Oral fix

Food - Bee Wilson analyses Sigmund's intestinal troubles

Cheese really does give you odd dreams. Yes, you think it's an old wives' tale, but then, one night, you eat a pungent chunk of Roquefort and find yourself dreaming lurid apocalypses. Eating cheddar may not enable you to predict the winning horse, as used to happen in ancient sitcoms, but a surfeit of strong food truly can alter your sleeping imagination. It is satisfying that this was acknowledged by the father of psychoanalysis himself. Sigmund Freud claimed he could engineer his dreams gastronomically. He had only to eat a large amount of anchovies or olives in the evening to make himself dream of drinking large gulps of refreshing water. Then he'd wake up, and the dream would come true.

Food was not the most important oral fixation in Freud's life. Cigars came first. Freud did not begin smoking until he was 24, but tobacco soon became an indispensable prop to his intellectual work. He once offered his 17-year-old nephew Harry a cigarette and a lecture: "My boy, smoking is one of the greatest and cheapest enjoyments in life, and if you decide in advance not to smoke, I can only feel sorry for you."

He was more measured in his enjoyment of food. Peter Gay has written that "Freud was neither gourmet nor gourmand; he had, we know, little tolerance for wine. But he liked his meals enough to consume them in quiet concentration." Freud also enjoyed high-spirited lunches with colleagues discussing the ins and outs of mother-incest. He was fond of the food of Austria and Italy, and especially of asparagus, artichokes, of boiled beef and roast beef with onions and of the dumplings that his mother made for him as a child. He didn't much like French finery, and positively hated the diet of most Americans. For some reason, he disliked cauliflower, but was an energetic mushroom-gatherer. When holidaying at Berchtesgaden, he and his children would gather them almost every day. All the family were experts on which were poisonous and which edible, but none was more eager in pursuit of the perfect specimen than Sigmund. When he found a specially fine mushroom, he would fling his hat over it and sound a silver whistle, summoning the children to come and admire his loot. On one holiday, Freud set up a competition among his offspring: the finder of the best mushroom would win 20 heller, and the second best, ten heller. Freud consistently awarded himself both prizes.

By middle age, Freud was afflicted with intestinal troubles. His disciple Jung wrote to him: "How are you? And the stomach? Well, I hope . . ." Freud in turn wrote to Jung about his "strict" diets, which threatened to spoil his Italian holidays.

According to Freud's own theory of dreams, this deprivation ought to have led to opulent dreams of "well-laden" tables. The Interpretation of Dreams contains several examples of children going to bed hungry and dreaming of feasts. A four-year-old boy on a milk diet pictures a "big dish, with vegetables and a big joint of meat on it", being snatched away from him. Freud's 19-month-old daughter, Anna, goes to sleep after having vomited and recites the foods she loves most: "strawberry, wild strawberry, scrambled eggs, mash". Freud's interpretation is that Anna is taking revenge on the judgement of her nurse that it was too many strawberries that made her sick.

This Freudian ability to analyse food has been passed on to his descendants. I am not thinking so much of the bon vivant Clement as of Lucian, the artist, who composed this wonderfully dreamlike recipe: "Tomato soup au naturel. Ingredients: Fresh tomatoes, country butter, clotted cream, bay leaf. I once took only the very purest ingredients. I first fried the tomatoes very slowly. I then simmered them very slowly, stirring all the time. The whole thing took hours. When I tasted it, I realised I had reinvented Heinz tomato soup."

I feel sure that Sigmund would have got the joke.