For a generation now, it has been a commonplace that in Britain food and drink are much discussed. Fewer people seem to notice that this has almost always been so, wherever the capacity to discuss anything is found. Pockets of unawareness are the exception rather than the rule: early redbrick university departments striving to differentiate themselves from Oxford and Cambridge; or the English gentry, who, as Lord Stockton has reminded us, taught their genteel imitators that it was bad form to notice the manna that came to dinner. In other times and places, both hunger and plenty have proved stimulating sauces for food discourse. Miranda Chaytor tells me that the dreams of a 16th-century Northumbrian witch elicited at interrogation centred upon food rather than sex. English diarists - Evelyn as well as Pepys, Thomas Turner as well as Parson Woodforde - confide their meals to paper as readily as their other concerns. One reason why Keats makes better reading than Shelley is that he had a superior gust for eating and drinking, and found a language for it in verse and prose: not just the lucent syrops tinct with cinnamon but the nectarine: 'good god how fine. It went down soft pulpy, slushy, oozy - all its delicious embonpoint melted down my throat like a large beatified Strawberry. I shall certainly breed.'
LRB 19 June 1986 | PDF Download