Emendation via Degustation.

From G.W. Bowersock’s NYRB review of two books on the history of food (and I’m as pleased as Bowersock is that the subject is finally being taken seriously):

Petronius’ depiction in the first century AD of a banquet at the house of the pretentious parvenu Trimalchio remains one of the great satires of gourmandise in Western literature. A cookbook of the time […] has survived in later copies under the name of Apicius, and I cherish the account I had many years ago from Barbara Flower, the translator of this work, about her efforts to establish a sound Latin text. She prepared each of the recipes herself in the presence of the great textual critic Paul Maas, who, when the preparation was obviously in trouble, would emend the Latin original on the spot until the dish appeared to be in order. This was editing of a kind such as not even that formidable editor of Latin authors A.E. Housman could have imagined, and it illustrates the unexpected consequences of culinary studies of the past.


  1. “From Gustible’s Planet”, a short and lighthearted tale by Cordwainer Smith (aka Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger) about the Apicians, the intelligent inhabitants. They resemble oversized ducks and enjoy eating “popcorn, alfalfa, raw fruit, live fish, birds on the wing, prepared foods, cooked and canned foods, food concentrates, and assorted medicines”. But after an unfortunate accident leads to a dreadful discovery, the Apicians return to Gustible’s Planet, never again to reappear in Galactic society.

    (If you have trouble reading the page, use the menu at the top to change the color scheme to “White”.)

  2. What a wonderful writer he was.

  3. john Emerson says

    Somewhat on topic, my memory of Rabelais’ talk about food is that it is more gourmet than gourmet, involving large quantities of hams, sausages, tripe, game, poultry, cabbages, turnips, etc., and if I’m not mistaken, all of the legendary French chefs were later than him.

    Likewise, his obscenity was scatological and blasphemous, but not very erotic. (Why that is “likewise”, I don’t know.)

  4. What do you mean, you don’t know? They were insufficiently cartoonish-French!

  5. Thanks, John Cowan, for introducing me to “From Gustible’s Planet”. What a great story!

  6. David Marjanović says

    large quantities of hams, sausages, tripe, game, poultry, cabbages, turnips, etc.

    C’est pour nous que le boudin grille,
    C’est pour nous qu’on l’a conservé (bis)
    Ne vois-tu pas dans la cuisine
    Rôtir des Dindons et Gigots!

  7. my memory of Rabelais’ talk about food is that it is more gourmet than gourmet

    Should the first gourmet be emended to gourmand?

  8. I was going to say that Cordwainer Smith was riffing on Charles Lamb’s “Dissertation Upon Roast Pig”, but apparently Lamb also got that from a friend, and the idea dates back to classical antiquity, the writing of Porphyry. (Which doesn’t push it quite as far back as Apicius himself.)

  9. I recently acquired a copy of M. F. K. Fisher’s translation of Brillat-Savarin formerly belonging to my father. Fisher’s notes are as entertaining as the source text. There are not a lot of recipes in it though.

    We’ve lately been enjoying the television series The Supersizers. It’s about a young couple who spend a week each eating the cuisine of various different historical periods In England, based on contemporary records. We get it on Hulu.

    There is an episode going back to the Roman period but I haven’t watched it yet.

  10. marie-lucie says

    If I remember correctly, Rabelais’s characters show gloutonnerie rather than gourmandise. Gourmets they are not.

  11. I wish I could remember who told me this, but 30+ years ago a classicist told me that back in the ’40s the Classics faculty of the University of London spent a great deal of time and energy arranging unbreakable previous engagements so they would have excuses for missing Flowers and Rosenbaum’s weekly Apicius parties. Apparently, their reconstructions of Roman food were not very tasty, at least to begin with. Personally, I’m very fond of vitellina fricta (Apicius 8.5.1): veal cutlets with raisins and onions, fried in a purple sauce made of honey, vinegar, wine, boiled-down grape juice, and various spices. Apicius doesn’t provide any quantities, but it’s obviously supposed to be sweet-and-sour, so you just have to balance the honey and boiled-down grape juice with the vinegar. Do you all know Bill Thayer’s Lacus Curtius? It’s the place to go for less-popular ancient authors, mostly Latin prose, such as Aulus Gellius and Macrobius. His Apicius (English only so far) is here. He types in texts for accuracy, rather than scanning them and slapping them up without ever reading them, as so many sites do with out-of-copyright texts.

  12. Cordwainer Smith and Dostoyevsky are my father’s favorite authors. He likes to say that “From Gustible’s Planet” is Smith’s only story that’s really about alien characters. The aliens in “When the People Fell,” “A Planet Named Shayol,” and “Under Old Earth” are more just enigmas, in his opinion.

  13. Your father has excellent taste! Now I’m wondering how Smith/Linebarger and Dostoyevsky would have gotten along.

  14. If I remember correctly, Rabelais’s characters show gloutonnerie rather than gourmandise. Gourmets they are not.

    So if a gourmand is not a glouton, how is he different from a gourmet? In English, gourmand seems to be used as either synonymous with glutton (OED def. B.1: “One who is over-fond of eating, one who eats greedily or to excess, a glutton”) or with gourmet (B.2: “One who is fond of delicate fare; a judge of good eating”).

    I used to watch a French game show called Questions pour un champion, in which one of the regular prizes (I forget what, some kitchen appliance presumably) was always described as “pour les gourmets et les gourmands”. I figured it meant “both for connoisseurs of good food and for those who just like to stuff themselves”, but it sounds like I was wrong?

  15. Now I too am wondering how Linebarger and Dostoyevsky would have interacted. Russia was never Linebarger’s favorite part of the world, but nevertheless, as a prominent diplomat he seems to have had a pretty lucid understanding of how 20th century Soviet Russia worked. The depiction on the MVD agents in “No, No, Not Rogov” rings true in a way that most 50s-era Western writing does not. That story is a brilliant parody of the Soviet system, which most of his contemporary readers probably could never appreciate.

  16. Exactly. He and Dostoyevsky would have had very different views, but might have found the difference stimulating to thought and conversation. I used to enjoy talking to my right-wing uncle, who was firm in his views but no dummy and often surprisingly tolerant.

  17. Gourmand seems to be ambiguous in French, at least historically: the TLFI gives “Qui mange avec avidité et avec excès” as the first definition, which is marked vieilli ‘old-fashioned, dated’, and “Qui aime la bonne nourriture et qui sait l’apprécier” as the second. Evidently English picked up the first definition. One of the quotations says: “Gourmet et gourmand ne sont pas interchangeables. Un gastronome est un gourmet; un gourmand n’en est pas nécessairement un. On peut être gourmand de chocolat et de sucreries et n’être en aucune façon connaisseur pour les autres éléments qui constituent les plaisirs de la table.” (1972) Still, “not necessarily” is not the same as “never”.

  18. John Emerson says

    Yes, yes, “gourmand”! My fingers have a very stupid mind of their own.

  19. John Emerson says

    In Sartre’s “Les Mots”, his Alsatian relatives are the Rabelaisan ones; his French mother prefers nuance and finesse.

  20. marie-lucie says

    Glouton, gourmand, gourmet

    JC, I agree with the modern definitions of gourmand and gourmet. The older, obsolete definition of gourmand fits rather the modern meaning of glouton which has to do with quantity not quality (someone who just shovels food into their mouth, without much attention to its taste). It also fits in with the fact that la gourmandise was one of the seven deadly sins! Gourmand is very often used in describing children, especially with respect to their love of sweets, chocolate, etc, while gourmet is more likely to apply to older adults with a “discriminating” and “educated” palate although content with small amounts of food.

    Both glouton and gourmand have feminine forms (gloutonne and gourmande), but to my knowledge there is no feminine equivalent of gourmet. Une gourmette exists but has a completely different meaning: a thin gold or silver chain used as a bracelet, often given to baby girls.

  21. Etymonline and TLFI say that French gourmet has been altered under the influence of gourmand, but is < older groume(te) ‘wine-taster’ < ‘wine-merchant’s servant’, perhaps related to English groom ‘horse-tender’ < ‘servant’. None of these words have any known ultimate etymology.

  22. marie-lucie says

    JC, very interesting. Perhaps the “groumet” had to taste the wine to make sure it was not poisoned, or it was of a suitable quality, and therefore he had to be able to identify even subtel variations in taste.

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