We are animals, but not mere animals. Sometimes we may feed like animals – by which expression I don’t mean gross gobbling, but rather mere satisfaction of the drive to eat. The dog may eat in a leisurely manner sometimes, but we doubt that this is because his experience of eating is then accompanied by delightful or poignant memories and poetic associations; he simply isn’t very hungry. At all times, we must assume, he eats precisely like an animal.
Our eating, however, may be far more than chewing and swallowing food; may be an experience in which the “animal” process is interpenetrated by the pleasures of fellowship, memories of other meals, ambience, visual imagination, the associations of names, and more. Eating becomes an appropriate subject of literary composition.
Machen’s “The Gray’s Inn Coffee House,” originally printed in the Spring 1938 issue of Wine and Food, was reprinted in book form in We Shall Eat and Drink Again, edited by Louis Golding and Andre L. Simon (1944). Machen begins by recalling the place where Dickens’s David Copperfield ate when he returned to England from his European tour. “I remember taverns that were like it,” Machen adds. Nowadays, Machen writes regretfully, the beef is probably imported meat, lean, nutritious but flavorless, the pudding too likely to be “a solid and a greasy and a viscous slab, sodden and detestable,” and the potatoes “ugly, stony things,” “green and yellow, in texture wax-like.”
But “in real English beef… the lean is throughout intermingled with fat.” And this good beef should not be baked in an oven but roasted -- turned on a spit and “basted in front of blazing coal fires.” The Yorkshire pudding he remembers is “a dish that seemed to have gone through some great convulsion of nature and emerged triumphant. There were golden plains and valleys all smiling before you; but here and there internal heats had blown the smooth regions into volcanic and mountainous appearances blackened as by hidden fires,” and beneath this crust was “bland delight, fit to mingle with the full flavours of the smoking beef.” The potatoes were baked “in the brown jackets of the yeomanry, huge, stout fellows, which, broken, fall in a dry, white flour on the plate.”
Machen’s description of the remembered food is rich in enargeia, “the stylistic effect,” as Dionysius of Halicarnassus put it, “in which appeal is made to the senses of the listener [or reader]… in such a way that the listener will be turned into an eyewitness.” But too Machen’s descriptions are interpenetrated by literary reminiscence – of Dickens at the beginning, and of an anecdote about old English ale in Casanova at the end; and memory of conversation and good fellowship; and a wholesome kind of patriotism. All of these things pertain to the imagination.
It was poetic imagination that enabled a woman, during the Second World War, to write on a Mass Observation questionnaire: “I always liked to see my grandmother having a drink of beer at night. She did seem to enjoy it, and she could pick up a dry crust of bread and cheese, and it seemed like a feast.”
That’s in Orwell’s “A Nice Cup of Tea,” which, in the collection As I Please (1968), is immediately followed by “’The Moon Under Water’” (1946), a piece like Machen’s in being an evocation of an ideal English eating place, in this case the ideal London pub. But Orwell’s essay focuses on the social aspects rather than on the food and drink. Still, Machen’s essay too pays tribute to the English people, and when you read it you will forget to think of him as a “Welsh writer and mystic.”
My citation of Dionysius is taken from a 1981 essay by G. Zanker, “Enargeia in the Ancient Criticism of Poetry.” The rendering of sensory details in writing is a skill that can be learned; consult A New Rhetoric by the Christensens.
© 2016 Dale Nelson