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A Literary Hunger

Have you noticed that feasts and banquets play a very small part in Mediterranean literature? Outside of princely tables and the role of the Land of Cockaigne as a gastronomic utopia, descriptions of meals never suggest plenty. Of course there are fantastic meals in Rabelais’ “Gargantua and Pantagruel” or the wedding feast of Camacho in Cervantes’ “Don Quixote,” but these are rare and fanciful dreams, and not anthropological descriptions. They do provide insight into how perennial Mediterranean famines and want stimulated the creative juices of everyone from cooks to writers.

In a recession such as the one we’ve been mired in for two years, we may have thought of the special days when hunger would hold no sway. As summer arrives and the bountiful produce spills from their bins, it’s well worth our while to reconsider some lessons learned from great literature such as “Don Quixote.”

“Don Quixote” captures, in dramatic and comedic detail, how al rico llamen honrado porque tiene que comer (“the rich ate gargantuan meals, and the rest starved”). Seventeenth-century Castile, where Don Quixote and his sidekick, Sancho Panza, have so many of their heartbreaking adventures, was sharply divided into two extremes: the very rich and the very poor. “There are but two families in the world,” Sancho Panza’s grandmother used to say, “the haves and the have-nots (el tener y el no tener).” Distinguishing between them ultimately is not about their rank or social position, but whether they had anything to eat. Food indeed created new social classifications of its own. We can’t imagine such a world.

‘Hunger’s the best sauce in the world’

The endless preoccupation with food that characterizes every Spanish picaresque novel was a reflection of the real everyday concerns of the masses. Whether it was the impoverished hidalgo (member of the lower nobility) surreptitiously pocketing crumbs at court or the picaro (rogue) making a desperate raid on a market stall, hunger held sway. But every now and then a morsel would be had, and Don Quixote could say “hunger holds no sway today.”

Sancho’s wife, Teresa, would say, “Hunger’s the best sauce in the world, and as the poor have no lack of it, they enjoy their food.” Sancho had been eating according to the nutty notions of Don Quixote concerning how to keep a knight-errant’s body and soul together. So that meant some hard cheese, four dozen carob beans and the same number of hazelnuts, plus dried fruits and field herbs. So when the Squire of the Wood returns with a leather bottle of wine and a pie a foot-and-a-half long with a white rabbit so large Sancho thought it was a goat, he reveled in such fantastic food.

Unimaginable imaginary feast

The great feast in “Don Quixote” that no one can forget is the wedding of Camacho the Rich. This is truly the Land of Cockaigne. Near an arbor, a whole steer is spitted on a whole elm, spit-roasting slowly over a “pretty mountain of wood.” Surrounding this are six earthen wine jugs, each large enough to hold several steers. There were numberless skinned hares and plucked chickens too, hanging on trees, ready for burial in these pots. There were other birds and game hanging too. There were 60 wine skins holding 8 gallons of wine each. There were also piles of white loaves, and cheeses stacked like bricks making a wall. Two cauldrons of oil bubbled away for the frying puddings which they drained and plunged into another cauldron of honey. Fifty cooks, male and female, all clean, busy and jolly tended over this feast. In the distended belly of a huge steer were two dozen delicate little suckling pigs, sewn up inside to make it tasty and tender. The spices seem to have been bought not by the pound but by the quarter and were displayed in a great chest.

Sancho fell in love with this sight and especially the pots. He asked one of the cooks if he could dip some bread in the broth and the cook said thanks to Camacho there will be no hunger today and instead suggested that Sancho grab a ladle and ladle himself some. Sancho was timid, so the cook did the ladling, swooping in one scoop three hens and two geese for Sancho. This was heaven. Don Quixote got it right when he said what matters is “not with whom you are bred but with whom you are fed.”


Zester Daily contributor Clifford A. Wright won the James Beard / KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year Award and the James Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food in 2000 for “A Mediterranean Feast.” His latest book is “Hot & Cheesy” (Wiley) about cooking with cheese.

Photo: Foods fit for a feast. Credit: Ankya.

Zester Daily contributor Clifford A. Wright won the James Beard/KitchenAid Cookbook of the Year Award and the James Beard Award for the Best Writing on Food in 2000 for "A Mediterranean Feast." His latest book is "One-Pot Wonders" (Wiley).