Stacey Harwood-Lehman, poet laureate of the New York Greenmarkets and New School faculty member (where she teaches ‘Food Narratives’), serves as our Medium of the Month for October. She brings the voices of poets past to The Inquisitive Eater this Halloween season. Welcome, Stacey.
A persistent fantasy of mine is that someday I’ll convince a team of great chefs to prepare a meal based on Ben Jonson’s poem “Inviting a Friend to Supper.”
I read the poem as having three parts: the fawning invitation, the description of the groaning board, and the promise of a convivial atmosphere. I love that up front Jonson stresses that the company is more important than the meal. And from today’s vantage point, Jonson comes off as the original locavore: the food must be seasonal and affordable (And, though fowl, now, be scarce, yet there are clerks, / The sky not falling, think we may have larks.).
In order to appreciate fully the poem, one must do a little literary, culinary, and political sleuthing, which is fun and offers rewards. You will learn, for example, that “cates” are delicacies, and a “cony” is a small animal, possibly a rabbit or pig. Jonson makes several literary references; the invitation poem is a subject for poetry that dates back at least to the Roman poet Martial (Mar. 1, ad 38–41 through c 103). You’ll also discover that “Pooley” and “Parrot,” singled out later in the poem, were government informers. They’ll have no place at Jonson’s table.
—Stacey Harwood-Lehman, Your Medium of the Month
Inviting a Friend to Supper
By Ben Jonson
Tonight, grave sir, both my poor house, and I
Do equally desire your company;
Not that we think us worthy such a guest,
But that your worth will dignify our feast
With those that come, whose grace may make that seem
Something, which else could hope for no esteem.
It is the fair acceptance, sir, creates
The entertainment perfect, not the cates.
Yet shall you have, to rectify your palate,
An olive, capers, or some better salad
Ushering the mutton; with a short-legged hen,
If we can get her, full of eggs, and then
Lemons, and wine for sauce; to these a cony
Is not to be despaired of, for our money;
And, though fowl now be scarce, yet there are clerks,
The sky not falling, think we may have larks.
I’ll tell you of more, and lie, so you will come:
Of partridge, pheasant, woodcock, of which some
May yet be there, and godwit, if we can;
Knat, rail, and ruff too. Howsoe’er, my man
Shall read a piece of Virgil, Tacitus,
Livy, or of some better book to us,
Of which we’ll speak our minds, amidst our meat;
And I’ll profess no verses to repeat.
To this, if ought appear which I not know of,
That will the pastry, not my paper, show of.
Digestive cheese and fruit there sure will be;
But that which most doth take my Muse and me,
Is a pure cup of rich Canary wine,
Which is the Mermaid’s now, but shall be mine;
Of which had Horace, or Anacreon tasted,
Their lives, as so their lines, till now had lasted.
Tobacco, nectar, or the Thespian spring,
Are all but Luther’s beer to this I sing.
Of this we will sup free, but moderately,
And we will have no Pooley, or Parrot by,
Nor shall our cups make any guilty men;
But, at our parting we will be as when
We innocently met. No simple word
That shall be uttered at our mirthful board,
Shall make us sad next morning or affright
The liberty that we’ll enjoy tonight.