In Isolation with Charlotte Guest

Location: Geelong, Australia

There is a theory that Pythagoras wouldn’t eat broad beans because they look like dicks. Sheathed. The beans, that is. Or, apparently, because beans look like the gates of Hades. Maybe also because they are destructive, or like the nature of the universe, or symbolic of the oligarchy. This is according to Aristotle. If you asked Pliny the Elder, he would tell you not to eat beans because they contain the souls of the departed. Porphyry is more aligned with Pythagoras’ thinking and writes that if you split a bean, leave it in the sun, and come back a while later, it will smell like semen. Cutting the flower of the bean when it starts to blacken and putting it in an earthenware pot for ninety days will result in either a child’s head or female genitalia.

Today has been Bean Day. Yesterday was Honey Day. I am researching food in antiquity for the novel I’m writing so I don’t make any glaring errors like serving fish to the poor. Class decided what you ate and how much of it—just as, intersecting with race and gender, it does now. Flour, for instance, became less efficiently sieved the poorer you were, and therefore contained higher portions of phytic acid, which inhibits vitamin and mineral absorption. The poorer still, the less flour you had in the first place. I remember the aisles in Woolworths from the end of March: the ransacked shelves. No rice, no pasta, no flour. A lone elderly man looking lost and confused where the baked goods used to be. The Church had to stop its soup kitchen for fear of spreading the virus. But then where were the homeless going to eat? Perhaps tomorrow will be Flour Day.

I consider the significance of the broad bean as I plunge my hand into a bag of Harvest Snaps, which the packet assures me is a healthy snack of baked peas. Heavily seasoned, sure. But baked, not fried. The Harvest Snaps will be my lunch, because I don’t each much for lunch, and because I hate cooking. Even the thought of assembling things on a plate, like nuts and fruit, fills me with a sense of malaise. I wish I felt the joy others do at combining ingredients and plating up a meal. But I don’t. I can’t seem to enter the kitchen without sighing and picking at whatever morsels I can find that don’t require preparation before consuming. Pushing the limits of this method is how I gave myself salmonella poisoning some years ago. I am lucky, now, to have a boyfriend who so relishes cooking that he hasn’t complained once about preparing every single meal we’ve ever eaten. Yet.

There are two dinner party scenes in my novel; they act as a kind of frame. As in all societies at any given time, food in the classical world had two functions: nutritional and symbolic. Certain foods meant certain things. The apple, for instance, is laden with meaning. Apples appear in Greek mythology and suggest love and fertility. Pomegranates also gesture at the loins. Food and sex were intimately linked, as they are now. You had to be careful dining at a pub in ancient Greece and Rome, however, in case you were served human flesh passed off as pork. Galen of Pergamon writes with grotesque familiarity on the texture and taste and appearance of a person compared to pork. Ass, he writes, needs marinating for a long time before it is digestible. It took me a moment to realise he meant donkey.

Dinner parties were occasions to philosophise and proselytise, both in life and in the literature of the day. They were, they are, about gathering together. Eating is a vulnerable and intimate act. I remember learning years ago that the ritual of clinking glasses—cheers!—has its origins as an act of trust. To share food and drink with others is to open yourself up: your mouth and your soul.

I am halfway through Galen’s On the Properties of Foodstuffs, written in the second century AD, which is, admittedly, a few hundred years after the time of my novel. In the three books that comprise the work, he hierarchises food based on its value and abundance, with, to my surprise, bread and cereals firmly at the top. Cereals include seeds and legumes, rice, wheat, beans, barley, and so forth. All the things that vanished in the first few weeks of quarantine. I think of the man standing aghast before the empty displays at Woolworths. I imagine, for no reason, that he is Galen.

To share food and drink with others is to open yourself up: your mouth and your soul.

I have been writing about these people welcoming their friends into their home—hugging, kissing, clasping hands—to eat together, pass drinks around, laugh, and talk over one another. There are more than ten people in the room. And while I am not sentimental about the preparation of food—never having enjoyed cooking—I am sentimental about sharing it. I write these scenes of jollity and celebration, and I am alone on the loungeroom floor with a small bar heater. Its electric whine amplifies the silence. My characters embrace, and I haven’t touched another person, other than my partner, for months. I lived alone for many years and thank the Gods I am not alone for lockdown. I check in on friends who are, and their little digitised faces pop up, discreetly, on my screen. My phone is always on silent. Meanwhile, my characters make noise. My house is quiet. My characters, being Romans, wipe their mouths and sneeze and cough and roughly grab for food in a riotous mess that I cannot help viewing through the lens of social distancing and religious sanitising with abject horror. The person who last handed me a takeaway coffee was wearing a pair of blue gloves.  

Writing these dinner party scenes during quarantine has been a way to channel the wanting. The longing. The missing. It’s made me realise I crave the glancing touches of close friendship—a hand on a shoulder; a squeeze to indicate pride; an admonishing tap on the knee or forearm—something I wasn’t aware of before. I am now an advocate for the cringeworthy elbow-bump, because at least it’s something. To me, it says: hey, we’re solid.

Yesterday, Honey Day, I learned that Pythagoras believed honey on bread for breakfast was the key to a healthy life. I had manuka honey on toast for a snack. I thought about the bookshop where I work and the number of sourdough cookbooks we’d sold in the last few months. We had a free home delivery service whereby I would cycle books to people’s homes. I’m going to bake bread! customers told me on the phone. I flicked through these sourdough cookbooks before packaging them up to be delivered. Every introduction nods to sourdough as the “oldest form of baking”. One such cookbook, Sourdough by Casper André Lugg and Martin Ivar Hveem Fjeld, begins with the line, “Bread is older than metal,” and continues on to say:

… now there is a movement to reclaim good bread. This is not just a revival, nor just a moment of culinary fashion: sourdough has never been more relevant or exciting.

I cycled these cookbooks to customers isolating at home, who I wouldn’t see, even through windows, because I was gone, pedalling away, before they got to the door. I thought about the expression “to break bread”; its ancient origins. I thought about bread—food—connecting us laterally, to the people and the world around us, but also through time.

I have taken a break from writing. Shuffled to the pantry to find something to nibble on, like a rat, I suppose. I think about when restaurants will reopen again. That’ll be nice, to break bread in some halfway familiar environment. But not right now. Right now, I am in a home with reclining lounges (lectus), a feast laid out, light burning low, in the first century BCE. I am there, at the dinner party, transported through my laptop screen (light glowing low), and also here, on my loungeroom floor, eating nuts and dried fruit, alone.

By Charlotte Guest