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Complete Works of Plutarch — Volume 3: Essays an

Surprising Antagoras the poet in the habit of a cook


You capers gnaw, when you may sturgeon eat?

And what, for God's sake, do those men mean who, inviting one another to sumptuous collations, usually say: To-day we will dine upon the shore? Is it not that they suppose, what is certainly true, that a dinner upon the shore is of all others most delicious? Not by reason of the waves the sea-coast would be content to feed upon a pulse or a caper?--but because their table is furnished with plenty of fresh fish. Add to this, that sea-food is dearer than any other. Wherefore Cato inveighing against the luxury of the city, did not exceed the bounds of truth, when he said that at Rome a fish was sold for more than an ox. For they sell a small pot of fish for as much as a hecatomb of sheep and all the accessories of sacrifice. Besides, as the physician is the best judge of physic, and the musician of songs; so he is able to give the best account of the goodness of meat who is the greatest lover of it. For I will not make Pythagoras and Xenocrates arbitrators in this case; but Antagoras the poet, and Philoxenus the son of Eryxis, and Androcydes the painter, of whom it was reported that, when he drew a landscape of Scylla, he drew fish in a lively manner swimming round her, because he was a great lover of them. So Antigonus the king, surprising Antagoras the poet in the habit of a cook, broiling congers in his tent, said to him: Dost thou think that Homer was dressing congers when he writ Agamemnon's famous

exploits? And he as smartly replied: Do you think that Agamemnon did so many famous exploits when he was inquiring who dressed congers in the camp? These arguments, says Polycrates, I have urged in behalf of fishmongers, drawing them from testimony and custom.

But, says Symmachus, I will go more seriously to work, and more like a logician. For if that may truly be said to be a relish which gives meat the best relish, it will evidently follow, that that is the best sort of relish which gets men the best stomach to their meat. Therefore, as those philosophers who were called Elpistics (from the Greek word signifying hope, which above all others they cried up) averred that there was nothing in the world which concurred more to the preservation of life than hope, without whose gracious influence life would be a burden and altogether intolerable; in the like manner that of all other things may be said to get us a stomach to our meat without which all meat would be unpalatable and nauseous. And among all those things the earth yields, we find no such things as salt, which we can only have from the sea. First of all, without salt, there would be nothing eatable which mixed with flour seasons bread also. Neptune and Ceres had both the same temple. Besides, salt is the most pleasant of all condiments. For those heroes who like athletes used themselves to a spare diet, banishing from their tables all vain and superfluous delicacies, to such a degree that when they encamped by the Hellespont they abstained from fish, yet for all this could not eat flesh without salt; which is a sufficient evidence that salt is the most desirable of all relishes. For as colors need light, so tastes require salt, that they may affect the sense, unless you would have them very nauseous and unpleasant. For, as Heraclitus used to say, a carcass is more abominable than dung. Now all flesh is dead and part of a lifeless carcass; but the virtue of salt, being added to it, like a soul, gives it a pleasing relish and a poignancy. Hence it comes to pass that before meat men use to take sharp things, and such as have much salt in them; for these beguile us into an appetite. And whoever has his stomach sharpened with these sets cheerfully and freshly upon all other sorts of meat. But if he begin with any other kind of food, all on a sudden his stomach grows dull and languid. And therefore salt doth not only make meat but drink palatable. For Homer's onion, which, he tells us, they were used to eat before they drank, was fitter for seamen and boatmen than kings. Things moderately salt, by being pleasing to the mouth, make all sorts of wine mild and palateable, and water itself of a pleasing taste. Besides, salt creates none of those troubles which an onion does, but digests all other kinds of meat, making them tender and fitter for concoction; so that at the same time it is sauce to the palate and physic to the body. But all other seafood, besides this pleasantness, is also very innocent for though it be fleshly, yet it does not load the stomach as all other flesh does, but is easily concocted and digested. This Zeno will avouch for me, and Crato too, who confine sick persons to a fish diet, as of all others the lightest sort of meat. And it stands with reason, that the sea should produce the most nourishing and wholesome food, seeing it yields us the most refined, the purest and therefore the most agreeable air.


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