The Virago Book of Food edited by Jill Foulston


Subtitle: The Joy of Eating

Virago have published some wonderful anthologies over the years, and this is a wonderful addition to their list.

It opens with Banana Yoshimto contemplating her kitchen and closes with Pierette Brillat-Savarin quoting her great-aunts final words – on the subject of dessert. In between there is a wonderful journey through food writing.

You will find an extraordinary rage of writers: lots of Virago authors, food writers going back through centuries, literary giants, wonderful authors of biography and memoirs.

They cover a wide range of subjects – every angle you could think of: festive food, housekeeping tips, holy food, lack of food, and much, much more.

They will take you to all four corners of the globe and across many centuries.

A wonderful book, but a very difficult book to review. So here is what I’m going to do. I’m going to select nine contributors to invite to an imaginary dinner party and a quote from each to give you a taste of this wonderful book.

(I’d love to invite more, but I haven’t enough seats.)

Here they are:

Jane Grigson (1920 -190)

“In the Middle Ages – and until reently in some parts – the cherry fair was a great festival. People wandered about the orchards,; the fruit was picked and sold; there was dancing, drinking and making love (a few years ago there were still people in our Wiltshire village with birthdays nine months after the Clyffe feast, which took place every year at cherry time). the poignancy, colour and glory in lives which were normally brutish had by the thirteenth century turned the fair into a symbol of the passing moment.”

Hildegarde of Bingen (1098 – 1179)

“The will is like a fire baking every action in an oven. Bread is baked in order to feed people and strengthen them so that they can live. The will is the force behind the whole of the action. It grinds the action in a mill, it adds yeast and kneads it firmly and thus carefully prepares the action, like a loaf of bread which the will bakes to perfection in the heat of its zeal.”

Sarah Waters

“Have you ever tasted a Whitstable oyster? If you have, you will remember it. Some quirk of the Kentish coastline makes Whitstable natives – as they are properly called – the largest and the juiciest, the savouriest yet the subtlest, oysters in the whole of England. Whitstable oysters are, quite rightly, famous. The French, who are known for their sensitive palates, regularly cross the Channel for them; they are shipped, in barrels of ice, to the dining-tables of Hamburg and Berlin. Why, the King himself, I heard, makes special trips to Whitstable with Mrs Keppel, to eat oyster suppers in a private hotel; and as for the old Queen – she dined on a native a day (or so they say) till the day she died.”

Christina Rosetti (1830 – 94)

“Morning and evening
Maids heard the goblins cry:
“Come buy our orchard fruits,
Come buy, come buy:
Apples and quinces,
Lemons and oranges,
Plump unpecked cherries-
Melons and raspberries,
Bloom-down-cheeked peaches,
Swart-headed mulberries,
Wild free-born cranberries,
Crab-apples, dewberries,
Pine-apples, blackberries,
Apricots, strawberries–
All ripe together
In summer weather–
Morns that pass by,
Fair eves that fly;
Come buy, come buy;
Our grapes fresh from the vine,
Pomegranates full and fine,
Dates and sharp bullaces,
Rare pears and greengages,
Damsons and bilberries,
Taste them and try:
Currants and gooseberries,
Bright-fire-like barberries,
Figs to fill your mouth,
Citrons from the South,
Sweet to tongue and sound to eye,
Come buy, come buy.””

Claudia Roden

“Oriental New Year meals end with fresh dates, figs, and above all pomegranates – all of which are mentioned in the Bible – as the new fruits of the season. In Egypt, we thought pomegranates would cause our family to bear more children. We ate the seeds sprinkled with orange-blossom, water and sugar.”

 Rumer Godden (1907-98)

“The greengages had a pale-blue bloom, especially in the shade, but in the sun the flesh showed amber through the clear-green skin; if it were craked the juice was doubly warm and sweet. Coming from the streets and small front gardens of Southstone, we had not been let loose in such an orchard before; it was no wonder we ate too much.”

Della Lutes (1872 – 1942)

“It was a tedious job, making apple butter, but less so, it seems to me, when brewed out of doors, especially on an October day with the sun beating warmly down on your neck, and crimson leaves drip, dripping from the maple trees – sometimes straight into the huge pot itself, like some jocose gamester flipping cards into a hat.”

Louisa May Alcott (1832-88)

“”It’s time for lunch girls, and I bought mine with me, it’s so much jollier to eat in sisterhood. Let’s club together and have a revel,” said kate, producing a bag of oranges, and several big, plummy buns. “We’ve got sardines, crackers and cheese,” said Bess, clearing off a table with all speed. “Wait a bit, and I’ll add my share,” cried Polly, and catching up her cloak, she ran to the grocery store nearby.”

Celia Fiennes (1642 – 1741)

“In most part of Sommer-setshire it is very fruitfull for orchards, plenty of apples and peares, but they are not curious in the planting the best sort of fruite, which is a great pitty; being so soon produced and such quanteteyes, they are likewise so careless when they make cider, they press all sorts of apples together, else they might have such good cider as in any other parts, even as good as the Herrifordshires …”

My only problem now ……… what on earth do I give them to eat?!

5 responses

  1. Now that was a delicious post. It reminds me of a book my daughter gave me recently titled American Food Writing. I’m only partly through it but such great reading. I’m going to look for your book to round out my menu.

  2. This looks like a fabulous book. I love food-related books, and anthologies like this are so nice. I hadn’t heard of this one – thanks for the review and the quotes.

  3. Pingback: Saturday Review of Books: June 6, 2009 at Semicolon

  4. Pingback: Eating Your Greens « Fleur Fisher reads

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: