of aristos (Bedford, born Sybille Aleid Elsa von Schoenebeck, grew up in a schloss). But she is everywhere interested in the human and culinary per se, such as the parade of meals — beefsteaks, hot chocolate, chayotes stuffed with pork mince and curds — served up in a Querétaro posada.

There is far more than food in this unclassifiable book. Bedford writes authoritatively of the doomed 19th-century Mexican emperor Maximilian, and penetratingly about the lives of locals and expatriates. It’s just that in the life peripatetic, the next meal is of burning interest.

Frida Kahlo, Pitahayas, 1938 (oil on tin, Madison Museum of Contemporary Art).

Ford Madox Ford — the Modernist writer and editorial dynamo of the English Review and Transatlantic Review — knew something of that. Ford had been gassed and shelled in the First World War, suffered breakdowns and financial insecurity. But there was often a strange buoyancy to the enabler of Lawrence, Pound and Hemingway: after the Great War he became a kind of hippie gourmand, extolling the virtues of garlic and experimenting with kitchen gardening. The wonderful anthology Memories and Impressions — snippets from Ford’s 80-odd books selected and edited by Michael Killigrew — traces his evolution from pre-Raphaelite tot (as grandson of Ford Madox Brown) to garlanded author and guru of the soil.

As a ‘gastronaut’ Ford, like Gertrude Stein, was fascinated by the work of French epicure Brillat-Savarin. But his interest in cuisine is not all about the haute. He relates how Victorian eminence William Gladstone, Britain’s prime minister for 12 years, took a hot-water bottle full of beef tea to bed (he and his wife apparently drank it in the night). He recalls how a fieldworker he met on the Romney Marsh, Meary Spratt, would shrilly scream, “Up you come, my little darling!” as she picked mushrooms in the early morning. And he tells of a moment in 1919 when, demobbed and demoralized, he arrived at an empty rented house in the Sussex countryside with a leg of mutton, a bottle of port and a bag of shallots, along with his army swag. Here he lit a fire and set out a crock.

That the shallots nearly drove Ford to breaking point might seem ridiculous to those unfamiliar with the depths of trauma. Faced by scores of shallots to prep, he gave up and flung the bulk unskinned into the pot. He felt it as a betrayal of art and self (Dinesen may well have agreed). As Ford waited, hellish memories of the Somme break in, of exhausted people dying. “And the crock went on boiling out destiny. If the skins came off the shallots I was to make a further effort. If not I was to let go.”

The skins came off. Ford ate the stew, downed half the port, and in the morning acquired a dog — and later a goat, drake, pig and dreams of breeding a disease-proof potato.

The gustatory landscape in literature is broad: the Eatonville hog-roast of Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God, the epic consumption of hoppin’ John in Carson McCuller’s The Member of the Wedding, the kulebyaka in Chekhov’s ‘The Siren’. And then there are the iconic ‘food writers’ — Elizabeth David, Alice B. Toklas, M.F.K. Fisher — and all the other novelists who wrote about food, including Orwell, Twain and Doris Lessing, who in her memoir In Pursuit of the English describes ration-book banquets in a London rooming house after the end of the Second World War.

And it is very often war, and want, that have given the best writing on food its power. The past century and a half, with its two global conflagrations and many localised conflicts, pandemics, Depression and nightmare dictatorships, left millions worldwide living in hunger. We are in a different convulsion now, but the covid-19 pandemic and its political mishandling continue to impoverish and disrupt. Job losses and food insecurity (even in the richest countries), ideological maelstroms, the rise in mental illness: even the luckiest may sense some thinning in the fabric of life.

Why celebrate, then? Because of the turning year, the gathering light: and that brings me back to Ford. I’m well aware that his personal life was a mess. And yet late in it, when he became an aficionado of the hoe and connoisseur of the aubergine in 1930s Provence, his insights bordered on the prophetic. As Julian Barnes has noted, Provence, to Ford, was a culturally important node where the Silk Road turned north and troubadours once wandered. It was also something more.

Vincent van Gogh, Landscape from Saint-Rémy, 1889 (oil on canvas, © NY CARLSBERG GLYPTOTEK).

Ford, Barnes writes, felt that civilization was ending in the brutal turmoil of the era. Provence seemed to offer an alternative future, of small producers working the soil — and their own souls. That Provence may be long gone, may never really have existed. But the insights stand, from seedbed to table. In one of his last books, the 1937 Great Trade Route, Ford wrote about preparing to plant a packet of dwarf, fast-growing peas.

The day after the day after the day after tomorrow I shall see a line of untidy, brilliant green things pushing through this lilac-tinted soil above the tideless sea. There is no greater joy.

I’m a writer, editor and former commissioning ed. for books and arts at Nature, at home in science and culture. Follow me on Twitter: @barbkiser