Thursday, June 16, 2005

Robert Farrar Capon and food

One of the many benefits of being unemployed, dear reader, is the chance to savour lunch instead of wolfing down one's midday meal at one's desk. I don't care much for breakfast, but after the morning's work there's nothing like a good lunch, freshly cooked and then slowly eaten at the table. On some days I like frying some garlic bread in a little butter with some slowly browned sausages to go with it, or else a little pasta with cheese on top, or eggs fried till the sides are thin and crispy but the yolk still gooey, or else a piece of chicken with some fruit afterwards. On other days I head out to a restaurant for a more hearty lunch, usually either Noor Mohammadi for flavoursome nalli nihari, dal gosht, or bheja fry with tandoori rotis the size of a wall clock, or to Café Baghdadi in Colaba. If you'd like to join me for good food and conversation at an eating-house one day, you're most welcome.

One of my favourite books on food - not just a cookbook but a treatise on the place of food in our lives - is The Supper of the Lamb: A Culinary Reflection by the Episcopal priest Robert Farrar Capon, now in a new edition as part of the Modern Library Food series. It is a charming and eccentric book, with a high conception of the beauty and relevance of matters gastronomical (food and cooking "sit us down evening after evening, and in the company that forms around our dinner tables, they actually create our humanity"), full of savoury asides (at the very beginning of the book there is a ten-page section on the beauty of chopping an onion, and towards an end there is an ode to the powers of baking soda) and pungent comments ("Nothing appalls me more than to hear people refer to the drinking of wine as if it were a forbidden and fascinating way of sneaking alcohol into one's system."). Although a priest, Capon sees nothing sinful or worldly about the love of good food; rather, he might be said to be in agreement of the nineteen-century philosopher of food Brillat-Savarin, who argued that "Gourmandism shows implicit obedience to the commands of the Creator who, when he ordered us to eat in order to live, gave us the inducement of appetite, the encouragement of savour, and the reward of pleasure…gourmandism is the common bond that unites the nations of the world.”

Here is Capon on place of the three meals of an ordinary working day:

Breakfast is an unmerciful meal. Unless you live in a house full of larks, you know perfectly well that few people are fit company at that hour. Accordingly, a completely routine meal, unvaryin from day to day, is a blessing to everyone. [E]xcept for men who have already worked hard for hours, an ordinary weekday breakfast is no time for a feast. Almost as clearly as breakfast, lunch is a meal in via, on the run. To sit down as if the world were our oyster at 12.30 is to face the second half of our daily obedience pretending that the agony of the world is over already.…I have long been convinced that man needs sleep more than food in the middle of the day.It is only at night, in gremio familiae, […] that we can properly rejoice and eat like men.
Capon's very name brings up the idea of food: 'capon' is another word for chicken or, specifically, a castrated rooster, which was considered a delicacy in Elizabethan England ("The capon burns, the pig falls from the spit", goes a line in Shakespeare's The Comedy of Errors).

And a contemporary historian of food, and defender of good eating against all those who would downgrade its importance, is the Oxford historian Felipe Fernandez-Armesto, who has written a book called Near a Thousand Tables: A History of Food. In this essay, Fernandez-Armesto makes a case not just for gourmandism, as Brillat-Savarin did, but for gluttony, arguing that gluttony is a gift of evolution. And in this essay, Fernandez-Armesto contends that "[t]he obesity pandemic has coincided with the decline of the meal."

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