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A Jug of Wine, A Loaf of Bread, and Thou (and Thou, and Thou)

To paraphrase Edward Fitzgerald‘s paraphrase of Omar Khayyam:

‘A jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and thou, and thou and thou
Just add some brie, and we shall have a paradise enow’

In the 1970s I, like many others, lived a relatively bohemian life (it was, after all, the decade after we went to San Francisco, being sure to wear some flowers in our hair – see bch1_Ep5M1s – even if only in our imagination). One of the best aspects of life in that period is that hospitality was much simpler. People would drop in after work for a drink, perhaps bringing friends (and a bottle if you were lucky), and stay for a pot luck supper, sitting on floor cushions. Not that there was a pot. I used to buy a whole Brie, which looked impressive and fed an elastic number of people, and a couple of sticks of French bread. I don’t recall having plates or table napkins (probably we had paper ones) – certainly I don’t remember having to do any washing-up except glasses.

Fast-forward forty years. A few days ago, Robert and I had lunch with old friends, just the four of us. She is an excellent cook, and had prepared a delicious and elaborate meal, exquisitely served. However, it meant that she spent most of the meal in the kitchen ensuring that the food met her very high standards. Her husband spilt a glass of red wine, which meant that he spent most of the meal on his hands and knees under the table trying to mop it up and applying various home remedies to avoid a stain. My husband and I perforce made small talk to each other across the table. Everyone gritted their teeth not to show the irritation or discomfiture they felt, and we all kept smiling through. But we had gone to their house in the hope of enjoying a relaxed and convivial interlude – and we presume they had invited us for the same reason.

Social norms dictate that, after a short interval, we will return the invitation and we will all go through a similar exercise, the main difference being that it is in our house and not theirs. And so on and so on ad infinitum and ad , well not nauseam but perhaps to the point of exhaustion. It was even worse in the 1980s, when there was magazine after magazine urging people on to ever greater efforts to produce food that looked almost too beautiful to eat. In retrospect, it was all ‘wasteful and ridiculous excess’:

To gild refinèd gold, to paint the lily,
To throw a perfume on the violet,
To smooth the ice, or add another hue
Unto the rainbow, or with taper-light
To seek the beauteous eye of heaven to garnish,
Is wasteful and ridiculous excess.

Now, anyone who has been paying attention knows that the next couple of years/decade/foreseeable future are going to be years of austerity in the West. While I of course feel for those who will genuinely suffer as a result, I have spent much of my life living in countries and cities, notably Calcutta, where many people lived a life of extreme simplicity, forced on them by circumstance. You might think that they were miserable? Well, I have good news for you. If you compared their facial expressions en masse with those of a rush-hour queue at a London bus-stop, it was the Londoners who looked miserable.

‘Faites simple!’, cried Escoffier.

Simplicity is relative – he was trying only to get away from the excesses of Carème, and would no doubt be horrified by what I am proposing. But, for at least some of the time, let us use the more austere times that apparently lie ahead to simplify the way we entertain each other.  If you want to recapture the simple joy of fellowship as you break bread with your friends, may I suggest a return to a jug of wine, a loaf of bread (and a crumb or two of cheese) as the only necessary fuel?






The illustration is a still life by Vincent Van Gogh, made available under a creative commons licence by Wikimedia.



10 comments on this post:

UKViewer said...

I always thought that a glass of plonk (non-alcoholic in my case (ginger wine is nice) and a small cheese board and crackers should suffice.

Also, as we are veggies, we don’t often host carnivores. It’s easier to go out to eat and people can choose what they like. And sometimes, less expensive, less time consuming than all that catering.

And if you spill the red wine, it normally just soaks into the carpet or a flunky comes and clears it up, while you wring your hands apologetically. (Been there, got the T Shirt).

So, simplicity is our motto. And Beans on Toast can be a feast for Kings if it is accompanied by a nice piece of cheese melted onto the toast..

Lay Anglicana said...

Personally, I like a nice poached egg on top of the beans – to each his own!
But I tried my idea out on some other friends yesterday and while the reactions from the women (cooks) were encouraging one of the men said ‘But I wouldn’t get my roasts’! One of the women said ‘you would have to be very brave to be the first just to offer bread and cheese’! This couple are in their eighties and still invite you to a 3-course meal – amazing, but surely not essential?

05 December 2011 18:05
05 December 2011 17:49
UKViewer said...

It’s a problem of traditional hospitality. People feel obliged to put out the best, when simpler would be best for most of us.

We have an elderly relative, who can barely see, but insists on preparing a meal when we visit. It can lead to some interesting combinations. Roast Raspberries for instance.

But, God love her, she won’t change, so we take her out to lunch when we visit now, and she can relax and enjoy our company, without the angst of cooking.

05 December 2011 18:46
Stephen said...

Missing (and key) ingredient: “and thou beside me in the wilderness”.

Lay Anglicana said...

Well, yes!
Edward Fitzgerald – and doubtless Omar Khayyam – had their minds fixed on Eros. I was cheating a bit by adding ‘and thou, and thou’ to suggest a multiplicity of companions engaged in a simple picnic with no thought of dalliance.
My mind has now leapt to Manet’s ‘Dejeuner sur l’herbe’ see but somehow I don’t think this is quite what you had in mind!
(You don’t mind being gently teased, do you…)

Stephen said...

Not remotely. I’m such a sucker for EF’s romantic take on the R of OK that his words are always before me. But your point is well made – what a fuss we all make! The food is the medium, not the point.

(Incidentally, doesn’t Careme mean “Lent” in English? Ironic.)

05 December 2011 22:47
05 December 2011 22:39
05 December 2011 22:29
Erika Baker said...

You can make it simpler. We’ve long given up hosting elaborate dinner parties. We just invite friends and, yes, I cook a nice meal but not a fussy one. And if anything gets spilt it gets sorted out the next day – admittedly, we don’t have carpet under the dining table.

I cannot imagine that your return dinner will be anywhere near as tricky as the one you attended. So much depends on the welcome you give people and on whether you really enjoy their company or whether you’re nervous and are playing the role of the host.
And you and Robert are such genuinely friendly, welcoming and relaxing people that I cannot imagine your dinner to be anything less than entertaining for your friends.

Which reminds me… we really must organise that get together we’ve planned ever since Salisbury!

Lay Anglicana said...

Thank-you Erika.
First rule of hospitality must be not to have a carpet under the dining table: cream Wilton really is asking for trouble!
And as far as our next get-together goes, I have a cast-iron excuse for suggesting that it should be in our house. Lesley and Alan would only have 35 minutes to get to us, and we are 35 minutes nearer you. I hope the combination will prove irresistible!

Erika Baker said...

That sounds perfect! I hope Susan might be able to take some time off and meet you all too – I’ve told her so much about those amazing people I’ve met!

Cream Wilton is fine – just stick to fino sherry and white wine.

09 December 2011 22:37
09 December 2011 21:34
09 December 2011 17:13

[…] “Let us use the more austere times that apparently lie ahead to simplify the way we entertain each other. If you want to recapture the simple joy of fellowship as you break bread with your friends, may I suggest a return to a jug of wine, a loaf of bread (and a crumb or two of cheese) as the only necessary fuel?” – Lay Anglicana […]

09 June 2015 14:38

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