Reviews 2018

Not Just Porridge: English Literati at Table [Non solo porridge: litterati inglesefi a tavola]

Not Just Porridge: English Literati at Table [Non solo porridge: litterati inglesefi a tavola]. Ed. Francesca Orestano and Michael Vickers. Oxford: Archaeopress, 2017. xi + 175 pages. £17.39 (paperback).

Published originally in Italian (2015) and translated by the contributors into English, Not Just Porridge is a collection of essays on topics related to food: its production and consumption, eating habits and tastes, cooking techniques and appliances, and culinary culture and politics throughout the ages, as depicted in a selection of both canonical and popular texts. Arranged chronologically from the Middle Ages (Geoffrey Chaucer) to the present (Neil Gaiman), the essays touch upon English literary, cultural and social history from, as stated in Introduction, a "gastronomic perspective" (iii). Not Just Porridge is designed as an entertaining but not unassuming volume where the culinary culture – in the recent decades developed to a global pop phenomenon – is reflected upon in a manner characteristic of popular science books that apply erudite insights to trendy topics. This light formula is stressed by including, at the end of each paper, recipes recreated on the basis of the analysed works or taken from period cookbooks (e.g., omelette a la Bennet or rice pudding Strachey’s style). This way, readers may imagine what exactly was served in the past and how the dishes were prepared. They may even venture to try the recipes themselves.

The book opens with an overview of culinary ideas in the Middle Ages: the knowledge of nutritional properties of products, the desired flavours and tastes, relations between social class and diet. Cristina Pavarano writes about the Cook in The Canterbury Tales, who boasts of great skills but obviously is not a master of his profession – his cheating and neglect of hygiene turn him to an adverse but memorable caricature enriching Chaucer’s satirical picture of medieval England.

Moving on to Renaissance literature, the volume offers Margaret Rose’s article about one line uttered by Caliban in The Tempest – "I must eat my dinner." Rose reads Caliban’s bold request of dinner as a contestation of his slave status and demand for his rights. Although very short, Rose’s essay interestingly links Caliban’s petition with post-colonial discussions of his position on the island.

In the following chapter, Giovanni Iamartino sets out on a "gastronomic journey" (17) through eighteenth-century England and recounts anecdotes about Samuel Johnson and his fondness for food: about the scholar’s favourite dishes, love for eating out, understanding of the role of meals in family and social life, and appreciation of intellectually stimulating conversation as an indispensable attribute of dining in company. The chapter, densely illustrated with quotations from Johnson’s early biographies and with his own definitions of victuals from his Dictionary, is a mine of particulars about Johnson’s life set against the background of his age. Social and food habits are also central in the subsequent study on Jane Austen, where Chiara Biscella writes about the role of meals in Austen’s novels as occasions to reveal class hierarchies and personal relations. Picnics, lunches, tea ceremonies, and dinners, Biscella remarks, serve as scenes disclosing "the quirks of the characters" (37) and the phases of the protagonists’ romantic engagements. It is interesting to compare this reading to Ilaria Parini’s contribution about attitudes to food in contemporary re-writes of novels of manners. In chick lit, whose most recognisable example is Bridget Jones’s Diary, the culinary culture (junk and pre-packed snacks, eating out, lack of cooking skills) leads the heroines, as Parini shows, to obsession with weight and to permanent dieting.

Daily diets of famous literati are again in focus in chapters about Dorothy Wordsworth and Percy Byshe Shelley. Basing on Wordsworth’s journals and supplementing the article with photographs of Dove Cottage’s gardens, Anna Rudelli elaborates on Dorothy’s domestic duties which included cooking and gardening. In the summer season, the herbs and vegetables that she grew were a major food supply for the siblings. Occasionally, she exchanged her organic products with neighbours for other ingredients, thus enriching the daily table. Equally interesting is Marco Canani’s chapter on Shelley, whose vegetarianism (albeit not rigorous) stemmed from his philosophy of life and eco-consciousness. Set in a broader context of expanding popularity of vegetarianism and Pythagorean (or natural) diet in nineteenth-century England, Shelley’s abstention from meat was linked to his pantheistic views coupled with his anthropocentric concerns about purifying the human soul and eradicating social inequalities.

But Shelley’s attitudes were not dominant in the nineteenth century. It was rather Mrs. Beeton, with her Book of Household Management (1861), who shaped her contemporaries’ ideas about cooking, house economy, and health issues. Not insignificant, however, was the ideological content of her book. As Beatrice Moja rightly points out, Beeton’s bestseller was far more than a manual because besides the practical advice it gave, it also expressed Victorian views and stereotypes. Beeton’s commentaries on English and French cuisine and her instructions how to use her recipes in the colonies mirrored and consolidated ethnic and racial prejudices of her times.

Food as a reflection of life style and part of material culture is also addressed in the next three studies: of Dickens’s sketches about restaurants and street food in London (Claudia Cremonesi); of Joyce’s images of food available in Dublin (Maria Cristina Mancini); and of Henry James’s encounters with European cuisine during his continental tour (Elena Ogliari). It is not only the dishes, but also the manner of their preparation that is worthy of notice. Francesca Orestano, in her chapter on Virginia Woolf, first gives an overview of Woolf’s treatment of food in her fiction and nonfiction – notably, in A Room of One’s Own (1929), where the wealth of menu signifies gender privileges – and then recounts a lesser known episode from the novelist’s life: when a new kitchen appliance, an oil stove, was installed in her home. Despite her aversion to eating, Woolf mastered her own bread recipes and brought bread baking to an art of sorts.

Towards the end of the volume, there are three studies of literature for children and young readers. Francesca Gorini writes about A. A. Milne’s Winnie-the-Pooh tales, where explication of the nutritional value of meals and their ingredients, criticism of overeating, and promotion of vegetarian ideas, physical exercise, and friendliness to animals are themes of pedagogical import. Angela Anna Iuliucci, in turn, comments on Roald Dahl’s "anti-tales" (148) – Revolting Recipes (1994) – where grotesque menus (such as mosquitoes’ toes or bugs’ eggs) contribute to creating fantastic atmospheres. Finally, Dalila Forni indicates how in Neil Gaiman’s postmodern gothic tale Coraline (2002) food expands to a multilayered metaphor of family life, bonds, and affection. As she aptly notices, the kinds of dishes and the manner of cooking and serving them reflect individual and group relations and development of culture.

Not Just Porridge is an enjoyable book demonstrating, through the heterogeneity of its themes, sources and methodologies, the wealth of ideas that a scrutiny of culinary matters brings. It makes us realise that stories about food tell us about culture, politics, society and individual relationships.

Anna Cichoń
University of Wrocław, Poland