Literature and Food

Appears in

Oxford Companion to Food

Oxford Companion to Food

By Alan Davidson

Published 2014

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Literature and Food have a long and complicated relationship. Historians, especially those dealing with ancient periods, have often used different genres of literature as a source of information on the foodways and diets of earlier times. For example, from Homer, information may be surmised on the Greek consumption of cheese and barley-meal (a meal given to Odysseus’s men by Circe in book 10 of The Odyssey); the Epic of Gilgamesh indicates the Mesopotamian love of beer and bread (Bottéro, 2002); the poet Horace tells us of the presence of partridge, boar, and lamprey on the Roman table. It is hard to say, however, precisely what kind of source literature is for food historians. Emily Gowers (1993) says that ‘It is perhaps a mistake … to use literary sources simply as evidence’ for what people ate. Using the case of ancient Rome, she argues that ‘food in Roman literature is always loaded with extra meaning’. Food in literature is often comic, ironic, or satirical, rather than straightforwardly descriptive. Gowers points out that in literature, food ‘can be mentioned both for its own sake and as a symbol of something else’. An apple in literature, for example, as well as being just an apple, ‘might suggest original sin, or the judgement of Paris. A pile of apples might suggest harvest-time abundance. An apple with a worm in it might be an intimation of mortality. The significance of food in its literary representations lies both in its simple existence and in a bundle of metaphorical associations, a capacity to evoke a whole world of wider experience.’