Last Updated on May 15, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2284
Food has been a topic of poetry for many centuries and in many cultures; the notion that food writing and poetry writing are totally separate ventures is a recent development. Much of our knowledge of eating habits, culinary practices, and food taboos throughout history and around the world comes from poetry. Food in poetry also functions as a powerful symbol of spiritual and moral states, and at other times it is used as a sexual symbol.
The Chinese have a long tradition of including food in poetry, going as far back as the Chou Dynasty (from the 12th century B.C.E. to 221 B.C.E.). There are Chou poems celebrating festive foods of the time, including stewed turtle, fried honey cakes, duck, quail, and good wine, and discussing the preparation of rice. The Shih Ching (Book of Songs) includes food scenes such as lamb sacrifice, in which the aroma of the roasting meat is described and fruit and wine are offered; verses on a feast of rabbit and plenty of wine; a song rejoicing in family togetherness at a feast including such meats as lamb, ox, and tripe, and an abundance of wine; agricultural songs celebrating wheat, millet, barley, plums, cherries, dates, melons, gourds, beans, garlic, and rice (from which wine is made). The culinary abundance of the T'ang Dynasty (61807) is strongly evident in its poetry, which contains paeans to plums, pears, persimmons, jujubes, many kinds of melons, spring wine, and peaches, which were a traditional symbol of immortality in Chinese poetry and painting. Poems were also forums for discussing differences between foods. For instance, the eighth-century poet Chang Chiu-ling used poetry to address the many ways in which lychees and longans are not similar fruits at all, despite their superficial similarities. Poems written during another prosperous period, the Ch'ing Dynasty (1644922), link food and sex, with female beauty and sexuality compared to melons, cherries, and grapes.
Food is also an important presence in classical Western poetry. Homer's Iliad and Odyssey are rich with scenes of feasting, as well as of ordinary eating. In a famous scene from the Odyssey, Odysseus and his crew, trying to return by sea to Ithaca, stop at an unknown land whose inhabitants, the Lotus Eaters, offer a lavish banquet to the three men who are sent to explore. The fruit (or the juice from the fruit) that the men consume gives them great pleasure and also makes them forget all thoughts of home and family so that the other crew members must drag them away by force. Homer also describes the feast of roast meat served to Odysseus by Achilles. The Greek poet Hesiod wrote about enjoying good wine with meat and bread. The Roman poet Martial wrote a great deal about foods, such as figs, olives, parsnips, chicken, fish, cheese, eggs, chives, shallots, and onions, to name a few. Virgil described milk and cheese in his Georgics, which celebrates the agricultural life and mourns the dissolution of Italy's farms after famers were sent to war. Ovid wrote about olives and grapes in the Amores. In Greek mythology, the six pomegranate seeds eaten by Perse-phone (daughter of Demeter, goddess of agriculture) in the underworld after her abduction by Hades, are the mythical reason for winter: For each seed consumed, Persephone must spend a month of the year in the underworld, causing her mother to grieve and neglect her work. The story of Persephone and the pomegranate seeds continues to influence contemporary writers. In her collection Mother Love, the American poet Rita Dove writes of a modern young woman's journey to Paris that parallels Persephone's descent into the underworld. Her meal at "the Bistro Styx" includes Chateaubriand, Camembert, pears, figs, parsley, bread, and Pinot Noir. A mourning modern Demeter has a Spartan breakfast of cereal and raisins and puts stones into it.
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