Not long ago, a fellow cheesemonger and I were talking about the way we describe food – specifically, in selling cheese to our customers. “Like ‘nutty,’” she said. “Nuts really have nothing to do with the production of cheese.”
Why do I think of the flavor of sesame seeds when I taste Moses Sleeper, from Jasper Hill Farm, in Vermont? Why Brazil nuts with a recent Taleggio or pistachio when tasting Caprotto? Why do we describe specific tastes, or hints of taste, with things that are most certainly uncheese-like? Because these metaphors help people understand what to expect from a cheese.
Selling cheese over the years has allowed me to work with many interesting people – people with plenty of wonderful and almost poetic taste metaphors. Here are a few of the gems I have heard:
• Lincolnshire Poacher: “pineapple upside down cake”
• Ekiola Ardi Gasna Fermier: “salted caramel”
• Bayrischer Blauschimmelkase: “sitting temperature salt & pepper ice cream”
• Försterkäse Krümmenswil: “melted leather”
• Winnimere: “hot dog”
• Beringse Gouda: “fresh, buttered South Carolina biscuits”
Perhaps metaphor is the best way we can share our very personal taste experiences with each other? This is more or less the essence of poetry, a most cherished and beautiful form of the written word, a tool we use to tell others how we experience the world.
Why did Homer tell us that he sailed over a “wine dark sea”? Why does a French cheesemaker call a conical-shaped cheese Colombier des Pigeons, or “Pigeon’s Birdcage”? Metaphors often evoke personal associations, but at the root, a successful metaphor gives us a shared reference point to help us understand an experience in common.
I got to thinking how metaphor is used to conjure imagery and emotion in writing. Certain food writers came to mind: Brillat-Savarin, Julia Child, M.F.K. Fisher. I went off in search of poetry. Some exciting research at Oxford University is using a digital imaging process to uncover lost art. Previously unreadable manuscripts of Sophocles show some of the ancient Greek playwright’s poetic fragments:
Bring all of it in!
Someone knead dough!
Fill a deep bowl! This
Man like an ox
That toils does not toil
Until he eats!
There was a sheep’s fleece, there
Was from well-treasured vine
And grape a pouring out
To the gods, there was an
Offering of every kind
Of fruit, of barley-groats,
Of the fat of olives,
And of the intricate
Work accomplished in wax
By the yellow-brown bee.
I read these lines a few years ago and they have always stayed with me. They give a reassurance in the timelessness of the wonder of nourishment and of celebration. How we always have, and always will, sing its praises.
Captivated by this idea, I pored over my library and found food metaphors sprinkled here and there among some of my favorite authors and poets. Arthur Rimbaud, in his poem, Festivals of Hunger, connects himself to food and the earth with inspiring zeal:
If I have taste, it is for scarcely more
than for the earth and stones
Turn, my hunger! Graze, hunger,
on fields of wheat!
Drink the gay poison
of the bindweed!
Stones broken by a poor man,
Old masonry from churches,
Pebbles, the children of floods,
Bread loaves sleeping in gray valleys!
Over the land, leaves have appeared:
I go for the flesh of pulpy fruit.
Deep in the valley I forage for
the corn salad and the violet.
It seems to me that Rimbaud’s metaphors here work on two levels by expressing a feeling through more common references to food and earth while also exposing a feeling which comes across to me as more than the sum of its parts. I can almost imagine a cheesemonger describing a cheese as, “bread loaves sleeping in gray valleys,” or as, “corn salad and violets.”I was once asked which historical figure I would most like to share a meal with. I thought for a second and said, “Walt Whitman.” The man (“hankering, gross, mystical, nude” – one of his many terrific self-descriptions) who, early one morning, as he wrote in Song of Myself, “tuck’d my trouser-ends in my boots and went and had a good time” with the boatmen and clam-diggers. “You should have been with us that day round the chowder-kettle.” I wish I could have been.
I came across a poem of Whitman’s that I had never read before, called This Compost. In it, he laments the social and moral decrepitude that he sees around him, wondering how vegetation and fruit could grow from the corpse-filled earth – the “you” of the poem:
Where have you disposed of their carcasses?
Those drunkards and gluttons of so many generations?
Where have you drawn off all the foul liquid and meat?
I do not see any of it upon you to-day, or perhaps I am deceiv’d,
I will run a furrow with my plough, I will press my spade through
the sod and turn it up underneath,
I am sure I shall expose some of the foul meat.
Against his expectations, he follows, joyful and uncomprehending:
Behold this compost! behold it well! …
The grass of spring covers the prairies, …
The delicate spear of the onion pierces upward,
The apple-buds cluster together on the apple-branches, …
The new-born of animals appear, the calf is dropt from the cow, the colt from the mare, …
Now I am terrified at the Earth, it is that calm and patient,
It grows such sweet things out of such corruptions, …
successions of diseas’d corpses,
It distills such exquisite winds out of such infused fetor,
It renews with such unwitting looks its prodigal, annual, sumptuous crops,
It gives such divine materials to men, and accepts such leavings from them at last.
This must have come to Whitman during a dark day. However, his powerful, metaphorical imagery is what holds us. We are the earth. We are born, grow and die back into it. Our cycle is no different than that which we eat. We may do well to take out our own spades and see what is underneath.
The pathways of food, from the earth to our plates are indeed long and mysterious. There are such vast numbers of tastes that we know. The list is endless: aged legs of pigs, chocolate, ale, honey, fresh bitter greens. Resemblances – especially with foods like cheese, which goes through such a complex transformative process – are bound to come to us. Still, I am vaguely satisfied with how my friend and I left our conversation. Perhaps, like Rimbaud, I’ll wake up tomorrow with a hunger for something with a stoniness about it. Wensleydale?
Do you have any favorite food images in literature you find particularly inspiring?
Andrew Clark is the General Manager of Formaggio Kitchen New York and a guitarist looking to start an ambient-country band.