The foods of a people can say a lot about its past, its hidden desires, and its fate.
The roast-beef-eating English looked down on the ragout-based cuisine of their French neighbors as representative of that country’s extravagance and softness. In 1735, Richard Leveridge, a singer and song-writer, composed the famous “Roast Beef of Old England,” an expression of English nationalism that associated a simple, meat-based diet with solid manliness and sobriety. It included the verse,
But since we have learned from all-vaporing France
To eat their ragouts, as well as to dance,
We are fed up with nothing but vain complaisance.
Only years later, the philosophes of Diderot’s Encyclopedie made the same point but, as it were, from within, whereby they associated the ragout- and sauce-based cuisine with aristocracy, lax superfluousness, and softness. They proposed a republican cuisine based on boiled meats—an idea alien to France, which in fact never caught on. During the Revolution and Terror, however, entire tracts of Marie Antoinette’s exquisite gardens were forcibly converted to potato-growing. The potato became a symbol of republican sobriety and modesty.
Such reforms only took place in a time of crisis, and had no real lasting influence on the development of French cuisine. This most famous of cooking arts has its origins in the retinue of a queen famous for palatial intrigue. Catherine de Medici, besides her sumptuous boudoir of jewels and rare fabrics, brought with her an entourage of master cooks, whose recipes found favor in the increasingly absolutist palace culture of 16th-century Paris.
Decaying aristocratic palace cultures invariably nurture complex cuisines. The three most sophisticated cuisines of the world, the Chinese, the Turkish, and the French, were a sort of long-term residue of palatial decay. The prerequisites are not only ritualized pomp and circumstance, but an aristocracy eviscerated of its military powers. An aristocracy bound to the king’s palace that has to relinquish physical virtues in favor of cultural and intellectual; and where the competition is not so much for power by force, but for gaining the king’s favor by wit and intrigue; historically this is the audience that cultivates the best foods.
By some telling coincidence, the first grand development of French cuisine took place during the reign of Henry II and later during his wife Catherine’s regency, when royal power became more centralized than ever before in that country. In Xenophon’s Cyropaedeia we get one of the earliest examples of this phenomenon. Cyrus’ people, the Persians, are vassals of the Medes; the latter are overly refined and wear make-up. The Persians have a polity based on military virtues, austere and simple. The Medes are a centralized and by this time effete monarchy, with an appropriate cuisine; the Persians have a sort of republic and a sparse diet.
This duality is more vividly replayed in the wars between the Persians themselves and the Greeks. Greek authors never tire of proclaiming the poverty of their republican race as opposed to monarchical Persian and Asiatic opulence and extravagance. In so far as foods are concerned, some are still fond of dreaming of the Greek “golden mean of poverty”: greens, grains, occasionally some fish or pork. In Herodotus’ Histories, while surveying the defeated Persian armies at Plataea, a Greek commander catches sight of the captured booty, including the great king’s entourage of cooks and their elaborate materials; he famously draws satisfied amusement from his troops when he exclaims, “Behold, men, the folly of the Persian king, who has such rich things, and came here to conquer us, who are so poor!”
Plato’s Socrates, who viewed this manly generation as the flower of the Hellenic peoples, never tires of presenting the recent developments of the master cook, of pastries and sophisticated dishes, always with the implication that such extravagant pleasures produce, or go with, tyranny, against reason and republican moderation. He often associates such dishes not with Asia, but with the democratic Greeks of Sicily, in Syracuse. Yet while it is true that in the Greek world we have the Spartan black gruel at one pole and Sybaritic extravagance at the other, yet it remains the case that as a whole, even the most luxurious Greeks considered themselves spare and poor by Asiatic standards. While some Greek colonies possessed a degree of luxury, there is no equivalent of Spartan deliberate simplicity anywhere in the world of ancient Asian palatial monarchies.
In keeping with the Greek view of Persia, ancient Roman republican authors show terrible disdain for what they believe to be the effeminate culinary habits of Asia, and of the decadent Orientalized Greeks. Despite the pungent complexity of the fish sauce garum, fermented in vats in a giant putrid fish-sauce industry the likes of which only exists now in Thailand or Vietnam, the Roman ideal of modesty and moderation is expressed by Juvenal when he deplores the introduction of Asiatic refinement in cuisine; he pines for the days when an old Roman family used to be satisfied with grain, greens, and a side of cured pork for the holidays. In his Satyricon, the burlesque Petronius depicts to great comic effect the dinner party of a parvenu and his circle of quasi-Eastern nouveau riche companions, speaking a shamelessly Hellenized Latin. Roman sophistication in food—peacock brains and flamingo tongues for Nero’s debauches, pork carved in the shape of geese—is associated with Asia, with tyranny, with the ascendance of the slave classes; in general, with everything un-Roman and un-republican. It is the same phenomenon described in the Cyropaedeia and in Herodotus, each time moving a bit further west.
In modern times the most Western and sober republics are also those with the worst foods; for some time England had a reputable cuisine, but this was, most tellingly, during the Elizabethan age. But in fact the Dutch, the English, and the Americans have basically adopted the Indonesian, Indian, and Chinese cuisines. Schopenhauer predicted that Eastern thought would revolutionize Western philosophy; this never really happened, but Ex Orientis Lux has been true for the arts of cookery. Though the West, always more republican than the rest even in its most absolutist regimes, has produced some highly developed cuisines, it is somewhat cheaper, and for obvious reasons maybe easier on national pride, to adopt on a mass scale the foods of China, India, or Japan, than those of neighboring rivals like France.
Japan is an insular country with a remarkably continuous history and a marked national character that has more or less thoroughly metabolized all foreign influences. Camille Paglia claims it is the only modern culture besides that of France completely based on the idea of beauty; the form of beauty worshipped in Japan is, however, unique to that country. Though possessing an imperial tradition, Japanese society remained feudal after about the year 1200 or so. The character of this people, as of any people, was determined by its aristocracy; this was, however, not exactly the palace courtier, but the provincial lord, the fiercely independent and ambitious samurai. The heavily ritualized Shingon and Tendai sects of Buddhism were adopted by the courtly and priestly classes; but it was the simple and active Zen that was popular with samurai, and as they set the general tone of the regime and culture, also with artists and poets.
The twin religious-aesthetic sensibilities of wabi and sabi, as Daisetz Suzuki explains in the hippified Zen and Japanese Culture, provided the unity of expression in this people’s arts, to use a Nietzschean formula for culture; consequently also in the cuisine. Together wabi and sabi are the foundations of a “cult of poverty,” similar in a way to that of the ancient Greeks, whose culture has certain striking parallels to the Japanese. In contrast to the other “rustic” or sober peoples where simplicity in diet is a matter of course, the Japanese made an aesthetic point out of this sense for poverty, which accounts for the success their foods have had abroad. From a foreign point of view the Japanese, as in the chronicles of the earliest Western observers, are, or rather were, a melancholic people fond of solitude, fond of retreating deep in the woods to contemplate waterfalls and other natural objects unspoiled by any kind of artifice or human contact. And so on Japanese cuisine the observation is often made that there are few sauces, that focus is on enhancing natural flavor and bringing it into the open. In a recent amusing publication this was called “Bauhaus minimalist” cuisine, the “left-wing” character of cuisine to France’s far-right aristocratic foods.
Nietzsche’s observation in Ecce Homo is that in the English diet the return is to nature, that is, to a form of cannibalism. But in Japanese foods nature, though uncooked, by no means appears raw, it’s refined in some kind of cruel way: like when Mishima says that the Japanese elegance or refinement is connected to Japanese brutality. The sense is always that something is barely restrained, a great turbulence ready to burst from under an exquisitely refined surface, a surface crafted only so it can be violated.
We have only to hope that such spirit still simmers, dormant, under our too-tame modern subjection, and will burst out to bring life back to civilization.