Most faculty organizing abroad programs know to have an opening dinner to help everyone to “bond” at the beginning of a group trip -- and most of us are equally aware of the advantages to having a final meal together before everyone returns home. But instructors do not tend to think about eating and student diet for the intervening weeks. Food and food culture, as we all know, are crucial parts of any ethnography. The food and dining habits of a nation tell us a great deal about its priorities, its lifestyle, and its history. To ignore the food of a nation is to leave that place untried, unknown, untasted. This essay will explore ways in which we can encourage an engagement with the culture in which our students reside by working certain food-oriented events into our field school syllabi and assignments.
“Much Depends on Dinner”: On Students, Food, and Foreigners
1. It is rare, indeed, for the poet George Gordon, Lord Byron, to be held up as any kind of an exemplar for healthy eating. His advice on food and diet was notoriously bad, and, as Jane Stabler (among many other critics) has pointed out, he was simultaneously “greedy and fastidious,” given to absurd “diets” of potatoes and vinegar in order to control what T. S. Eliot would less than generously refer to as the poet’s “tendency to corpulence” and “pudgy face” (142). Certainly, references to hock and soda are scattered throughout the poet’s journals and letters, used as a necessary antidote to the previous night’s excesses. And yet, whatever else Byron may have been—fastidious, vain, gormandizing—he was also an experienced and curious traveler. He understood the importance of trying the foods and delicacies of a strange land, and notably, young as he was when washed up on the shore of Haidée’s island, there is never a suggestion that Don Juan would turn up his nose at the “viands” and dainties proffered to him by the beautiful foreigner’s hand. He might have longed for good British comfort food, “chiefly a beef-steak / but beef is rare within these oxless isles” (II.153). But Don Juan was well aware that to refuse the local fare would have been to reject not only Haidée, but also the customs and tastes of his new home. Don Juan knows even this early in his journey that much does depend on dinner—dining and diet are integral parts of any abroad experience, and Byron knew that a single meal can make or break a journey for the average tourist seeking sustenance and local color.
2. Perhaps it is this unconscious knowledge of the power of food to shape our experience that causes so many American students abroad never to hazard disappointment in their temporary home by risking a “bad” experience with the local cuisine. Instead, they munch stolidly through endless “American” fast food dinners, pizzas, heavily-battered chicken nuggets, and tinned ravioli. Such meals are the heimlich of the tourist menu, offering homely and familiar fare that comforts as it fills. And to be fair, it is also very inexpensive to eat such (if you will) “canny” food. But there is something very sad about an entire coach load of American students stampeding past the neighborhood pub, the curry house, or the open fresh market in Bath in order to buy their bad pizzas or burgers before they hit the road again. History, culture, not to mention good taste and health, are brushed aside in favor of the familiar and the homely. Under the recognizable neon signs of the “big chain” burger joints, students know what to expect. They know what the food will taste like, how to get through the logistics of purchasing it without negotiating any strange foreign practices, and they know (or they think they know) that the food will be quality controlled. For similar reasons, students are far more likely to gravitate towards the vaguely sterile supermarket than the open-air market. Margaret Visser offers a brilliant summary of the appeal of the supermarket to Americans in her classic study of food. Here, she explains:
3. It is precisely this thoughtless indifference that I work so hard to avoid when traveling abroad with my students, whether studying across Greece and Turkey over the space of three weeks, teaching “on the hoof,” or running a six-week course in Bath through a UK-based private provider. I try hard to find ways to encourage if not actually require them to engage in the food culture of the country in which they are residing. Most faculty organizing abroad programs know to have an opening dinner to help everyone to “bond” at the beginning of a group trip—and most of us are equally aware of the advantages to having a final meal together before everyone returns home. But instructors do not tend to think about eating and student diet for the intervening weeks. We diligently march our students off to see the big sites, to lecture to them about historical events, and to file them through art galleries, but in between these “cultural events,” the students slip back into the US of A via a quick pepperoni slice from a fast food joint. Food and food culture, as we all know, are crucial parts of any ethnography. The food and dining habits of a nation tell us a great deal about its priorities, its lifestyle, and its history. To ignore the food of a nation is to leave that place untried, unknown, untasted. And yet, it may be argued, we can’t force students to eat something they don’t like. We cannot and should not police their mealtimes. But we can encourage an engagement with the culture in which the students reside by working certain food-oriented events into our field school syllabi and assignments. We can make them aware of exactly on what dinner depends.
4. What follows are a few ideas for such field work, should we choose to emphasize the importance of meals and food as they appear in Romantic poetry. Thankfully, the Romantics were unusually vocal on the importance of food and drink, and it is thus easy for all readers of the period to summon up a favorite “foodie moment.” One of my top hits has to be John Keats’s “Eve of St Agnes.” Keats’s long list of seductive dainties gathered by Porphyro in his efforts to win over the sleeping Madeline is a fabulous place to begin a student examination of food in nineteenth-century England:
And still she slept an azure-lidded sleep,
In blanched linen, smooth, and lavender'd,
While he forth from the closet brought a heap
Of candied apple, quince, and plum, and gourd;
With jellies soother than the creamy curd,
And lucent syrops, tinct with cinnamon;
Manna and dates, in argosy transferr'd
From Fez; and spiced dainties, every one,
From silken Samarcand to cedar'd Lebanon. (262–70)
5. Of course, this passage in Keats is highly contested. Some critics, such as Walter Jackson Bate and Jack Stillinger, insist that the sensuality of the spicy banquet can only be understood in juxtaposition to the poem’s preoccupation with a dangerous realm of metaphysical fantasy. While Madeline’s fasting might produce devotion and chastity, Stillinger observes that: “Porphyro’s feast seems intended to produce the opposite results, and there is more than a suggestion of pagan sensuality in the strange affair of eastern luxuries that he heaps as if by magic—‘with glowing hand’—on the table by the bed” (59). Marjorie Levinson, on the other hand, comments on the onanistic nature of the luxurious spread. For her, what Keats’s sensual, middle-class style reveals is the “dream of masturbation”; unlike the wholesome dinner of Milton’s Adam, well-tasted and satisfying, Keats’s food seems to be more about foreplay than about consumption (26). It certainly remains untasted by the characters. But even more fascinating a reading is offered by Timothy Morton, who alerts us to the “ready made” nature of this banquet somehow “acquired” by Porphyro as if obtained fully prepared from a pantry nearby. For Morton, this is “a symptom of the heightened role of the consumer in the Romantic culture. As well as never being consumed (at least not with the mouth), the food is never produced (at least not in the poem)” (Spice 155).
6. This reading strikes me as being not only absolutely correct, but of vital significance. By the Regency period, England was no longer the gastronomic realm of Fielding’s Tom Jones gnawing voraciously (and lasciviously) on a chicken leg at the local tavern. This has become a country of consumers and gourmands who seek to ogle luxury products as much as to devour them. We might remember, for example, that lovely passage in Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park when Mary Crawford, that personification of urban sophistication, is appalled by her sister’s vulgar references to having the turkey dressed for the upcoming dinner party: “‘The sweets of housekeeping in a country village!’ said Miss Crawford archly. ‘Commend me to the nurseryman and poulterer’” (197). Her sister responds with more than a little acidity: “‘My dear child, commend Dr. Grant to the deanery of Westminster or St Paul’s, and I should be as glad of your nurseryman and poulterer as you could be. But we have no such people in Mansfield’” (197). Unlike the country, London has now become a city in which food specialists abound and where delicacies are prepared for consumers, spread out in shop windows for their visual as well as their gastronomic delectation. Part of being an elite Londoner in 1814 was about being a “foodie” who consumes and savors international fare without ever having to sully his or her hands with its preparation. In short, London had become the breeding ground for those now famous food halls of Fortnum and Mason’s and Harrods, which invite in their customers a very different consumer relationship to food. Indeed, what better place to see food and this new nineteenth-century consumerism in action than in these beautiful and opulent halls?
7. While it is true that the present food hall of Harrods was not built until 1894, Charles Henry Harrod started his first business as a draper/green grocer in 1824 only four years after Keats’s poem was published. Fortnum and Mason’s, however, opened in St. James's Market in 1707. By the mid-eighteenth century, the founders had acquired a Royal Court affiliation and the store began to stock ready-to-eat luxury meals such as those found in Madeline’s bedroom: fresh poultry served in aspic, tea, candied capers, fruits, and chocolate found their way onto the grocery shelves, readily available for any Porphyro to help himself to a take-out spread of delicacies and viands. A fascinating exercise while teaching “St Agnes” would be to send the students off to Fortnum’s and/or Harrods, shopping list in hand, on a mission to track down the candied fruit, cinnamon spices, sugared plums, and dates. The packaging alone for these products will yield some fascinating cultural data and could open a wonderful discussion about Edward Said’s theories of Orientalism and their applicability to the Regency period, right up to the present day.
8. Another activity would involve students comparing this exotic vision of England to an older, more nationalistic understanding of a British diet in such texts as the remarkably popular song “The Roast Beef of (Old) England” which appeared in Henry Fielding’s Grub Street Opera in 1731:
When mighty roast Beef was the Englishman’s food,
It ennobled our hearts, and enriched our blood;
Our Soldiers were brave and our courtiers were good.
Oh, the roast beef of England. (II.50)
9. But as we move through the Romantic period, such discourse is not simply about praising the hearty constitution of the British gentry. It begins to evolve into a fascinating and highly contentious discourse on food as a political signifier. Food-oriented political cartoons such as James Gillray’s piece entitled “French Liberty and British Slavery” showing John Bull feasting on roast beef while the scrawny Jacobin soldier chews on a chicken foot would be an excellent introduction to this political discourse, and would lend itself beautifully to a class discussion about the ways in which food and eating came to signify political assignments and class valence by the 1790s (see Fig. 3.1). Here, Gillray shows us a tattered French revolutionary figure who gnaws hungrily upon wilted turnips and greens, the animal fodder of the time, revealing for his anxious British viewers the absurdity of the many epithets in the balloon above the figure’s head which celebrate the supposed success of the young Republic. “No more taxes, no more slavery,” announces the French image. But Gillray’s depiction of French “liberty” offers a stark contrast to the opulence and plenty of Britain. While a rather robust John Bull curses the punishing taxes levied on British citizens, this cartoon makes it clear that such British “tyranny” is nothing compared to the brutality, hardship, and barbarism created by the republican fanaticism in France. John Bull is wise to stay away from such fancy French “progress,” and should instead eat his fill of good solid British traditions. Anything other than the hardy fare of “mighty roast Beef” should be viewed with suspicion by a true Englishman.
10. By the nineteenth century, even those male characters in novels who seem too invested in discussions on the composition of a particularly delicious sauce were viewed as problematically Frenchified, (and by association feminized). An anonymous review of William Hazlitt's Political Essays (1819) in the Monthly Review (1820) for example, reminds us that while Hazlitt might be a seductive and stimulating writer, his political “tastes” are far from orthodox:
Wild free-born cranberries,
All ripe together. (9–15)
11. The possibilities for educating our students about “tasting” the town are endless, and I would encourage anyone running a study-abroad program to take this issue seriously as so much of the abroad experience is lost when our students refuse to participate in one of the most important social and cultural events of any country—its dining and food customs. If much depends on dinner, it is arguable that just as much depends on the local rituals and preparations that make that dinner possible. Let me, then, return to Byron once more for some words of advice. He writes in his journal entry for December 7, 1813: “When one subtracts from life infancy (which is vegetation), sleep, eating and swilling, buttoning and unbuttoning—how much remains of downright existence” (3.235). Eating and, as Byron so elegantly puts it, “swilling” take up a significant number of hours in our daily rituals. Why not make sure that this time is also a learning experience since no one wants their summer program to become known as “the summer of a dormouse.”
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