Food has been a topic of poetry for many centuries and in many cultures; the notion that food writing and poetry writing are totally separate ventures is a recent development. Much of our knowledge of eating habits, culinary practices, and food taboos throughout history and around the world comes from poetry. Food in poetry also functions as a powerful symbol of spiritual and moral states, and at other times it is used as a sexual symbol.
The Chinese have a long tradition of including food in poetry, going as far back as the Chou Dynasty (from the 12th century B.C.E. to 221 B.C.E.). There are Chou poems celebrating festive foods of the time, including stewed turtle, fried honey cakes, duck, quail, and good wine, and discussing the preparation of rice. The Shih Ching (Book of Songs) includes food scenes such as lamb sacrifice, in which the aroma of the roasting meat is described and fruit and wine are offered; verses on a feast of rabbit and plenty of wine; a song rejoicing in family togetherness at a feast including such meats as lamb, ox, and tripe, and an abundance of wine; agricultural songs celebrating wheat, millet, barley, plums, cherries, dates, melons, gourds, beans, garlic, and rice (from which wine is made). The culinary abundance of the T'ang Dynasty (618–907) is strongly evident in its poetry, which contains paeans to plums, pears, persimmons, jujubes, many kinds of melons, spring wine, and peaches, which were a traditional symbol of immortality in Chinese poetry and painting. Poems were also forums for discussing differences between foods. For instance, the eighth-century poet Chang Chiu-ling used poetry to address the many ways in which lychees and longans are not similar fruits at all, despite their superficial similarities. Poems written Page 125 | Top of Article during another prosperous period, the Ch'ing Dynasty (1644–1922), link food and sex, with female beauty and sexuality compared to melons, cherries, and grapes.
Food is also an important presence in classical Western poetry. Homer's Iliad and Odyssey are rich with scenes of feasting, as well as of ordinary eating. In a famous scene from the Odyssey, Odysseus and his crew, trying to return by sea to Ithaca, stop at an unknown land whose inhabitants, the Lotus Eaters, offer a lavish banquet to the three men who are sent to explore. The fruit (or the juice from the fruit) that the men consume gives them great pleasure and also makes them forget all thoughts of home and family so that the other crew members must drag them away by force. Homer also describes the feast of roast meat served to Odysseus by Achilles. The Greek poet Hesiod wrote about enjoying good wine with meat and bread. The Roman poet Martial wrote a great deal about foods, such as figs, olives, parsnips, chicken, fish, cheese, eggs, chives, shallots, and onions, to name a few. Virgil described milk and cheese in his Georgics, which celebrates the agricultural life and mourns the dissolution of Italy's farms after famers were sent to war. Ovid wrote about olives and grapes in the Amores. In Greek mythology, the six pomegranate seeds eaten by Perse-phone (daughter of Demeter, goddess of agriculture) in the underworld after her abduction by Hades, are the mythical reason for winter: For each seed consumed, Persephone must spend a month of the year in the underworld, causing her mother to grieve and neglect her work. The story of Persephone and the pomegranate seeds continues to influence contemporary writers. In her collection Mother Love, the American poet Rita Dove writes of a modern young woman's journey to Paris that parallels Persephone's descent into the underworld. Her meal at "the Bistro Styx" includes Chateaubriand, Camembert, pears, figs, parsley, bread, and Pinot Noir. A mourning modern Demeter has a Spartan breakfast of cereal and raisins and puts stones into it.
Roman poets, including Catullus, Horace, and Martial, also wrote dinner-invitation poems. In the invitation poem, the poet cajoles the addressee into coming for dinner. He may describe the foods that are going to be served, talk about the wine that is going to be poured, and describe the entertainments that will be offered. Invitation poems are not only a source of information on what the Romans ate, but also literary documents in themselves. This tradition did not end with the Roman Empire. In the style of the classical invitation poem, Ben Jonson's "Inviting a Friend to Supper" describes a meal of salad, mutton, fowl, cheese, fruit, pastry, and wine. Another, more extensive food catalogue occurs in Jonson's "To Penshurst," which includes pheasant, carp, eels, cherries, plums, figs, grapes, quinces, apricots, peaches, cake, nuts, apples, cheeses, pears, beer, bread, and wine.
In the medieval Arab world, among those with sufficient resources, poetry and food were enjoyed in tandem, in lavish fashion. At banquets given by the caliphs, poems naming each dish—and recounting the spices and herbs used in its preparation, as well as the method of cooking—were recited during the dinners, so that the guests might savor the poetry along with the food.
There is food poetry in the Bible, as well. Throughout the Song of Solomon, the male and female narrators compare one another to fruits and other foods. The man's cheeks are compared to a "bed of spices"; the woman's breasts are described as "clusters of grapes" and her nose
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as smelling like apples. Figs, grapes, vines, and pomegranates are used to describe their love for each other. The apple tree, standing out among other trees, represents the beloved's standing out among men. Other foods mentioned in the exchange include honey, milk, saffron, and cinnamon.
Food is inherent to many traditional songs and poems of the Celtic world and in England. For instance, an Irish saying goes: "Rye bread will do you good, / Barley bread will do you no harm, / Wheat bread will sweeten your blood, / Oat bread will strengthen your arm." Early Celtic poems tell of affection for such foods as mushrooms, milk, and colcannon, the Irish dish of mashed potatoes with cabbage or kale. In England, a song once accompanied the churning of butter: "Come, butter, come, / Come, butter, come, / Peter stands at the gate / Waiting for a buttered cake, / Come, butter, come."
In the sonnets, Shakespeare invokes appetite and eating as metaphors for human behavior, beginning with images of famine and gluttony in Sonnet 1, "From fairest creatures we desire increase." In Sonnets 56 ("Sweet love, renew thy force") and 110 ("Alas! 'tis true, I have gone here and there"), appetite represents desire. In Sonnet 75, which opens with "So are you to my thoughts as food to life," appreciation of the beloved is compared to feasting, and the speaker without the beloved is "starvèd for a look." In Sonnet 52, infrequency of "feasts" gives them meaning, and in Sonnet 118, the eating of "eager compounds" and "bitter sauces" is contrasted with the sweetness of the beloved.
Jonathan Swift, whose concern with matters of hunger reached its most famous height with "A Modest Proposal," the essay in which he ironically suggests fighting hunger by eating children, saw fit to write poetry about onions, oysters, and fishmongers. Robert Burns's "Address to a Haggis" is traditionally recited with the serving of the Scottish dish. The English writer Sydney Smith composed recipes in verse, giving instructions for preparing salad dressing and roasting mutton, for instance.
In the twelfth-century Celtic poem "The Vision of Mac Conglinne," Mac Conglinne helps a king overcome his gluttony. The poem, delectable not only to poetry lovers but also to scholars of medieval Ireland, catalogues an outrageous abundance of foods, including salmon, kale, hazelnuts, sausages, bread, cheese, bacon, and especially milk, which is described as being so thick that it must be chewed.
Food in poetry sometimes carries moral significance. In an archetypal episode in Ovid's Metamorphoses, the poor couple Baucis and Philemon share their meager food supply with beggars, who turn out to be gods in disguise and reward the couple with abundance. The biblical story of Eve's eating of the forbidden fruit, said to be an apple but possibly a pomegranate, is portrayed as the first human sin and the reason for man's state of sin. The story of Eve's giving in to the tempting fruit also starts off John Milton's epic on the fall of mankind, Paradise Lost. In Chaucer's Canterbury Tales, food is an important element in maintaining the balance of bodily humors, and gluttony is addressed as one of the Seven Deadly Sins. Gluttony is severely punished in Dante's hell. And food taboos are part of the human struggle: In Byron's Don Juan, a starving crew of seamen resort to cannibalism, but only after a long and horrible effort to avoid it.
Food in poetry can have transformative, and sometimes destructive, powers. In the English epic Beowulf, feasting (which always involves plenty of drinking) is generally followed by sleep, which makes the men vulnerable to attacks by the monster Grendel, who feasts on men. (Feasts in Beowulf are also given to honor people, and are the backdrop against which many discussions and Page 127 | Top of Article confrontations take place.) In Samuel Taylor Coleridge's "Kubla Khan," the consumption of milk and honey is linked to an altered state of mind. John Keats paid close attention to food in his poems and letters; in his poem "La Belle Dame Sans Merci," the beautiful woman destroys a knight by feeding and seducing him. The food, like the sexual attraction, is central to his undoing.
Some poets invoke food to convey matters of the spirit. T. S. Eliot's question "Do I dare to eat a peach?" conveys the jaded frame of mind of the speaker of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock." Emily Dickinson uses hunger metaphorically; in the poem "Hunger," hunger and dining express loneliness and love. Another poem, "Forbidden Fruit," makes a pithy statement about human nature: "Forbidden fruit a flavor has / That lawful orchards mocks; How luscious lies the pea within / The pod that Duty locks!"
Some poets simply delight in the discussing of food. Pablo Neruda, in his Elemental Odes, writes about artichokes, lemons, and olive oil (and the use of the oil in mayonnaise and salad dressing). Ogden Nash has a book of light verse about food. D. H. Lawrence wrote poems entitled "Pomegranate," "Peach," "Medlars and Sorb-Apples," "Figs," and "Grapes." A. E. Housman celebrates the cherry tree in "Loveliest of Trees, the Cherry Now." William Carlos Williams's famous "This Is Just to Say" has immortalized some irresistible plums in an icebox; the savoring of plums occurs also in his "To a Poor Old Woman." The contemporary American poet Robert Hass weaves lush California cuisine into many poems.
Poetry and food may be coming back together, as they were in ancient times. Enough contemporary poets have written poems about food to fill a number of anthologies of food poems, including one devoted exclusively to poems about potatoes (Spud Songs, ed. Gloria Vando and Robert Stewart).
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