plus the Forgotten Pleasures of Life
by Max Ventura
first published in the VIE magazine Cosmopolis #40 (2003)
In my not excessively wide experience as a reader, throughout the years, I have never noticed an author so much concerned with the pictorial representation of food, drink and sybaritic leisures with the same dedication as Jack Vance.
Pick any of his mature works (meaning any book written after The Dragon Masters, which we can regard as his true step into notoriety and maturity), and, some pages into the story, any given character will notice it’s time for supper, will probably step into a tavern, an open-air café, to a vendor’s cart, and thereupon the author will elaborate for us on the quality and composition of the dishes served, the drinks that go with them, and the after dinner treats.
To begin with, JV calls the act of eating at specific times of the day with a great variety of names, some of them by now forgotten in modern English: supper, collation, repast, refreshment being just some examples.
Let us now analyze why JV puts so much emphasis on food and drink that are both traditional and exotic to the average American culture.
Jack Vance was born an American, and while he did grow up encircled by what was already developing into The Melting Pot culture, he soon took to the seas with the Merchant Marine and his own experiences differed from those of his peers.
When travelling during short-term vacations, Americans rarely adapt to the places they’re visiting, for practical reasons, preferring hotels and resorts that somehow replicate the comforts, the choices and the lifestyle they are most accustomed to. Also, their forays into foreign languages are, at most, food-oriented, to the usual annoyance of local waiters. But in the case of Jack Vance, the Marine took him long months away, and he had the proper time to develop real ‘relationships’ with his ports of call, a chance not normally offered to the casual traveller.
In JV depictions of food, the keen reader discovers more than a casual reference to Mediterranean cooking, with the greatest prevalence for Spanish and French cuisine, rather than Italian or Greek, and even a hearty serving of traditional cooking from the British Isles, all sprinkled by mostly wine, of several qualities but always true and genuine, and types of ales and beers very different from the ones commercially distributed in the United States.
A typical luncheon on the Esplanade at Avente, or at Ys in the Vale Evander, or even on Wyst, may well include any of the following: a serving of lightly fried sardines in a paper cone, followed by a dish of broad beans sauteed with bacon and parsley, a serving of marinated slices of pheasant in a garlic and vinegar sauce, a bowl of percebs (a Galician seasnail) simmered in oil and garlic with white wine, a relish of leeks and onions, half a loaf of crusty new bread sprinkled with thyme and coarse salt, a dessert pudding of apricots and cream, a tankard of brown ale, and a goblet of tawny sweet wine for a finish.
Never do we witness water served at mealtime. Never do we witness someone eating on the run, or while doing something else. On the other hand, Vance almost never names highly alcoholic mixtures or spirits except wine, beer or ale, and sweet liquors such as port or digestives.
The attitude JV has about the meals is similar to that my own late father had, a Sicilian man transplanted in Milan who separated himself from the dinner table a good 45 minutes after I, a restless youth, had quickly ingurgitated my portions and raced to business elsewhere.
The meal on a terrace overlooking a city square, or a portion of beach, is a Vance fascination: in fact, he often depicts such moments, as well as the opposite ones, like a warming meal taken in a cozy tavern, in front of a sparkling fire, in from a cold and windy night on the moors.
Let us for a moment remember the magician Shimrod and his half-witch belle, Melancthe, when he says to her that “a simple dish of mussels, sauteed with white wine and garlic, served with a loaf of crusty bread, is a dish people of good sense eat”. They take their meal, thereafter, on the open terrace of her seafront villa, a tremendously Hellenic image of Mediterranean languidity and aesthetics.
For Vance, meals and snacks, when the time allows, are a most important part of the day, and he takes pain in identifying each one and placing it correctly in the span of the day: the breakfast in the morning is derived straight from the Anglo-Saxon tradition, with sausages, eggs, porridge, bacon, ham, sweetcakes and juices; whereas Mediterranean people prefer a simple milk & coffee or cappuccino with cookies or donuts, and only rarely do they allow anything salty at that time in the morning. The lunch is taken when the sun is high in the sky, therefore between 12 noon and 1 pm, and it is generally quicker than breakfast or dinner, with a serving of meats, either coldcuts or recently grilled, and a wash of beer or ale, with some fruit for dessert. But it’s at supper time that we encounter the magnificence of Vance’s descriptions, what with stuffed fowls, suckling pigs roasted over fire with cinnamon apples and onions, pickled salmon and fresh flounders poached in wine, carafes of soft white wine, sweetmeats and a cornucopia of fruits, even some extinct ones, puddings, tarts and cakes.
Largely, as I pointed out earlier in this article, Jack Vance draws from the West-Mediterranean tradition of cooking; being Italian myself, and being a former chef in one of my previous incarnations, I can recognize no Italian cooking in his books, but I do recognize a wealth of Northern-Spanish dishes, in particular Cantabrian and Galician ones (me and the missus spent our honeymoon in Galicia, summer 2002), Provencal ones (Provence is in the south of France and its herb-ridden cooking can somewhat resemble middle-Italian cuisine), ancient English tavern food (pork and mutton pies, stews, stuffed game), some Northern European dishes (preserved and pickled fish), and even German and Eastern-European meats and coldcuts, which are not typical of the Mediterranean area.
Curiously, we seem not to encounter any Oriental cuisine in Vance’s books, although Jack travelled far in the South Pacific and the Indies, and Chinese/Japanese food is widely accepted in the States and Britain; we encounter no rice dishes, no soy-based influences, no coconut or palm ingredients, and also Carribean and South-American flavours are totally absent from his writings.
Speaking of drinks, Jack relies mostly on wine, using the word also as a substitute for ‘beverage’ in general, which is the same way our ancestors used to define it: bread and wine as a synonym for food and drink, even though we realize that, obviously, most of a man’s intake of drink must be water if he wishes to continue living. The wines JV mentions are normally of three kinds: hearty and robust reds, which are common in any country in the world nowadays; soft whites, which are a bit less common being more prone to early acidity than reds; and sweet dessert wines, which, although commonly found in any bar of the world, are almost exclusively vinted in Spain and Italy. The beers and ales he describes are not Bud or the like, nor are they the microbrews so much in fashion on the East Coast these days; they are, in truth, mostly Scottish, Belgian and Danish productions that we have in abundance in Europe, but that rarely cross the Atlantic. So we reckon he met them here in Europe, while travelling, as he did for most of his recipes. Jack Vance did not derive his taste for food from American cuisine, that’s a fact.
We realize at this point that Jack Vance has specific tastes and makes them all too clear to us. Also, we realize that he definitely pushes forward to us specific foods and never mentions others that strangely enough are much more popular in our world.
An example: here’s the king of the Vancian table: the Turnip.
Turnips pop up everywhere across the Gaean Reach, the Dying Earth, the Elder Isles, and Beyond. We find turnips and leeks paired together in most meals. Never do we see carrots, lettuce, broccoli, cucumbers, eggplants, peas or spinach.
The turnip, a root somewhat similar to a carrot but of a different taste and colour, and the leek, a hybrid of onion, celery and possibly asparagus, are definitely not the rage of today’s international cooking. In fact, you’d be very hard pressed to find a turnip at your local grocer’s. We can reckon those veggies to be more related to our grandparents’ diet than ours; I have, for a fact, never chanced upon a turnip in the last 10 years at least, not in a restaurant, not at a grocer’s, nor at anybody’s house. Leeks? Barely more present than turnips.
And what about rice? Two-thirds of the world population sustain themselves on this grain, but I do not recall any mention of it in any Vance tale. I might be mistaken, of course, but I believe in essence this to be true.
Some other interesting views Jack Vance has in some of his books are the sad situations when someone eats alone and has no company (the lonely, cold meals in Marune, where eating is considered a private act equal to voiding), and JV makes a point of that; or the long hours spent by someone just sitting idly by the fire, or by the porch, cracking walnuts and sipping sweet wine (a favourite pastime of King Casmir of Lyonesse). Those are situations so typical of bygone times as to bring once again to my mind the memories of my late father, who indulged in the same cracking of nuts for ages, a pastime now totally unknown to the younger generations of bumpkins skipping to the nearest cheeseburger joint for a quick fix of saturated, artificial fats.