"The Tasteful Traveller": Irving's the Sketch Book and the Gustatory Self

By Schnell, Michael | Mosaic (Winnipeg), June 2002 | Go to article overview

"The Tasteful Traveller": Irving's the Sketch Book and the Gustatory Self


Schnell, Michael, Mosaic (Winnipeg)


Washington Irving's The Sketch Book shares forms, themes, and functions with some new arts of its time, those of preparing, enjoying, and writing about food. Thus The Sketch Book comments upon and exemplifies a new sort of production that provokes rather than satisfies the wish to consume.

But one cannot fully understand cultural practices unless [...] the elaborated taste for the most refined objects is reconnected with the elementary taste for the flavours of food.

Pierre Bourdieu, Distinction

**********

Washington Irving's The Sketch Book of Geoffrey Crayon, Gent. exemplifies as well as comments on the incipient consumer culture of its day. The Sketch Book shares an informing motive with the new art of consuming food, formal elements with the products of the new arts of preparing food, and formal and thematic elements with the new literature of food, specifically Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin's The Physiology of Taste. In sharing these elements with these other artifacts of the consumer culture, The Sketch Book takes part in a new economy in which consumption produces a sort of production that provokes rather than satisfies the wish to consume.

The Sketch Book gives us many images of food and drink. For example, Rip Van Winkle shares liquor with "the grave roysters of the mountain" (776). Irving's narrator, Geoffrey Crayon, regrets the passing of the "hot ribbes of beef rosted [sic], pies well baked and other victuals" of a bygone "merry East cheap, [...] ancient region of wit and wassail" ("The Boar's Head Tavern," Sketch 845). And he proffers abundant images of food and drink in the sketches of Christmas at Bracebridge Hall.

Like a multi-course meal rather than a single dish, The Sketch Book is a sequence of separate parts. Each part may enhance the others, especially in the order in which they are presented, but all parts could be (and have been) enjoyed out of the context of the others. Hence The Sketch Book resembles the products of the new culinary virtuosity. Irving published The Sketch Book in 1820, when chefs were first becoming recognized as artists. "In the same way that the social roles of composers, writers and artists were transformed by the emergence of literary and cultural publics, so was that of at least the elite of cooks by the creation of a culinary public" (Mennell 142). Born only a year after Irving, Antonin Careme, a great chef who himself wrote books from 1815 to 1835, "set an ideological pattern as well as a culinary model for French cooks in the nineteenth century" (143-45).

The Sketch Book also has affinities with the art of appreciating food and drink. This art, gastronomy, is a type of what Stephen Mennell calls virtuoso consumption" (111). With the virtuoso preparation and presentation of food, the virtuoso consumption of food was burgeoning as Irving wrote The Sketch Book. "The mid-1820s were a time of intense interest in food and restaurants, and the word 'gastronomy' was on everyone's lips" (MacDonogh 5). With Alexandre-Balthazar-Laurent Grimod de la Reyniere, Brillat-Savarin, who published The Physiology of Taste in 1825, "effectively founded the whole genre of the gastronomic essay" (Mennell 267).

The Sketch Book and Brillat-Savarin's The Physiology of Taste share themes and formal affinities with the culinary arts and their products. Charles Monselet calls Brillat-Savarin's book a chef-like attempt "to please by cutting up the pieces in small and attractive mouthfuls" (xviii). Balzac described it as "an olla-podrida which defies analysis" (qtd. in MacDonogh 208). Like Irving, Brillat-Savarin describes his own book as a series of edible pieces: "I have remembered many things which seemed worth setting down on paper: anecdotes hitherto unknown to the public, witticisms born under my very eyes, recipes of the highest distinction, and other similar hors-d'oeuvres" (295). …

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