BMCR 2001.10.33

The Boastful Chef, The Discourse of Food in Ancient Greek Comedy

, The boastful chef : the discourse of food in ancient Greek comedy. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2000. xxviii, 465 pages ; 23 cm. ISBN 019924068X. $90.00.

Eating and drinking are basic to individual and communal life, and both are inseparably tied to the experience of pleasure that the satisfying of hunger and thirst provides. Eating and drinking in literary discourse may serve a whole lot more than nutritional aims. In this book Wilkins sets out to examine the role food, drink and pleasure played in the multifaceted Greek comic discourse. After an introduction that aims to set the background to comic discourse, the first chapter deals with comedy and the material world. Here some modern anthropological and economic observations are used in order to go beyond discourse and try to attach it to historical or sociological views of ancient society.

The first chapter deals with food in the comic social order, with what constitutes “normal” eating in comedy and the various infringements on the socially approved forms. W. argues that the approved form was commensality, ritual eating with equal distribution of sacrificial meat and as far removed from pleasure as possible. Opposed to this ideal were seen the various private enjoyers of food and drink: the solitary eater, the glutton, the parasite or the “unequal eater at the feast” (p.52).

In the next chapter agriculture and the blessing of peace are explored as reflected in comedy. The comic treatment of the relationship between town and its countryside is one of the salient aspects of comedy’s work of “reconfiguring” its society. In comedy, the author argues, festival is associated with agriculture and fertility more closely than in the real polis. Comedy shares something significant with the carnival: it paints society turned upside down, it starves the powerful, and in its treatment of war and peace it “mounts a limited ideological attack on the political order” (p.154).

The comic agora is the topic of the following chapter, in which W. describes how comedy creates a special agora of its own “by establishing a tension between the commercial sector of the market place and the ancient institutions also housed there” (p.155), e.g. the prytaneon. After going through a large selection of the literary evidence testifying to the lively and intense trade taking place in the agora, he turns his attention to those traders most frequently berated by the comic writers, wine sellers, bread sellers and the sellers of fish and meat. The customers of these are also often attacked in comedy as spendthrifts and gluttons. This same chapter also contains an extensive analysis of Knights of Aristophanes. W. sees this play as a reflection of the Athenian self-definition based on self-restraint and a need for regulation in all activities that take place in the heart of the city!

From the comic agora the author turns to the much-discussed and often over-interpreted topic of the symposium. In his treatment of Dionysus and his wine W. reviews some of the modern literature on the topic, in the course of which he distances himself to some extent from Oswyn Murray’s views on the symposium as an aristocratic institution of the archaic polis that for long remained the preserve of the elite and bore extreme political significance. The chapter reviews comic treatment of many aspects of drinking: ancient wines, rules for mixing, wine and wisdom, or its opposite, wine and poetry, drinking cups, drinking songs and the appearance of the god of wine himself in comedy.

Wine then leads into the next topic, which is ‘luxurious’ eating in comedy. Censure of eating (and sexual) practices have ever been part of the armory of the moralisers, and accusations of luxury in eating are often used aggressively, for comic effect, against the targets of comedy. Negative and positive treatments of the same foods, as “luxury” or as god-given “goods”, in various comic writers are discussed. More on the basis of modern commentaries rather than on any ancient comic evidence, much is made of the separation between “luxurious” fish-eating and the good order of ritually pure eating in religious sacrifice, with its “equal shares” of meat (p 303). (One wonders how the mageiros, the butcher at the sacrifice, managed to cut up the carcass of a sacrificial beast into equal portions?) Much is also made of the claim that Greeks ate meat only in the course of religious sacrifice, despite the many quotations throughout the book that attest to meat and fish courses in the same dinner, that parade sausage makers and sellers, that mention buying of meat in butcher shops, and so on.

On this there follows a discussion of both the comic and the culinary literature of Sicily, the proverbial home of “luxurious” eating, which, calls on ancient painted pottery, especially vessels using fish as decorations, in support of the verbal discourse. Again the wealth of fish names listed in poetry attest to “luxury”. But since the seas have a large variety of fish, some edible, some not, the number of their names listed would surely make a richer and more exotic list than would the names of animals sold at the meat market. A poet wanting to impress his audience with a wealth of multicoloured words may have preferred to use fish names rather than cuts of a pig or a goat. This in itself would constitute no proof that fish was a more “luxurious” or more desired food than meat. The same argument may apply to the painted pottery too. Representing fish swimming around a plate may be more pleasing to the eye than a piece of meat, regardless of their respective gustatory value.

He has been alluded to before, but only in the last chapter do we finally meet the character of the title, the boastful chef. Here W. reiterates his claim that “sacrifice and cooking lie at the heart of comedy” and argues that the chef, the mageiros “came to have a significant role, not least because his low social status accorded to him could be exploited in comedy’s pursuit of its materialist interest in those parts of the life of the polis which carried great cultural significance” (p.370). Despite his own warning that it would be hazardous to try to tie the changes he sees in the role of the mageiros in comedy to social change in the polis, he nevertheless proceeds in that direction by following the putative development of the role from protagonist sacrificer in Old Comedy to the stock character of the comic cook in Middle and New Comedy.

The Boastful Chef is an erudite journey through many aspects of ancient comic literature. An important topic that the writer has overlooked, however, is a discussion of humour, of what makes people laugh and whether we are able, and to what extent, to appreciate what the ancient Greeks found hilarious. As an examination of ancient “discourse” on food, the book is rich and often perceptive. However, when the “discourse” shifts into historical, economic or sociological claims concerning the ancient Greek world, problems arise. The rules governing the transition between comic discourse and reality are never specified.

The Boastful Chef may be regarded as a modern scholarly attempt to rival an ancient one, that of Athenaeus, on eating and drinking in ancient Greek literature. W. himself, in his own writing and by the conferences he has organised, has greatly stimulated interest in Athenaeus and in the scholarly discussions of eating and drinking in the ancient Mediterranean. In his present book the bulk of material for his analysis of food discourse is provided by those of the extant comedies of Aristophanes that are most relevant to food, the rest, not surprisingly, by Athenaeus, whose Deipnosophistae has provided for generations of scholars happy hunting ground for fragments from ancient and otherwise forgotten writers. Athenaeus, writing in the 2nd or early 3rd century A.D., had his own, clearly stated purpose in writing his opus: he wanted to discuss, with a group of learned men, representing various views and interest, all aspects of dinner parties and whatever pertained to them. The discussion, however, had to proceed by appeal to the authority of the glorious Greek literary past. Consequently, ancient and Hellenistic literature was ransacked for any food-related material. Consequently these fragments, used in W.’s analysis, are heavily biased; indeed, they were selected because they spoke about food, but there is no way of knowing just how important or central they were in their original place. Let me illustrate this with an example. In a future, too-horrible-to-imagine world, where all of Shakespeare’s work would have been lost, a scholar finds an anthology of sayings pertaining to alcohol and drinking. Amongst these there is the Porter’s cogitation on “what three things does drink especially provoke” (Macbeth, Act II, scene 1). Our future scholar, on the example of the present work, would probably decide that he is dealing with a comedy, and that wine and drinking are “at the center of this comic world…”, and we can imagine him making brave assertions about the social status of the Porter (low), his opportunities to drink wine (only in sacramental context, during communion), and maybe even about the Porter’s emotions towards luxurious wine drinkers (hostile). How wrong our imaginary scholar would be!

The book will interest scholars who work in the field of Greek drama and poetry, and who are familiar with modern scholarship on Greek comedy. W. provides a very extensive bibliography, which will be more useful to the reader than many of the footnotes, which often are not very enlightening, especially those in the form of “on this topic now see X”, or, even worse, “on this see Y (forthcoming)”. It is praiseworthy when a scholar is knowledgeable about all literature relevant to his topic, including his colleagues’ future publications, but for the reader these types of footnotes only provide interruption of reading and frustration. For students at the beginning of their journey into Greek literature, who would like to have fun and actually enjoy themselves with Greek comedy, they should read Athenaeus first!