To bite or not to bite

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The Independent Culture
Our residual memory is packed with images, but because some of them are downright unpleasant, we do not consult them regularly. Take the mouth, for instance. How much attention do you pay to mouths? Can you recall and describe 50 or 100 mouths? Can you distinguish a Leonardo mouth from a Hogarth? And have you ever asked yourself why the Impressionists tend to blur, if not pass over, that through which we speak and eat? Are you among those who heed lips but skip teeth? And how much money have you spent on the perfect smile? Think of the trouble poor Martin Amis got into for seeking it.

Oh, the gloomy considerations that result from a visit to the stern Dr Jacobson, my smock-coated Iranian dentist. She says, you will do this (including enduring pain, of course), or else you'll lose that tooth. Well, what is one tooth lost among so many? She wields her slender hypodermic, and I lean back and consider Leonardo's toothless, sunken-cheeked old men. Through my mind flits the painter Turner's poor, mad mum, and her incessant headaches and irritations, as she's wrapped up in canvas and conveyed from this place (his dad's hairdressing salon) to Bedlam. Yes, yes, I say, I want to go on chewing.

The result of this descent into the cool, surgical hell that is modern dentistry (they never tell you that it will hurt even more afterwards than it did before) is a careful examination of hard and soft foods. Anyone of my generation (rotten diet in childhood, the War, no fluorides) knows that a nut can be as fatal as a raw carrot. We have spent lifetimes in strange dentists' chairs; worn rubber bands and vast metal braces; been tortured, yes! with slow burrs and, latterly, with the whine of jets in our ears, and tooth-dust flying up into plastic visors. Was it all worth it, just so that we could chew on a splendid piece of un-mad beef?

Well, let's think a moment. Can man live on souffle and mash, on gruel and soup? Consider the fortunate Oriental who, besides bearing the wisdom of the East and enjoying Confucian right conduct, doesn't really need his teeth. Gums alone will do for the vindaloo, the No 73, the sticky pork and pineapple. Italians could get by on pasta not too much al dente, and nouvelle cuisine, so far as I could make out, consisted mainly of coulis and puree. Mexicans and Texicans do fine on pure heat wrapped in tortillas. But you, Mr Botsford, you whose teeth have been referred to in the public prints as closely resembling Stonehenge, you must chew.

Yes, because texture is all important in food, and though I have an ingenious little contraption that provides cosmetic cover for the gaps caused by an unfortunate encounter with a postprandial Frenchman during the Tour de France many years ago, I use it only for appearances on the telly - a medium that displays only those, like Mr Blair or Mr Clinton, with positively gleaming dentition. Unfortunately, one tastes also with one's teeth, and there are wonders in the food world from which those who lack the appropriate pointed masses of plaque and enamel are forever excluded: crusty bread, corn-on-the-cob, the leaves of the artichoke, the crust on a creme caramel, an apple, should you find one you would care to bite into, and, of course, all meats save the fowl.

Yes, it is we omnivores who suffer, which is why we have those pesky and occasionally painful reminders of our murky past stuck into our jaws. Primitive man (or woman), traces of whom we all retain, along with our useless appendix, our vestigial tails, our supernumerary toes, could not have survived without teeth. Modern man clearly could. Fast food is made for the dentally impaired. So are rice and tofu. So are all the delights of the nursery, from kedgeree to the departed bloater; and fish, with or without chips, will do just fine.

For that matter, a liquid diet of vodka or wine suits some admirably: the edentate are at no disadvantage. Indeed, if you consider the diets promoted to give you that exquisite minceur which is our modern ideal, you will realise that teeth are strictly supererogatory: you can just let the lettuce wilt a little. Did I not myself survive for two weeks, and mightily slenderise myself (this was after an awful, inflating binge of daily rice and beans in the interior of Brazil), on a diet of pure protein - nothing more than boiled eggs and what my fellow Hollywoodites call "dog food", prime ground steak, over which I poured boiling consomme?

All this I thought about, as Dr Jacobson, with me laid out helplessly below her, sternly considered that messy thing, my mouth, and awaited my consent. I thought, if I don't, my courgettes will have to be forever overdone,and I will not be able to pick the game off the birds in my polenta. I thought, briefly, of difficulties I might have chewing seal blubber when, if this spring were to continue so awful for ever, we would all have become Eskimos; I smelled a Homeric ox on its spit; I took a deep look into loss and age, and wondered what wine one might drink with mashed potatoes and rice pudding; I reproached myself about what a coward I am; and I said, "Madam, pray plunge. Do your worst"