Graham Dukes and partner Elisabet Helsing have just produced a book…
No, we must be truthful. All that we produced on our own was an electronic bundle of words and notions; to turn that into a book we were reliant on a creative and sympathetic publisher, a typesetter with nimble fingers, and a professional printer with a thumping great press and plenty of ink. Together or singly we have been through this experience dozens of times before, but it still sets us on edge. When the first copy tumbles into our letterbox we still feel rather like a hen must feel who has just laid an egg; she may have done it a hundred times before, yet she cannot stop cackling about it to everyone within earshot. There it lies, perfectly rounded and promising but still untested. What will the world say about it?
That was more or less what we wondered right at the start when, in small circle of Critical People, we first launched the idea of a book about Food. “Food, you say?” the Critical People retorted, sitting on us politely but firmly. “Far too many of those already. Driving the booksellers crazy. You’d better try something else.” We pondered. History of Nutrition, perhaps? The Critical People shook their heads vigorously. “Too technical. Come back when you have some better ideas. And now let’s get something to eat.” It was that last throwaway remark that really started us off. We were going to write a Short History of Eating.
What we soon learnt was that, if you are going to write a book on a particular topic you might as well set aside all the relevant tomes that have come out in the past; they are mostly copied from one another and are full of stories that everyone knows already. No, cast your net more widely. The literature of Ancient Greece will tell you how Athenian foodstores remained well-stocked throughout the year, but also how it was that the eating of honey once won (and lost) a war. The legal case records will paint vivid pictures of food poisoning in the sixteenth century and cannibalism in the nineteenth. Dr Samuel Johnson will tell you how dreadful Englsh meat at its worst might be in his day (“It is as bad as can be; it is ill-fed, ill-killed, ill-kept and ill-drest”) though at the time there was no want of poets ready to sing the praises of The Roast Beef of Old England. Shakespeare, in The Taming of the Shrew, caricatures the disastrous attempts to calm a lady’s nerves using Galenic dietary principles; an account of James Cook’s voyage to Australia tells us how he succeeded in protecting his crew from scurvy. And for an elegant account of the role played by a good set of teeth in the enjoyment of food one need only turn to Joe Collier’s Essay on Life after Teeth contributed to Greyhares in 2014. As to the artists, they have revelled down the ages in portraying not only banquets and champagne and oyster feats but also less edifying scenes of gobbling and guzzling in high society.
True, we did turn to Mrs Beeton on occasion, since her magnum opus of 1861 (The Book of Household Management) could hardly be ignored, though she did here and there betray her prejudices; was it really true that the tomato plants had a disagreeable odour, that lobsters were somewhat indigestible and none too nutritious, that the smell of garlic was offensive and that parsnips had on occasion induced delirium? No matter: the good lady is too easily misquoted, and it is to her credit that in age when poverty was widespread she complemented her recipe for Baked Bread Pudding (for which the ingredients for five or six people could cost one shilling and threepence) with a simpler version costing a mere sixpence.
For us, some questions remained unanswered. We still wonder if there is such a thing as an ideal diet; and we still long to taste a witchetty grub on the spot in Australia. At one point we made an effort to look into the mists of the century ahead, but with caution. We recall all too well the sombre predictions of an old uncle of ours, who assured us that eating would be obsolete within a generation: vitamin tablets would prove to suffice. Nor has the idea of food-in-toothpaste-tubes, as supplied to the early astronauts of the sixties, caught on. We shall just go on wondering. Perhaps in 2116, unless by that time all paper books have crumbled and e-books have evaporated, someone will notice our doubts and proceed to provide an answer.
“A Short History of Eating” by Graham Dukes and Elisabet Helsing is published by The London Press.