Bryn Mawr Classical Review 04.05.26


Emily Gowers, The Loaded Table: Representations of Food in Roman Literature. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993. Pp. xii + 334. $65.00. ISBN 0-19-814695-7.


Reviewed by Phyllis Pray Bober, Bryn Mawr College.

This is a study that, for just assessment, would require three reviewers: a post-modern literary theorist with training in linguistics; a classical scholar given to textual analysis; and a representative of a new academic breed working in the nascent discipline of History of Culinary Arts, with emphasis upon societal contexts. Manifestly, I write as the latter, setting aside archaeology or knowledge of what the Italian Renaissance made of its classical heritage -- though it would be interesting to engage this author in fruitful dialogue in terms of either persuasion.

G. has many predecessors who have taken note of analogies between food and literature. She cites R.W. Tobin, Littérature et gastronomie (Biblio, 17), 1985; J. Brown, Fictional Meals and their Function in the French Novel 1789-1848, 1984; and D. Bevan, Literary Gastronomy, Amsterdam, 1988; as well as M. Jeanneret, Des mets et des mots: Banquets et propos de table à la Renaissance, Paris, 1988 (English translation J. Whitely & E. Hughes , A Feast of Words, Cambridge, 1991). There are others who have explored how diurnal need to eat provides in any language our most vivid metaphors for consumption of literary products in consonance with those of a cook. Among Latinists Bramble, Mette and Race stand out as investigators of stylistic metaphors which include food and eating and the equation of writing with cooking. But G. pushes interpretation into even broader realms of poetic composition in which food serves Roman authors in defining the very genres she examines (comedy, satire, epigram and iambics) as well as style itself in relevant works.

Eating as conceptual parallel, food turned into language, shape the first section of the book, "An Approach to Eating," in which G. sets out her introductory argument and a general framework for close reading of the texts which follow: "Barbarian Spinach and Roman Bacon: the Comedies of Plautus" (pp. 50-108); "Black Pudding: Roman Satire" (with separate consideration of Horace, Persius and Juvenal, pp. 109-219); "A Taste of Things to Come: Invitation Poems" (Catullus 13, Martial, the younger Pliny's Epistle I.15, pp. 220-279); and ultimate coda, "Garlic Breath: Horace, Epode 3" (pp. 280-310). Some of these headings, incidentally, are not quite so cunning as they at first appear. No historian of botany or food will appreciate a translation of blitum (in relation to Plautus' barbaricum bliteum) as 'spinach,' pace various writers and glossaries. Spinach was not known to the Mediterranean world before the Arab conquest, so "barbarian forage" or "fieldfare" -- even "orach" -- would have been a better choice. "Black pudding" is much less infelicitous, having the proper satirical overtones, yet also arouses unfortunate thoughts of Greek rather than Roman concoctions, Lamprias famous for his version of black pudding (Ath. IX. 379) or that infamous national dish of Laconia.

Quite rightly, G. stresses that it is a mistake to use literary sources, particularly Latin sources, simply as evidence of what people ate. "The uneasy stance of the writer and the imbalanced distribution of food across the literary genres can tell us just as much about the Romans' attitudes to the subject as any catalogue of dishes." (p.7) This à propos modern studies interpreting foodways in anthropological, socio-historical, cultural and semiological ways. She also justifiably rejects methods used by some of the French stars of a structural approach stemming from Claude Lévi-Strauss. Nonetheless, one finds intrusion of their binary codes into her own reasoning, perhaps because of her belief that all ancient rhetoric was founded firmly on antithesis (p.12). Note pervasive Nature/Culture oppositions throughout her exposition and (p.66) "purity and contamination" (from Mary Douglas' Purity and Danger).

Apparently taking Euphron literally (OU)DE\N O( MA/GEIROS TOU= POIHTOU= DIAFE/REI -- Fr.K 11.15), G. wends her way -- with erudition, literary sensitivity, and wit infused from her subjects -- through thickets of multiple meanings buried in convivial settings, fictional menus, lists of comestibles, and names of dishes and their preparation. She finds rich sources to expose the ambiguity of foodstuffs at the hands of master manipulators of a language which, more than most, abounds in culinary words of double import (every schoolchild learns the path from sal to wit, to salary and beyond, or sapiens from juicy to wise). G.'s interpretations at their most comprehensive embrace the manner in which structure of a meal recapitulates the progress of civilization, from pure and simple beginnings in the gustatio of vegetables, fish or eggs to societal bonding in 'sacrificial' meat of the cena proper, and culminating in 'atonement' through a return to nature by way of fruit and nuts or decline into the 'superfluity' of elaborate confections (p.17). At their most pointed they illuminate the way in which gustus may be transformed from foretaste to foreplay in salacious menus of Martial; or they play with Plautian puns on ius as juice and ius as law, with his coliculus as cabbage-stalk and as phallic slang (translated conventionally but anachronistically as 'broccoli').

G.'s deconstructions lead to many provocative verdicts. Examining Plautus' highly spiced and doubly ironic 'metatheatre', she builds upon Segal's (and more widely, Bakhtin's) concept of its 'festive' nature to reach a different view of Republican sumptuary laws. Countering Segal's explanation of Plautus' lists of pork products (Curc. 323, Men. 210-11) as signs of festive excess because they were forbidden by such sumptuary laws, G. surveys the legal sequence in order to point out that the first law to ban table luxury (the Lex Orchia) was promulgated after Plautus' death. She concludes (p. 73) that sumptuary laws were probably not directed so much against luxuria itself, but aimed at "reinstating symbolically the traditional distinction between weekday and amplified festival food ... blurred by increased prosperity and availability. When moralists use the Saturnalia as an image of social disruption, the point is not that the festival itself is immoral, but that it is being celebrated all the year round." My quarrel is with her statement that the Greeks rarely ate pork (p. 69).

From Mette's genus tenue and mensa tenuis applied to Horace's style G. builds her vision of the poet paring satire to Callimachean principles (and Persius as well, even more 'boiled down'), unlike Juvenal who finds that a return to Lucilius' grand style better suits the epic proportion of vice (p. 188). She forms an original vision of Horace (Sat. II.4) using gastronomic principles expounded by Catius to mirror his own poetic precepts set forth in the Art of Poetry and Satires I.4 and 10. The message is not holding false Epicureanism up to ridicule, as Classen asserted, but it "encodes the same aesthetics of decorum, purity, and economy, uses the same terms of seasoning, scale, and texture that Horace himself prescribes for writing satire." (p. 143) In a sense, Horace wrote his own parody, anticipating William King's culinary version of the Ars Poetica (p. 160) Juxtaposition of culinary and aesthetic meaning is very cleverly accomplished in the detail; even if not the Latin writer's hidden agenda, this marks a skillful twentieth-century deconstructive thrust. Yet, again, G. misses when it comes to food history. She fails to understand Catius' recipe for 'double sauce,' needing all her ingenuity "to discover the flavour of the new satire" in it (p. 155f.).

To my taste, the true host at this loaded table is not present. Ennius makes a brief appearance in one reference to a satirical fragment characterizing a greedy parasite (p.120) and another, parenthetically, in a footnote (p.135). Gastronomical parodies of epic -- Archestratus' Opsopoia and Ennius' Hedyphagetica -- surely do not deserve to be so marginalized, since they shaped a tradition of which G. is examining one result.

An intriguing book of many fresh insights, written engagingly and with great inventiveness in finding for Latin words English equivalents that will be most telling for her thesis. One can have no quarrel with the central issues. Roman rhetorical and aesthetic notions of decor ensure that formal elements of style in any medium always fitted the message. In a culture that so sensitively calibrates its visual arts between the vernacular and the most philhellenic imagery, little wonder that culinary and poetic arts can be orchestrated in so many 'voices.' "Any attempt to do justice to the variety of Roman consumption and the variety of responses to it begin to look impossibly bewildering" (p.11).