Thinking Brillat-Savarin in a Delia world: books
Felipe Fernandez-Armesto savours a feast of literary food
Saturday 16 November 1996
No cultural indicator is more vivid than food. Tell me what you eat and I will tell you who you are. From cannibals to health-food freaks, people choose their menus as a source of self-transforming magic, enhancing their characters by appropriating the qualities of their diets. Culture began when the raw got cooked. Fireside settings turned eating into ritual. Cooking, when it started, was not just a way of preparing food but also of organising society. In today's microwave households, where communal eating has stopped, the end of cooking threatens us with a new kind of savage: the loneliness of the fast-food eater. If we want to be truly civilised, il faut vivre pour manger et ne pas manger pour vivre.
Yet the biggest market today is for boring, over-processed pap: and that goes for food literature as well as food. Readers who could have Brillat- Savarin settle for Delia Smith. Joan Smith's recipe for jaded minds and palates is an anthology of food-writing - a literary equivalent of dim sum or tapas. In one of her intriguingly selected passages, we learn that Duke Ellington, who liked to eat till he hurt, once worked his way through all the 85 kinds of hors d'oeuvres at the Cafe Royal in The Hague. Joan Smith is driven by the same enquiring appetite, but better discernment. The purpose of hors d'oeuvres is not to satisfy; nor can an anthology be exhaustive. It should set the jaws going and the juices flowing. It should titillate, not cloy. Joan Smith knows how to tweak the phagocytes into action.
She manipulates the reader's appetite daringly, whetting lips and churning stomachs at will. She arranges her material by wonderfully idiosyncratic themes. The first five courses are calculated to repel most of her readers. They deal with starvation, sex, bad food, cannibalism and over-eating. It is a tribute to Smith's menu-planning that even after harrowing us with skin-taut anorexics, conjuring us with concentration-camp victims' bones, sickening us with "flesh like fresh butter", splattering us with bulimics' vomit and puzzling us with St Catherine's taste for pus ("Never in my life have I tasted food or drink sweeter or more exquisite"), she can still tempt us with her own favourite recipes.
Her judgement is admirable. Rosemary Conley is smitten, hip and thigh. The Fifties diet-guru, Gaylorde Hauser, is delicately ridiculed in his own words ("my Be More Beautiful Diet...you will be amazed at the way the fat rolls off.") If I ever get seven consecutive days at home, I shall try his preachy, starchless "Reducing Diet'' - not to see whether I lose weight, but whether I retain my sanity.
Smith has an unerring eye for crankery, charlatanism and egotism of every kind. Her own taste in food is a triumph of good sense: she likes to gorge on liver with onions and chestnut cream. She sucks the pulp out of whole roast garlic cloves. She gives plenty of space to some of the finest writers on food: Brillat-Savarin, Elizabeth David, Laura Esquivel. She realises that much of the best work on the subject has to be garnered from general literature, not just explicitly foodie efforts: she would make a good editor for a literary companion to food.
There are some pips in her macedoine. The introductions with which the selections are linked are the weakest parts of the book - hurriedly thrown off, inadequately researched. Some extracts are selected from secondary sources. Some are repetitive, like dubious mackerels, some misplaced like a fingernail in a veal pie. Some, especially in the section on cannibalism, suggest that Smith should have done more work on the historical and anthropological literature before making her final selection.
Readers of anthologies are usually disappointed by inevitable omissions and Joan Smith deserves more praise than blame for putting together a defiantly personal book; but a chapter called "Eating Shit" should surely have had at least something on coprophagy; and it has to be admitted that - from a woman of catholic tastes and unconventional sympathies - the selection as a whole veers surprisingly towards modern western sources.
Only really interesting people should compile quirky anthologies. Joan Smith is fascinating and keeps you riveted, teased and annoyed all at once. Her leitmotif is sex. She discovered its connection with food when she fell out of love and turned to vegetarianism. Now that she is back on bloodily suppurating liver, venison and wild boar sausages, the reader can enjoy her book, comfortingly reassured of her personal happiness.
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