[CATEGORIES: Literature, Lapham’s Quarterly, Reading, Book Review]
[Click HERE to see my previous posts referencing Lapham’s Quarterly.]
[Some of LQ’s contents are available free.]
[L.Q. cover and art from L.Q. Summer 2011: Food.]
Food is on everyone’s mind daily I say, if not noted absent as an aching in one’s belly. Many of us are fortunate to rarely experience that ache for long, for others the ache may never go away. Can one even imagine the pervasive ache for much of mankind throughout the centuries and millennia? The slaves building the pyramids, the distended bellies of children starving in Africa to this day.
L.Q. editor Lewis Lapham’s preamble The Midas Touch, always an introduction to the issue’s contents, starts with a biblical quote ‘…Man shall not live on bread alone…’ and Cato the Elder “It is a hard matter, my fellow citizens, to argue with the belly, since it has no ears”.
I recall reading at the Titanic Museum in Belfast recently that the 15,000 shipbuilders lived largely on a diet of bread and weak tea. Religion aside, bread alone has provided sustenance for a good portion of man’s history.
“Times change, and with them what, where, and how people eat. In fifteenth-century London a man could be hanged for eating meat on Friday. …The potato in sixteenth-century Europe was believed to cause leprosy and syphilis.” (p. 14)
In 18th century Ireland the potato was the staff of life. Blight and famine thereof was instrumental in contributing to the mass emigration of Irish to America.
Mr. Lapham is insightful as ever, sparing us his usual rant on the presidency, the mid-term Democrat in residence as of 2011 having nothing to do with it I’m sure.
“It is the sharing of the spoils of the hunt and the harvest, a public as opposed to a private good, that sustains the existence of the earliest human societies, sows the seeds of moral value, social contract, distributive justice, and holy ground.”
“The contract between man and nature remains in force for as long as it is understood which one is the tenant and which one the landlord.”
“The contract … doesn’t come up for review until the seventeenth-century plantings of capitalist finance give rise to the Industrial Revolution. Man comes to imagine that he holds the deed to nature … and food becomes an industrial product subsumed into the body of a corporation.” (pp. 14-15 all)
Lewis ends the preamble with an amusing alternative to Jonathan Swift’s satirical extract from A Modest Proposal (p. 132) about using children as a food source. (Free online titled To Preserve The Nation.)
“More people in the world now suffer from over nutrition (1.5 billion) than from malnutrition (900 million), and America has on hand a comfortingly large share of the global supply. The product enjoys the further advantage of qualifying for the labels “free-range” and “local”.” (p. 21)
The preamble is free online.
The two-page graphic this issue traces the influence of coffee, pepper, and tomato. Haisam Hussein is the graphic artist. Free online.
The very last extract in the issue, before the extended essays in Further Remarks, is Mary Frances Kennedy Fisher’s exposition on bread and salt. It is superb and available free online for those of you who find sustenance in good writing and a food-philosophical phrase as well as fundamentals of diet. Search Lapham’s quarterly.org for the Food issue and ‘M.F.K. Fisher on the Basics’, minus the single quotes of course.
“I was taught when very young that it is an insult to the cook to salt a dish before it has been tasted, and in spite of my adult knowledge of the reasons for such as unthinking gesture, I still resent it when anyone at my table seasons something as soon as it is put before him.” (p. 176)
Czech author Bohumil Hrabral’s fictional account of roasting a camel for a European state visit by Hailie Selassie is also superb. It is not available online but the book from which it is taken, I Served the King of England, sounds like an entertaining and noteworthy addition to one’s reading list. Shame on us (not) if we should read to be entertained as well as learned. At 250-300 pages it promises to amuse within a tolerable brevity. Check the Wikipedia entry on the book.
“…the cooks quickly made a huge fire, let it burn down until only the glowing coals remained, then barbecued the camel on a spit supported by tripods. When the camel was almost done, they put into it the two antelopes with the stuffed turkeys inside them, and fish as well, and lined the cavity with hard-boiled eggs, and kept pouring on spices…” (p. 28)
“The headwaiter signaled us to begin pouring the Mosel, and my moment came when I saw they’d forgotten to serve the emperor his wine. I wrapped a napkin around a bottle, approached the emperor, and without really knowing how it happened, I went down on one knee like an acolyte and bowed, and when I stood up, everyone was looking at me while the emperor made the sign of the cross on my forehead and blessed me. Then I poured his wine.” (p. 29)
The sections within this issue’s Voices in Time are Feast or Famine, Chefs and Gourmands, and Dishes and Ingredients. Extracts on Famine were perhaps the most thought-provoking.
The 13th-century Persian Sunni Rumi is poetic on the merits of hunger:
“There is a hidden sweetness in the stomach’s emptiness.
We are lutes, no more, no less.
If the soundbox is stuffed full of anything, no music.
If the brain and belly are burning clean with fasting,
every moment a new song comes out of the fire.”
“When you are full of food and drink,
Satan sits where your spirit should,…
When you fast, good habits gather like friends who want to help.” (p. 31)
Rumi is immediately followed by the 1972 account of an Andean airplane crash in which the survivors eventually resorted to eating some of their dead comrades preserved by the sub-zero temperatures. Hunger is rarely pretty, particularly when it’s not an intentional.
“Man is the only animal that can remain on friendly terms with the victims he intends to eat until he eats them.” –Samuel Butler, 1912 (p. 32)
To my knowledge the Andean survivors not did kill each other for food.
Oliver Twist was hungry too:
“The board members of the workhouse were sitting in solemn conclave when the preacher Mr. Bumble rushed into the room in great excitement, and addressing the gentleman in the high chair, said, “Mr. Limbkins, I beg your pardon, sir–Oliver Twist has asked for more.” There was a general start. Horror was depicted on every countenance. “For more!” said Mr. Limbkins. “Compose yourself Bumble, and answer me distinctly. Do I understand that he asked for more, after he had eaten the supper allotted by the dietary?” “He did, sir,” replied Bumble. “That boy will be hung,” said a gentleman in a waistcoat; “I know that boy will be hung.” Nobody controverted the prophetic gentleman’s opinion.” (p. 36)
This classic tidbit and an excerpt from To Kill A Mockingbird contribute to this issue’s worthiness, as does Hanna Levy-Haas from Diary of Bergen-Belsen (a WWII concentration camp):
“As for the constant hunger, our bodies have grown accustomed to it. It happens that someone who is tortured by the acute pain of hunger, who can’t stand it anymore, ends up eating his entire reserve bread… And when he has swallowed this unusual quantity of wretched food, he feels ill, worse than before, his body protests violently. He’s left with nausea, and his hunger remains unappeased.” (p. 51)
From Nigeria and Yoruba Poetry:
“”I have eaten yesterday”
does not concern hunger.
There is no god like one’s stomach:
we must sacrifice to it every day.” (p. 52)
Frederick Douglas describes the polar opposites of food available to slaves or masters in 1830. Rather than quote from this extract I’ll share his marvel at freedom during an extended visit to Ireland:
“He traveled in Ireland as the Irish Potato Famine was beginning.
The feeling of freedom from American racial discrimination amazed Douglass:
Eleven days and a half gone and I have crossed three thousand miles of the perilous deep. Instead of a democratic government, I am under a monarchical government. Instead of the bright, blue sky of America, I am covered with the soft, grey fog of the Emerald Isle [Ireland]. I breathe, and lo! the chattel [slave] becomes a man. I gaze around in vain for one who will question my equal humanity, claim me as his slave, or offer me an insult. I employ a cab—I am seated beside white people—I reach the hotel—I enter the same door—I am shown into the same parlour—I dine at the same table—and no one is offended… I find myself regarded and treated at every turn with the kindness and deference paid to white people. When I go to church, I am met by no upturned nose and scornful lip to tell me, ‘We don’t allow niggers in here!‘
Thanks to Wikipedia for this information. I’ve never read an issue of L.Q. where I didn’t refer to Wiki many many times.
You non-subscribers will be thrilled to know that the last four extracts I’ve mentioned are available free online. To simplify your search find the Food issue in the top-secret location at laphamsquarterly.org, get in ‘list’ mode, and search/find on page: London (Second Helpings), Bergen-Belsen, Nigeria (The Only God That Counts), and Maryland. Of course I can only hope this will move you to subscribe, or at least try and find an issue in your local library (slim chance perhaps), as I trust you don’t consider it a meal to only have a few appetizers.
Sadly the free snacks do not include the piece on culinary creativity in 1995 North Korea, a.k.a. ‘how to illegally sell your assigned apartment in order to buy rice’. Don’t get me started. Just watch the news for the latest missile launch and hope it hasn’t reached Alaska yet.
Aside from the M.F.K. Fisher aside I’m up to reiterating page 60 now. As you L.Q. faithful know every issue has 221 numbered pages. This is my last archive review. The previous Lines of Work was penultimate and next I’ll be reading Discovery: Spring 2017. Thus to summarize:
Lapham’s Quarterly is a superb literary compendium of great minds throughout history and their thoughts on a single subject expressed in Lapham’s Voices in Time. In addition it is liberally laced with pertinent quotes and sidebars, depictions of appropriate art from the ages, and Lewis Lapham’s always thought-provoking and eloquent introductory essay, all beautifully produced on heavy, high quality bond paper.
The now-standard notes:
1. Since L.Q.’s inception with the Winter 2008 issue its size is always 7″ x 10″ x 1/2-17/32″. It is white-covered with very high quality paper throughout, richly printed reproductions of fine art from time immemorial, exactly 221 pages up to the Sources index at the back.
2. Each issue contains extracts about the title topic from great authors and thinkers spanning all recorded history. It begins with an eloquent, to a fault, preamble/introduction by editor Lewis Lapham. The main body is called Voices In Time and contains 3 or 4 subcategories of the topic with about 25 extracts per section. Noteworthy sidebars, side quotes, and depictions of appropriate art from the ages are liberally distributed throughout. Several extended contemporary essays bring up the rear. There are several other small sections every issue (Among the Contributors, Conversations, Miscellany, ‘The Graphic’).
Per the L.Q. website,
Not to know what happened before one was born is always to be a child.
Lapham’s Quarterly embodies the belief that history is the root of all education, scientific and literary as well as political and economic. Each issue addresses a topic of current interest and concern—war, religion, money, medicine, nature, crime—by bringing up to the microphone of the present the advice and counsel of the past.
Read, enjoy, learn, think, act.
Stop the madness.
(Don’t miss the Duke Ellington freebie online: Playlist, St. Louis. He loved to eat.
Oh, and I didn’t mention Annie Dillard, Willa Cather, Julia Child, Montaigne, Ruth Reichl (food and restaurant critic, superb descriptions), Anthony Bourdain, Upton Sinclair, Thoreau (civil abstinence), and Ralph Ellison (I swear I’m going to read Invisible Man soon). Get an L.Q. copy and find them.)