I recently wrote a paper for a conference celebrating the one hundred and fiftieth anniversary of Nikolai Gogol’s death, and I found myself caught up in his world of culinary excess and delight. Gogol is the nineteenth-century Russian writer best known in the West for his novel Dead Souls and his short story “The Nose,” which Dmitri Shostakovich turned into a popular opera. Gogol’s wild imagination fills his stories with characters like the nose that a Saint Petersburg barber discovers in his breakfast roll. Dressed up in a fancy uniform, the nose travels throughout the city by coach, putting on airs. Gogol’s imagination extends to the realm of food; it’s hard to find more evocative descriptions of eating anywhere than those he offers up to his readers. The narrator’s famous digression in Dead Souls comments on the prodigious appetites of Russians who
at one post-house order ham, at the next, suckling pig, at the third, a sturgeon steak or sausage with onions, and then, quite as if they had not eaten all day, will sit down at any time you like and tuck into a bowl of sterlet soup with burbot and milt, which hisses and sizzles between their teeth, served with sheat-fish pastry or pie—just to watch them makes your mouth water.
Gogol uses food lavishly in his works, always describing it with passion and knowledge. His four-cornered fish pie, for instance, is legendary, with its sturgeon cheeks, spinal marrow, buckwheat, mushrooms, onions, sweet milt, and brains, the pastry golden brown on one side, slightly less done on the other, so that the juices soak into the crust, making it melt in the mouth like snow. Gogol’s narrator smacks his lips as he describes this pie; many of his readers do, too.
In his own life Gogol was a notorious gourmand who enjoyed regaling his friends with the exotic (for nineteenth-century Russians) macaroni and cheese he’d learned to prepare in Italy, as well as a special hot punch made with rum and champagne. The writer’s expansive eating habits mimicked those of his characters. And yet the more deeply I immersed myself in his life and works, the more I realized that Gogol’s pleasure was not unequivocal. His celebration is tinged with disdain for the ways in which overindulgence of the senses can deprive the spirit. Throughout his adult life Gogol suffered from severe digestive problems, brought on by both nervous tension and a rich diet. Yet despite his gastronomic intemperance, he ended up dying of malnutrition, having consciously given up the pleasures of the belly in order to purify himself of sin and achieve a state of spiritual grace.
Since Gogol had me thinking about the ways in which art intersects with hunger, it was inevitable that I should turn to Franz Kafka, whose characters never have the opportunity for a square meal, let alone a Gogolian feast. Their behavior runs to an opposite extreme, that of deprivation. In Kafka’s “A Hunger Artist,” the protagonist is a performer, his métier—starving himself within an inch of his life. In this state, which is both exalted and demeaned, he achieves not only discipline, but also transcendence. Still, he’s caught in ambivalence between wanting to be admired for his fasting and self-contempt for the loneliness of his art, which is ultimately of no benefit to anyone, beyond the spectacle and fleeting titillation it provides.
In this issue of Gastronomica, several contributors consider the connections among food and hunger and art. Doug Fishbone’s marvelous banana sculptures confront us with the darker side of this seemingly benign fruit and make us consider those on the less fortunate end of the food chain. In his essay on shopping at the Whole Foods Market, Benjamin Wurgaft considers the issue of food as a means of self-purification. Karlyn Crowley does the same, from another angle, in her study of the macrobiotic movement. Finally, Ken Albala’s article on an eighteenth-century controversy over vegetarianism reminds us that the relationship between diet and spiritual well-being is something that people have been thinking about for a long time.