An Organic Parable: Baucis and Philemon

By Ian Halbert

Ovid, in book VIII of the Metamorphoses, tells the story of Baucis and Philemon. In sum, Jupiter and Mercury come to earth in the guise of poor wayfarers in need of board and bread. At every turn, they are turned away by the inhabitants of the village. At the edge of town an elderly and impoverished couple (Baucis and Philemon) invite the wanderers into their home. They give them the best of what little they have. Of course, in the face of such piety and grace the gods reveal themselves and announce their intention to destroy the village for its sins. Their noble, elderly and poor hosts live on as priests at the gods’ temple and are granted their one wish: to die together at the same moment. In keeping with the theme, the two rustics are transfigured at the hour of their death into twin trees forever intertwined with one another. It is a beautiful and enduring story.

But what has this to do with “the rural”? As I teach this text every semester one passage remains with me, the meal Baucis and Philemon serve the god-guests:
ponitur hic bicolor sincerae baca Minervae
conditaque in liquida corna autumnalia faece 
intibaque et radix et lactis massa coacti
ovaque non acri leviter versata favilla,
omnia fictilibus (VIII.664-668)

On the table were placed some varieties of olives
and autumnal cherries preserved in reduced wine;
there were also endive, radishes and a lump of farmer’s cheese,
all served with slow poached eggs on humble earthenware plates.
And this is to say nothing of the bacon put on the hob some twenty lines earlier! This meal sounds delicious to me, and not dissimilar to the pricier fare I find at the better and trendier restaurants here in Boston and New York: preserved cherries! a selection of olives! a salad of endive and radish, with chevre and bacon! But for Ovid, the consummate urbanite and definition of urbanity, this meal was the height of rusticity, simplicity and poverty. In other words, to an educated, literate and wealthy Roman of the 1st century AD, this meal was poor fare at best – or rather the best of the poorest fare – and he likely read this passage with a smirk and smile at what the country rabble are reduced to eat.

Fascinating isn’t it? Over two millennia food not fit for gods or privileged Romans – peasants’ fare no less! – has become the meals we savor … and save for. In fact, it seems we are going out of our way for simpler and simpler food, to the point of fetishizing it.


One of the stated aims of The Art of the Rural is to ask questions about what exactly “the rural” is, and how it intersects with “the urban.” In the weeks and months ahead, I hope to post entries that explore how food (and food culture) intersects and connects these two terms.

Saying Goodbye to Oakdale, Illinois

The Daily Yonder and The Rural Blog are two sites I read each day; they both provide some of the most thorough, provocative and indispensable information and commentary on rural issues. The Daily Yonder today offers analysis on the senate election in Massachusetts (both the most heavily rural and heavily urban counties voted for Democrat Martha Coakley) as well as this fantastic reminiscence on the local history of Oakdale, Illinois–the fictional small-town home of As The World Turns. Here’s a glimpse of writer Julianne Crouch walking down this soapstone memory lane:

Geographically, Oakdale started out in the corn fields somewhere in central Illinois. The town now has at least one hospital, a television station, three newspapers, a university, a fancy hotel (where characters unaccountably live for long stretches), a dive motel, and a police force. It has a convenient airport, with jets on stand-by if one needs a quickie divorce in “the Islands.” Like the town of Springfield, where the cartoon Simpsons live, it has whatever geographical features suit the story line. Oakdale is an easy drive to the mountains, New York City, and of course, Chicago. 

The show premiered in April 1956. When I first moved to Oakdale for one hour a day, Chicago was rarely mentioned. It might come up if someone sought an abortion or needed an organ transplant. But over the years, Chicago has become central to the lives of Oakdalians. Either Chicago’s suburbs are sprawling or Oakdale is snurching north. Oakdalians are Cubs fans but seem to have little interest in the Bulls or the Bears. They go to the Windy City for rock concerts or occasional shopping trips. They can get there and back in no time, unless they slide off the road and hit a tree or are kidnapped along the way. Hey, it happens.

While the essay reads as a sort of fabulist narrative of post-war rural America, the Daily Yonder‘s page also features a very thoughtful response:

Daily Yonder readers undoubtedly will be interested to learn that there is, in fact, a non-fictional Oakdale, Illinois, and it’s a lovely place.  It’s located in the southwestern part of the state – specifically in southwestern Washington County, about 55 miles southeast of St. Louis, Missouri (and about 30 miles northeast of my hometown of Chester, Illinois).  The population as of the 2000 census was 213.

Oakdale is home to one of only three congregations of the Reformed Presbyterian Church of North America in Illinois.  Its existence reflects the early-nineteenth-century migration of Scots-Irish Covenanters from Upcountry South Carolina to present-day southwestern Washington County and northeastern Randolph County, Illinois, largely because of their opposition to slavery.

 Read more from the Julianne Crouch’s essay here.

For the Weekend: From the Range to the Bayou

The Western Folklife Center offers a website well-worth visiting and revisting. Next weekend they host their 26th National Cowboy Poetry Gathering; while I’m looking forward to writing more about this event next week, I’d like to share something from one of the Center’s other programs, Deep West Video–whose mission is “to tell first-hand stories from the rural West that are rooted in the values of life on the land:”

Since 2000, the Western Folklife Center has been working with people from throughout the rural west to produce short videos and slide shows about their lives on the land. Using the tools of digital communication, these home-made productions are simple yet elegant; they are not glossy and commercial, but from the heart.

Deep West’s video site offers dozens of pieces that, when viewed together, weave a rich and varied narrative about life in the rural west. Here’s one of my favorites: Susan Church’s Kitchen on the Range. It’s a interesting look into life on a cattle ranch, phrased as a submission to a Martha Stewart Magazine kitchen-remodeling contest. Scroll down this page to view Kitchen on the Range. 

After spending some time with Deep West Videos, try Zydeco: Creole Music and Culture in Rural Louisiana, a documentary produced by Nicholas R. Spitzer during his tenure as Louisiana State Folklorist. Also, as with every weekend, check out American Routes, his weekly public radio show that celebrates American music in all its diversity. The show cultivates the idea of “american music” in its widest sense, featuring “jazz, gospel and soul, old-time country and rockabilly, Cajun and zydeco, Tejano and Latin, roots rock and pop, avant-garde and classical.”