Seduced by the Food on Your Plate


Russian State Museum, St. Petersburg
Boris Kustodiev: The Merchant’s Wife’s Tea, 1918

In the seventeenth century, as the Ming dynasty was falling, its great historian and memoirist Zhang Dai revised his grandfather Zhang Rulin’s History of Cooked Food and renamed it The Old Glutton’s Collection. In his preface, which is all that remains of this lost work, he cites many Chinese classics of gastronomy and he describes Confucius’s refined appetite and way of eating as a kind of incarnate philosophy of how to live. He justifies his presumption in editing his grandfather’s work:

I have been blessed with the ability to distinguish between the taste of the water of the Sheng and of the Zi rivers, to tell when the flesh of the goose is that of a black or a white one, know whether the chicken has perched in the open air or when the meat has been cooked over firewood that is already worn-out….1

The exquisite acuteness and depth of Zhang Dai’s ability to taste is an expression of developed knowledge: not only his own, but also his ancestors’ accumulated knowledge of geography, botany, biology, animal husbandry, techniques of cookery, nature, tradition, and the passing of time. Eating with disciplined excellence is a search for wisdom. The practice of eating philosophically can also be seen as a microcosm of ideal government, as the roots of the word “gastronomy” itself invoke, meaning the legislation of the stomach, of the appetite.

This passage embeds, too, an oblique and unspoken elegy. Zhang Dai is conscious of the political threat that will destroy the world in which these tastes existed. When the Manchu conquered the Ming dynasty, Zhang Dai fled to the mountains, where he ended his days a starving refugee, writing his “dream memories” of that lost world and an inscription for his tomb, “For the people, food is Heaven/A greedy Dongpo/Starving at Solitary Bamboo.”2

There is nothing resembling this attitude toward gastronomic experience in Sandra Gilbert’s warmly enthusiastic and engaging exploration of largely American and sporadically European ways of approaching food in modern literature, film, and art, despite the book’s leisurely ramble along many culinary byways. The Culinary Imagination never earns its ambitious, definitive title. It is instead a much more partial work: an imaginative culinary survey, a kind of personal and intellectual cabinet of treasures, that shifts between literary analysis and personal recollection, even including a poignant, bittersweet gastronomic self-portrait of Gilbert herself.

The book moves panoramically through a great variety of culinary scenery; we view in passage a range of funeral foods and customs, sacramental feasts in both Greek and Roman antiquity and monotheism, the history of table manners and utensils, a select group of television chefs (Julia Child, but not Martha Stewart; Anthony Bourdain, but not Jamie Oliver), vignettes of cannibalism and of the radically utopian, Jain-like vegetarian diet imposed by the…

This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your account.