Things to Avoid 4: Dishes for the eyes (戒目食)


List of Things to Avoid::Dishes for the Eyes
What are “Dishes for the eyes”? Dishes for eyes exist only to satisfy one’s desire to see large quantities and varieties of food. Present day people are most impressed when the banquet table is over-laden [1] with food-filled dishes and bowls of every size, which are undoubtedly great for viewing but not made for tasting.

One must understand that even the best calligrapher will fault if they overextend himself in writing and the most renown poet will invariably compose tired verses when vexed. Note that even through great effort, an excellent chef can produce only four or five good dishes over the course of a day, not to mention that each dish’s success is not guaranteed. Therefore can we really expect much of the food if a chef had to throw together enough of it to cover a banquet table?[2] Even with numerous helpers in the kitchen, each of the helpers have their different skill levels and opinions on how things should be done, as such the more of them there are, the worse the dishes usually become.

I once attended a banquet hosted by a merchant, where three separate courses of dishes were served along with 16 appetizers. In total, the banquet amounted to almost 40 dishes! While the host was immensely satisfied with the pompous banquet, I left it hungry and had to cook congee at home in order to quell my hunger.[3] Such banquets, while abundant with food, are both vulgar and unwholesome. Kong-Lin of Southern Song once said: “People of present times enjoy numerous foods; few of them are for the mouth, most of them for the eyes.” I would only add that if the grand spread of dishes before you are rank and unpleasant, no pleasure can be derived on viewing them.

Random notes:

[1]: What was actually stated here is (食前方丈) literally means “food in front, squared zhang”. A Zhang (丈) a unit of measure of around 3 meters. This is supposed be around the height of a man (please insert joke here), hence the term 丈夫 for a husband/married man. Saying: “People are impressed by a spread of dishes of 3×3 meters (~10×10 feet)” does not really work well, hence the translation.

[2]: Chinese Emperors had a lot of “Dishes for the eyes” in their official meals in order to show their wealth and power. Most of the dishes served during these official meals were never touched and given to the underlings to show that they are still in the Emperor’s favour. It must be terrible for the palace chef to know that most of what you cook will never be eaten. I read actually that many of Emperors ate their real and rather simple meals in their private quarters, and this sometimes included (shockingly) plain rice congee. I wonder if this was what Yuan-Mei was referring to in the following lines.

[3]: In my younger and much sillier days in Montreal, we once went to a restaurant on Prince Arthur Street for a rather pricy celebratory 3 course Table d’hôte. It was so memorable that I after these years I still remembered what I ate. The first course consisted of Lipton cup-of-soup, followed by the main course, which came in the form of a dessicated grilled lobster, good only for training jaw muscles. Third course? A small slice of McCain® Deep ‘n Delicious® Chocolate Cake or one of its nameless relatives. We left the restaurant hungry and annoyed, then went home and drank ourselves silly.


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