Sarah Bradford

The everlasting power and glory of the shared table

From Apicius to the Ivy: Roy Strong, the possessor of 800 cookbooks, has written a fascinating and scholarly study of social eating from Greece to the 21st century, a single-volume synthesis of the most significant work published in various countries and various languages over the last two decades, polished with style, bibliographical knowledge and an ability to spin a subject.

His first book of this genre, which I remember reviewing for The Spectator, was Art and Power, a study of Renaissance festivals. This should perhaps be subtitled ‘Power Dining’ since its main theme is eating, food and etiquette as a demonstration of political and social power, the principal objective through the centuries being social exclusion not communal enjoyment. The banquet, used by Italian princes and absolute monarchs as the outward manifestation of their superior, even divine, status was later employed by the elite as an essential weapon in their ceaseless flight from the bourgeoisie.

‘If you have to ask how much it costs, you can’t afford it’ (or words to that effect), J. P. Morgan’s putdown to an unfortunate who asked him how much it cost to run his yacht, could be applied to the succession of gargantuan bouffes and theatrical displays described here. The socially exclusive nature of the feast was epitomised by a graffito found on the walls of Pompeii: ‘The man with whom I do not dine is a barbarian to me.’ The over-the-top splendours of imperial Roman banquets – exotica like camels’ feet, peacocks’ and nightingales’ tongues, flamingoes’ brains and parrots’ heads, sometimes accompanied by torture and the odd decapitation (Caligula, naturally) were revived with the Renaissance discovery of classical texts, notably at the court of Estes in Ferrara.

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