They Eat Roses, Don’t They? Leonard Cohen, Roses, Vegetarians, Poetics, & Abligurition

In the beginning was the tweet.

Well, at least that’s how this post, a dandy representative of the continuous clicking Cohen concatenation category, began.

In making my daily internet rounds in search of Leonard Cohen information, I found this tweet from Twitwo ‏@Dads_Arnie:

My favourite example of abligurition is Leonard Cohen’s “So you’re the kind of vegetarian who only eats roses”

Which led to …

Leonard Cohen’s Poem & Novel

Many Cohen fans will recognize that quotation, “So you’re the kind of vegetarian who only eats roses,” as the first lines of his poem:

So you’re the kind of vegetarian
Who only eats roses
Is that what you meant
with your beautiful losers

The final words of this poem from Parasites of Heaven provide the name for Cohen’s novel, Beautiful Losers.

As for that reference to vegetarians, …

Leonard Cohen – Vegetarian

Update: A more thorough treatment of this issue is now online at Was Leonard Cohen A Vegetarian?

Fewer Cohen followers are likely to know that he himself was a vegetarian for two or three years in the mid-1960s.1

The Vegetarian Reference In Beautiful Losers

The serendipitous consecutive mentions of Cohen’s Beautiful Losers and his vegetarianism proffer an irresistible opportunity to – finally – present my favorite passage from that novel that features vegetarians and hilarity in equal parts:

Secret kabals of vegetarians habitually gather under the sign to exchange contraband from beyond the Vegetable Barrier. In their pinpoint eyes dances their old dream: the Total Fast. One of them reports a new atrocity published without compassionate comment by the editors of Scientific American: “It has been established that, when pulled from the ground, a radish produces an electronic scream.” Not even the triple bill for 65˘ will comfort them tonight. With a mad laugh born of despair, one of them throws himself on a hot-dog stand, disintegrating on the first chew into pathetic withdrawal symptoms. The rest watch him mournfully and then separate into the Montreal entertainment section. The news is more serious than any of them thought. One is ravished by a steak house with sidewalk ventilation. In a restaurant, one argues with the waiter that he ordered “tomato” but then in a suicide of gallantry he agrees to accept the spaghetti, meat sauce mistake.

Now, what is this “abligurition” of which rose-eating vegetarians is such a good example?

Abligurition – Not One Of Those “Everybody Knows” Things

Fewer folks still, whether Cohen fans or not, can claim familiarity with “abligurition,” a series of letters which sends my spellchecker into anaphylactic shock. A search for abligurition in the Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary returns only the report that “The word you’ve entered isn’t in the dictionary” and the fallacious. moderately condescending suggestion that perhaps I really meant to find “abjuration.” The OED does, of course, include abligurition – categorizing it as obsolete – and defers to the definition from Samuel Johnson’s 1775 dictionary: “Prodigal expense on meat and drink.”

These days the nearly extinct abligurition survives primarily in captivity as a specimen in “Word Of The Day” columns such as the Food Republic Word Of The Day:Abligurition:

Today’s word of the day is a fancy one. It has even been categorized as “obsolete” by the Oxford English Dictionary, making it all the more intriguing. Abligurition simply means spending lavish amounts of money on fine foods. It comes from the Latin verb abligurire, “ab” meaning “away” and “ligurire” meaning “to be fond of delicacies.” Who needs clothes or gadgets when there’s abligurition to keep us spending on foie gras, oysters and gourmet chocolate?

This excerpt from an entry at Gastronomica helpfully provides an example of the act of abligurition:

When François Mitterrand, the former president of France, realized that he would soon die of prostate cancer, he engaged in a stupendous act of abligurition; that is, he squandered a small fortune on a lavish and bizarre meal for himself and thirty friends. The meal included oysters, foie gras, and caviar, but the piece-de-resistance was roast ortolan, a tiny songbird that in France is actually illegal to consume. Traditionally, the two-ounce warbler is eaten whole, bones and all, while the diner leans forward over the table with a large napkin draped over his head. The napkin, according to food lore, serves two functions: it traps and concentrates the aroma of the petite dish, and it conceals the shameful exorbitance of the meal–the abligurition–from the eyes of God. In origin, the word “abligurition” derives from the Latin preposition ab, meaning “away,” and the verb ligurire, meaning “to eat delicately.” Even further back, ligurire evolved from lingere, meaning “to lick,” which is also connected to “cunnilingus” and “linguine.” As for the ortolan, the tasty object of Mitterrand’s abligurition, its name means “gardener” in Provençal, and it derives from the Latin hortus, meaning “garden.” This means that “ortolan” is related to words such as “horticulture” and “orchard.” The Indo-European ancestor of the Latin hortus was a word pronounced something like gher, meaning “enclosure,” which is also the source of “garden,” “yard,” “kindergarten,” and even “girdle.”

OK, eating ortolan is one thing, but munching roses… ?

Stop & Eat The Roses

It was only when I began putting together an illustration for this piece that I came across How to Eat a Rose on the Jim Long’s Recipes site and consequently came to realize that eating roses isn’t only figurative language but is a rather well known phenomenon. Not only does Mr Long, for example, offer online recipes for Tiny Rose Cookies, Rose Tea Sandwich, Rose and Black Tea, and Rose and Raspberry Salad Dressing, all using rose petals or rose water as an ingredient, but he also sells a book devoted to, if its title can be believed, “How to Eat a Rose.”

Even a cursory search reveals recipes using rose hips (the seed pods that form on rose canes after the flower blossoms), recipes for rose syrup, a commercially sold candy, Sultan’s Turkish Delight, containing significant amounts of rose water, and the information that “rose hips are a staple food in Sweden, are sold in every supermarket there, and are used in soups, teas, jellies and desserts.”

What Did Leonard Cohen Know About Rose-Eaters2?

Note: Strict deconstructionists may skip this section.

Well, Leonard Cohen has repeatedly demonstrated in his work and in interviews that he maintains a huge, varied database of information, and he specifically knows his way around a kitchen (and wine cellar) so it’s possible that when he wrote “the kind of vegetarian / Who only eats roses” he was consciously or unconsciously conjuring up the taste of, say, that luscious rose hip jelly that was his secret adolescent passion.3 Heck, when he wrote “Everybody wants a box of chocolates. / And a long stem rose” into Everybody Knows, maybe he had in mind that both items were wanted for snacking.

It is also believable, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, that he had no idea that roses were comestibles.

Now, the question at hand becomes “Why should anyone care if Leonard Cohen did or didn’t know rose petals were a tasty repast when he wrote “So You’re The Kind Of Vegetarian?”

Because, sans foreknowledge that roses can be eaten shifts on the part of the author or the reader the implicit connotation of

So you’re the kind of vegetarian
Who only eats roses

is that an individual of this sort indulges in fantasy (i.e., consuming non-edible ornamental plants).

With that foreknowledge, however, this is the sort of individual who aspires to an aesthetic that is at least hypothetically possible; this quest is, of course, tragically flawed and leads to certain doom. And it is those individuals, expertly limned in these few lines of verse, that are the the prototype of Cohen’s beautiful losers – or as he asks

Is that what you meant
with your beautiful losers

End Of The Line

To recapitulate, today’s tweet-triggered post

  • Presented “So You’re The Kind Of Vegetarian,” the Leonard Cohen poem from which the name for his novel, Beautiful Losers, was extracted
  • Identified Leonard Cohen as a one-time vegetarian
  • Excerpted a pretty darn funny vegetarian-pertinent passage from “Beautiful Losers”
  • Provided the definition, etymology, and an example of an obscure word – abligurition
  • Offered not only the information that roses are edible but also links to recipes for creating such dishes
  • Set forth a nuanced knowledge-of-roses-edibility-dependent explication of Cohen’s poem that would have warmed the cockles of my undergrad English Lit professor

Not too shabby for a Monday.

Credit Due Department: The photo of rose hips is credited en:User:MPF and used under the Creative Commons license.

I am republishing selected posts from my former Leonard Cohen site, Cohencentric, here on (these posts can be found at Leonard Cohen). This entry was originally posted June 11, 2012.


  1. Who Held A Gun To Leonard Cohen’s Head? by Tim de Lisle (The Guardian, 16 September 2004) []
  2. Rose-eaters should not be confused with Lotus-eaters, the island-dwellers found in the Odyssey, Tennyson’s poem, Joyce’s Ulysses, and other literary works, who ate lotus plants, causing them to sleep in peaceful apathy. See also Nick Cave’s Night Of The Lotus Eaters. []
  3. To the uninitiated: That’s a joke. Leonard Cohen has never kept a passion secret. []

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