food for fantasy, no sex required

pornography part two; Ruth Picardie on the erotic power of full-frontal home-made vanilla ice cream, fuzzy peaches and fresh apricot upside-down cake

The magazine wasn't easy to find. Eventually I tracked it down to a cramped Soho newsagent, where a few copies were half-hidden at shoulder- level. I quickly handed over the money - an exorbitant pounds 2.80, but that's the price you have to pay for these publications - and hurried for the bus, the purchase throbbing urgently in my bag. Home at last, it remained hidden away during the dreary chaos of feeding and bathing the children, paying some bills, washing up. Finally at 10pm, feeling a mixture of guilt and anticipated pleasure, I made myself a night-cap, turned off the lights and went to bed - with my shiny new copy of Vogue Entertaining.

Pornography, in the usual sense of the word, is a turn-off for many women. The imagery tends to be cliched, the production values poor. Even the early Nineties boom in products aimed at women - from the flurry of male striptease shows pioneered by the Chippendales, to the rash of soft-core magazines which followed the launch of For Women, to the video collection launched by the ludicrously named Candida Royalle - has come and gone. Once the novelty value wore off, women realised that smiling men with big muscles and ordinary willies were not necessarily sexy.

Luckily, women have always enjoyed a different kind of pornography. My personal fetish is Vogue; my mum has a stack of The World of Interiors next to her bed; glossy travel brochures, notably the shiny, gold-embossed trio produced by Elegant Resorts, are the favoured night-time reading of my friend Gemma; and who hasn't curled up with a lavishly illustrated cookery book, full of expensive, ultra-fattening, multi-stage recipes, on a rainy Sunday afternoon?

What makes these diverse pleasures pornographic, with barely a nipple, give or take a nightmare high-fashion garment, in sight? The cookery books are easily explained, for as Freud pointed out at the turn of the century, food and sex go together like breast-feeding and the Oedipus complex, like anorexia and puberty, like Cadbury's Flake and oral sex. For women, Ros Coward has argued, the food/sex connection is particularly potent, thanks to their fear of fat. Hence the guilty pleasures of "food porn": cropped airbrushed close-ups of ripe strawberries, next to miracle diets. In the words of Lorraine Gamman and Merja Makinen in their book Female Fetishism, food "appears to provoke more compelling fantasies and conversations than sex and is perceived as just as alluring and dangerous".

The latest books to capitalise on this include Margi Clarke's Better Than Sex Cookbook (Hodder & Stoughton): "Your taste buds will fall in love with her linguine, be ravaged by her rosti, and surrender to her sushi." Then there's Acquired Tastes (Mandarin) by someone with the unlikely name Simone Mondesir, which asks, next to a photograph of a dripping peach: "How do you like your men? Firm and hairy to the touch? Sweet and juicy when bitten?" Or how about Eat Me - geddit - by Linda Jaivin (Chatto & Windus), which begins with a woman masturbating herself in the supermarket with a selection of exotic fruit?

Yuk. Which is why nine out of 10 of us prefer to stick with just the food. I was particularly drawn to the cover of the current issue of Vogue Entertaining, a lingering close-up of "home-made vanilla ice-creams and fuzzy peaches"; inside, watch out for the full-page photograph of "fresh apricot upside-down cake and brown-sugar shortbread filled with butter icing". Yummy, or what? Or as my friend Jenny, a great cook, puts it: "You pick up a book to plan a menu and suddenly you're stroking a meringue."

What about travel brochures and glossy magazines? What makes them pornographic? Pictures of speed boats thrusting through the sea? Half-naked supermodels? No, no, no! Remember, this isn't about sex, but fantasy. Just as nobody ever goes to bed with dear, practical Delia Smith, travel porn and glossy porn are about escaping into a luxurious, dream world far from the humdrum reality of overdrafts and flabby thighs.

Of course you can't afford, never mind get into, the Ralph Lauren yellow leather jeans advertised on the first page of this month's Vogue. A holiday in Guyana - see the latest issue of Conde Nast Traveller bought by nearly a million Americans each month - following Evelyn Waugh "to the ranches and jungles in the remote Rupununi" is out of the question.

As for remaking one's home in the "stunning Directoire style" favoured by Frederic Mechiche for his new Paris residence, pictured in The World of Interiors, dream on. But, darlings, that's how porn works. The question is: is sex-free porn bad for you? Does it encourage sick, self-hating fantasies about being a size 10? Does it sublimate your sex drive into bitter chocolate almond torte? Should your magazines, books and brochures be hidden under the bed, replaced with sensible guides to fat-free eating and high-street style?

There's no doubt that the new porn has the potential to wreck relationships. ("Not tonight, darling, I'm reading the River Cafe Cook Book".) It may also set unrealistic standards for you and your partner. ("First you want the wood floor," says my friend Lizzie, apropos her Elle Deco phase, "then you want the house in Maine. It's too depressing.")

And, God knows, it's expensive: Conde Nast Traveller costs pounds 4.80, the beautiful River Cafe Cook Book, which has sold 45,000 copies in hardback, costs a cool pounds 25. The trouble is, it's a hard habit to kick. I guess I'm a sad, middle-aged woman in dirty, walnut oil-stained pinny.

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