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8 October 2016updated 30 Jun 2021 11:56am

The delicious history of edible Edens

Think of paradise and what springs to mind? Hopefully, we'd all arrive hungry.

By Felicity Cloake

Think of paradise and what springs to mind? Sun, sea and sand, perhaps. Peace, almost certainly. Yet while most fantasies of heaven absolve us from bodily necessities (toenail clippers have no place in Arcadia), surely we’d all like to arrive hungry. Eternity would be an awfully long time to go without chips.

The novelist Julian Barnes has the right idea. In his book A History of the World in 10½ Chapters, a man wakes up in the afterlife to a sumptuous breakfast: “. . . the grapefruit of my dreams . . . Three slices of grilled streaky bacon . . . crispy fat all glowing like a bonfire” and a sausage (“dark umber and succulent”) that all earthly sausages had merely been leading up to.

After four such feasts, he ventures out to a supermarket:


I bought breakfast, I bought lunch, I bought dinner, I bought mid-morning snacks, afternoon teas, apéritif munchies, midnight feasts. I bought fruit I couldn’t name, vegetables I’d never seen before, strange new cuts of meat from familiar animals, and familiar-looking cuts from animals I’d never eaten before.

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He even buys a freeze-dried lobster soufflé with cherry-chip topping, just for the hell of it.

Skipping through sunlit meadows has its place but that supermarket sounds like actual heaven. A 14th-century Irish poet had a purer vision:


For what is there in Paradise

But grass and flowers and green rice?

Though there be joy and great delight,

There is no food for
the appetite . . .


Not only that: “Nothing but water man’s thirst to quench.” Even the notoriously ascetic Thomas More allows the inhabitants of his Utopia to knock back “wine, cider and perry” in their dining halls.

Humanity has always dreamed of an edible Eden, from the biblical land of milk and honey to Harry McClintock’s Depression-era Big Rock Candy Mountain. Medieval literature is rife with them, doubtless reflecting one of the central preoccupations of the age: getting enough to eat. Variations on the theme of the land of Cockaigne, a paradise of ease and plenty, exist in almost every European tradition, brought to life in Het Luilekkerland (“the lazy luscious land”), Bruegel the Elder’s wonderful 1567 painting, which features a shed tiled with pies, a bush of bread and a roasted pig prancing around with a carving knife neatly tucked into its crackling, to save you the trouble of bringing your own.

The German land of plenty, Das Schlaraffenland, boasts fences of roasted bratwurst and houses of bacon, while Boccaccio’s Decameron imagines “a mountain all of grated Parmesan cheese, whereon abode folk who did nothing but make maccaroni and ravioli”. An Irish paradise overflows with dairy – hedges of butter and “smooth pillars of old cheese”. A 17th-century English version emphasises liquid refreshment: “rivers run with claret fine,/The brooks with rich canary,/The ponds with other sorts of wine,/To make your hearts full merry”. National stereotypes are alive and well in the next world.

Though most of us live a life of plenty unimaginable then, we are not entirely immune to the idle pleasure of foodie fantasy. Who hasn’t dreamed of diving into Willy Wonka’s “rich warm creamy” chocolate river, or climbing the mountain of vanilla fudge, “an actual mountain, a colossal jagged mountain as high as a five-storey building”, mined by the Oompa-Loompas in an early draft of Charlie and the Chocolate Factory?

Frankly, if heaven isn’t made of hot buttered toast and violet creams, I’m not interested. As Dorothy L Sayers put it so beautifully, in the voice of Lord Peter Wimsey: “I have never regretted Paradise Lost since I discovered that it contained no eggs-and-bacon.”

Next week: Nina Caplan on drink

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This article appears in the 05 Oct 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's triumph