“Tell me what you eat, and I’ll show you what you are.” This famous aphorism of the French gastronome and food writer Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin appeared in his 1825 treatise, The Physiology of Taste, a copy of which was owned by James Joyce. So when Leopold Bloom echoes this sentiment—“Know me come eat with me”—in the “Lestrygonians” episode of Ulysses, we know that food will be significant in the novel, and that what the characters choose to eat and the manner in which they eat it will tell us a great deal about them.
Bloom’s day begins with a contemplation of what to have for breakfast. He dismisses the idea of ham and eggs, and his thoughts turn instead to kidneys—he considers the possibility of a mutton kidney, before opting instead for a pork kidney from Dlugacz’s butcher shop. Bringing it home, he fries it in butter and seasons it with pepper, though in the process of serving breakfast to his wife, Molly, in bed, and in the conversation between husband and wife that follows, he forgets about the kidney and allows it to slightly burn.
We are told that Bloom “ate with relish the inner organs of beasts and fowls,” but he expresses an aversion to meat upon entering the Burton Hotel at lunchtime. There he is assailed by the stink of “pungent meatjuice, and slop of greens,” the sight of men perched on high stools “wolfing gobfuls of sloppy food,” and “a man spitting back on his plate: halfmasticated gristle.” He turns around and leaves in disdain, crossing the road to Davy Byrne’s bar, where he orders a Gorgonzola cheese sandwich and a glass of Burgundy. For a moment, Bloom identifies with the hunted animal, and he chooses a repast without flesh. This subject comes up earlier in the novel, when Bloom spots George Russell, the Irish writer and nationalist known as A.E., walking out of the Vegetarian, a restaurant on College Green.
Food is associated with Bloom’s marriage and erotic life, as well. Seed cake made with caraway has a special association for him, for he once shared one with Molly during an open-mouthed kiss, while on a picnic on Howth Hill, overlooking Dublin Bay. Now the Blooms’ marriage is in decline—they have not been physically intimate in years, and Molly has taken a lover, the concert promoter Blazes Boylan. In the “Wandering Rocks” episode, Boylan purchases a fruit hamper filled with “fat pears” and “ripe shamefaced peaches”—a prelude to his planned afternoon seduction.
Throughout the book, Bloom eats in fits and starts, but even when he does sit down to a proper meal, as he does in the “Sirens” chapter, ordering a plate of liver and mash, difficulties intrude. Here he finds himself in the company of others, but he is lonely nevertheless, overcome by melancholia at the memory of his lost infant son, of his father’s suicide, of his troubled marriage, and of an unconsummated love affair—the isolation and the despair all embodied in a single, memorable image: “Under the sandwichbell lay on a bier of bread one last, one lonely, last sardine of summer. Bloom alone.”
In the hallucinatory “Circe” episode, Bloom follows Stephen Dedalus into the red-light district called Nighttown, arriving at a brothel out of breath and with a stitch in his side. In his pockets are a crubeen (made of boiled pig’s feet) and a sheep’s trotter, along with a bar of chocolate. Stephen gets into a scrap with a British Army private as well as with the police, and he ends up knocked to the ground. Bloom comes to his rescue, and the two head to a late-night cabman’s shelter, where they drink bad coffee and buy stale buns. In the “Ithaca” episode, Bloom takes Stephen to his home in Eccles Street, where they drink cocoa and engage in talk—a kind of secular communion.
After Stephen departs, Bloom heads upstairs to bed, seeing the evidence of the adulterous feast earlier enjoyed by Molly and Blazes Boylan. Molly is in bed, in a state of postcoital drowsiness, and as Bloom gets in, he likens his wife’s buttocks to melons and her breasts to pears. Molly, too, is thinking of food, particularly with respect to her past sexual encounters. She recalls the shared seed cake from so long ago and considers her husband’s request for breakfast the following morning. Not for many years has Bloom done “a thing like that … as ask to get his breakfast in bed with a couple of eggs.” Thus does Bloom’s long day begin and end with talk of breakfast.
I come from a culinary background, and the first thing I asked myself on reading Ulysses was, Could all of the food items Joyce describes really have been available in 1904? Anyone who visited Ireland in the early 1950s or ’60s would have known that it was almost impossible to get a sandwich in a pub or a vegetarian meal in a restaurant, and olive oil was only for sale at the pharmacy for easing an earache. In 1904, however, Ireland was still a part of the British Empire. Even after the government was transferred to London following the Acts of Union in 1800, Dublin remained the center of administration for the whole country, and until the creation of the Irish Free State in 1922, bureaucrats and other salaried officials, as well as the Anglo-Irish ascendency and landowners, continued to demand foreign and exotic goods, including foods. Not until 1932—when the Taoiseach, Éamon de Valera, boycotted the importation of certain English goods in an idealist attempt not to contaminate Ireland with the influences of the outside world—would the choice of foods become so limited. However, in a price list from Findlaters department store (also mentioned in Ulysses), one can see that products such as Plumtree’s Potted Meat, Gorgonzola cheese, and Italian olives were indeed for sale in 1904.
De Valera was not unique in his promotion of home-produced foods for sinn féin—ourselves alone. The writer and literary critic Mary Colum recounts in Life and the Dream that at A.E.’s soirees in Dublin, one might have heard about ways of marketing butter and eggs as well as talk about literature and art. A.E. earned his living as an organizer for the Irish Agricultural Organisation Society and was the editor of a farm paper called the Irish Homestead, in which he was able to make known his views on nationalism and the advantages of home-produced foods. (A trio of stories that would eventually appear in Dubliners—“The Sisters,” “Eveline,” and “After the Race”—were first published in The Homestead.)
As for the matter of a meatless diet, James Cousins, playwright and poet, who with his wife, Margaret, founded the Irish Vegetarian Society in 1905, noted that if his clerical job with an accountant “had not been located round the corner from the campus of Trinity College and a newly opened vegetarian restaurant, certain formative influences in [his] life and the lives of others might have had their … development thwarted or twisted.” When Bloom sees A.E., he wonders whether “that kind of [vegetarian] food you see produces the like waves of the brain poetical,” and he speculates that one “couldn’t squeeze a line of poetry” out of one of those Irish stew–eating constables he has just seen “debouched from College street.”
It is sometimes suggested that Joyce makes no mention in Ulysses of Ireland’s Great Famine. And yet, as so often happens in his modernist text, what is not said (and not eaten) is significant. After a hearty breakfast in the Martello tower in the opening episode, Stephen Dedalus does not eat much again, and our attention is drawn to the poverty of his sisters. Here, Joyce speaks to the impoverishment and hunger prevalent in Dublin due to the substantial migration from rural to urban locations after the famine. In the “Cyclops” episode, the eyepatch-wearing Citizen bemoans the “missing twenty millions of Irish [who] should be here today instead of four,” and in the cabman’s shelter, where Bloom takes an inebriated Stephen, another patron is heard to say that “the natural resources of Ireland … [have had] all the riches drained out of it by England levying taxes on the poor people … and gobbling up the best meat in the market.” Bloom, dining in the Ormond Hotel, feels as if he is being watched by “green starving faces,” a reference to corpses that were found during the famine, turned partly green from eating dock leaves and nettles.
Throughout the day of June 16, 1904, we accompany Bloom as he shops for food, as he cooks, and as he eats. All the while, he contemplates matters of life and death. The taste and smell of food trigger in him intense memories, the most significant being the sharing of the warm and chewed seed cake with Molly on Howth Hill. When Bloom eats, he is often beset by sadness, which makes him feel that he himself has been chewed and spat out. Perhaps the best metaphorical transformation in the novel, however, involves the pork kidney in Dlugacz’s window, oozing “bloodgouts on the willowpatterned dish.” Later in the novel, Bloom imagines a new Ireland, or Nova Hibernia, a future golden city that might take the place of Dublin. And what would be at the heart of this “new Bloomusalem” ? A “colossal edifice with a crystal roof, built in the shape of a huge pork kidney.”
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