Friday, January 22, 2010

An Organic Parable: Baucis and Philemon

By Ian Halbert

Ovid, in book VIII of the Metamorphoses, tells the story of Baucis and Philemon. In sum, Jupiter and Mercury come to earth in the guise of poor wayfarers in need of board and bread. At every turn, they are turned away by the inhabitants of the village. At the edge of town an elderly and impoverished couple (Baucis and Philemon) invite the wanderers into their home. They give them the best of what little they have. Of course, in the face of such piety and grace the gods reveal themselves and announce their intention to destroy the village for its sins. Their noble, elderly and poor hosts live on as priests at the gods’ temple and are granted their one wish: to die together at the same moment. In keeping with the theme, the two rustics are transfigured at the hour of their death into twin trees forever intertwined with one another. It is a beautiful and enduring story.

But what has this to do with “the rural”? As I teach this text every semester one passage remains with me, the meal Baucis and Philemon serve the god-guests:
ponitur hic bicolor sincerae baca Minervae
conditaque in liquida corna autumnalia faece 
intibaque et radix et lactis massa coacti
ovaque non acri leviter versata favilla,
omnia fictilibus (VIII.664-668)

On the table were placed some varieties of olives
and autumnal cherries preserved in reduced wine;
there were also endive, radishes and a lump of farmer’s cheese,
all served with slow poached eggs on humble earthenware plates.
And this is to say nothing of the bacon put on the hob some twenty lines earlier! This meal sounds delicious to me, and not dissimilar to the pricier fare I find at the better and trendier restaurants here in Boston and New York: preserved cherries! a selection of olives! a salad of endive and radish, with chevre and bacon! But for Ovid, the consummate urbanite and definition of urbanity, this meal was the height of rusticity, simplicity and poverty. In other words, to an educated, literate and wealthy Roman of the 1st century AD, this meal was poor fare at best – or rather the best of the poorest fare – and he likely read this passage with a smirk and smile at what the country rabble are reduced to eat.

Fascinating isn’t it? Over two millennia food not fit for gods or privileged Romans – peasants’ fare no less! – has become the meals we savor ... and save for. In fact, it seems we are going out of our way for simpler and simpler food, to the point of fetishizing it. 

One of the stated aims of The Art of the Rural is to ask questions about what exactly "the rural" is, and how it intersects with "the urban." In the weeks and months ahead, I hope to post entries that explore how food (and food culture) intersects and connects these two terms.