Hemingway's Feasts

By Meyers, Jeffrey | Papers on Language & Literature, Fall 2007 | Go to article overview

Hemingway's Feasts


Meyers, Jeffrey, Papers on Language & Literature


I

The Hemingway hero, like the author himself, is always hungry, and a good dinner puts him in a good mood. The descriptions of food and drink in Hemingway's work--from youthful journalism to posthumously published fiction, from obscurity to fame--are both autobiographical and literary. His taste in food, as well as his prose style, changes as his travels broaden and his career develops. He describes meals to reveal character, express ideas, convey a mood, set the scene, and evoke the spirit of a foreign place. His characters move around a lot--Hemingway himself ranged from China to Peru--and you can tell where they are by what they eat.

There's a radical change from Hemingway's early to late descriptions of food. They range from vin ordinaire to the finest vintages; from crude fare when camping in the woods, during wars, and on his boats to the haute cuisine of grand hotels in Venice and elegant restaurants in Paris; from rough to refined, simple to sophisticated, provincial to cosmopolitan, naive to pretentious. In the transformation from Brown's Beanery in The Torrents of Spring (1926) and the humble diner in "The Killers" to the increasingly elaborate feasts, beginning with Across the River and Into the Trees (1950), eating replaces action and becomes an end in itself. The shift from the portrayal of food as an essential part of the country and culture to the glorification of the wealthy gourmet's status and taste, signaled by excessive description and a mannered style, reveals the decline of Hemingway's character and his loss of inspiration.

In his youth the foreign food Hemingway knew ranged from spaghetti joints, associated with Italian gangsters, to dreary chop suey parlors. But the rich food and wine he discovered, while still in his teens in wartime Italy, added a new dimension to his life. His celebration of drinking in Europe in the 1920s, when the dollar was strong and alcohol cheap, titillated his readers back home, who were constrained by Prohibition and confined to bootleg whisky and sacramental wine.

In A Moveable Feast (1964), his memoir of Paris in the 1920s, Hemingway claimed to have been poorer than he really was and said he caught pigeons when food was scarce. He wrote that hunger was worse in Paris because he was constantly tempted by the sight and smell of delectable dishes: "You got very hungry when you did not eat enough in Paris because all the bakery shops had such good things in the windows and people ate outside at tables on the sidewalk so that you saw and smelled the food" (69). But he also maintained, when identifying with his heavy-drinking and sometimes alcoholic friends, that lack of food intensified artistic awareness. Hunger, he felt, "sharpens all of your perceptions, and I found that many of the people I wrote about had very strong appetites and a great taste and desire for food, and most of them were looking forward to having a drink" (101).

In "Camping Out" (June 26, 1920), an early evocative article sent from Europe to the Toronto Star, Hemingway, interested in cooking as well as eating, gave exact instructions about how to fry just-caught trout over a coal fire. He based this display of expertise in the rough on his earliest cooking experience and encouraged his readers to follow his example. The pleasure was increased by the androgynous trout: obviously phallic but suggesting, more subtly, the female genitals:

Put the bacon in and when it is about half cooked lay the trout in the hot grease, dipping them in cornmeal first. Then put the bacon on top of the trout and it will baste them as it slowly cooks. ... The trout are crisp outside and firm and pink inside and the bacon is well done--but not too done. (45-46)

This newspaper article foreshadowed the more resonant description of campfire cooking in "Big Two-Hearted River," the longest and most important story in his first trade book, In Our Time (1925). In this story Hemingway uses characteristically short words and simple sentences as well as effective repetition. …

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