Bread and Circus

The love of food may be expressed in healthy and in unhealthy ways – ways which have nothing to do with the healthfulness of the food itself. On the healthy side one finds (I would suggest) the ritual exertions of Thanksgiving dinner in the United States, or those Neapolitan grannies of legend that preside like gastronomic Junos over the family kitchen.

On the unhealthy side lounge the gluttons and the salivating delectationists who dine out more often than in, and those like Elagabalus who, according to Gibbon, punished his kitchen staff for an unsatisfactory sauce by confining them with nothing to eat but their sub-par concoction until they had returned something more worthy of the imperial palate.

American politics being what they are, I’ve been reading Gibbon lately. Portions of The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire I’ve read before, but never the whole thing end to end. Whether I will manage it this time is uncertain. I find that I’m already comforted, however, by the reflection that none of our presidential candidates are quite so brazenly wicked as, say, Commodus or Caracalla.

Gibbon reserves a special ridicule for Elagabalus, the Syrian-born poseur who soon after donning the purple made himself odious to the Praetorian guards and the senate with his cross-dressing, his imposition on the capital of a bloody oriental sun-cult, and his rampant gourmandizing. Gibbon considered the latter a clear sign of the decline of imperial and civic virtue.

Surveying the panoply of foodie shows on television today (from Chopped! to Hell’s Kitchen to Iron Chef to Top Chef to Cupcake Wars to Cake Boss, etc.), not to mention the ubiquity of outsized portions and outsized waistlines, one can’t help but wonder if our gustatory obsessions suggest a damning, latter-empire decadence at work in American culture.

To be sure, I am no model of culinary restraint myself: I like a tasty morsel as much as anyone. So when Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin writes in his Physiology of Taste, “Tell me what you eat, and I will tell you who you are,” I shudder just a little. And when he writes that “the fate of a nation depends on the way that it eats,” well, I figure the good old US of A had better turn off the deep fryer for a while.

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One thought on “Bread and Circus

  1. A while back, after lunching with friends at a deli they like, I remarked that the sizes of the portions seemed to make sense for ditch diggers, or at any rate persons performing manual labor, and that a look around the room showed few or none of these. One friend replied that the ingredients are the smallest contributor to the cost of comfort food. And I suppose that people expect it. So inexpensive food–large pastrami sandwiches with plenty of fries–goes some way toward explaining our girth. The most devoted foodies I know seem to be under 30, with the metabolism that allows one to eat almost anything without gaining weight; I remember those days, barely.

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