Phyllis Pray Bober,
Art, Culture & Cuisine:
Ancient and Medieval Gastronomy

(University of Chicago Press, 1999)

Phyllis Pray Bober, professor emerita of art history and archeology at Bryn Mawr College, has produced a hefty academic tome bristling with extensive notes and a bibliography. Although illustrated with numerous photos of artifacts, the book is so well-written and interesting that it hardly needs any visual relief from the weight of data and the density of the text. Bober is such a witty, lucid prose stylist with so much enthusiasm for her subject, that Art, Culture & Cuisine proves to be as much a feast for the reader as the contents therein.

By analyzing food preparation through the dual disciplines of art history and archeology, Bober shows that cooking in its elevated, skilled and creative forms is an art which belongs on the same lofty level as those more usually termed "fine arts" as an index of culture. In the belief that all manifestations of cultural expressions reflect an intrinsic unity, Bober documents and describes the culinary reflections of visual and sociological movements throughout history. With impeccable scholarship, she surveys the gastronomy of every significant Old World civilization starting with prehistory (using Catal Huyuk in Turkey as an example), then moving on to the traditions of Egypt, Mesopotamia, Greece and Rome, culminating in the rituals of the Middle Ages and the "Late Gothic International" period (15th century). The result is convincingly believable connections between food and art.

Bober also explodes various myths about comestibles, most notably the one that pasta was introduced to Europe by Marco Polo, for the ancients knew and made pasta long before then thanks to nomadic Arabs who brought it from North Africa to Sicily (according to scholarly evidence). The book is packed with detailed, fascinating facts: the ancient Romans did not use spice and fish-sauce to excess; retsina originates from the resin that lined the interiors of clay pots used for wine storage in order to prevent further fermentation; the infamous "vomitoria" of the Romans simply meant "exit" and was not the location for self-induced regurgitation; and the word "boulimia" was invented by the Greeks, originally meaning "irresistable foddering" for oxen that keep eating and eating.

Adding icing to the cake, to use an apt metaphor, Bober supplies an appendix of menus and recipes with contemporary adaptations for each civilization she discusses. The appendix is as delightful as the rest of the book to read and to contemplate for they are mostly doable despite such esotericisms as "stuffed sow's womb" and "preserved duck gizzards."

With an abiding passion for her subject matter and refreshing wit, Bober confirms what every cook and appreciator of fine food instinctively knows: cuisine and dining's place is at the nexus of cultural, religious and social endeavors fundamental to not only Western, but to ALL civilizations. Here is a book that provides nourishment for the intellect as much as it does for the body. (The $50 price tag is dauntingly high, but don't let that stop the determined reader from seeking it out in the library.)

[ by Amy Harlib ]



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