Bryn Mawr Classical Review 97.8.3


John Wilkins (ed.), Food in European Literature. EUROPA, vol. 2, no 4 (Intellect, European Studies Series, ed. by Keith Cameron). Exeter: Intellect Books, 1996. Pp. 64.


Reviewed by Phyllis Pray Bober, Bryn Mawr College.

Following his edition of Euripides' Heraclidae in 1993, John Wilkins joined the ranks of classicists currently exploiting food history as a means to penetrate ancient society and culture. He has expanded his recent contributions to the Oxford Food Symposium by a translation and commentary on the fragments of Archestratus preserved in Athenaeus (with Shawn Hill, Archestratus: The Life of Luxury, Totnes, Devon, 1994) and by publication of a conference organized at his university in 1994 (Food in Antiquity, edited with D. Harvey and M. Dobson, Exeter, 1995). The present fascicule in a series apparently designed to strike a pan-European note for British students in surveying diverse modes of communication (language, theatre, cinema, television among them) brings together six short essays on a wide range of topics only two or three of which directly concern representation of food in ancient literary sources.

Stephen Mennell ("Identity and culinary culture: England, France and tomorrow the world") develops some ideas implicit in his All Manners of Food: Eating and Taste in England and France from the Middle Ages to the Present, Oxford, Blackwell, 1985. Claudia Nocentini considers cookery symbolism in the work of Italo Corvino as it encodes social hierarchies and the concept of the Other; while Edite Vieira Phillips studies aspects of Portuguese foodways with particular reference to cookbook tradition from the fifteenth century and a heritage of the spice trade (ascribing, incidentally, to an outmoded view of medieval and renaissance use of heavy spicing as a response to incipient spoilage in meats).

For readers of BMCR the articles of specific rather than general concern are Wilkins' "Eating in Athenian Comedy" and James Davidson's musings "On the Fish Missing from Homer," plus a number of Latin poems newly translated by Alistair Elliot ("Food in Roman Poetry"). The latter include remaining fragments from Ennius' Hedyphagetica, Juvenal Sat. IV, scraps from Ovid (Met. XV.158-75), Seneca (Thyestes), Catullus 59, and two graffiti from Pompeii (Buecheler 2048) -- the more scatalogical offerings having little reference to ingestion of food.

Wilkins examines Aristophanes Peace to support the significance of food in all the playwright's oeuvre and, by extension, in Greek comedy generally. From mundane details of soldiers' diet -- bread, cheese and onions -- to double entendre foods of celebration, such as flat-cakes and figs, at the final wedding, W. moves on to more profound symbolism in a theme of fertility and abundance to come if the negotiations of 433-21 B.C.E bring an end to the war between Athens and Sparta. In varied contexts and on different levels of meaning he shows how food encodes social and political meanings in the encounter of Vintage-man (Trygaeus) with Harvest (Opora) and Festival (Theoria). "Human and plant reproduction are thus integrated into a universal return to fertility, which may be enhanced by the manure from earlier in the play ..." More perhaps could have been done with his argument on a topic of current concern to economic historians: the essential unity of rural and urban communities of Greek city states before country/city oppositions arose in the Hellenistic period. But overall this is a welcome, if brief, treatment, in Attic venue, of "popular-festive forms" Bakhtin ascribes to Rabelais.

The study by Davidson takes off from the well-known passage in Athenaeus which considers, apropos a passage from Middle Comedy, why Homer's Iliad never shows the Achaeans eating fish. As background, he explores the Greeks own sense of time and what one might call alimentary history, whether of successive discoveries of cultivation or of culinary techniques, leading to consideration of a few aspects of sacrifice (in particular, a lack of fish, save for tuna). For Greeks of the classical period, he argues, eating fish spelled modernity, a reflection of life in the sophisticated, market-oriented world of the city, long removed from a subsistence-level dietary supplement. Absent fish in Homer and in the atavistic rites of sacrifice, D. finds that "long shopping lists, recipes and eulogies of fish in epic language and hexameter rhythms, which are such a feature of Middle Comedy and of writers such as Archestratus and Matro would have had an automatic bathos for Greeks which is not always obvious to us."

Especially the latter essay leads to the conclusion that, to be revelatory, cultural history requires richly cross-disciplinary research; archaeological material as well as that from history of art and medicine would have served this entire publication well despite its self-limiting philological aims.