May 16, 2003

Eat yer greens

Moving from economics to gastronomics … Kevin Drum has a short piece on monopsony, picking up from Atrios. He derives its meaning from the Greek; ‘mono’ for one, and ‘opsonia’ for a purchase of fish. In my understanding, however, an opson is a slippier class of a creature than a mere fish. It’s one of those words that’s horribly hard to translate into English (there are plenty of them: classical Greek is rife with words that change their meaning as soon as your back is turned). In classical Greece, there were two basic kinds of food. There was sitos, which is your basic carbohydrate, the ‘staple.’ Bread, most usually. Then there was the opson which is perhaps best defined as ‘dainty;’ whatever you ate with your sitos in order to make it taste nice. Could be meat, could be fish, could be whatever. Now over time, opson came to be more closely identified with fish, as fish became a sought-after (and, in some cases, highly expensive) luxury. But it always carried a secondary meaning, a whiff of luxury and decadence. In other words opson was not only fish, it was fishy.

Now this may sound like pedantry and pettifoggery, if not indeed ungracious carping. But it was actually rather important at the time. According to Xenophon, Socrates fulminated against opsophagoi or gourmands who pursued the opson at the expense of the sitos. Plato’s Republic pursues the distinction further. And James Davidson has written a quite wonderful book, Courtesans and Fishcakes: The Consuming Passions of Classical Athens that constructs an entire theory of Athenian culture, politics and society on the difference between opson and sitos, and what it says about the ways in which Athenians construed the appetites. Go read.

Update: slight alterations to acknowledge the difference between opson and opsonia/opsoneia. Also to note that “monopsony,” in its original sense, is actually quite a strong term. As Davidson demonstrates, people talked about certain fish (a nice juicy eel) in more or less the same terms as a junky would talk about his next fix, and complained bitterly about the prices that fish-sellers charged on the market. So if you got a lock on the fishmarket in 5th century B.C. Athens, you could really put the squeeze on your customers.

Update 2: Brad de Long accuses me of the heinous practice of opsophagy.

Posted by Henry at May 16, 2003 12:18 PM | TrackBack

Oh, I am glad to see that you prefer Xenophon’s Socrates to Plato’s tiresome pedant. He also said that one should not work so much that one has to eat excessively. Quite right, I’m off for a rest and a sanwich now.

Posted by: Edward Hugh at May 16, 2003 02:41 PM

In Chinese the same is true today. The division is fan (rice) and cai (vegetables). Noodles count as rice. Meat can be mixed into the cai.

People who eat the cai and leave rice on their plate are resented or despised. Likewise people who pick the choicest treats off the common cai plate in the middle of the table. In fact, the head of the table usually awards the choicest pieces to whoever is thought to deserve it. Food is heavily ritualized and sacralized in Chinese culture (insult to rice is a serious offense) and many foods are also thought to have medical properties.

K.C. Chang, Food in Chinese Culture.

Posted by: zizka at May 16, 2003 03:56 PM

I wouldn’t go so far as to say that I prefer Xenophon’s Socrates to Plato’s: he’s not as opinionated, but he’s also nowhere near as bright. That said, I love Xenophon’s Anabasis, despite having had to slog through it in Greek class at school. “He thalassa He thalassa.” Never read his Cyropedia, but always meant to.

Zizka; that’s a fascinating bit of information. One of the problems we face when we (by which I mean people like myself, who were educated in the Western tradition) read the classics, is that we think that we already understand them. This is mostly thanks to 19th century educators who tried to create a rather bowdlerized version of Greek and Rome for the moral edification of the young. We tend to look at the Greeks and Romans as Victorian gentlemen in togas and chitons, when in fact they were “foreigners;” men and women with a very different culture. As H.E. Bates says, “The past is a different country; they do things different there.” And in fact, the classical Greeks probably have more in common with “non-Western” countries in many ways than the contemporary world (or indeed 19th century Britain). They certainly learnt a lot from the societies around them, in Africa and Asia Minor. Which is why I’m somewhat sympathetic to efforts like “Black Athena,” which try to link classical culture to Africa, even if I don’t want to take a strong position on the empirical issues - it’s important to understand that there is a real fissure between the classical elements of the “Western canon,” as it’s taught today, and what the classical Greeks themselves thought and did.

Posted by: Henry at May 16, 2003 05:15 PM

Many of the things you have to get used to in classical Greece are similiar those in classical China. When I was young I thought that the idea of a city God was strange, for example, because to me cities were secular. The family piety of Greece probably didn’t approach that of China, but was similiar. The sacrificial religion was similiar. So was the patriarchal extended family, I think. Ideas of ritual pollution, perhaps.

This is most true when you look at the Zuo Zhuan / Tso Chuan, the least bowdlerized and least idealized early source.

Posted by: zizka at May 16, 2003 08:54 PM

‘He’s nowhere near as bright’. Naturally, but then are we talking about Xenophon and Plato here: on the level of intellect, no contest. I still, however, prefer Xenophon as literature, but then I prefer, oh sin of sins, Aristophanes to Sophocles, Aeschylus being, of course,…….. another country.

“He thalassa He thalassa.” Still can’t make up my mind if I prefer tha Walter Hill version in ‘Warriors’ to the original.

On the way we reconstruct the past to suit the present I entirely agree. Can I recommend,if you don’t already know them, Louis Gernet and Walter Burkert (especially Homo Necans).

“19th century educators who tried to create a rather bowdlerized version of Greek and Rome for the moral edification of the young”

I think German romanticism must accept more than a small part of the blame here. In my all to brief encouter with classical Latin I could not avoid noticing the existence for more verbs meaning ‘to kill’ than would probably be considered normal for a culture. I thus prefer the vision of a group of homicidal fraternities who sent themselves mad (whom the gods would destroy…….) drinking cheap plonk from leaden vessels. Probably the extensive filmography of Scorsese has more to tell us about what it was really like to live in classical Rome. And probably we can also ‘thank’ the Romans for handing down to us the legacy of another rather dubious post-modern institution ‘the posse’.

The comments on the ritualised nature of food in Chinese society (actually, following Levi Strauss, in all cultures - maybe ‘in extremis’ the term culture is in fact a synonym for ‘ritualisation of food’: try eg eating a sandwich in the street in Spain and watch how people look at you) are interesting. Wandering through Chinese blogland the other day, I came across an interesting piece on attitudes to cannibalism in Lu Xun’s ‘Diary of Madman’:

The comments thread is also fascinating, they are obviously unaware of the ‘occidental’ tradition on ‘ancestor eating’ to be found in sources like Herodotus.

Posted by: Edward Hugh at May 18, 2003 05:25 AM
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