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Saturday, February 2, 2008

The Path of Least Resistance

We may live without poetry, music and art;
We may live without conscience and live without heart;
We may live without friends; we may live without books;
But civilized man can not live without cooks.
He may live without books, -- what is knowledge but grieving?
He may live without hope, -- what is hope but deceiving?
He may live without love, -- what is passion but pining?
But where is the man that can live without dining?

--”Lucile” Owen Meredith (Edward Robert Bulwer-Lytton) (1831-1891)

There is really no easy way to introduce this subject so let me simply name it: Gluttony. Basically, the term “gluttony” connotes an ongoing habitual propensity to overeating and, in effect, eating for eating’s sake; something that is generally frowned upon by our fellows. Even so, one has to wonder if an insatiable appetite can ever be a good thing, or at least, not entirely bad.

As human society evolves and changes, so do our conceptualizations. Our modern understanding of gluttony has a long history that is inextricably linked to everything from medieval religious notions of sinfulness, to scientific views on health and well-being, to the fact of our mortality. Today, we (for the most part) view gluttony as a malady that requires medical or spiritual attention, and the search for an effective ‘cure’ has produced a myriad of treatments, diets, drugs, ablutions and regimens – some more and some less effective than others. But, the perceived problematic nature or stigma of gluttony remains more or less consistent.

Happily my friends, I can report that among the many things that have been said and written about gluttony in the past and present, I believe I have stumbled across a neglected path through the Garden of Earthly Delights; a once well-used trail that has been thickly overgrown by the vines of several intervening millennia which obscure its course; but I will try and draw its map.

According to Greek Mythology, Erisychthon was cursed with an insatiable hunger by Demeter (goddess of agriculture and harvests) for clear-cutting one of her sacred groves. Erisychthon’s hunger became so great that it consumed all his wealth and property, as well as that of his parents. Things got so bad that he even sold his daughter to feed the frenzy of his appetite. Poseidon, god of the sea, took pity on the blameless girl and gifted her with the ability to shape-change at will, which allowed her to escape from her new owner and return to her family; whereupon her father sold her all over again, and again, and again… Finally, his insatiable desire for food drove Erisychthon to consume his own flesh and thereby put an end to his plight. The myth is often viewed as a morality or cautionary tale, but it is unclear that this was its original intent as the Greek myths are generally understood to be free of value judgments as we understand them. As the archaic Greeks believed in an unalterable fate for mortal beings, the idea that things could have worked out any differently for Erisychthon is an alien supposition in the original context of the mythical corpus and its accompanying world-view. That being said, the plight of Erisychthon and its effects upon himself and his family is not something pleasant to contemplate, nor was it ever meant to be.

Still within the mythological tradition, the demigod Hercules was also a renowned glutton. However, in his case, it is not a particularly surprising quality given that he so far superseded his contemporaries in all other things. So it could hardly be shocking that he also ate more than they did, after all, bigger engines not only work harder but they require more fuel than lesser motors. Thus it may just be that by normal human standards Hercules was a glutton, even though he himself was only partly human. Nor should it be ignored that Hercules did not have Erisychthon’s money problems, as he basically took or was given whatever he wanted wherever he went.

Leaving the legends behind and turning to the ancient Greek historiographical texts, references to the gluttonous are numerous, including the following list of famous gluttons:

• Cleonymus of Athens -a demagogue rabble-rouser (and a contemporary of the comic poet Aristophanes) whose name became a byword for gluttony both during and long after his lifetime.
• Myniscus of Chalcis -a tragic actor and a contemporary of the philosopher Plato.
• Aristoxenus of Cyrene -a philosopher who was famous for his appetite as opposed to his ideas.
• Melanthius -an Athenian tragedian of otherwise unremarkable ability.
• Peisander of Athens -a conspiratorially inclined rascal who was accused of plotting to foment war with Sparta, and a contemporary of the philosopher Socrates.
• Philoxenus of Leucas -notorious as a parasite (i.e., moocher) and likely a contemporary of Plato.
• Charippus & Charidas (for both of whom I could find no further reference)
• Alcman - an early choral lyric poet from Sparta.
• Calamodorus of Cyzicus and,
• Timocreon of Rhodes, both a poet and an athlete of great prowess; whose epitaph was composed by his contemporary, the great poet Simonides and it goes like this:

πολλά πιών καί πολλά φαγών καί πολλά κάκ' ειπών
ανθρώπους κειμαι Τιμοκρέων Ρόδιος

"After much drinking, much eating, and maliciously slandering
many people, Timocreon of Rhodes rests here."

In addition to the abovementioned, there was also Dionysius, tyrant of Heraclea, who was the son of the tyrant Clearchus. His gluttony led to enormous weight gain, which in turn affected his vanity. He was so ill at ease with his extreme obesity that he had a portable screen-like structure constructed which resembled a small, squat tower; and when holding audiences or receiving visitors, Dionysius would have this tower placed around him leaving only his head sticking out above the ‘parapet’ so he could see -and in part be seen by- his interlocutors. All of this notwithstanding, he was reputed to have been the gentlest and most impartial of all the ancient tyrants that had ever lived. He died at the age of 55, after a remarkably long reign of 32 years.

This historical discussion would not be complete, and might even be open to a charge of sexism, if we dealt only with the famous male gluttons of the ancient Greek world. Unfortunately (or perhaps fortunately), based on the extant sources, there is only a single instance of a gluttonous ancient Greek woman on record: Aglaïs, daughter of Megacles. She was a professional musician who played a kind of trumpet while wearing a memorable outfit. It was reported that in one sitting, Aglaïs devoured twelve pounds of meat, four loaves of bread, and drank nine pints of wine.

Nor were the ancient Greeks oblivious to the legendary gluttons of neighbouring peoples. One extant list includes the following noteworthy non-Greek habitual gorgers: Pityreus the Phrygian, Cambletes a Libyan, Thius a Paphlagonian, Mithridates of Pontus, and Cantibaris a Persian. Gluttony, it seems, was a multicultural phenomenon throughout the ancient Mediterranean world. More than that, it was a form of celebrity even among foreigners.

Now, all the aforementioned individuals were such remarkable eaters that during their lifetimes they attracted the interest and attention of poets, wealthy intellectuals and indigents alike. So much so, that their names have lived on through two and a half millennia of recorded history. Achilles, Leonidas, and Alexander achieved their desire for imperishable glory through the hardship, privation, brutality and loss of warfare and endless campaigning. If it were ever a question of who chose the path of least resistance to achieving immortal fame, then surely the gluttons have the advantage!

One thing that should be made clear is that the ancient Greeks distinguished between casual or occasional bouts of gorging versus gluttony proper, the Greek word for gluttony is αδηφαγία (adephagia). On the other hand, the modern English word bulimia stems from the Greek word 'boulimos' (βούλιμος) for which the literal translation is 'ox-hunger' (i.e. hungry like an ox). Today, psychiatrists maintain that bulimia is an eating disorder which stems from depression or low self-esteem and requires medical treatment with everything from drugs to surgery. A popular observation in vogue among the ancient Greeks was that the 'ox-hunger' was usually prevalent on colder days as opposed to warmer, though they were not quite sure why. But the important point is that gluttony and binge-eating were not confused, as so often happens in our modern world of blends, smudges, and grey zones. Gluttony then, among the Ancients, was a reputation earned by habitual over-consumption and not just an occasional face stuffing. After all, as Aristotle maintained, the appearance of one swallow does not herald the arrival of summer. So too for the glutton: one or several isolated session(s) of excessive self-indulgence a glutton does not make…

The most striking dissimilarity between the ancient Greek perception of gluttony and our own conception of it is evidenced by a conspicuous religious difference. This difference, odd as it may seem at first, may provide us with a clue to a perspective which might help to offset some of the stigma usually associated with gluttony in our day and age. The ancient Greeks actually had a shrine devoted to the goddess Adephagia, situated on the island of Sicily (then largely populated by Greeks). At first, the idea of a temple dedicated to the divine personification of Gluttony may seem a peculiarity that is difficult to reconcile within our own conceptual horizon. However, it helps to step back for a moment and take a purely existential viewpoint.

Food in the ancient world was a much more ever-present preoccupation for people than it is in our modern culture of ready to hand convenience. Indeed, at any given moment in any of the pre-industrial agricultural human societies that have flourished on this planet, entire populations were always just one harvest away from starvation. When one considers this fact, the very existence of famous gluttons under such conditions takes on a whole new dimension. Gluttony becomes a symbol of abundance. So much abundance that reputations for a life of overindulgence can be established and remarked; the glutton thus becomes an important sociological phenomenon and indicator of a given society’s ability to feed itself.

Which brings me back to the Temple to Gluttony on Sicily: from what is recorded, we know that within the precinct of the temple a statue of the goddess Demeter stood alongside that of the statue of Adephagia, and that they were apparently worshipped in tandem. The goddess of crops and harvests (Demeter) was thereby closely associated with the goddess of Gluttony. Ostensibly, offerings made at this remarkable shrine were done so out of gratitude and hope for the plentiful bounty of the harvest, which allows for extravagant ongoing overindulgence even to the point of gluttony. This appreciation of gluttony as a catalyst and focus point for grateful religious sentiment is a most difficult idea to reconcile with the post-Medieval Western understanding of the term as one of the Seven Deadly Sins. However, perhaps there is some hope for us yet… In short, remain optimistic and always try to look for the good in all things, including gluttony.

Ravenously Yours,

Sam Sotiropoulos
Greek Gourmand

Copyright © 2008, Sam Sotiropoulos. All Rights Reserved.


Aelian, “Historical Miscellany
Athenaeus, “Deipnosophistae
Aulus Gellius, “Attic Nights
Diodorus Siculus, “Library of History
Ovid, “Metamorphoses