‘Gross are they who see in eating and drinking nought but grossness’
- The Feasts of Autolycus – The Diary of a Greedy Woman, Elizabeth Pennell, 1896
Christmas is the season of feasting. We become focused on what we eat – where, with who and what it all means. This is all part of the fun, of course. Yet all the festive indulgence (and the New Year asceticism that usually follows) can also ratchet up our complicated attitudes to food: Christmas holds a magnifying glass to our collective notions of food and pleasure. Take January, for example. The serving of dietary guilt that we’re fed in the New Year is part of a much wider dichotomous cultural: one that tells us ‘we’re worth it’ while fostering a simultaneous appetite for self-denial. It’s time to stop the mixed messages and forge a more balanced approach to the comforts and creativity of eating. So forget the binge and detox cycle this year. Over a century ago one forward thinking female Aesthete had a much better answer. Women today could do far worse that listen.
Elizabeth Pennell was a prominent member of London’s artistic glitterati in the 1890s. She lived an impressively flamboyant life – travelling around Europe, penning articles for the Pall Mall Gazette and hosting Thursday night Salons for the likes of Aubrey Beardsley, Oscar Wilde and George Bernard Shaw. Particularly progressive were her attitudes to eating, collected in the provocatively titled Diary of a Greedy Woman. The book offers well-grounded advice on how to savour the pleasures of food: ideas that are not only relevant today, but seem especially remarkable within the context of late Victorian attitudes to the table. Peers, such as the infamous Mrs Marshall, used food as battleground for order and control – ossifying the dinner table into submission with jellies and aspic; contemporary fiction was rife with Victorian horror of the bodily; much domestic literature lauded a dainty ‘female’ appetite, with a particular tendency towards an ideal of middle or upper class ‘delicacy’. Pennell, however, champions a woman’s right to the pleasures of her own appetite. Contrary to its title, her ‘diary’ is really a manifesto for thoughtful (not excessive) eating, long before psychotherapist Susie Orbach made ‘conscious’ eating an antidote to today’s ‘disordered’ appetites. With rebellious determination, Pennell calls attention to the beauty of singular raw ingredients, exotic dishes and the joy of seasonality.
Her case for the cultivated enjoyment of one’s own appetite is strikingly modern: her ideas revolve around simplicity, provenance, aesthetics. Worryingly, however, the fundamental problem she is fighting in 1896 also seems resonant in the 21st century:
‘To-day women, as a rule, think all too little of the joys of eating [. . .] They refuse to recognize that there is no less art in eating well than in painting well or writing well’
Well over a century later, we might consider ourselves far evolved beyond restrictive, Victorian attitudes to food. Yet the onslaught of diet and deprivation articles in January suggests otherwise. It seems, just like the Victorians, we create our own modern ‘purity’ fetish.
Of course at this time of year, these attitudes to food crosses gender boundaries. In unusually broad coverage, we are all dished out the contradictory notions that are usually directed at women’s bodies throughout the rest of the year. The December/January extremes act as a microcosm of the Janus-like attitudes we are fed implicitly all year round. We are hooked on home baking programmes and drool over luscious Instagram feeds; yet the most popular modern food trend (Clean Eating) has fetishized the restriction of whole food groups – sugar, dairy, gluten. The very core of our advertising industry is built on selling the paradox that chocolate, ice-cream and alcohol is the route to female sexuality and allure, but we are unremittingly sold a homogenous version of thin female beauty. And of course the diet industry, by definition, relies on encouraging polarized attitudes to indulgence and restraint: a yo-yo regime of denial and subsequent excess is key, since if their solutions weren’t temporary, they’d soon be out of business.
We need to re-frame our notions of ‘greed’ and ‘grossness’; let’s not label sensory pleasure under the bracket of indulgence and excess. We do not need purging after a period of convivial, life-affirming celebration. Pennell’s code of beauty and connoisseurship offers a much more liberating proposition, and we could do worse than apply her words to the complicated world of food that women navigate today. If we learn to eat well, uncomfortable excess and stringent restriction play no part in our genuine satisfaction. Echoing her literary contemporaries’ call for ‘Art for Art’s sake’, Pennell made her battle cry food for food’s sake: taking ownership of one’s own appetites and gratifications. An appreciation of the sensory is something to delight in, not quash. At Christmas in particular, her reasoned exuberance and unapologetic inclination for the delicious is infectious. This is the real basis of joy and merriment.
Pennell stands out as a food rebel of her time. But we are not without our own today. Although Instagram might have you believe that an avocado obsession is the quickest way to multiple followers, there are plenty of female voices in food that demand to be heard. Diana Henry, Grace Dent, Nadiya Hussain: just a handful of women can look to today to find similar bravado and strength in the world of food. There are podcasts that celebrate women in food (Cherry Bombe) and influential food-hubs such as Food 52 (founded and run by women) that approach food with curiosity, inclusivity and style. These are the women our girls should be listening to. Food shouldn’t be mobilised to codify the body or build moral superiority. Strip away all the baggage and its beauty is really its simplicity: everyday pleasure that can nourish both our physical and inner wellbeing. Lose that straightforward connection and we risk getting lost in a labyrinth of dis-connection and fundamental body dis-ease. And that’s certainly no recipe for festive cheer or a ‘healthy’ New Year.
Leonie Sooke is a freelance chef and founder of www.curatedcakes.com. Find her on instagram @leoniesooke, and on Twitter @gossbowl.