Eighteenth Century / Uncategorized

Piggybacking on Lauren’s ideas: Eating Identity

I wanted to continue to develop some patterns of similarity between our reading last week and our reading this week. So I’m going to think a little bit about the ways in which food and comestibles transport characters to other places and sometimes reveal their vulnerability as bodies with interior spaces (or, to parallel the way were thinking about _Robinson Crusoe_, with souls).

Let’s start by looking at a scene from She Stoops to Conquer. As Mr. Hardcastle prepares his table for the arrival of Marlow and his companion, the importance of food as status marker is apparent:

Hardcastle: You, Diggory, whom I have taken from the barn, are to make a show at the side-table, and you, Roger, whom I have advanced from the plough, are to place yourself behind my chair. But you’re not to stand so, with your hands in your pockets…

Diggory: Ay, mind how I hold them. I learned to hold my hands this aways, when I was upon drill for the militia. And so being on a drill —

Hardcastle: You must not be so talkative, Diggory. You must be all attention to the guests. You must hear us talk, and not think of talking. You must see us drink, and not think of drinking. You must see us eat, and not think of eating.[1]

Diggory’s response to the demand he “not think of eating” reveals the way that food experiences collapse the boundaries between the material and the mental — the external body and the internal “self”. Here, Hardcastle is explicitly attempting to control another individual’s basic, primal desire to eat.  Diggory’s response illuminates the ways bodily needs for food assert their power. He responds: “By the laws, your worship, that’s perfectly unpossible. Whenever Diggory sees yeating [sic] going forward, ecod he’s always wishing for a mouthful himself.”[2]  Clearly, the uneducated field hand is out of his element beside the side table, but the task required of him is not inconceivable, and certainly contributes to the comic effect of Hardcastle’s pretense to wealth.  What becomes implausible, then, is for the field hand to witness feasting and not consider his own desire for his own “mouthful.”  The thought of food invokes a physical desire – thinking of eating, begets the craving of a full mouth and a full belly.

This exchange demonstrates the way in which dining spaces provide access to both the body and the mind.  As Hardcastle trains his servants in their new roles, he not only transplants them from the barn to the diningroom, but he modifies their bodies and responses.  Diggory is “to make a show at the side-table,” invoking the theatrical nature of his new role.

Similarly, in _Humphry Clinker_, Matthew Bramble experiences a similar type of collapse between the mental and the material.Yet there is also a distinct amateriality to Matthew’s observations about food in London.  His musings on the grotesque bread of London are inspired by his homesick longings for Brambleton hall, a home transformed into a utopic-pastoral when opposed to London. The food of Brambleton hall, thus, exists in memory as  rigorously as it does in reality. Bramble’s reflections, therefore, are amaterial in conjunction to their rootedness to material social occurrences. He writes:”At Brambleton-hall, I have elbow-room within doors, and breathe a clear…air…I drink the…sparkling beverage, home-brewed from malt of my own making…my bread is sweet and nourishing, made from my own wheat, ground in my own mill, and baked in my own oven…my five-year old mutton, fed on fragrant herbage of the mountains, that might vie with venison in juice and flavour; my delicious veal…that fills the dish with gravy…with other sea-fish, I can eat four hours after they are taken…[1]”

Clearly, London’s abysmal bread cannot compare to the nostalgic rendering of food from Brambleton hall.  No doubt the material nature of Matthew’s foodstuffs is inescapable, as the fixation on the physical properties of both food and preparation demonstrates – ingredients, mills, ovens, streams, and fields take center stage. Yet, amid the sentimental rejoinders of Bramble’s connection to nature in contrast to the dirty metropolis, he also reveals the way food lingers in memory. His use of the present tense to consider eating creates a transference of experience across time. Further, the memory is synesthesthetic:  the “sparkling beverage” evokes the feeling of effervescence on the tongue; the “sweet” bread and “fragrant herbage” appeal to his senses retroactively; the veal is transformed from animal to “gravy” without any intervention from the chef.  All this occurs within the imagination of the consumer – edibles have no permanent physical presence.  They must be consumed, and in their ingestion become both a material part of the body of the recipient and a component of the imaginative facility.

With edibles, memory becomes the souvenir here, which leaves me wondering if there is an emotional/internal transformation that occurs when eating? Can you eat your way to an identity?


[1]  113.


[1] Goldsmith, 2.1.9-22.

[2] Ibid, 2.1.23-25

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