I’m thinking of Cockaigne today because on Twitter there’s been some discussion of what restaurants people thought were a real treat when they were young – someone had said mean things about Red Lobster and the Olive Garden, and while we didn’t have either of those when I was a kid, we sure looked forward to steaks at Ponderosa – and also because Michelin has announced its new Canada guides, including mention of restaurants in Toronto, some of which I’ve even eaten at. And, yes, the food at a Michelin-starred restaurant is quite the indulgence, but on the other hand, there’s a lot to be said for a bit of good old comfort food, y’know? Sometimes you want quality, other times quantity; sometimes you want delicacies, other times… indelicacy.
But what what would your Cockaigne feature? If you could drink one thing all day long, would it be champagne or Coke? If you could eat whatever you want, would it include cake, or coq au vin, or some other kind of cooking? If you were at leisure with unlimited resources, would you spend your time relaxing at a grand beach resort or skiing at a little tucked-away place? If you could indulge in any sensual pleasures you wanted, what would be the relative balance of wanton sexual adventures versus reading books in a bubble bath?
If you’re not familiar with Cockaigne, or have seen the word but aren’t sure of its reference, allow me to introduce you. It’s a mythical land of indulgence, first concocted in the medieval era. The origin of the word is uncertain, but probably has something to do with cakes. It has versions in various languages, such as French Cocaigne (the source of our English word), Italian Cuccagna, and Spanish Cucaña; some other languages have different names for the same place, such as Dutch Luilekkerland, German Schlaraffenland, and Swedish Lubberland. It’s not etymologically related to Cockney, although an association has occasionally been made and Edward Elgar played on it in his concert overture “Cockaigne (In London Town).” And it is not at all related to cocaine, a word it pre-dates by more than half a millennium (cocaine is just from coca plus -ine), even though cocaine is probably the sort of thing that some people might want in their Cockaigne.
I’ve looked at this general topic before, a dozen years ago, when I tasted thelemite; I noted that Rabelais’s vision of a “do what thou wilt” place required maid service, meaning there were some people who were apparently not so free (unless they wanted nothing more than to be fancy maids, I guess), and I considered the 1920s hobo song “Big Rock Candy Mountain,” which to me sounds like a land full of indolent people with tooth decay and desolated livers, although I suppose if we’re doing fantasy anyway, we might as well fantasize that you can eat and drink all the crap you want and suffer no ill effects. I mean, it’s hardly paradise if you wake up with a flensing headache, right?
Anyway, fantasy is fantasy. It exists precisely because our lives are frankly insufficiently gratifying. But our fantasies often reflect our priorities in ways that reveal the chains we still gladly wear (and also the chains we’d like other people to wear, as Rabelais showed). Some people’s fantasy cities, for instance, have freeways you can drive through them at high speed, unobstructed (a staple of mid-20th-century urban visions); others’ fantasy cities entirely obviate driving: step out your door and everything you want in any normal week is steps away, and you can take a fast train or even an easy bike ride to get to other things and places when you want. Introduced to a Cockaigne, would we be like Little Orphan Annie who, when asked what she’d like to do first in the mansion of Daddy Warbucks, said “The windows, then the floors”?
Even if we can cast off all chains and just talk about things people enjoy, it’s plain not everyone agrees. Many people could spend their whole lives lolling on a beach and never once be cold, but there’s a reason that the only resort I know of called Cockaigne is a cute little ski area in New York State (I’ve skied there; it ain’t Whistler, but it’s gemütlich). And while I first saw the word Cockaigne in the name of a recipe (I can’t remember what it was for; I’m nowhere near my mom’s cookbooks right now), if you search for recipes with Cockaigne in the name, you’ll get quite a variety, everything from brownies to chicken breasts. Both of those, in fact, are from The Joy of Cooking; my mother didn’t have that book, but it seems to have been a vector for use of the term—the authors explain in their foreword to the 1967 edition, “in response to many requests from users of ‘The Joy’ who ask ‘What are your favorites?,’ we have added to some of our recipes the word ‘Cockaigne,’ which signified in medieval times ‘a mythical land of peace and plenty,’ and also happens to be the name of our country home.”
Well, ha, mythical land of peace and plenty, sure. I mean, that’s true, but I don’t imagine the Rombauers and Beckers had in mind the plenty of social inversion and plenty of wild shagging that the author of the medieval poem “The Land of Cokaygne” described. They might have been OK with the skies raining cheese, I suppose, but only depending on their lawn furniture. And they most certainly would not have envisioned the kind of company or consequences described in “Ego sum abbas Cucaniensis,” “I am the Abbot of Cockaigne”:
Ego sum abbas Cucaniensis
et consilium meum est cum bibulis,
et in secta Decii voluntas mea est,
et qui mane me quaesierit in taberna
post vesperam nudus egredietur,
et sic denudatus veste clamabit:
Wafna, wafna! quid fecisti, Sors turpissima?
nostrae vitae gaudia
I am the Abbot of Cockaigne
and I keep counsel with drunkards
and prefer the company of gamblers
and who seeks me in the morning in the tavern
will leave naked after vespers,
and stripped naked he will cry:
Oh no! Oh no! What have you done, most filthy luck?
All the joys in life
you have snatched away!
Just gets a bit too… real, doesn’t it? No need to go all medieval on people, so to speak. A scenic spa with coquilles St. Jacques and champagne—and nothing to risk losing—seems like a nicer starter pack.