You may well scoff
HUNGRY FOR YOU From Cannibalism to Seduction: A Book of Food by Joan Smith, Chatto pounds 17.99
Sunday 08 December 1996
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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