Friday, November 08, 2019

What did T.S.Eliot Eat?

I am definitely no expert on the poet T. S. Eliot, but I did invite a real Eliot scholar to dinner recently, and discussions with her have propelled me to try to find out what he liked to eat. Though an expert on Eliot, she didn't provide me with any clues. Naturally, I started with google. Actually that's all I did: just google.

Eliot, if my search is any indication, wasn't much of a foodie. His most famous reference to food was "Do I dare to eat a peach?" from The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, which also refers in a rather superior way to other foods (like oysters or "tea and cakes and ices") and of course "I have measured out my life with coffee spoons."

I dare to eat peaches all the time!
Like almost every word Eliot ever wrote, interpretations of what the peach means are numerous, including quite a few rather abstract ones, such as a reference to Adam and Eve's fruit or fear of aging or fear of sexuality (source). My favorite interpretation seems to view the peach rather literally: from a review of the book titled The Duchess of Malfi's Apricots and Other Literary Fruits by Robert Palter:
"But why does T.S. Eliot's Prufrock wonder if he dares to eat a peach and not, say, an apple or plum? Palter's answer displays poetic and pragmatic insight: because 'on the one hand, the sensuous experience might be too unsettling for him, and, on the other hand, he might make a spectacle of himself because of the messiness involved in biting and masticating something so juicy.' Still, he adds, another 'possible explanation for Prufrock's hesitation about eating a peach might be the rarity and high cost of the fruit in the England of 1911.' Even after World War II, he continues, peaches were scarce in England: Ted Hughes claims that he first tasted one in 1955, the year that Sylvia Plath arrived in England as a Fulbright Scholar." (Review by Michael Dirda, 2003)
If the peach is the most famous food quote in Eliot's poetry, maybe his second-most-famous one is from The Wasteland:
"The typist home at teatime, clears her breakfast, lights
Her stove, and lays out food in tins." 
But what did the poet actually eat? From later in his life, Eliot's pocket calendar (also called a diary) offers a few clues about his food recommendations or preferences:
"Like many of us, Eliot made odd notes in the back of his diaries, in particular, recommendations – of books, places to eat, food and drink. In 1936, Eliot noted ‘Rakørret with Swedish brandy’ – Rakørret is a Norwegian dish of salt-cured trout which is left to ferment for several months. Eliot was not shy of trying less-palatable dishes – he recommended a Norwegian cheese, Gammel Ost, ‘made of reindeer milk and then stored for years under the beds of Norwegian farm folk’ to his friend J. D. Aylward. Leaping forward to 1960, he has made a note of two cheese recommendations (here for more on Eliot’s love of cheese)– a Portuguese number ‘Caixa d’Estrella’ and ‘Boursault (?)’, a French cheese recommended by D. Herbert ‘who recommends also "Make me an offer' by Wolf Mankovitz" (a story set among the Jewish community of London’s East End of the 1930s)." (From "A first look at Eliot’s pocket diaries")
Eliot also wrote an article (mentioned in the quote above) praising Stilton cheese, and promoted the idea of a "Society for the Preservation of Ancient Cheeses." (Link "For the Love of Cheese.")

My hands, carving a duck à l'orange that I cooked in 2008.
Duck à l'orange is the specific food most often mentioned when Eliot's dining preferences are mentioned, especially a version of this dish that he enjoyed at a dinner given by the right-wing antisemite organization L'Action Française.
“A private room in one of the best restaurants – fifteen people – and the most exquisite dinner I have ever tasted...I remember the canard aux oranges with permanent pleasure."
From the same source, I learned that he and his wife entertained at home rather than at restaurants, mainly at lunch to save money because they didn't have to serve meat to guests at lunch. The following paragraph adds what seem to be few food memories:
"T.S. Eliot once asked his messenger boy what he would do with £5,000. “I’d have a good dinner,” the boy said. 'Duckling and green peas, gooseberry tart and cream.' Having just moved to London, Eliot was impressed by the boy’s expensive taste. 'Such is the society I move in in the city,' he wrote, where even 11-year-olds know their food." (source)
Maybe food was really more of an abstraction and a spiritual rather than a physical symbol for Eliot, at least as far as writing was concerned. I find the following paragraph from a biography of Eliot rather interesting:
"One of his last essays, a British Council pamphlet on George Herbert (1962), explores a belated turn to natural happiness, much like his own, and it concludes movingly with Herbert’s poem, ‘Love: III’ with its blessed sense of forgiveness: ‘Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back, / Guiltie of dust and sinne. / … You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my meat: / So I did sit and eat.’" (source)
  • Full disclosure: I mainly didn't read any poems, but I once read them in high school.
  • I have obtained a copy of The Duchess of Malfi's Apricots and plan to read it soon.
  • This blog post written and copyright © 2019 by Mae Sander for mae's food blog. If you are reading other than at maefood dot blogspot dot com you are reading a pirated edition.


Tina said...

I read Prufrock when I was in college and it’s been a long long time since I picked up any of his work. In hindsight I think I attributed the daring to eat a peach as having such a gem, a rare finding, of the time period. As you said, after the war(s) some foods were scarce. Your quote about Ted Hughes was interesting. But that’s my blurry memory of thoughts from college days at FSU....long time ago.

gluten Free A_Z Blog said...

Certainly an interesting post about T.S. Elliot-Clever idea to research the food he ate! Although I know his name, I couldn't remember his poems. After reading your post, I was interested in finding out a little more about his life and works. Thanks for the inspiration .

Jackie McGuinness said...

I'm a big fan of Eliot and this was a great post.

Pam said...

I know Eliiot's name and that's about it so I've learned something new here today about him. Kind of funny about the lunch at home, and not serving meat to save money, each to his own!

Claudia said...

Since he didn't write very much about food, I'm surprised anyone would be interested in what he ate. I know I'm not. But, understandably, having an Elliot scholar over stirred up your interest. With celebrities of every sort, no stone gets unturned.

Carole said...

Fun. Cheers

Gimme The Scoop said...

I have only ever heard his name but I did enjoy the post and those peaches look so good!

(Diane) bookchickdi said...

This was such an informative and unique post- great job!

Beth F said...

I haven't read Elliot in a long time . . . I didn't remember the line about the tea and tins.