You may well scoff

HUNGRY FOR YOU From Cannibalism to Seduction: A Book of Food by Joan Smith, Chatto pounds 17.99

This, as part of its subtitle tells us, is a "Book of Food" - which does not mean that it is a book about cooking, or even a book about writing about cooking. It is, instead, a book that sets out to tackle the whole range of what food means to us: its symbolic and iconic meanings, as well as the more pragmatic sociological and cultural implications, and the more capaciously recorded psychological and sexual ones. It pronounces that it ranges "From Cannibalism to Seduction", but that almost under- advertises the compass of a volume that begins with starvation and ends with a recipe for Mont Blanc (chestnut puree, rum, grated chocolate, sugar and whipping cream). In between, the selection is divided into sections, each prefaced by an essay - on "Sexing the Cherry", "Eating Shit", Fine Young Cannibals", and so on.

Even for so unusual a food book, it is brave - if not positively foolhardy - to begin with an essay on starvation. After this, and the horrifying impact of extensive extracts from the likes of Victor Hugo, Jung Chang, Engels and Charlotte Bronte, you feel disinclined to move on to the luscious treats in store later, in "La Dolce Vita" and "Obsession". One of the book's few false notes is to introduce into this company a passage about the royal bulimia from Andrew Morton's Diana: Her True Story and a part of that Panorama interview. In fact, despite its clever and intriguing introductory essay, this section failed to convince me (and I've read all the theory) that real hunger imposed by external circumstances (cf Primo Levi, Knut Hamsun, Jane Eyre when penniless) has anything at all to do with the psychologically induced hunger-striking of anorexia and bulimia.

But, this quibble aside (or even including it, for it centres on a deeply interesting question), the book is perpetually fascinating. Joan Smith's pool of references is wider than that of most anthologists, and she manages to pull in pieces from Julius Caesar's De Bello Gallico, from the early 13th-century Travels of Marco Polo, from Byron's Journals or the Fourth Lateran Council, alongside such stalwarts of the modern rattle-bag as Camille Paglia and John Osborne.

Hardly a single one of the grand names of food-writing are to be found here - although Elizabeth David does make a couple of appearances. The diet-doctors and eating gurus are out in force, though, from Susie Orbach to Rosemary Conley (although once again, the conjunction of these two begs a number of interesting questions) in the unlikely company of Robert Baden-Powell, Bernard Shaw and James Joyce.

Cannibalism is another subject that doesn't often feature in food books - or in books at all, you might think, apart from old-fashioned Boys Own adventures. Think again - and savour this extraordinary essay. Hungry For You will make the ideal Christmas present for anyone who insists that they hate the excesses of the season. This'll teach them.

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