Artlink Nov 1999

Nostalgia, Nation and Gobstuff


Famously, for Proust, food had the ability to transport him back, in detail, to earlier times.


'Many years had elapsed during which nothing of Combray, except what lay in the theatre and the drama of my going to bed there, had any existence for me, when one day in winter, on my return home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing that I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent for those squat, plump little cakes called 'petites madeleines,' which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell. And soon, mechanically, dispirited after a dreary day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with crumbs touched my palate than a shiver ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at that once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory - this new sensation having had the effect, which love has, of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could not, indeed, be of the same nature. Where did it come from? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it?"


And so begins La Recherche de Temps Perdu, the long meditation on the warp and weft of the construction of the self that has become one of the foundation stones of literary modernism, even if it is honoured more in the lack of being read than in the reading. It has to be seen as a fundamental text in the formations of twentieth century Western conceptions of self: a neurasthenic self, of self analysis, and of loss, where the attempted reclamation of a past serves to emphasise the distance of the subject from that matrix which it so desires.


A moment spent with our own memories tells us that this return is in our lived experience. It is not merely a literary trope, There cannot be one who, at sometime, has not been unexpectedly riccoched back to an intense image or memory through a taste or smell, which has, momentarily and poignantly, wiped out the present to recall a scene from childhood. As Joan Smith points out ''Food is like sex in its power to stimulate imagination and memory, as well as those senses - taste, smell, sight - on which its impact is most direct. The most powerful writing about food rarely addresses the qualities of a particular dish or meal alone; it almost always contains elements of nostalgia for other times, places or companions..." Places and companions that extend in our minds to cover the stories and the nature of the context in which the meal takes place. Ulysses, by James Joyce - another cornerstone - starts with several breakfasts: the first one is between Stephen Daedelus and Buck Mulligan :


'Kuich, wake up. Bread, butter, honey. Haines come in. The b is ready. Bless us O Lord and these they gifts. Where's the sugar? O' Jays, there's no milk.

Stephen fetched the loaf and the pot of honey and the buttercooler from the locker. Buck Mulligan sat down in a sudden pet.

­ What sort of kip is this? He said. I told her to come after eight.

­ We can drink it black, Stephen said. There's a lemon in the locker.

­Oh damn you and your Paris fads, Buck Mulligan said. I want Sandycore milk.

Haines came in from the doorway and said quietly:

­ That woman is coming up with the milk.

­ The blessings of God on you, Buck Mulligan cried, jumping up from his chair. Sit down. Pour out the tea there. The sugar is in the bag. Here, I can't go fumbling at the damned eggs. He hacked through the fry on the dish and slapped it out on the plates, saying:

­ In nomine Patris et Filii et Spiritus Sancti.

Haynes sat down to pour the tea.

-I'm giving you two lumps each, he said. But, I say Mulligan, you do make strong tea, don't you?

Buck Mulligan, hewing thick slices from the loaf, said in an old woman's wheedling voice:

­ When I makes tea I makes tea, as old mother Grogan said. And when I makes water I makes water.

­ By Jove, it is tea, Haines said.


Joyce was writing, far removed both in time and place from the Dublin that the book describes, Stephen Daedelus is to all accounts the young Joyce, and the book was written in Zurich, from where Joyce would sent his brother long detailed letters asking the exact relationship between, say Eccles Street and Berkely Road, or the colour of the railings at the corner of a certain road. It was Joyce who posited what was taken to be the condition of modernity as 'silence, cunning and exile', and it is in the bandinage and the detail of this breakfast - 'Sandycore Milk', 'In nomine Patris', 'old mother Grogan' etcetera that we feel the weight of the imagining and the pull of recall, of an entire life and culture, one which is now distant from the author in time, in experience and in miles: the distance of the exile.


In the second breakfast of the book (Calypso), food is used to signify a character's exile rather than that of the author. We find Leopold Bloom in the kitchen fantasising about kidneys, which he wants to prepare as breakfast for his wife Molly, who is reclining in bed. Tellingly we find out that he likes pork kidneys, as well as the mutton kidneys 'which gave his palate a fine tang of finely scented urine'. His listing of pork, and a subsequent fantasy on the links of sausage hanging in the window of the butchers emphasises quite how far this modern day Ulysses, the caring, unrooted everyman - Bloom - has drifted from his Jewish background. The novel of Blooms wanderings is full of food, of the smell of cabbage, of steam, of the everyday events of drinking and eating, of 'Bubble and squeak. Butchers' buckets wobble lights' of 'Scoffing up stewgravy with sopping sippets of bread.' of 'Gulp. Grub. Gulp. Gobstuff.'


Anthropologists talk of commensality, the companionship of the table. ( In this context it is worth recalling that the word 'companion' means someone with whom you share your bread) Commensality is still a very real phenomenon for people participating in a Catholic service for instance, where, outside of the meta-physics of transubstantiation, they are partaking of a meal initiated some two-thousand years ago, or for people sharing the feast of Passover - the Seder - an even older feast (and a Bloomless meal), and for members of academic, legal or military colleges and organisations where they may dine at a common table with punchbowls, cruets, whatever given to them by past diners generations or centuries ago. The meal and the table itself provides the continuity, whilst the diners themselves are continually renewed. It is with the interruption of this continuity, with shift and change that the elements of these meals become even more loaded, if possible, with meaning and poignancy.


It was perhaps in recognition of the way that food can conjure up a shared past, that the Futurists, in their effort to erase and change what they saw the stifling histories of Italy, and its tragic links to a suffocating and inert past, became the only twentieth century arts movement to publish a cookery book : FT Marinetti's Futurist Cookbook, of 1932. At the time this publication was seen as a high modernist assault, as an act of anti-cooking, culinary vandalism, written merely to epater la bourgeoisie. In fact, as Elizabeth David (Italian Cooking) and others have recognised, some of the seemingly outrageous combinations : rabbit and chocolate for instance, re-articulate old peasant indigenous combinations, that were, at the time, disregarded by the urban intelligensias. Other combinations, such as those of candied angelica, zabaglione and raw onion, perhaps did not. Contemporary Italy, a country far closer to the speedy urban vortex desired by the Futurists than the Milan of the 1930's, is now the home for the movement for 'Slow Cooking', which seeks to return to the long-stewed dishes and careful approaches (in contraindication to the international 'modern' cult of the fast) of a peasantry equally far removed from the urban intelligensia who are the supporters and proselytisers of this school.


European cuisine and viticulture has long been intrinsically bound up in ideas of the 'terroir'. The territory. This refers to the way that the micro-environment: the climate minerals, winds, rainfall, specific to a locality impact upon the taste and construction of drinks and foodstuffs. It has a secondary and more mystical resonance, which is to do with tradition history and a sort of genius loci, where the spirit of the place informs and shapes that which it produces. Such models and understandings of place and its relationship to its productions also inform Japanese and Chinese appreciation and understanding of foodstuffs, and no doubt those of many other cultures. A particular rice comes from this particular area, a wasabi from another, the best chickens come from Bresse, this wine has these qualities: the best fish from this river. Wines are labelled to confirm that they have come from a particular valley or area, and, within that from a particular patch of ground. For Buck Mulligan, it has to be Sandycore milk. Originally determined by the demands of models of production, material, and culture, such appellations have now taken on a deeper more mystical aura to do with the real, and the authentic: in contrast to the 'everyday' foods of the western world which are, on the whole, without specific location nor season. Currently this dialectic is nicely illuminated with the imprisonment of a farmer in France for firebombing a Macdonald's, in retaliation for America imposing a 300% tariff on Roquefort cheeses and other artisanal French foodstuffs. That this tariff was imposed in reaction to France's refusal to accept US Beef that had been treated with growth hormones serves to make starker the realms of difference between models of local and global and the narratives that they contain.

This celebration and expression of locality has often been central in visual representations of food. A Dutch still life of fruit and bread speaks not only of the formal pleasures to be found in gazing upon the forms of the constituent objects but of the richness of Holland, the fecundity of the soil: the ideas of place, plenty and bounty. Picasso's representation of the Absinth glass is again not merely formal. It is bound up in a foreigner's attraction to French culture, the lived life and the demimonde. In some of the early still life paintings of Australia - John Lewin's fish painting in the Art Gallery of South Australia for instance - the attitude is both one of pride and displacement at the same time. The painting is obviously celebrating the bounty of these new seas of the Empire, but simultaneously we can detect unfamiliarity and puzzlement in the painter's forensic gaze, as if to say - quite what the hell are these things? It is interesting to reflect on the erosion of the still life, and particularly that which represents food, in twentieth century and contemporary art.


Given the correlation between food, location and identity we now find ourselves in western modelled countries in a strange situation, particularly perhaps in Australia. Lewin, when transplanted to Australia, did not come from a culture which has highly developed traditional cooking narratives. Already described by the French as a country with one sauce and twenty religions, England, through clearances and enclosure, other dispossessions of local communities, and the later, industrial revolution managed to mostly erase the traditional continuities. As the joke says, the British have no word for 'cuisine'. The other homelands for the 19th century immigrant, Scotland and Ireland, had cuisines shaped through scarcity and famine. Although the Sunday Roast and the Christmas Dinner long maintained an iconic commensal status in the warp and weft of everyday life, they were neither convincingly of the 'old country' nor, latterly, symbolic of the new. This, in conjunction with the growth of wine in this country has generated a new passion for the 'local' the 'regional' the 'terroir', with all the ideas of the 'authentic' that travel with the idea of the King Island brie, or the Barrossa Walnut. It has spread to embrace ideas of region: we are in the strange situation where one of Sydney's most lauded restaurants was seeking to serve 'authentic Thai' cuisine which was largely cooked by non Thai people and consumed (and one presumes judged) by a non-Thai clientele. The 'authentic' has become amalgamated with the 'other'. As a food theorist pointed out, in the countries of origin for these cuisines, there is the rather alarming subtext in these new passions for the consumption and adaptation of their food of 'not only have we colonised you, but we are now eating you.' In addition it can be seen as a hunger for a past, a narrative, that we, the consumers, do not have, but which we feel we may take in with the productions of a French, Italian, Indian or Thai cuisine. We don't only want milk and a biscuit for tea, but we want Proust's memories and Buck Mulligan's histories with our madelaine and Sandycore Milk.