R. G. G. PRICElives in Sussex and has contributed much light writing and literary criticism to PUNCH.He writes for the ATLANTIC on a variety of subjects.
One evening a man I wanted to impress with my conversation took me to a Spanish restaurant. I did not know the language, so I chose from the menu at random. When the sweet came it was about a quarter of a pound of nougat and you were apparently expected to eat it with a tiny fork.
Nougat is good stuff if you can tear away at it in private, calling, if necessary, on the resources of a Home Repair set; but it does not go with good talk. My mouth was already dry after some desiccated and salinated fish. The nougat swelled and I could feel it taking an impression of my teeth, while my host popped little soft pink things into his mouth and asked me about the modern French novel. I tried to look quizzical but I must have looked befogged. He changed down and talked about the cost of living. When I regained the freedom of my mouth it was too late.
Traditionally wit and gastronomy go together, but the mechanics of the partnership are puzzling. The Greeks and the Romans, who worked on problems like the immortality of the sold at banquets, made things even harder for themselves by lying twisted on couches, a posture that is practical for asparagus on the stem but not for the kind of food that was actually served, as it is described for us by satirists flaying gluttony. Ancient food sounds as though it would generally have needed a strong downward thrust. Just try eating a lamprey while saying, “If now, wonderful Thrasymachus, injustice be in one, whether does it lose its power, or will it no less retain it?” — and this, at least according to Spens’s translation, is how the Socrates set talked at meals.
At modern banquets, you get halfway into a chain of witty paradoxes when you find that a waiter is holding a dish of interconnected food behind and above your left ear, and by the time you have served yourself your audience has broken away. Once the food is safely in front of you, you have to keep darting looks in two directions: at your hearers, to add the power of the human eye to the hypnotic effect of your words, and at your fork, to make sure you are not ludicrously lifting it bare. The old phrase “the flow of soul" suggests an effortless, carefree outpouring, but to obtain this effect while unpicking an ortolan is acting.
Of course, the wit will have learned as a child not to talk with his mouth full, and perhaps wish that he had learned how to. Eating, like breathing while in song, must take place during natural pauses. The trouble is that what seems a natural pause to one wit may strike his rival as a heaven-sent opportunity for getting into the act. One can work through a mouthful of omelet or mousse during a laugh easily enough or, if the conversation is philosophical, while the company are grappling with a question about Being or Knowing: the pause can be momentary. A mouthful of old steak, on the other hand, may mean a silence so prolonged as to amount to abdication.
Of course, once the solid stuff has been bulldozed and the port and nuts and brandy and cigars are circulating, the wits and sophists get a clear run; but by then the ear of the table has been caught, not by the adroit talkers, but by the adroit caters. A man who holds back his repartee until after the cheese might as well save it for another day.
I have been talking as though all conversation took place at dinner. During the nineteenth century, however, there was an inexplicable vogue for conversational breakfasts. Wits and gossips like Crabb Robinson and Samuel Rogers were prepared to serve their guests heavy meat meals soon after dawn. The characters in Oliver Wendell Holmes talked on the oddest subjects at the breakfast table. This, of course, was before the time of the modern cereal, whose pops and crackles would soon put an end to any rational discussion. Today breakfast is essentially a solitary meal that goes with the private reading of a newspaper. It is true that in many homes it is lifted into frenzy by the presence of children; but in an ideal world, breakfast would be a time of gentle self-communing. In any case, it is not a suitable setting for the kingfisher swoop and scorpion sting of good talk.
How did the legendary tabletalkers manage? I suppose that Coleridge’s opium would have reduced his appetite and he probably improvised his iridescent metaphysics undistracted by hunger. I wonder whether his audience took opiates too. Macaulay apparently never stopped talking at all. He sounds a lull-blooded, healthy man and not a starveling, and he probably had a nourishing meal before he arrived at Holland House. Perhaps once there he was served with stage food just to keep up the illusion.
Oscar Wilde had the figure of a good trencherman, and I find it difficult to believe that, however much he had laid down before he came, he sal nibbling olives and sipping wine while fashionable London guzzled. I suppose he had established such command of his hearers that he could break off in the middle of a conversational cadenza for a second helping and find them waiting patiently when he was ready to resume. Whistler, on the other hand, had the soured attitude to life of a man on a diet. There is a research thesis waiting for somebody on the effects of dieting on conversation. ditto vegetarianism.
One advantage that the host has in these mixed battles of food and words is that he can rig the menu. He can have himself served with mock lobster while the guests have lobsters that seem to have had their meat glued into their shells. It should not be impossible to work out ways of making macaroni easy for the man with the know-how but as good as a gag for the common diner. I cannot remember whether Lucrezia Borgia had conversational ambitions. If she had, she would have been just the hostess to include spices that paralyzed the vocal cords while stepping up acuteness of hearing. Many a wit must have founded his career on fixing a cook or a waiter. In fact, I am beginning to wonder whether the Spanish word on that menu really meant nougat after all.