THE greatest lesson of history is that the present is the outcome of events in the past, and therefore could have been, and could still be, otherwise. More precisely, we can sort those determining events into three categories: the necessary, the random and the voluntary, and we can consider how the interaction of these diverse factors produced the world we live in.
Most people, however, seem not to entertain the possibility of difference, as we can see in the instinct of conformity that underlies the power of fashion in so many areas of life. People want to be the same, so they imitate everyone else around them, consume the same ephemeral commercial entertainment, attach value to the same products and gadgets, eat the same junk food.
Eating habits are a particularly interesting question today, when we find ourselves on the one hand surrounded by restaurants, books, television shows and shops attesting to a fascination with fine cuisine and healthy eating, yet at the same time are overwhelmed by the spread of obesity. The dichotomy is so blatant that one has to take both as symptoms of a common malaise.
The situation is clearly made possible by the grotesque oversupply of cheap and unhealthy food, both in ubiquitous shops and in supermarkets, and above all by the universal availability of soft drinks. But there is another, moral side to the problem, and it cannot be entirely reduced to the ignorance, greed and weakness of will of consumers. People have always been greedy and weak; something else is needed to explain the aggravation of these natural tendencies.
The missing factor is the loss of a culture of self-control, autonomy and responsibility. These are the most important moral qualities that we try to instil in children as they grow up, yet the consumerist celebration of indulgence, combined with mass culture’s ethos of mindless conformity, have conspired to make people in general assume they cannot change their lives.
The damage seems worse in the private than in the public sphere of our existences. For most people still acquire the discipline needed to complete an education and to function in a job. But in the management of their own bodies and minds, many seem never to have learned to exercise willpower, to defer or abstain from gratification, to conceive that they could live in a different and better way.
The history of eating habits is precisely the subject of a fascinating little exhibition hidden away almost in a corner of the National Gallery of Victoria but well worth a visit. The Art of the Table starts, appropriately, with some of the least nutritionally but most socially significant things we consume: tea, coffee and chocolate.
Today, we can hardly imagine a day without these beverages, especially the first two, yet they entered our lives in Europe only in the 17th century, coming fortuitously from three quarters of the world: tea from China, coffee from Arabia and chocolate from America.
The first coffee shop in London opened in 1652; a half-century later, there were at least 500 and coffee had become an indispensable part of urban life. There was finally a way to sit together and socialise without drinking alcohol: people were alert rather than drunk in coffee shops, so they naturally became places to meet, to exchange ideas, to do business. As newspapers began to appear, they were read and written in cafes. The great insurance company Lloyds began in a coffee shop.
Coffee had an important effect on literature,
November 1-2, 2014 perhaps not yet fully studied, and even beyond fuelling the productions of generations of journalists. Voltaire, for example, is said to have drunk 40 cups a day, and that perhaps helps explain his enormous productivity — his correspondence alone runs to more than 100 volumes. In the following century, Balzac is supposed to have drunk 40 cups a day, and the abundance of his literary style, piling up adjectives and epithets, no doubt reflects the chemical inspiration of caffeine.
Tea remained a luxury for longer. From the early 18th century it became fashionable to take tea with friends in the afternoon, and this evolved into an elaborate meal — still known as high tea. As we learn from the exhibition, the tea itself, initially very expensive, was kept under lock and key and prepared by the hostess in person, while servants might attend to the cakes and other foods.
The custom was English at first and spread to France as part of the Anglophilia of the Enlightenment, although there it remained an upperclass and somewhat self-conscious practice. Even today, most French people assume one must be feeling unwell or be on a special diet to order tea instead of coffee.
In England, meanwhile, tea gradually be- came more affordable and by the early 19th century was drunk by all classes. This made a healthier alternative to the beer that previously was consumed throughout the day, even at breakfast. Cheap tea no doubt contributed to the more sober tone of the Victorian household: at last one could reasonably expect one’s servants not to be tipsy all day.
It’s odd to think water could not be drunk in most modern cities until relatively recently. We still don’t drink tap water in Third World countries, but it was the same even in London or Paris, where it was simply too polluted to be safe — unless processed into beer or boiled for tea or coffee. I remember years ago offering to pour water for an elderly gourmet in Paris who refused in disgust — “Don’t you know that fish piss in it?” he asked. Of course the reality of what once went into urban water supplies was much worse than that.
The more one considers the history of alcohol consumption in the past few centuries, the more its social and cultural ramifications become apparent. Alcohol was nothing like as dangerous in antiquity: the Greeks not only drank water — there is even an enigmatic saying by the great poet Pindar, “water is better” — but always mixed their wine with water, usually with a lot more water than wine. And they had no spirits, which are far more harmful than brewed alcoholic beverages.
It would be interesting to know more about the Renaissance and baroque periods. One could assume that in many cases, the lack of safe drinking water drove the population to drink wine and beer, but there were exceptions such as Rome. One of the ancient aqueducts, the Acqua Vergine, was reopened in the middle of the 15th century, setting the scene for the revival of the city in the High Renaissance, and a second, the Acqua Felice, was restored in the late 16th, as Rome asserted itself once again as capital of the baroque period. Even today, travellers can refill their bottles, all over the city, with crystal-clear spring water.
Northerners, in contrast, especially the Dutch and Germans, had the reputation of being drunks as early as the 16th century. Perhaps in the case of the Dutch this was owing to the greater use of spirits, in particular gin or jenever, which was invented about this time. But even without spirits, being more or less permanently drunk has a number of unfortunate consequences for health, not least chronic dehydration. And it is not hard to see that adding coffee to this regime would only aggravate the risk — much like the problems of drinks such as Coca-Cola, filled with sugar and salt as well as caffeine.
Jenever came to England in the late 17th century, and by the early decades of the 18th, with the deregulated manufacture of cheap gin, there was a crisis of alcoholism among the poor. Everyone drank a lot in 18th-century England — the rich dispatched enormous quantities of French champagne, table wine and brandy as well as fortified wines from Spain, Portugal and Sicily — but even by these standards the suicidal level of non-stop and extreme inebriation among London’s poor was shocking, and legislation was passed to re-regulate the industry.
Compared with a population drunk to the point of unconsciousness and consequently unemployable, malnourished, dehydrated, breeding even more malnourished and unhealthy offspring, simply being mildly tipsy all day from drinking beer seemed a thoroughly acceptable and workable alternative. That is the point made in William Hogarth’s contrast of the happy, healthy and good-natured inhabitants of Beer Street and the cadaverous and dysfunctional populace of Gin Lane (1751).
Meanwhile one more beverage makes an interesting appearance — together with the ceramic and glass implements for its consumption in its various guises. Milk, of course, became a partner of tea, coffee and chocolate, but it was also enjoyed on its own and prepared in various ways as a dessert. Most interesting, and least familiar, is the fashion for toy dairies in the later 18th century.
Everyone has probably heard of MarieAntoinette’s dairy at the Petit Trianon near Versailles, where she and her ladies-in-waiting could play at being milkmaids, but this was apparently only the most prominent example of a broader phenomenon. Dairies were set up on the edges of aristocratic estates, and groups of women would conclude their promenade in the park with a visit, during which they would consume milk in various guises, liquid or solid.
The fact it was women who engaged in the enjoyment of milk in this immediate and minimally processed form is significant. Milk is already quintessentially a feminine substance, and serving it set or cooked into various kinds of sweet puddings is merely to emphasise its “feminine”, baby-food qualities, as contrasted with the implicitly more “masculine” form of cheese, which needs to be cultured, salted and aged, and whose strong, pungent character is the opposite of nursery food.
But there is still more to this line of inquiry. The toy dairies, for all their rather twee Meissen
A silver Samuel Taylor tea caddy set (1749-50)