Wednesday, June 11, 2008

Dying for food.

June 11 ...

A dish is pleasant beyond your expectations. What is there beyond mere delicious or yummy (see previous posts) to describe it? A modern phrase that thankfully seems to be declining is ‘to die for’. I don’t like the phrase, I think it is silly, but I am interested in its origins.

The Roman poet Horace wrote the line Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori , meaning ‘It is sweet and fitting to die for one’s country’. The line has been used ever since in a military sense to glorify past or future deaths, but it has not to my knowledge ever been seriously used in a food context until recent times. I don’t intend to get into any sort of existential debate over this, but I will say that I dont think any piece of chocolate cake is worth dying for. You may disagree.

There are many ways to die food related deaths of course, and I don’t just mean by poisoning. They are not sweet deaths however. The seventeenth century chef known as Vatel ran himself through with his sword in 1661 – ashamed when insufficient fish was delivered for the King’s dinner (he was impatient, the fishmonger was running a little late). A London butcher in the reign of Henry VIII was boiled to death in the Smithfield market for allegedly attempting to poison members of the household of the Bishop of Rochester (apparently the process took two hours.) A ‘poor silly man’ known as The Great Eater of Kent in the early seventeenth century was famous, as his name suggests, for his great feats of eating. For the amusement of his neighbours he would devour an entire sheep, raw, in one sitting, and he regularly ate eighteen yards of black pudding for breakfast. He did not die, however, like Mr Creosote in the movie The Meaning of Life, by bursting asunder. His death was far more ironic than that. King James I came to hear of him, and ‘His majesty asked what he could do more than any other man; and being answered, that he could not do so much; he replied, hang him then, for it is unfit a man should live that eats as much as twenty men, and cant do as much as one.’

If you yourself do like the phrase ‘to die for’, may I caution you in respect of its written use. I have seen it used in the form of an acronym. Be advised that the acronym TDF can also mean ‘Total Dietary Fibre’ (and it is highly unlikely that the food under discussion fits this category), but even more alarmingly, it can also mean Testis-Determining Factor (the context is purely scientific.)

It is perfectly possible that a food could shock you to death. The cost of the truffles in this recipe, for example.

Turkey with Truffles.
Take a fat turkey, cleanse and singe it; if you should chance to burst the gall-bladder or intestines, wash the inside of the body very carefully. Then peel three or four pounds of truffles; chop up a handful of the worst with some fat bacon, and put them, into a saucepan, together with the whole truffles, salt, pepper, spices, and a bay leaf; let these ingredients cook over a slow fire for three quarters of an hour ; then take them off, stir, and leave them to cool ; when quite cold, put them in the body of the turkey, sew up the opening, and let the bird imbibe the flavour of the truffles, by their remaining in for several days, if the season permit. When you wish to dress the turkey, cover it with thin broad slices of bacon, and over that, strong paper, and roast it two hours: when nearly done, take off the paper that the bird may brown a few minutes, and serve.
[French domestic cookery, by an English physician. 1825]

Tomorrow’s Story …


Quotation for the Day …

A nuclear power plant is infinently safer than eating, because 300 people choke to death on food every year. Dixy Lee Ray.


Anonymous said...

Three or four pounds of truffles?

George Biron said...

Very few understand the tuber melasponum. We picked a few kilo this week and believe me a little goes a long way. The taste is negligable I agree with Paul Levy and Elizabeth Luard about the power of the aroma and what it does to quite simple things. Such excess as cooking for 45 minutes or adding a kilo to a dish shows a very ignorant attitude to an ethereal wonder. A simple coddled egg, a puree of white beans, a rice soup all can be messangers to bring forth the magic that is the truffle.