If there’s a conclusion to be drawn from C. M. Kauffmann’s Eve’s Apple to The Last Supper: Picturing Food in the Bible, it is surely that food’s cultural currency is both universal and particular. His opening chapter, which discusses what he refers to as the ‘Basic Features’ of biblical comestibles – bread, wine, and fish – points out that the first of these has an almost ubiquitous anthropological history as a staple. The metaphorical and literal prevalence of bread in the Bible, therefore, uses its unchallenged status as a human essential to articulate the fundamental expedience of the Christian creed. Christ can declare himself “the bread of life” and then literalise this claim by supplying the cereal necessity. Yet bread has a broader synecdochal resonance: it alsorepresents the universalising symbolic force of food itself, and thus justifies the centrality of damning and miraculous acts of eating in multiple biblical narratives.
It is likely because, and not in spite of, food’s omnipresence in human life that its various manifestations and methods of consumption tend to be temporally and geographically localised. As Kauffmann recognises, any foodstuff to appear in the Bible that isn’t one of the three ‘Basic Features’ is rarely identified – perhaps its authors realised that the ubiquity of food’s appeal is contingent upon a generalising, non-specificity of reference. As the book turns its attention to artistic representations of the Bible’s ‘food moments’, it becomes clear that illustrators and artists from almost every period of Christian history were obliged to make decisions regarding what food it was appropriate to include in their visualisations.
On occasion, an artist’s choice of food appears to have been based upon its obvious symbolic import, with only a weak connection to contemporary customs. The abundance of cherries in Ghirlandaio’s 1480 frescoed depiction of the Last Supper is probably not a comment on their prominence in the 15th-century Florentine diet but a chromatic gesture to the blood of Christ. The resemblance between the colour of cherry juice and the colour of blood is not an association particular to the gastronomical climate Ghirlandaio was painting in. But the rationale underlying pictorial decisions made in relation to food is not always so overt. The identity of Eden’s Forbidden Fruit was notoriously contested, despite the prevailing tradition of interpreting it to be an apple. There are multiple putative explanations as to how and why the apple-identity came to be bestowed upon Eve’s fruit. One account for fruity trends outside of the Western Church relates different portrayals to the agrarian customs of geographies in which they were produced. Apples were the most widely available fruit in north-western Europe when they first started popping up in artistic depictions of Eden; the same is also true of figs in the Byzantine Empire and their prevalence in eastern visualisations of the Genesis story.
As well as reflecting the prominence of food in the Bible itself, Christian art introduced new scenes of food and cooking to certain biblical narratives. These interpolations often reflect the theological concerns and cultural tides of the painter’s contemporary society. A particularly pertinent example of this phenomenon is the popularity of depicting Joseph cooking in the Nativity scene, which arose in the late 14th century. Despite having no basis in the Gospels, Kauffmann suggests that this pictorial innovation reflects a cultural concern with the accessibility of the Bible. In reaction to the early medieval emphasis on Jesus’ divinity, this pre-Renaissance period sought to humanise the son of God; the rehabilitation of Joseph in his paternal role was conducted through domestic scenes such as cooking. This aided the cultivation of an exoteric Christian iconography, which might be understood and appreciated by the lay community.
The domesticity of food, which this final example of pictorial trends in Christianity utilises, is, I believe, the most persistent capacity in which food appears in art (literary, theatrical, and cinematic, as well as visual). While it has other tonal associations – notably, the celebratory (Gatsby’s tea-party for Daisy) and the sexual (Peter Greenaway’s The Cook, the Thief, His Wife & Her Lover) – most commonly art tends to evoke the familiarity of cooking and eating: think of the rich, creamy milk that accompanies Stephen Dedalus, Buck Mulligan, and Haines’ breakfast of eggs, bread, butter, and honey at the start of Ulysses, or of Proust’s ‘Madeleine moment’.
But the quotidian, comforting presence of food also renders the edible trope ripe for subversion. One novel infamous for its strikingly detailed, if not especially appetising, description of its protagonist’s eating habits is Iris Murdoch’s The Sea, the Sea. From the custard creams he is offered in his cousin’s flat to his own seemingly impossible concoction of “an egg poached in hot scrambled egg”, Charles Arrowby provides, with excruciating fastidiousness, an account of practically everything he eats across the course the novel, as well as extended passages reflecting on his culinary philosophy. Charles’ investment in what he cooks reflects his theatrical background: the care and thought devoted to the production of a one-person meal which will be gone in a matter of minutes bathetically mirrors the transient art of the stage, which has, somewhat ironically, been his life’s work. Food exposes Charles’ lack of self-awareness: at one point he insists that he is “not a petty purist who refuses to drink wine with curry”, an assertion which sits oddly in a passage full of his prescriptive culinary aphorisms. It reveals his obsessiveness and makes us recognise his isolation: the ritual routineness of his meals stands out in his otherwise unstructured and solitary life. That he considers it worth describing each course of the lunch he eats after the long-lost son of his kidnapped childhood sweetheart turns up is particularly disconcerting. As the plot progresses, Charles’ life increasingly ceases to bear any semblance to normality. Food is no longer a comforting part of the everyday but a false ritual that persists crudely throughout the drama. It works in a sense like the Freudian uncanny, being simultaneously the most normal of Charles’ habits and one of the most horrifying.
While Christian artists included food in the biblical scenes they depicted in order to familiarise them, Murdoch utilises food to emphasise the total abnormality which can characterise human life. Yet this in itself depends upon its cultural salience. Food is both a necessity and a luxury: it can damn you or save you, reinforce the comforting norm or expose a bizarre reality.