Sunday, September 8, 2013

Cooking the Gods into Being

It’s a great scene in Book 3 of the Odyssey.  A blacksmith leafs gold round a heifer’s horns; there’s a procession of water, flowers, barley; an axe appears; women cry out; thigh pieces, fat and innards roast; and wine swirls in golden cups.  In the 21st century, do we have anything like this?  Maybe it’s Anthony Bourdain shooting a pig with a revolver in No Reservations: Cajun Country fused with meeting Vincent Price while writing about Paris’ glorious restaurant Lasserre in his A Treasury of Great Recipes: “It is everything a chic Parisian restaurant should be.  The food is beautiful, the service impeccable, and the best-dressed women in the fashion capital are to be seen there” (41).  (And by the way, yes, that Vincent Price: star of many a horror film, gourmand, and art collector.)
Of course, what Bourdain and Price don’t have are the gods who preside over sacrifices and feasts.  Though, to continue the above thought-experiment, consider Athena the equivalent of that divine figure Chairman Takeshi Kaga who lords over Iron Chef. In the Odyssey, to cut the throat of an animal and eat its flesh is to believe the world has meaning and the gods are present.  Athena savors the aroma of sacrifice, the aroma of humans believing in her and believing the world they live in to be shaped a particular way.  This is what it means to cook the gods and the world into being.  Let’s look at the story.
Telemachos has finally had a restful sleep and can’t wait to travel with Nestor’s son Peisistratus to Sparta and hear more stories of his father from King Menelaos and Helen.  So far, so good.  But for now he must wait as King Nestor prepares a sacrifice and a feast.  Hospitality sometimes requires putting off what we most wish to do in order to not insult our host.  Anyway, Nestor’s youngest daughter Polycaste is going to bathe him, rub him with oil, and then clothe him so that he looks like “an immortal god.”  There are worse reasons to wait.  But for a moment, let’s consider what it means to sacrifice, what it means to feast. 
The two go together throughout the Odyssey.  As Pierre Vidal Naquet points out in his essay Land and Sacrifice, “Pylos is the land of perpetual sacrifice, the model of a religious country,” and with that, a land of perpetual feasting (45).  The core myth exists in Hesiod’s Theogony, where gods and humans gather at Mekone.  Prometheus leads the reconciliation by, it seems, proposing that he butcher a great ox and serve it up to both parties.  A contest of wits ensues when Prometheus places a layer of delicious fat over bones, and then on the other side of the outstretched oxhide, he lays tender meats and innards under the animal’s stomach.  Well, well, which will Zeus choose . . . and yes, that is why “the tribes of men on earth / Burn white bones to the immortals upon smoking altars” (558-9).  Back to Pylos.
The blacksmith wraps gold around the horns, Aretus carries a bowl of water and a basket of barley, Nestor washes his hands, sprinkles barley, prays to Athena, cuts hair off “the victim’s head” and throws that on the fire.  A sacred realm has been marked, now the blood.

            These rites done, high-hearted Thrasymedes
            Came up and struck.  When the axe severed
            The sinews of the neck, and the heifer collapsed,
            The women raised the ritual cry, Nestor’s daughters,
            The wives of his sons, and his august wife,
            Eurydice, eldest of Clymenus’ daughters.
                                                               (Od. 3.492-7)

As you can tell, this is a family affair and the family being royal, this is the most regal of sacrifices.  I will point out that the ritual lamentation of women also figures prominently in funerals as with Patroclus and Hector in the Iliad.  Whether animal or human, the moment of death is marked by a voice pining its passing.  Now the cooking can begin.

                                                            At his side
            Were young men holding five-tined forks.
            When the thigh pieces were burned and the innards tasted,
            They carved up the rest, skewered the pieces,
            And roasted them holding the spits in their hands.
                                                                 (Od. 3.506-10)

This is grilling old-school style.  No lime-green Weber grill, no rack, no charcoal and lighter fluid, no black Weber smoker with applewood and hours of slow cooking.  No, this is hold the fork in your hand (a long fork) and put it to the fire until that meat drips sweet, sweet meat juice into the sparking flame.  Athena accepts the sacrifice, smells the firing fat and the world again comes into being.  By that phrase, I mean without certain rituals, without an understanding at Mekone or Pylos, the world as Nestor and Telemachos believe it to be wouldn’t come into existence.  I get it.
Almost every evening I’m cooking in the kitchen. Dr. Maya and Demian hang out and play in the living room, while the kitten scampers all between.  I might slowly sweat onions and carrots in duck fat, roast a chicken or a whole fish, steam corn in its husk, or slowly turn tomato paste and a sofrito into a dark mass of goodness.  Dr. Maya may sit at the counter and tell me stories of Alpha that day—what did Dr. Morrisson say?  What did Dr. Rainbow counter?  Demian may turn into a dragon or yeti or raptor or Harry Potter.  Either and anyway, when we sit down at the dinner table, raise our glasses for cheers and praise, we bring our family into existence.  We maintain a connection that makes our world meaningful to us, and it’s done with vegetables that have been gathered from the earth, an animal that has been slaughtered, and a sacred combination of fire, water, air and earth.  I can’t think of a better way to bring our life into reality.  I’m sure Nestor and Telemachos would agree.
--John Harvey

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