Of Herbs and Stewed Rabbit
That the primary action of the journey through Ithilien should be a sustained debate about the benefits and costs of cooking hares between Sam and Gollum seems a stretch of the story’s verisimilitude. Weighed down with the great weapon of the enemy, questing deep in the territory contested by dark and foul things, Sam’s singular demand for the succulent delights of normal life comes across as naive and irresponsible. What have coneys, boiled water, and taters have to do with good and evil? What is the meaning of herbs and stewed rabbit in the War of the Ring?
As C.S. Lewis once claimed, “We are mistaken when we compare war with ‘normal life.’ Life has never been normal.” The culinary crafts serve as tools of war as much as the martial arts. The contest between Sam and Gollum is a struggle between civilized and uncivilized eating. The result of such a debate is no less than the preservation of what makes them hobbits, and what makes us human.
In his book The Hungry Soul: Eating and the Perfecting of Our Nature, Leon Kass argues for the distinct relationship between how we eat and what we are: how our physical, ethical, and cultural development as people has been influenced by the nature of food and feasting. His points are vast and fascinating, but one in particular deserves to be lingered on here:
“The expansion and indeterminacy of human appetites – reflected in human omnivorousness – is generally problematic, as is man himself. […] Whether man becomes the best or worst of animals depends, to begin with, it seems, on whether or not he comes under law and justice.”
We – as with Sam, as with Gollum – have the capacity to eat all things. What we eat and how we eat it in part defines us. The ultimate freedom of our food fashions the undelineated form into which we can shape ourselves. With cooking, dining, and eating ethics, we preserve a certain component of civility: patience in the preparation of our food, control over its ultimate incarnation, trust between those who sit around the meal. When no law or justice governs our consumption, we devolve to savagery: the insatiable demands of appetite, the slavery of the raw and the unaddressed, and ultimate suspicious savagery, that is to say, cannibalism, whether in actuality or risked.
Hence the importance, however humorous, of Sam’s obstinacy: in his devolution to something sub-hobbit (sub-human), Gollum has forgotten cooking and has rejected food as anything beyond pleasing nourishment. The Ring has consumed a great portion of his individual rationality, that which makes Gollum more than just an animal. Frodo and Sam face such a risk as well: to sacrifice that which makes them hobbits, that which places them at a higher level of the hierarchy of living forms, for the sake of expediency, of efficiency, of enduring the evil places and times into which they have stumbled. Yet to do so would undermine that which the hobbits set out to save: they would become brutes in order to save the Shire from brutes. The herbed and stewed rabbit of Master Samwise, therefore, is a food of a different sort: for while lembas bread can restore and preserve the hobbits’ strength, the coneys and taters restore and preserve the hobbits’ identity.
In the age of frozen and fast food, of gluten-free and all-vegan diets, such reflections should make us Lenten pilgrims slightly unsettled. How far has the technological and scientific progression of our food regressed the state of our humanity? How corrupted have become the culinary arts, and how have our cooking, our dining, and our relationships suffered for it? Life has never been normal, and every act of our daily lives – even that as humble as cooking and eating – is a battle waged between the civilized and the savage, the human and the sub-human. For those of us who are Catholic, we should not find such musings surprising, for we have long had a particular form of food that is raised as a sword against that which would make us less than who we are: a bread of both strength and identity, the Eucharist of Christ.