Friday, September 25, 2009

Plums, Potatoes, and Mutton

As the years in War and Peace went by, war made the lives of the Russians more and more difficult. Banquets with elaborate French-style menus -- as described early in the book -- gave way to cruder food. Anticipation of refined pleasure was replaced by desperate hunger. Needless to say, food played a small role in creating Tolstoy's comprehensive treatment of Napoleon's invasion of Russia; however, he built the whole picture through many small things, including food and how the characters viewed it. As I read the second half of this epic, I found these changes to be an interesting detail in the huge picture.

"Do you remember, once I was punished for eating some plums, and you were all dancing, and I sat in the schoolroom sobbing. I shall never forget it... And what was the chief point, I wasn't to blame." asked Natasha of her brother Nikolay as they spent an unusually tranquil moment together. (p. 485) Later in Moscow, even amid a turmoil of emotional experiences, Natasha Rostov attended church with her hostess Marya Dmitryevna. They returned to Marya Dmitryevna's scrubbed and cleaned house -- on Sunday, "neither she nor her servants did any work, and every one wore holiday-dress and went to service. There were additional dishes at the mistress's dinner, and the servants had vodka and roast goose or a suckling-pig at theirs." (p. 532)

But times became more and more difficult. As the noble Prince Andrey and his family prepared to flee their luxury estate in Napoleon's oncoming path, soldiers were becoming disorderly and the serfs and peasants were forgetting their place. "Two little girls came running from the plum-trees in the conservatories with their skirts full of plums. They ran almost against Prince Andrey, and seeing their young master, the elder one clutched her younger companion by the hand, with a panic-stricken face, and hid with her behind a birch-tree not stopping to pick up the green plums they had dropped." (p. 657)

In Moscow, to which many nobles fled ahead of the French armies, things became more and more chaotic. Soldiers looted a shop, "filling their bags and knapsacks with wheaten flour and sunflower seeds." (p. 652) A crowd watched "the flogging of a French cook, accused of being a spy." Pierre heard someone in the crowd make a joke of this cruelty: "Russian sauce is a bit strong for a French stomach." (p. 702-703)

Before the battle of Borodino, Napoleon had a cold and complained that he had "neither taste nor smell," (p. 735) while the Russian general Kutuzov dined on roast chicken, "chewing with difficulty" while hearing a briefing. (p. 753)

As the battle continued, Pierre somehow wandered around the battlefield and stopped by the roadside for the night. Three soldiers arrived and made a fire. They "set a pot on it, broke up their biscuits into it, and put in some lard. The pleasant odour of the savoury and greasy mess blended with the smell of the smoke. Pierre raised himself and sighed. The soldiers ... were eating and talking among themselves, without taking any notice of Pierre." They offered to share this meal, and Pierre -- the lover of fine food and drink -- took a wooden spoon that one of them has licked, and "fell to eating the mess in the pot, which seemed to him the most delicious dish he had ever tasted." (p. 784)

Later Pierre's lot became much worse. He was arrested by the French, almost executed and then spent months as a prisoner. Just after being saved from execution, he was given baked potatoes with salt -- it seemed to him "that he had never eaten anything so good." A wise old peasant, who became very important in this adventure, quoted a proverb: "the maggot gnaws the cabbage, but it dies before it's done" and at bedtime he prayed "Lent me lie down like a stone, O God, and rise up like new bread." (p. 902-903).

Potatoes symbolized the desperation of the masses. The Tsar (perhaps posing) said that he would "go and eat potatoes with the meanest of my peasants rather than sign the shame of my country and my dear people whose sacrifice I know how to appreciate." (p. 875)

A poignant meal -- vodka, rum, white bread, roast mutton, and salt -- was eaten by Petya, the very young son of the Rostov family, just before he was shot in battle. "Sitting at the table with the officers, tearing the fat, savoury mutton with greasy fingers, Petya was in a childishly enthusiastic condition of tender love for all men and a consequent belief in the same feeling for himself in others." (p. 974) He offered his companions some seedless raisins, saying he had bought ten pounds of them. Dolohov, the soldier who was with him when he died just afterwards, thought of this offer looking at Petya's "blood-stained, mud-spattered face that was already turning white." (p. 986)

War and Peace is a long book, and deserves its reputation as a masterpiece. I've hardly said anything about it, but many other people have indeed said enough.

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