Issue 7 Failure Summer 2002
Ingestion / How to Cook a Phoenix
Allen S. Weiss
“Ingestion” is a column that explores food within a framework informed by aesthetics, history, and philosophy.
Angels must be very good to eat. I would imagine they are very tender, between chicken and fish.
Every art form is a matrix of synaesthesia. Each art informs all others. Every sentence, every allusion, every word activates a different complex of sensations. These evidences should not be lost on our daily pleasures. As a translator, one is perpetually caught in the dilemmas that stem from these complexities. For example, one quandary I encountered was in Valère Novarina’s Le discours aux animaux, which ends with the sentence, “One day I played the horn like this all alone in a splendid woods, and the birds were becalmed at my feet when I named them one by one with their names two by two,” followed by a list of 1,111 imaginary birds, beginning with:
la limnote, la fuge, l’hypille, le ventisque, le lure, le figile, le lépandre, la galoupe, l’ancret, le furiste, le narcile, l’aulique, la gymnestre, la louse, le drangle, le ginel, le sémelique, le lipode, l’hippiandre, le plaisant, la cadmée, la fuyau, la gruge, l’étran, le plaquin, le dramet, le vocifère, le lèpse, l’useau, la grenette, le galéate…1
Needless to say, it would be impossible to translate such names, and transliteration would hardly be satisfying, as it would be but sheer linguistic play. Rather, the challenge is to recreate the very conditions of such idiosyncratic naming, to imitate not Novarina’s words, but his poetic methods; to designate as language itself designates; to be a demiurge unto one’s own speech. In the ornithological context, most names are in some part descriptive, referring either to a bird’s relation to its habitat, to its physical aspect, behavioral conditions, or decidedly unverifiable mythical analogies. I would, in all modesty, propose the following English parallels (if not, strictly speaking, translations):
pimwhite, sandkill, partch, barnscrub, stiltback, goskit, persill, peeve, phyllist, corntail, perforant, titibit, queedle, jewet, phew, marshquiver, graywhip, corvee, rillard, preem, peterwil, cassenut, flusher, willowgyre, trillet, silverwisp, eidereye, wheeltail, ptyt, jeebill, wheatspit...
In an early volume, Flamme et festin, I had begun to muse upon the possibility of creating recipes for just such creatures, but I now must admit that this was a rather disingenuous proposition. Not because these birds are imaginary, but simply because each such name is a hapax (a word that occurs only once in a language), appearing without predication or description, in a context that offers no denotations, but only the undemonstrable connotations implied by the name itself. (For how can we ever really determine if the cassenut actually breaks open nut shells in its quest for nourishment, or if the barnscrub lives in barns like certain swallows and owls, or if the sandkill is a shore bird?) Any such hapax is a pure signifier without signified, a word without object—we can never know whether or not it is a figment of the imagination. While they might enter a dictionary of imaginary creatures, they cannot be catalogued in a universal encyclopedia, for sheer lack of information.
Years ago, I had hoped for some practical help from the International Society of Cryptozoology, located in Tucson, Arizona. But none was forthcoming. Cryptozoology is the science of nonexistent animals, such as the banshee, centaur, chimera, griffon, kraken, minotaur, rukh, unicorn—not to mention all those nameless species that haunt our fantasies and nightmares. I sought more precise qualifications in order to fortify my belief that this obscure field of wisdom could be made more joyous through its intersection with cryptogastronomy. However, it was rather in the abstract realm of theory that I found my inspiration, specifically in Umberto Eco’s article “Small Worlds,”2 where he proposes a theory of fictional discourse whereby one may judge truth value and descriptive validity within imaginary or possible worlds. Such domains span the spectrum from those most resembling our quotidian environment to the farthest reaches of the speculative utopian imagination; their epistemological status may be verisimilar, non-verisimilar, inconceivable, or even impossible. In all cases, such worlds can be either relatively empty or furnished, depending upon the amount of information given about a particular fictional milieu. Following this lead, it is obvious that the general world of Novarina’s animals is relatively unfurnished, and the specific context in which the birds appear is absolutely impoverished: we are offered no ornithological information whatsoever, and thus cannot begin to conceive of appropriate recipes for them.
But, luckily, this is not always the case for fanciful animals. Consider the phoenix, that mythical bird which is consumed in spontaneously generated flames, to be reborn from its own ashes, a symbol particularly appreciated by the early Christian church for its blatantly resurrectional qualities. Indeed, we know much more about the phoenix than we do of many real animals. The history of this bird is ancient, and it appears in Hesiod, Herodotus, Plutarch, Tertulius, Tacitus, Pliny, Martial, Ovid, Dante, Cyrillus, Saint Ambrose, and Milton, among many others. It is estimated that half of the pre-modernist European poets have written about it, with, for example, seven mentions in Shakespeare. There thus exists a wealth of detail, albeit somewhat contradictory at times, about this creature. The 1967 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica informs us that the phoenix, whose ecosphere is the Arabian peninsula, is as large as an eagle, with scarlet and gold plumage, and a melodious cry. It is most often said to resemble the purple heron (Ardea purpurea), and less often the stork, egret, flamingo, or even the Bird of Paradise. Part of the confusion seems to stem from the fact that in ancient Egyptian mythology, the hieroglyph of the benu—a solar symbol, as is the pheonix—resembles a heron or some other large water-fowl, and a purple heron was sacrificed by the priests of Heliopolis (City of the Sun) in a grand ceremony every five hundred years. It would seem that the sacred powers invested in this hieroglyph greatly influenced the perception of the natural world, as well as consequent ornithological classification. The life-cycle of the phoenix is unique in the animal world, here described in the classic account by Ovid in the Metamorphoses:
There is one living thing, a bird, which reproduces and regenerates itself, without any outside aid. The Assyrians call it the phoenix. It lives, not on corn or grasses, but on the gum of incense, and the sap of balsam. When it has completed five centuries of life, it straightway builds a nest for itself, working with unsullied beak and claw, in the topmost branches of some swaying palm. Then, when it has laid a foundation of cassia, and smooth spikes of nard, chips of cinnamon bark and yellow myrrh, it places itself on top, and ends its life amid the perfumes. Then, they say, a little phoenix is born anew from the father’s body, fated to live a like number of years.3
The decadent Roman Emperor Heliogabalus—who shared with the phoenix a part of solar divinity—was a great gourmet and glutton, especially fond of such delicacies as flamingo heads, peacock tongues, and cockscombs cut from the live animal. He once sent hunters to the land of Lydia, offering two hundred pieces of gold to the man who would bring back a phoenix. None did. An explanation for this prodigious culinary desire can be extrapolated from Jean-Pierre Vernant’s analysis:
The incandescent life of the phoenix follows a circular course, increasing and decreasing, with birth, death and rebirth following a cycle that passes from an aromatic bird closer to the sun than the eagle flying at great heights, to the state of a worm in rotting matter, more chthonian than the snake or the bat. From the bird’s ashes, consumed at the end of its long existence in a blazing aromatic nest, is born a small earth-worm, nourished by humidity, which shall in turn become a phoenix.4
What more appropriate dish for a solar emperor? Perhaps tired of the repeated human sacrifices to his own divine nature, he sought a rarer offering. For Heliogabalus, true to his own solar name, wished to bring heaven down to earth in a cruel and erotic scenario of death, so that the blood of the human sacrifices organized by the Priest of the Cult of the Sun, flowing from the sacrificial altars of the Temple of Emesa, might have well been augmented by some more decidedly supernatural offerings. The lifecycle of the phoenix is the very allegory of cuisine, taken in its structural instance, as it spans the antithetical conditions of raw/cooked, cold/hot, fresh/rotten, dry/moist, aromatized/gamy. The phoenix would thus be the perfect dish and the ideal offering, paradoxically encompassing the contradictory possibilities of diverse cooking techniques, inherent alimentary differences, and sacred symbolism. Like the transubstantiation of the host, or cannibalistic communion, the eating of the phoenix would constitute a truly transcendental gastronomic act.
Setting aside whatever extravagance Heliogabalus might have had in mind, let us consider appropriate recipes for a phoenix. The end of the phoenix’s lifecycle, when it is consumed in its own flames, quite obviously suggests the proper manner of cooking: the phoenix is to be roasted outdoors over a fire of sweet-smelling resinous woods and aromatic herbs. This suggestion corresponds to the symbolic exigencies of this sacred bird, a symbolism elucidated in Claude Lévi-Strauss’s analysis of culinary practice in The Origin of Table Manners. The difference between the roast and the boiled entails respectively the following oppositions, all pointing to the fact that “one can place the roast on the side of nature and the boiled on the side of culture”: non-mediated (cooked directly on an open flame) versus mediated (cooked in water in a closed utensil); masculine (open fire) versus feminine (protected hearth); exo-cuisine (cooked outside and destined for foreigners) versus endo-cuisine (cooked in a recipient and destined for the family or a closed group).5 Thus while the roast is the sort of dish offered to strangers, the boiled is destined for a small, intimate, closed group. Furthermore, the sociological markers are even more precise, insofar as boiling fully conserves the meat and its juices, while roasting entails destruction or loss. The former is popular and economical, the latter aristocratic and prodigious, with the smoke rising as an offering to the gods. The boiled is an empirical culinary mode, while the roast is a transcendental one. The phoenix is, therefore, the most festive of dishes, truly appropriate for a once-in-a-lifetime occasion.
The preparation of the phoenix is relatively simple, and similar to the preparation of much large game. First of all, as is suggested by its habits, the phoenix should be hung, so that the flavor of the flesh becomes gamy, according to taste, somewhere between the bird state and the worm state. Afterwards, it should be marinated in a mixture of red wine, herbs and spices (see infra). The reason for the marinade is, however, the opposite of what is usually the case. Many types of large game need be hung and marinated in order to soften their flesh, as their free-ranging lives produce a far greater proportion of muscle to fat than is found in domestic fowl and livestock. For the phoenix, however, tenderizing is unnecessary, since it is a very long-lived and sedentary creature, and thus has an extremely high and volatile fat content. (This complicates both hanging and roasting, as its flesh easily falls to pieces if tenderized too long.) As it has a distinct tendency to burst into flame, a marinade is necessary for moistening and flame-retarding purposes, and it is precisely for that reason that the bird should be continually basted with the marinade mixed with a bit of clarified butter or neutral vegetable oil. As for the recipes themselves, we should beware of misleading analogies. Certain of them believe that the phoenix should be treated like the heron. TheOxford Companion to Food reveals that the gray heron (Ardea cinerea) was treated throughout the European Middle Ages like other “great birds” such as the stork, crane, and peacock: stuffed with garlic and onions and then roasted whole, with an often lavish presentation, including gilding and the decorative replacement of its feathers.6 But it is obvious that, though roasting is indeed the proper technique, the mere accompaniment of onions and garlic is an impoverishment of the phoenix’s culinary possibilities. Like all game, the flesh is already strongly flavored by what it feeds on: in this case, gum of incense, sap of balsam, and diverse savory herbs and berries (the phoenix is a vegetarian bird, which adds to its symbolic allure of purity); and the composition of its nest suggests that certain combinations of aromatic herbs and spices found in the Middle East should be used in the stuffing, such as the already mentioned cinnamon, cassia, frankincense, myrrh, and nard, to which we can add cardamom, ginger, turmeric, cumin, nutmeg, mace, sumac, allspice, etc. In short, many of the riches of the spice trade are appropriate; they judiciously harmonize with the phoenix’s flesh. The particular mixtures of spices, like Indian curries, differ from country to country and family to family. There is no “classic” recipe.
There is little information about appropriate side dishes, though here too a false analogy reigns. In Greek, phoenix also means palm tree, and in Egyptian, the hieroglyph of the benu symbolizes the phoenix and, alternately, the palm tree; since both the tree and the bird are attributes of the sun god, they are often confused. This has led some to believe that the fruit of the date palm is either an appropriate stuffing or accompaniment. While such a rich fruit might well serve the purpose, I would much prefer a truffe sous la cendre (truffle cooked in ashes) and some pomegranate jelly.
It should be noted that the phoenix is so rare that its snob appeal by far supersedes that of all other luxury foods. Even the gold shavings and small gems that Heliogabalus consumed mixed into his vegetables, or the huge pearls that Cleopatra dissolved in her beverages, are banal in comparison. The reason for this rarity is both because only one phoenix is said to exist at any given time, and because it is so very difficult to capture, as indicated by its life span: in the lowest estimate, Ovid places it at 500 years; Tacitus claims that it corresponds to the Egyptian Sothic Cycle of 1,461 years; Pliny puts it at the length of the Platonic Year, the 12,994-year period needed for the sun, moon, and five planets to all return to their original heavenly positions; one extreme estimate suggests that its life span is 97,000 years, but this seems ridiculous. Taking into account the ancient Egyptian ritual cycle would most probably lead one to accept the lowest estimate of 500 years. Despite its rarity, the phoenix is a foodstuff eminently worthy of consideration, and its absence from the culinary literature is most curious. It is hoped that this brief essay will to some extent aid in filling this noteworthy gastronomic gap.
The International Society of Cryptozoology can be reached at:
Allen S. Weiss has been working hard on ingestion: He recently co-edited French Food (Routledge), and his Feast and Folly is forthcoming (SUNY).
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© 2002 Cabinet Magazine