Think before you eat: it could harm your wit

Aguecheek's Beef, Belch's Hiccup, and Other Gastronomic Interjections
February 23, 2007

The publicist at University of Chicago Press worked hard for Aguecheek's Beef, Belch's Hiccup , claiming that the early modern period "gave birth to... coffee houses, restaurants, diet books, and, yes, celebrity chefs". Three of those landmarks are scarcely noted by Robert Appelbaum; he does mention diet books, but that idea, as he knows, is 2,000 years old. I sympathise with the publicist. I too, after pondering the title and reading half the first chapter, was still wondering what on earth Appelbaum was about; but I went on reading. At the end of the chapter, he brought me back to Aguecheek's beef, with which he had begun, and I was hooked.

Appelbaum explores, chapter by chapter, the different ways in which early modern authors write about food. Sir Andrew Aguecheek from Twelfth Night opens the introductory chapter with the arresting claim that beef-eating "does great harm to my wit". Having made the claim, Aguecheek then contradicts it; there may be something in it nonetheless. We move on to Gertrude's hasty remarriage and Hamlet's remark that "the funeral baked meats/ Did coldly furnish forth the marriage tables". This was not thrift, though Hamlet said it was; in any case, what exactly were the baked meats? Thus Appelbaum persuades us to ask searching questions about brief culinary asides in 16th-century literature and to recognise the false clues by which some commentators have been misled.

Chapter two, "The sensational science", begins usefully with an exposition of humoral theory and its dietary consequences. The keynote topic for this chapter happens to be eggs, on which good advice is first quoted from John Archer's Everyman His Own Doctor (1671). Next - and central to the whole subject - comes "The cookbook as literature", with a curiously chosen keynote text, the brief Danish Libellus de arte coquinaria c 1300, and with important reflections on Platina, Robert May and other Renaissance gastronomes. "The food of wishes, from Cockaigne to Utopia" is followed by "Food of regret", tracing the recurrent theme of the decline from a Golden Age or Garden of Eden. "Belch's hiccup" (Belch is Aguecheek's more intelligent companion) is less about literary themes, more about gastric interruptions, but with a good deal on Thomas Nashe's Lenten Stuffe: or, the Praise of the Red Herring (1599) because Belch blamed herrings for his eructations. "Cannibals and missionaries" focuses on Jean de Léry, not only for his apparently first-hand description of cannibalism in Brazil, but also for his experiences of people-eating among Europeans in extremis. The concluding chapter, "Crusoe's Friday, Rousseau's Emile", observes that Daniel Defoe adjusted the actual conditions of his chosen setting to make his story work: tropical fruits are strangely absent and European animals and crops conveniently present; in any case, there was plenty of traffic in the Caribbean, and Crusoe could hardly have escaped rescue for so long. Well, we knew that.

Nonetheless, Appelbaum can fairly claim, as he draws the strings together, to have captured the meaning of food "as it was articulated and expressed in the early modern period... food in that period had not only more than one meaning but more than one kind of meaning".

Readers, from postgraduates to grizzled specialists, will learn new readings from him. Very occasionally he can be corrected on detail. The southern origins of the Libellus were being explored (by Anna Martellotti) as he wrote; they turn out to be more complex than he thinks. Platina appealed to the authority of Italian taverns, not "cooking schools", as Gillian Riley has just shown in her new CD-Rom edition of Maestro Martino.

Ben Jonson, in "To Penshurst", alludes to an epigram by Martial rather than to current depictions of Cockaigne; but in this and some similar cases I think that, while aware of classical precedents, Appelbaum has preferred to find recent ones.

None of this matters, anyway: it is the price Appelbaum pays for mastering a vast range of source materials on which others are also working. His command of the detail is impressive. He knows that the apple in Milton's Garden of Eden is a peach; he knows that those baked meats would not have kept for more than a few days; he knows exactly what Nashe's red herrings are and he is fairly sure through which orifice Belch expelled his wind.

Although this is not exactly a food book, its readers learn almost as much about early modern food as about the literature that digests it.

Andrew Dalby is the author of Flavours of Byzantium and Food in the Ancient World from A to Z .

Aguecheek's Beef, Belch's Hiccup, and Other Gastronomic Interjections

Author - Robert Appelbaum
Publisher - University of Chicago Press
Pages - 375
Price - £16.62
ISBN - 0 226 02126 2

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