Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Goethe as Gourmand

I wrote in an earlier post (November 30, 2008) that Goethe liked good food and wine. In his garden in Weimar (photo above by Adreas Trepte) he planted fruit trees and berries and raised potatoes and other vegetables, especially asparagus. Trellises on the south house wall were full of apricots. Even the cooking herbs came from this garden. In July 1793 Christiane wrote to Goethe (he was then in Marienborn; this was during the siege of Mainz) that she had eaten kohlrabi and artichokes from their garden.

The Weimar "court gardener" Friedrich Gottlieb Dietrich has also described the "experimental" portion of Goethe's garden, in which he analyzed the differences between local and foreign varieties of vegetables. According to Dietrich, Goethe liked to show visitors, such as Knebel Herder, Einsiedel, Gerning, "as well as women," around the garden, explaining the plants and giving small lectures. Providing an important contemporary illustration of the state of the garden is the charming colored etching below, by Eduard Lobe, showing Goethe and his grandsons in the garden ca. 1825.

Goethe's household accounts also show that he spent large sums on such items as chestnuts, grapes, fermented mustard, and honey. Chocolate was ordered from Vienna, and wines were imported from the Rhine region. Here are some of the other products guests enjoyed at Goethe's table: fois gras, truffles, mussels, salmon, Spanish raisins, and caviar. Weimar, a town of 6,000 people, could hardly have supplied Goethe with such delicacies, which we routinely enjoy today if we live near Zabar's or Fairway. Indeed, one of the first things that struck me when I first arrived in Manhattan so many years ago was the variety of food that could be enjoyed by ordinary folks. I grew up in the heartland, where cheese meant Velveeta.

Goethe's appreciation for such delicacies, as far as I can read the matter, takes place after the turn of the 19th century. From the moment his foot touched ground in Italy, in 1786, Goethe raved about the fruit, not surprising for an inhabitant of northern Europe. And though he mentions meals eaten in The Italian Journey -- published in 1816-17, though based on notes from the time of his stay in Italy in 1786-88 -- there is not a word in this account about Italian cuisine. It may be that in 1786 there was not what we today would call "cuisine" in Italy, though I doubt that is the case. One senses in the Italians' enjoyment of their food something atavistic; so, too, must Horace have enjoyed his food.

The appreciation for fine food among ordinary people and their ability to put it on their own table or in their own picnic baskets are phenomena of the kind of commerce that was starting to blossom in Goethe's time. It was this phenomenon that was one of the sources of Goethe's thinking on "world literature." As I have emphasized before, the free trade in goods was accompanied by the free trade in ideas. For Goethe the latter consisted of the work of writers, which he believed would bring the nations of the world into comity. To a great extent it is true that there is a "world republic of letters": those of us who care about these things are quickly made aware of the newest literary products from all over the world. We are also "tolerant" of many different ideas.

In our democratic age, however, more and more people are able to enjoy the products of free trade in material goods, especially in food. What is more, people have a great desire to move beyond what is local. An amusing story in the BBC news: although the Islamic Republic of Iran does not import any goods from Israel, in April authorities in Tehran discovered that Jaffa oranges were being imported in boxes marked as Chinese. Iranians love that seedly, sweet fruit, and someone in Tehran was willing to take the risk to supply them with it.

On a recent walk I discovered that a Whole Foods Market is to open tomorrow at Columbus Avenue and 100th Street. This is being announced as an "Upper West Side" store, but this only shows the extension of the concept of Upper West Side. The jump across 96th Street indicates a the changing demography. Lots of new apartment construction in that area, for people with trust funds or earning very big salaries, but there is also a large tract of public housing nearby. Never mind: people of all classes now appreciate choice and variety in their foods. Goethe Girl and her husband shop regularly at Fairway, another emporium for food choice.

The appearance on the shelves of stores of all these food offerings does not happen by accident. Like the Iranians who risk their lives to sell Jaffa oranges, people all over the world, in small ways and large, are working to satisfy our tastes in food and in other material goods. Working people like them are what makes our world go round. Think of all the different people behind those different varieties of bottled water at Fairway. I wish our politicians appreciated this aspect of our economy. The problem with most politicians is that none has actually worked in a real job. Like us folks in "the republic of letters," they are full of good ideas, most of which have no basis in real life.

The beautiful still life of melons and pears (in the Boston Museum of Fine Arts) is by an 18th-century painter, Luis Meléndez (1716-1780). Goethe probably never saw a painting by Meléndez, though he certainly would have enjoyed fruits in Italy like those Meléndez painted. I recently became acquainted with Meléndez through a review by Maureen Mullarkey of a recent show of his paintings in Washington, D.C. Just a week ago I was in Washington to see the show myself. Another aspect of world literature, in the sense of intellectual exchange: I have probably seen more paintings in my life than Goethe ever did.

Jaffa picture credit: art2day4u


Zentrist said...

What a feast this has been. It brings back many memories (of NYC and of our "semester in Rome" in 1973) and forms a fair number of aspirations--simultaneously. I'm very grateful to learn of Grimmelshausen whose hero seems to be a person after my own heart in many ways. I've got to tell my wife about this Simplicissimus novel--she has been reading Defoe, Sterne and Fielding this summer. From what she has shared, I think she might like to look into what looks like, perhaps, a 17th century German "source." But the theme of the hermit really interests me, as does anything to do with Goethe and his world-historic life...Nietzsche's essay on history, as you probably already know, could be useful in your work on World Literature.

Josephine Wennerholm said...

It would seem that Goethe did mention cheese being sprinkled over pasta while he was sojourning in Naples:
"Già nel ‘700 la pasta condita semplicemente con del formaggio era diffusa in buona parte del Bel Paese e in “Viaggio in Italia” Goethe, descrivendo la cucina di Napoli, accenna: <<i maccheroni si cuociono per lo più semplicemente nell’acqua pura e vi si grattugia sopra del formaggio, che serve ad un tempo di grasso e di condimento" Taken from :

Goethe Girl said...

Dear Josephine, Thank you for the comment. Unfortnately, my Italian is not good enough to read the quote. Your blog looks beautiful.