Archestratus’ Gastronomy

Perhaps the most famous food writer in antitquity was the fourth-century Sicilian Archestratus, who wrote a verse poem about food that sources variously call Gastronomy (Γαστρονομία), Luxury (Ἡδυπαθεία), Deipnology (Δειπνολογία) or Cookery (῾Ὀψοποιία, Athenaeus 1.7). Although it is frequently Gastronomy in modern descriptions the title Hedupatheia, is attested earlier. In general, Archestratus was a proponent of fresh food cooked when it is at its best. Athenaeus’ Deipnosophistae preserves the only extant fragments of this poem. The two below (from Athenaeus 3.77, OS Fr. 5 and 6) are the rare fragments about bread.

Fragment 5

First, Moschus my friend, I will recall the gifts of fair-haired Demeter
and take these into your heart.
Take these the best and greatest of all:
[The flour] of fruitful barley sifted clean grown entirely
From famed Eresus on the sea-girt knoll Lesbos,
lighter than ethereal snow. Indeed if the gods eat
barley groats, this is where Hermes buys it for them from the market.
And suitable is [bread] in seven-gated Thebes,
And in Thasos and in many other poleis, but olive pits
These would seem, you can clearly judge [in comparison].
Seek [σοι ὑπαρχέτω] the rounded Thessalian roll [κόλλιξ]
Kneaded by the fair hand of a woman, the one they call
Krimnites [possibly barley], but others call the Chondrinos loaf.
Then, from Tegea, I commend the son of the finest wheat flour
Baked in the Fire [the ἐγκρυφίας]. But famed Athens sends
to market the best made loaves for men.
And in grape-bearing Erythrae from an earthen cook vessel,
comes a loaf, bright and risen, that brings cheer at mealtime.

πρῶτα μὲν οὖν δώρων μεμνήσομαι ἠυκόμοιο
Δήμετρος, φίλε Μόσχε, σὺ δ᾽ ἐν φρεσὶ βάλλεο σῇσιν.
ἔστι γὰρ οὖν τὰ κράτιστα λαβεὶν βέλτιστά τε πάντα,
εὐκάρπου κριθῆς καθαρῶς ἠσσημένα πάντα,
ἐν Λέσβῳ κλεινῇς Ἐρέσου περικύμονι μαστῷ,
λευκότερ᾽ αἰθερίας χιόνος. θεοὶ εἴπερ ἔδουσιν
ἄλφιτ᾽, ἐκεῖθεν ἰὼν Ἑρμῆς αὐτοῖς ἀγοράζει.
ἐστὶ δὲ κἀν Θήβαις ταῖς ἑπταπύλοις ἐπιεικῆ
κἀν Θάσῳ ἔν τ᾽ ἄλλαις πόλεσίν τισιν, ἀλλὰ γίγαρτα
φαίνονται πρὸς ἐκεῖνα, σαφεῖ τάδ᾽ ἐπίστασο δόξῃ.
στογγυλοδίνητος δὲ τετριμμένος εὖ κατὰ χεῖρα
κόλλιξ Θεσσαλικός σοι ὑπαρχέτω, ὅν καλέουσι
κεῖνοι κριμνίταν, οἱ δ᾽ ἄλλοι χόνδρινον ἄρτον.
εἶτα τὸν ἐκ Τεγέας σεμιδάλεος υἱὸν ἐπαινῶ
ἐγκρυφίαν. τὸν δ᾽ εἰς ἀγορὰν ποιεύμενον ἄρτον
αἱ κλειναὶ παρέχουσι βροτοῖς κάλλιστον Ἀθῆναι.
ἐν δὲ φερεσταφύλοις Ἐρυθραῖς ἐκ κλιβάνου ἐλθὼν
λευκὸς ἁβραῖς θάλλων ὥραις τέρψει παρὰ δεῖπνον.

Fragment 6

Have in your home a Phoenician or Lydian man
Who has knowledge of grain and every day
Develops all sorts of forms at your orders.

ἔστω δή σοι ἀνὴρ Φοῖνιξ ἢ Λυδὸς ἐν οἴκῳ,
ὅστις ἐπιστήμων ἔσται σίτοιο κατ᾽ ἧμαρ
παντοίας ἰδέας τεύχειν, ὡς ἂν σὺ κελεύῃς.

Additional bibliography on Archestratus:

  • Dalby, A., “Archestratos: where and when?” in Food in Antiquity, ed. J. Wilkins, D. Harvey, and M. Dobson (Exeter University Press: 1995), 400–12.
  • Olson, S.D. and A. Sens, Archestratos of Gela: Greek culture and cuisine in the fourth century BCE (Oxford University Press: 2000).

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan

The life prospects for a girl from a poor family in rural China in the nineteenth century are practically non-existent. Her status will forever be tied to her husband, but the lack of a dowry places a hard cap on the status of husband she can attract.

So it is for Lily until her foot-binding results in perfectly-formed feet. Suddenly she is a desirable commodity. At the age of seven, she is matched as laotong (old-same) with Snow Flower, complete with a signed contract and a warning that this relationship is supposed to be more intimate and long-lived than a marriage. Snow Flower introduces herself to Lily by sending a fan on which she has written a poem in nu shu, a language designed expressly for women to communicate with each other away from the prying eyes of men. Things are looking up for Lily, but Snow Flower is harboring secrets that threaten the very core of the relationship.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is a story of a mismatched pair trading places. Lily’s perfect feet and simple-but-dutiful upbringing causes her star to rise, while Snow Flower’s falls. However, this is no mere lesson in peasant morality. Instead, the narrator is an older Lily reflecting on her life and spinning the story of how she gained her position in a world that undervalues women. Her account plays up––plausibly––her own naïveté such that the reader can sympathize with her feelings of betrayal upon learning the secrets that others withheld from her, while the trick of presenting the story as simultaneously that of a young and old woman highlights how Lily, in turn, betrays those who she loves.

Snow Flower and the Secret Fan does not concern itself with much of a world outside of the narrow one that Lily and Snow Flower exist in, but is nevertheless situated historically in a powerful way. Not only does See aim to inhabit the lives of women in nineteenth century China, but the book is filled with moments that locate in time, from the deleterious effects of opium to the hope that the imperial exam will elevate a family to an appearance of the Taiping Rebellion. Each of these profoundly shape the novel but the goings on of imperial policy or global diplomacy remain in the foggy distance. In fact, I found the time when a political issue strikes closest to home, involving the Taiping Rebellion and a forced flight into the mountains, among the weakest sections of what is otherwise a tightly constructed book.

Above all, See writes beautiful prose. Snow Flower and the Secret Fan is all the more powerful for its precise lyricism that captures the joy of escaping with one’s friend to get a special treat, the fear of the unknown, the hope for the future, and the pain of loss. This same quality can also turn the story utterly devastating, such as when Lily recounts, in excruciating detail, the process of footbinding, its success for her and all of the ways it could go wrong.

Despite minor quibbles with one or two plot points, I loved Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, both as an exploration of women’s lives in 19th century China and as a discussion of memory in all of its messiness. There is an equal case to be made that Lily is the hero and villain of her own story, and See’s prose infuses her unrepentant delivery with nostalgia and regret.

ΔΔΔ

I just finished Basma Abdel Aziz’ The Queue, a book that reads like if the history of the modern Middle East were co-written by Orwell and Kafka. I started Jonathan Kauffman’s Hippie Food this morning have been working my way through David Gooblar’s The Missing Course.

A List of my Favorite Novels (2020 edition)

A few years ago I published a list of my favorite novels. At the time I had intended to update this list annually, but never did, in part because there wasn’t much movement on the list and because the initial series included capsules that took a lot of work to write.

I have read a lot of really good books since publishing that list, with the result that not only is the list more than twice as long, but also that there has been substantial movement within it. For instance, the original list was entirely male and overwhelmingly white; it still leans heavily that direction, but also contains more than a dozen books by non-white authors and about a quarter of the new books were written by women, all of which entered the list in the last two years. These demographics are entirely based on the demographics in the books I read, so I fully expect that the list will continue to diversify as I read more widely.

Before getting to the list, a few preliminaries:

  • This list is a reflection of my own personal taste. I have become a more discerning reader since publishing the initial list, but I am not primarily making an aesthetic literary judgement.
  • This list combines the experience I had when I read the book with the foggy recollection of memory. I cannot promise that were I to read the book again it would land in the same place.
  • I have subdivided the list into tiers because some of the distinctions amount to splitting hairs.
  • This list serves both as recommendation and not. When I recommend books to a particular reader, I tailor the list to the recipient. To wit, I am moved by Hemingway’s writing and thought that David Foster Wallace’s Infinite Jest was brilliant; I rarely recommend anyone read either.
  • I once intended to make this list out to a round one hundred books, or one hundred +X, but while there are hundreds and hundreds of books in the world that I have enjoyed, not all of those made the list because I instead decided that it should serve as a collection of books that I consider all-time favorites.
  • I am offended by lists of great novels that include series and books that are not novels. To reflect this, I have created a second list of my favorite works of science fiction and fantasy that includes both stand-alone novels and series, which will appear in a subsequent post. Some works appear on both lists.
  • The dates in parentheses are publication date, even when the publication was posthumous.

And a few stats:

  • Languages: 12
  • Books by women: 11
  • Oldest: 1899 (The Heart of Darkness)
  • Newest: 2017 (American War and Exit West)

Tier 5

66. Bridge on the Drina, Ivo Adric (1945)
65. The Left Hand of Darkness, Ursula K. Le Guin (1969)
64. Snowcrash, Neal Stephenson (1992)
63. Water For Elephants, Sara Gruen (2006)
62. The Clergyman’s Daughter, George Orwell (1935)
61. Foucault’s Pendulum, Umberto Eco (1988)
60. Basti, Intizar Husein (1979)
59. The Samurai’s Garden, Gail Tsukiyama (1994)
58. The Time of the Hero, Mario Vargas Llosa (1963)
57. Dune, Frank Herbert (1965)
56. The Stranger, Albert Camus (1942)
55. First and Last Man, Olaf Stapledon (1930)
54. Zorba the Greek, Nikos Kazantzakis (1946)
53. Scoop, Evelyn Waugh (1938)

Tier 4

52. The Ocean at the End of the Lane, Neil Gaimon (2016)
51. The Baron in the Trees, Italo Calvino (1957)
50. Siddhartha, Herman Hesse (1951)
49. White Noise, Don Delillo (1985)
48. The Radetzky March, Joseph Roth (1932)
47. Exit West, Mohsin Hamid (2017)
46. Palace Walk, Naguib Mahfouz (1956)
45. Burmese Days, George Orwell (1934)

Tier 3

44. Heart of Darkness, Joseph Conrad (1899)
43. Hyperion, Dan Simmons (1989)
42. The Secret History, Donna Tartt (1992)
41. I, The Supreme, Augusto Roa Bastos (1974)
40. The Museum of Innocence, Orhan Pamuk (2008)
39. American War, Omer el-Akkad (2017)
38. The Man Who Spoke Snakish, Andrus Kivirähk (2007)
37. If Beale Street Could Talk, James Baldwin (1974)
36. The Dispossessed, Ursula K. Le Guin (1974)
35. The Blind Assassin, Margaret Atwood (2000)

Tier 2

34. The Bad Girl, Mario Vargas Llosa (2006)
33. Star Maker, Olaf Stapledon (1937)
32. Good Omens, Neil Gaimon and Terry Pratchett (1990)
31. A Tale for the Time Being, Ruth Ozeki (2013)
30. I Saw Her That Night, Drago Jančar (2010)
29. The Black Book, Orhan Pamuk (1990)
28. The Feast of the Goat, Mario Vargas Llosa (2000)
27. American Gods, Neil Gaimon (2001)
26. Catch 22, Joseph Heller (1961)
25. Creation, Gore Vidal (1981)
24. Coming Up for Air, George Orwell (1939)
23. For Whom the Bell Tolls, Ernest Hemingway (1940)
22. The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood (1985)
21. Snow, Orhan Pamuk (2002)
20. Stoner, John Williams (1965)
19. Beloved, Toni Morrison (1987)
18. The End of Days, Jenny Erpenbeck (2013)
17. Lolita, Vladimir Nobokov (1955)
16. Dr. Faustus, Thomas Mann (1947)

Tier 1B

15. My Brilliant Friend, Elena Ferrante (2011)
14. We, Yevgeny Zamyatin (1924)
13. My Name is Red, Orhan Pamuk (1998)
12. The White Tiger, Aravind Adiga (2008)
11. The Jokers, Albert Cossery (1964)
10. To Have and Have Not, Ernest Hemingway (1937)
9. The Great Gatsby, F. Scott Fitzgerald (1925)
8. Keep the Aspidistra Flying, George Orwell (1936)
7. The Sun Also Rises, Ernest Hemingway (1926)
6. Infinite Jest, David Foster Wallace (1996)

Tier 1A

5. Hundred Years of Solitude, Gabriel Garcia Marquez (1967)
4. The Master and Margarita, Mikhail Bulgakov (1967)
3. Magister Ludi, Hermann Hesse (1943)
2. Nineteen Eighty-Four, George Orwell (1949)
1. The Last Temptation of Christ, Nikos Kazantzakis (1955)