May 4, 2014 By Noorjahan Banu

Eat Your Cake; Count Earth Holes Too

bookreview imageAs regards eating, there is a proverb in Kerala: Eat your cake, don’t count the earth holes. It means that one need not ponder over the history or other exterior information of what one is eating, but to eat and eat. A gourmet’s advice for self-indulgence? No there is something beyond that.

There are some foodies around us, who are interested only in exterior details. They may not be as thrilled to see the dish they relish on table as they are spiced up with the historical and sociological details of the dish. Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat ‘s A History of Food will help such high-brow foodies as well as those who are interested in the evolution of human civilization.

The book was originally published in French in 1987 (Histoire naturelle et morale de la nourriture, 1e in French) by Blackwell Publishers Limited. Famous books on cuisine and food are noted for being born in France and brought up in all English speaking worlds. The Book was translated into English by Anthea Bell and published by Blackwell in 1992. By 2009, when the second French edition had been brought out and Blackswell had been acquired by acquired by John Wiley & Sons two years back, three English editions were published the world over.

The book is a comprehensive story of food and details humanity’s war against hunger right from honey gathering to hunting; from stock-gathering to farming; from fishing to poultry; from eating unbaked to the intricacies of modern kitchen. Toussaint-Samat ‘s narration is remarkable and many ways different from the history writings on other treasured topics of popular culture. As Betty Fussell rightly says in the foreword of the book: ‘she juxtaposes long shots with close-ups, cutting back and forth across timeline with a mixture of legend and myth, natural science, folklore, social and political history, poetry and economics – projecting in the process a singular mind, which is passionately opinionated, idiosyncratic, and humane. ‘

She is quite liberal in her treatment of sources, most of which include legends and folktales. Read her treatment of legends and customs regarding honey:

The Hebrew for bee is dbure, from the root dbr, meaning ‘word’, whence the pretty first name Deborah, indicating the bee’s mission to reveal the Divine Word, the Truth. Honey, miraculously made by the bees, signifies truth because it needs no treatment to transform it after it has been collected. It does not deteriorate, and until the discovery of sugar there was no substitute. What but the bee can actually create honey by settling on the centres of God’s own flowers? Or the gods’ own flowers; it came to the same thing.

This ‘truth’, a message from above, was thought to be passed on by bees in their honey so that the elect could express the truth in scholarship and poetry. Accordingly, bees were supposed to have settled on the lips of Plato, Pindar and the well-named St Ambrose of Milan as children. Not every new-born baby can grow up to be a genius, but at least one hopes for its happiness: this is the idea of the women of the Ivory Coast and Senegal who still rub a baby’s lips with honey as soon as it has uttered its first cry of fury at being born. Such a baptism of honey was part of ancient Achaean and Germanic custom, and came from the primordial steppes. There is still an Eastern custom whereby a spoonful of honey is poured into the palms of a newly married couple’s hands. They must lick it off for each other as a sign that they will now take all their food together, and it is said to ensure that the husband will not lift his hand to his wife except to caress her, and none but loving words will spring to the wife’s lips – not just during the aptly named honeymoon but for ever after. At the moment of initiation during the Eleusinian and Mithraic mysteries, the mystes (initiates) anointed their hands and tongues with honey. They were purifying themselves from evil, and the good was revealed to them. Philippe Marcheray adds that the Egyptians ate honey ‘at the festival of Thoth, uttering the words “Sweet is the truth” ’.

Folktales and legends are not the only sources for the book. Look her narration on the history of rice in the east, though her words have something beyond an annotator’s objectivity:

Today we can buy a grain called ‘wild rice’, which has grown in North America since time immemorial, and is delicious. This is not in fact rice at all, but an aquatic oat, Zizania aquatica, called tuskaro by the Iroquois and manomin by the Ojibwa Indians. Its stalk may grow to a height of three metres, and ends in a panicle of several small ears which makes it look like a tall branched candlestick. This hardy aquatic grass grows in marshes and on river banks all over North America, and was a great resource of the American Indians in places where maize will not grow.

To harvest wild rice, the tribes navigated the marshes by canoe, using a curved strap to hold the stems over the boats and thresh the grain out of them. Alternatively sheaves were bound together, and then reaped whole. As Bernard Assiniwi, an Algonquin historian and a food critic on French Canadian television, points out, ‘Wild rice is now very expensive, but it is much more nourishing than any ordinary polished rice. You have only to taste it once, and you feel you can’t do without it.’

He is quite right, costly as wild rice may be. The Indians ate it as a staple food, often depending on it to support life, and one can see why Chief Martin of the Ottawa Indians wrote to the British authorities in 1842: ‘We have no objection to the white men’s mines, to their cutting wood or building farms. But we claim our rights, without let or hindrance, to the bark of birch and cedar trees, the plants that give sugar and rice, and first rights over our hunting grounds.’

The reason why the book transcends all primary historical sources for analysis is that the book itself is such a source. Reading it is as pleasurable an experience for a bookie as to know the stories all exotic dishes is pleasurable for foodie.

A History of Food

Maguelonne Toussaint-Samat

Translated by Anthea Bell

Published by Wiley-Blacwell

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