“Χρόνια πολλά, and Happy New Year,” my Russian friend, a student of theology, greeted me ebulliently. “I have a question. How would you translate edible underwear into Greek?”
I belong to a generation that was brought up in the conviction that food is holy. So holy in fact that it may not be mixed, intermingled, adulterated, made consubstantial or associated with any other pleasure. Instead, the preparation and consumption of food is a mystery that must be performed with reverence and awe, in and of itself. The prospect of mingling consumption of edibles with clothes and indeed carnal pursuits is not just alien to my hypostasis but utterly abhorrent.
My friend, an exquisite cook, cites what she terms my prudery (which I define contrariwise as aesthetics) as proof of the vast chasm separating the Russians from my own tribe, quoting Ivan Turgenev’s “On Eve” to support her contention: “Look at the river; it seems to beckon us. The ancient Greeks would have beheld a nymph in it. But we are not Greeks, O nymph! we are thick-skinned Scythians.” I tell her that most likely, they would have spotted cabbages growing by its banks, remembering some eye-wateringly ravishing Golubtsi or stuffed cabbage rolls, she had made, aeons ago, which still haunt my gustatory cells’ memory.
She gently reminds me that before the Kievan Rus came marauding down the Dnieper in search of Golubtsi to roll, the brassicae were the product of Olympian sadism. For according to ancient myth cabbages sprung from the tears shed by Lycurgus, king of the Edonians, a Thracian tribe, an offshoot of which, having become lost while doing a Macca’s run, became the Macedonians. The ancient writer Hyginus records Lycurgus tried to rape his mother after imbibing too much wine. When he discovered his foul deed, he attempted to cut down the grapevines, believing the wine be medicine gone bad. By way of reprisal, the god Dionysus drove him mad, causing him to kill both his wife and his son, and threw him to the panthers on Mount Rhodope. All through the process he wept profusely, leaving cabbages in his wake.
I counter that it was the Edonian monarch’s attempt to link comestibles with copulation that was the author of his demise to which my interlocutor reposts that the ancient Greeks would not have agreed with me. For in the Scholium to Aristides, it is mentioned that when the goddess Demetra was searching for the abducted Persephone, the king of Eleusis, Celeus, pointed her in the direction of Hades. As a reward (μισθός) Demeter granted him the secret of bread and allowed him to possess her body “illicitly.”
By way of reinforcing her argument, she dares to take a step further and make the preposterous claim that the ancient Greeks invented the icy pole. For in Euripides’ “Alcestis” the heroine’s grieving husband Admetos resolves to commission a sculptor to fashion a statue of his dead wife which he will take to bed and caress as if she were a “cold pleasure.” Here I interject with the observation that it there is here no element of consumption intruding upon the caress, despite her assuring me that this is implied from the context.
In turn, I allude to the dire consequences of educating the Kievan Rus as classicists, suggesting that they undergo extensive screening prior to being permitted to learn Greek but I check myself mid-sentence, remembering that when former protonotarios and chancellor of the University of Constantinople Ioannis Alogatos suggested that Greek be removed from syllabus, the scholars of the day laughed so hard he had to be exiled to the Crimea to overcome the shame of his preposterousness. There he eked out a lonely junketless existence, taunted incessantly by the shades of deposed Greek community organization presidents in lands yet unknown, with Golubtsi as his sole source of sustenance.
Of course, Archestratos in his Hedypatheia, a mid-fourth-century BC text that forms part of a venerable tradition of Greek gastronomic literature, pairs fish, a luxury item for the Alexandrian Greeks, with sex and my interlocutor wastes no time in bringing this to my attention. Yet the pairing between fish and carnal pursuits is based on obscure lexical allusions that identify the reader as culturally Greek, meaning that you have to be Greek in order to get the joke. Evidently, I emphasise, as a hyperborean, she doesn’t.
Except that she does. “You remember Lysistrata? The play where the women withhold carnal pleasure from their menfolk until they agree to stop the war?” I confess to being familiar with Aristophanes’ masterpiece, even the oath made by the women which starts of being general in aspect: “No lover or husband shall ever come near me with a protuberance,” and gradually becoming more specific: “I shall live my life at home uncopulated, dressed in my alluring clothes and perfectly made up, so that my husband will burn with desire for me,” and then growing increasingly vivid and graphic: “I will not lift my silken slippers up to the ceiling,” until the pledge reaches its bizarre apogee: “I will not adopt the lioness on a cheese grater position.”
Just how exactly these two unlikely bedfellows would interact is a question that has confounded scholars since the invention of the egg-whisk, yet it is important to note that no foodstuffs were ever harmed during the making of Aristophanes’ show. A cheese grater does not a cheese make and thus the connection, in my submission between the kefalograviera and coupling is not adequately made out.
As she roars like a lioness stepping on a cheese grater, I recall something that would further advance my contention. Not only did the ancients avoid mixing their pleasures, they also used one to punish a transgression relating to the other. Hence, Rhaphanidosis, the act of inserting the root of a plant of the raphanus genus (commonly known as the radish) into the fundamental orifice. Mentioned by Aristophanes in “The Clouds” as a punishment for adultery in Classical Athens in the fifth and fourth centuries BC, it was also allegedly a punishment for other sex-related crimes, such as promiscuity.
Having exhausted our ancient forefathers and moving on to Byzantium, I concede that the city of Trogir in Croatia, was known in Byzantine times as «Τετράγγουρον» (Quadriple Cucumber). While the possibilities presented by such an urban conglomeration are quite simply, breathtaking, the paucity of adequate evidence renders its use inadmissible. My friend counters by reciting the sixth century erotic epigrams of Paulos: “Eluding the watchful eyes of her mother,/ that alluring girl gave me a pair of rosy apples./ Surely she secretly applied the magic torch/ of love to those red, red apples./ For I, poor me, am now burning up, /but instead of breasts I hold only apples in my idle hands!”
Surely however in this instance, the hypostases of both, rather than melding, are substituted for one another, leading to disappointment and I launch into detailed and thorough speculation as to the breed of apples enjoyed by the Byzantines when I am interrupted by a piercing observation: “Yes but apples, a food, were sacred to Aphrodite, goddess of all things carnal. And didn’t Aristophanes in the Clouds, mentioned that throwing an apple at the object of your desire was a ploy at seduction?”
Bested by the divinity, and the maker of the Golubtsi, I concede defeat, and, somewhat disconsolate at the thought that I can never approach rizogalo in the same way again, begin to formulate arguments to come to terms with the downfall of my taboo. I mention therefore the fate of two American hierarchs, removed a few years ago from their position, accused of τυρεία, literally cheesemongering.
“How is cheesemongering a crime?” she of the Golubtsi, asks.
The answer is simple. Tυρεία in Greek, means to form a secret society or cabal for plotting, for the term for cheese is derived from the word to mix or agitate or stir, with scholars such as Hesychios writing: «τυρεύειν, κυκᾶν, καὶ ταράττειν» something that makes sense when one considers that stirring and agitation is part of the cheese-making process.
“So when Brian from the Life of Brian says “Blessed are the Cheesemakers” hierarchs are excepted…” she muses.
“Blessed are the cheese-graters,” I riposte.
“I bet they enjoy it,” she laughs, delighting, in her final victory.
“So how would you render edible underwear in Greek?” she asks again.
«Εδώδιμα εσώρουχα» I suggest. “Depends on the article in question. And whether it can be consumed during the fasting period. Armenian rolled sheets of dried apricot spring to mind.”
She shrugs casually mentioning the existence of the ancient ὀλισβοκόλλιξ, referring to a bread stick that was supposedly fashioned for purposes to dastardly to mention, and appearing as an hapax legomenon in the lexicon of Hesychios.
“Let’s just treat this an entire conversation as an hapax legomenon,” I plead. I have been off bread now, for an entire week.