BMCR 1993.05.26

1993.05.26, Gowers, The Loaded Table: Representations of Food in Roman Literature

, The loaded table : representations of food in Roman literature. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1993. xii, 334 pages ; 23 cm. ISBN 9780198146957. $65.00.

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 (οὐδὲν ὁ μάγειρος τοῦ ποιητοῦ DIAFE/REI