Right now I’m working my way through The French Revolution, by Thomas Carlyle. This is a “no-food” book. If it had been written now, instead of in 1833, the chapter I’m reading now might have been titled “The Women Who Had Nothing to Eat,” or “French Women Can’t Get Fat.” As Carlyle relates, generations of appalling Royal French agricultural policy combined with a freak August hailstorm that destroyed the nation’s grain crop to bring
But women don’t want to live off of bread alone. Culture evolves when there’s enough food available that people can chew their meals slowly and ruminate on what life means. Charles Darwin is so famous for his speculations concerning the origins of species that his food writing came as a surprise to me. In The Voyage of the Beagle, Darwin recounts stumbling over fossilized mastodon skulls on the Pampas and he ruminates on the implications of the shark’s teeth he finds imbedded in rocks high up in the Andes, but he also focuses his considerable forensic powers on his dinner plate. One night
Jeffery Steingarten might try to test
Then there’s Beatrix Potter, the gentle storyteller of ordered English landscapes. In The Tale of the Flopsy Bunnies, Beatrix Potter uses the soporific effects of lettuce as the dramatic device by which Farmer McGregor catches six bunnies. Before I flipped the third page I knew things wouldn’t go well for Farmer McGregor, but as a lettuce grower he had my sympathy. I put the Potter book down and turned to my copy of The Oxford Companion to Food, to learn more about the pharmacological properties of lettuce.
I learned that in the beginning there was Lactuca serriola, or wild lettuce, which grew on rocky or disturbed ground across Asia, North Africa, and
In the end, the Flopsy Bunnies are saved by a mouse. Beatrix Potter is no Steingarten, Carlyle, or Darwin. By lulling young readers with a drowsy tale of lettuce and bunnies, she makes the night comfy. But even for farmers like me, who might resent the fictional breaks she gives to varmints, there are reasons to admire Beatrix Potter. Carlyle and Darwin drew their readers’ attention to the dire consequences of shortsighted agricultural policy, but Beatrix Potter did something about it. She invested her earnings from her animal tales in farmland. She knew the best way to preserve the countryside is by protecting working farms, so that consumers can eat fresh, local food, farmers and farm workers remain gainfully employed, and the landscape is well husbanded. When Beatrix Potter passed away she passed her properties on to the National Trust, and today the land the Flopsy Bunnies paid for lies at the heart of
copyright 2008 Andy Griffin