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Gastronomy, which is the art of selecting, preparing, serving and enjoying food and the essence of Fine Dining, began almost as soon as your most ancient ancestors tamed fire to protect themselves from predators, because a secondary benefit of this momentous discovery was the ability to cook their game to make it more tender, hence chewable and digestible. An early depiction of the enjoyment of food as a group is shown in one of the earliest cave paintings discovered in the south of France, where a prehistoric family is clearly shown around a fire eating together at mealtime - the first barbecue. As we shall see eating styles donŐt die out, they accumulate.
With the passage of time there is ample evidence that the great Western civilizations of Assyria, Babylonia, Persia, and Egypt had great feasts and banquets, but little evidence of much refinement in their preparation or serving of food. There is however written documentation that China had developed sophisticated culinary skills as early as the 5th century BC, which spread, along with its powerful culture, to the adjacent areas of her part of the planet.
In Western civilization we must look to Greece for the beginnings of our gastronomic traditions - just as we do for many of our customs. The Greeks felt that a good meal nourished spirit, as well as the body. The consumption of food was frequently accompanied by music, poetry and dancing. Epicurus (341-270 BCE), an Athenian philosopher, articulated the principles behind this life style - becoming its voice. He revived the atomism of Democritus - with its emphasis on the material nature of existence. This stood in opposition to the prevalent supernatural bent, which manifested through their lush mythology and temple system. His sensual philosophy, called Epicureanism, was based upon the idea that seeking contentment and peace of mind was the primary purpose of life, and that this was achieved by a frugal life style based upon the cultivation of the finer things of life - including beauty, music, poetry and food. As such he provided the philosophical basis for a sensual life style, which included the enjoyment of food.
This school gradually became associated with the pursuit of sensual pleasures. This was different from the philosophy of hedonism, which is associated with drunken orgies. Epicureanism was instead based upon self-restraint, not self-indulgence. The followers were counseled to minimize desires to maximize appreciation. Less is More. This coincides with the Greek notion of Balance - Moderation in all things. Your Western culture still uses epicurean and its root words over 2000 years later. For instance the word epicure is used to denote an individual endowed with sensitive and discriminating tastes in food and wine.
This belief system was popular for 600 years until Christians viciously attacked it after the intolerant branch of their religion was adopted by the Roman Empire. They vilified Epicureanism as an irresponsible form of materialism. This was possibly due to the corruption of the Greek balance by the excessive hedonism of Rome. Or it could have been simply due to the simple rejection of the sensual pleasures by the early Church fathers, who had embraced asceticism as the path to God. This battle is still being waged between these two opposing belief systems, with religious fundamentalist of all creeds continuing to attack pleasure derived from the senses as a corruption of spirituality. This is totally opposite from my belief that sensual delights lead to the sacred realm.
After the Greeks came the Romans. Although they were the inheritors of the Greek political power and their traditions they embraced the excesses of hedonism instead of the restraint and balance of their predecessors. The Romans adopted Epicureanism but in the sense of the unbridled pursuit of pleasure. Their leaders threw lavish banquets based upon the notion that bigger and more is better. There are descriptions of feasts where hundreds of types of fish were served accompanied by mountains of beef, pork, veal, lamb, boar, venison, ostrich, duck and peacock. They even dispatched emissaries throughout the empire to discover new and exotic delicacies - including mushrooms from France.
But they were not gastronomes, as the tastes they cultivated were not delicate and sensitive. Instead their feasts were based upon excess, not moderation. Their Emperors consumed pearls dissolved in vinegar and 60 pounds of meat in a sitting - just because they could. These vulgarities with its ostentation were satirized in Satyricon, written in the 1st century AD. In some ways those of you who live on the Western part of the planet can trace your traditions of gluttony and excess to Rome and your sense of refinement and balance to Greece.
It was the Roman traditions that persevered into the Middle Ages. Beef, mutton, and pork, which were cooked over spits located near table, were served up whole before the guests, who sat on bundles of straw and ate their meals with knives and daggers. Charlemagne added a touch of elegance to his banquets. His guests ate with silver and gold utensils and drank their beer and wine out of decorated goblets. But the cuisine was still crude, with seasoning and sauces unknown.