The Washington Post
The Sex Life of Food: When Body and Soul Meet to Eatby Bunny Crumpacker
"The sex life of food" doesn't mean that the strawberries have fallen in love with the oatmeal. It's a look at food—and sex—and how they go together in our daily lives much more often than we realize. There are so many ways that hunger and desire act on each other, and so many things that can influence our preferences. Not only are people moved by the… See more details below
"The sex life of food" doesn't mean that the strawberries have fallen in love with the oatmeal. It's a look at food—and sex—and how they go together in our daily lives much more often than we realize. There are so many ways that hunger and desire act on each other, and so many things that can influence our preferences. Not only are people moved by the taste, texture, and the shapes of the food they eat, but even the names of some dishes can kindle hunger—of both kinds—in some. As the author writes, "Sometimes cooking is foreplay, eating is making love, and doing the dishes is the morning after."
The many things Bunny Crumpacker shares with the readers of her fascinating book almost could have inspired her to write a novel, sending Adam and Eve (with their apple) traveling through history as the icons of our passions. Instead, she has gone far beyond the obvious to bring us unexpected and tantalizing knowledge of how much and in how many surprising ways we assuage our hunger for both food and sex and how where there's one, there is often the other. The result is a continued delight. There's history and humor, obvious connections and truly amazing ones. The author enlightens us on a myriad of topics, including food in fairy tales, what politicians eat, comfort food, and manners at the table.
But enough! There's too much to say. Turn the pages and let Bunny Crumpacker introduce you to The Sex Life of Food.
The Washington Post
"Delicious and funny andyessexy. A heady mix and a splendid look at the comic mysteries of food."
Maurice Sendak, author and illustrator of Where the Wild Things Are
"Bunny Crumpacker shows how much more complicated (and polymorphous) sensual reality really is. The unexpected connections she makes in these pages between food and sex are exhilarating and illuminating and guarantee that you'll never keep the two in separate parts of your mind again."
John Thorne, author of Outlaw Cook and Pot on the Fire
"Bunny Crumpacker's wit is the icing on a layer cake of meticulous research. Her sense of fun makes this a delectable read."
Sylvia Carter, food columnist for Newsday
- St. Martin's Press
- Publication date:
- Sold by:
- NOOK Book
- Sales rank:
- File size:
- 1 MB
Read an Excerpt
My definition of Man is, "a Cooking Animal." The beasts have memory, judgment, and all the faculties and passions of our mind, in a certain degree; but no beast is a cook....Man alone can dress a good dish; and every man whatever is more or less a cook, in seasoning what he himself eats.---Your definition is good, said Mr. Burke, and I now see the full force of the common proverb, "There is reason in the roasting of eggs."
---The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D., by James Boswell
The first meal is a simple one. Eve's was just a bite of apple; a baby's is just a bit of milk.
Some babies try to eat even before the first meal: There are infants born with tiny calluses on their thumbs from sucking in utero, already working at filling the void. Once delivered, eating is the first continuing encounter the hungry babe has with the rest of humanity. Food is our first comfort, our first reward. Hunger is our first frustration.
Simple as it is, that small sip of milk, the first meal is the beginning of a complexity of food and emotion that is mirrored over and over again in a pattern that never stops. When we begin to eat as babies, we fall in love. We discover pleasure, we make friends, we learn to smile. We sup with darker things, too---loneliness and fear, anger, even pain---and relief, after having waited so long, empty, for the next meal.
No wonder, then, that grown up, when we open our mouths to eat, our souls fly out. We are too thin or too fat. We go on food binges, secret eaters alone with the refrigerator in the middle of the night. We eat too little, and are afraid that too little is too much. We eat too fast and develop heartburn. We work our mouths constantly: We chew gum, we make a fashion of cigars, we drop in for a cup of coffee, we suck on candy, we smoke cigarettes, we talk too much, we drink too much.
In one way and another, we've been worrying about food since the apes moved down from the trees when the fruit ran out. We've been so busy chewing that we haven't sat down and thought about the missing link between our dinner and our selves, between the way we eat and what we eat and who we are---why we eat in the ways that we do.
Eating is not a rational process. It is enmeshed in our childhoods, our families, our own personalities. If we were rational, we would eat spiders---juicy tarantulas!---We'd eat mice and rats, as well as frogs, snails, and crabs. What we actually do eat is chickens, but not blue jays, rabbits and sheep but not cats and hamsters. We eat honey, and name it after flowers and ponder the merits of its various flavors. The idea of eating anything produced by a mosquito---or any secretion of any insect---is disgusting to us. But what is honey if it isn't the secretion of an insect?
Supposedly, human beings eat what is available. But for those of us fortunate enough to live in the lands of plenty, food choices are not limited by the local flora and fauna.* Seasons certainly don't matter anymore: We eat strawberries in December and asparagus year-round. With affluence comes choice. Milk and honey are just the basics. Milk comes in all sorts of ways, most of which are far removed from a cow: You can buy skim milk, homogenized milk, skim milk with milk solids added, lactose-free milk, chocolate milk, organic milk, milk with bacteria taken out, and milk with bacteria put back in. And heavy cream and half-and-half. Ultrapasteurized, sweet, or sour. Honey is available at the corner deli in every flavor, from Greek thyme to killer bee; orange blossom honey is ubiquitous, even though oranges only blossom in warm places. It doesn't matter what grows around here---the peanut butter tree grows everywhere.
Eating is a very complicated business. Taste is not only a question of what happens to the surface of the tongue when you eat or the number of taste buds that you were born with. It is a cumulative question of judgment, history, and personality jumbled up with smell, texture, sound, sight---and, yes, of course, taste. We think of taste when we think of food, but we forget how important all of our other senses are to our sense of taste (which is the one sense, in many ways, we know the least about).
Separating taste from everything it is tangled up with is not easy. Texture, for one, is not really taste, but it is certainly related. Crunchiness (the mouth word for noise) can go a long way toward replacing flavor. Crispness is not an attribute of taste; snap, crackle, and pop have no taste at all. Crunchy food makes a lot of noise as we chew it, and taste gets lost in the uproar. Crunch replaces flavor and we are left with nothing but the sound and the fury.
Sound is also a part of texture, and texture is the feeling of food in the mouth---hard crackers and chewy meats, soft puddings and purees, crisp vegetables, melting chocolate, crunchy nuts. Outer sounds aren't taste, but they are a source of eating pleasure. Think of bacon sizzling and a stew making small bubbling noises as it simmers. These all have to do with expectations of taste and they enhance taste.
What we see affects what we taste even more than what we hear. In one memorable experiment, a researcher served a panel of tasters six flavors of sherbet. Each serving was normally flavored, but each was without any color. The tasters had a hard time tasting: Flavor is linked to color, both visually and in terms of expectations. Purple tastes grape; lemon tastes yellow.
It is a cookbook basic that the way food looks affects the way it tastes. Vary the menu, we are told, so that food appeals to the eye before it ever reaches the mouth. Don't serve chicken with cauliflower and mashed potatoes. Too white! Think of cranberry sauce and turkey. They look right.
Merchandisers have long since adjusted their products to our visual involvement with food. Margarine didn't become a food staple until it was colored yellow. (Somewhere along the line, we stopped calling it oleo except in crossword puzzles. Oleo sounds greasy and cheap; margarine has more dignity.) Even butter often has yellow coloring added to it because butter's natural shade is, to many people, unappetizingly pale.
Orange juice doesn't seem to taste good unless it's bright orange. Tests have shown that most people don't want to drink yellow orange juice; orange juice with an off taste is all right---even preferred---if it's a nice bright orange. That's how it's supposed to be.
We trust hot dogs that have been colored red and Jell-O that is equally tinted, though we've been told the red coloring probably causes cancer. Cancer is a relatively impersonal threat compared with a grayish brown hot dog that we are actually expected to swallow. Same for the nitrites in corned beef, salami, ham---all the cold cuts and preserved meats. Better to deal with cancer tomorrow and have a reddish brown slice of bologna today. Eating is not a rational business.
In 1981, Tropicana donated 26,000 quarts of grapefruit juice to a Florida food bank. The juice had been discolored by an error during production---it wasn't spoiled, or bad; it was just brown and Tropicana knew it would be hard to sell. But even as a give-away, brown grapefruit juice didn't work. "Everybody that drank it said it was good," said a local minister whose church ended up with a thousand cases of the stuff, "but the color was icky." The church was left with the problem of where to dump it.
Food companies are very aware of the niceties of food color, even on the outside of what they're selling. Packaging colors are most often red and yellow---colors that are cheerful and warm. Black, of course, is pretty much out. White is good, but as we eat---and buy---more natural and organic foods, green and brown are used more often.
There isn't any difference in taste or nutrition between brown eggs and white ones. Yet people have strong preferences between the two, often with a geographic link. In some parts of America, shoppers prefer brown eggs; in others, white. In recent years, consumers have been buying more brown eggs than they used to, probably as part of the national movement toward eating healthier food. Brown eggs look more natural, and the thinking goes that if they look more natural, they're probably better for you. Before our organic era, in the days when cleanliness was next to godliness, buyers preferred white eggs because they seemed "cleaner," not as much as if they might actually have passed through the body of a chicken.
All of our senses---sight, sound, smell, and, when we're very young, touch---affect the sense of taste, but more than any of the senses except perhaps smell, taste is affected by relative intangibles---our childhoods, our moods, our personalities, our expectations, even our heritage. Some food is ethnic and reminds us of home and mother, from pasta to sauerbraten, from pastrami to enchiladas. Food can be male, like sausage, or female, like eggs, or simply get tangled up in our feelings about sex because food and sex are so inextricably linked. Food can be painful and hot, like curry or chili, or soothing and sweet, like custard or turkey in cream sauce. Food can be maternal, like rice pudding, or sexy, like chocolate mousse. Food can be decisive, like eggplant, or just a little vague, like plain mashed potatoes.
Preferring asparagus to creamed spinach is more than a matter of taste. Asparagus is finger food, and it's biting food, too. Creamed spinach is mushy, very plainly baby food, whether we spoon it in ourselves or have mommy to help. Spinach is good for you---look at Popeye, another echo of childhood. Asparagus is more sophisticated; you have to know how to eat it. They're both green, but creamed spinach can have a messy, dark look to it; properly cooked asparagus is bright green. Asparagus is a little crisp in the mouth; creamed spinach is smooth and---by definition---creamy. And then there's shape. Creamed spinach has none. Asparagus has plenty; it's the very definition---well, almost---of phallic. Asparagus and spinach are both delicious. Our choice speaks of our mood, our associations, and our memories as well as our taste buds and the rest of today's menu.
In the years since World War II, the U.S. Army has commissioned three studies of the food likes and dislikes of its soldiers with the goal of giving them what they want. While there have been changes in the results over the years---food tastes have become more adventurous and more ethnic, as the soldiers themselves have---the foods at the top and bottom of the list have been consistent. No one likes stewed prunes. Everyone likes lasagna.
In the first two studies, clear correlations emerged between the food preferences and education levels of military men and women. In one, soldiers with higher degrees of education put mushrooms, hot tea, grapefruit, crisp relishes, and maple syrup toward the top of the list of foods that they liked. Less well-educated soldiers steered away from all of those choices. The more education a GI had, the less that soldier liked corn flakes, cherry drink, and instant coffee---all of which were preferred by less well-educated GIs.
To consider these choices in order:
Mushrooms: Mushrooms are one of the most obviously phallic of foods---fine for soldiers, masculine by image, as are soldiers, even in a coed army. But mushrooms are also a little weird. They grow in dark places. The wrong ones are poisonous. Children often don't like mushrooms---they look odd and their texture is strange. They have a mystical air---fairies and elves sit on them. If it follows that better-educated soldiers are also more sophisticated, it makes sense that they would like mushrooms more than less well-educated GIs do.
Hot tea: In America, hot tea traditionally has more class than coffee. Ladies drink tea.* The English, who have those posh English accents, drink tea. Coffee is strong and direct; tea is refined. Coffee is potent; tea is romantic. Coffee is noisy and obstreperous; tea is quiet and subtle. Coffee is nouveau riche tea is old money. Hot chocolate completes the caffeine trilogy, and is in a class by itself.
Coffee comes in bottomless cups. If you want more tea, you pay for an extra tea bag or you get hot water poured over the limp one you've already used. It's not that coffee is more plentiful than tea, or less expensive. It's that coffee is the expectation, even in this era of herbal teas and caffeine awareness (Red Bull notwithstanding). Tea in America, for all the popularity of its iced version, is still up the social scale from coffee. Starbucks is on every street corner; can you imagine tearooms right and left? Not yet. Chai seems to be an effort to bridge the gap between caffe latte and the tea bag, but herbal tea is in a whole different category. Coffee is for the working man; tea is what you drink with your pinkie sticking out.
Grapefruit: In the same way, grapefruit is up the line from an orange. Oranges aren't content to rest on their breakfast laurels. They're also lunch-box food---easy to peel and eat out of hand. Grapefruits are equally easy to peel---easier, perhaps, because they're bigger---but they're not what the guys on the I beams might eat. Order grapefruit at the local eatery and you get a half precut for you, with a cherry stuck in the middle. Still, grapefruit is on the diner's breakfast page, while oranges are so plebian that no one would dream of putting one on a menu. What shall we have for dessert, dear? How about half an orange? No? You'd rather have créme brûlée? (In Japanese and Chinese restaurants, orange slices often arrive unordered after the main course and they are, by themselves, works of art. But they aren't on the menu.)
Crisp relishes: Radishes, celery, and carrot sticks are aggressive foods, food for biters, good for soldiers. They're healthy high-energy foods, but you have to be willing to deal with them. Are they just rabbit food to the less well-educated GI? Still tea-roomy after all these years? Or for ladies---not women---on a diet?
Maple syrup: Maple syrup is a complicated kind of sweet; dark and sophisticated when it's real, and oversimplified in the artificially flavored version. Either way, it's an intense taste, preferred by the better-educated soldier.
Corn flakes, cherry drink, and instant coffee: These are all processed food, make-believe tastes. Corn flakes have the life taken out of them; they're steamed and rolled and flattened and when they're all done, squashed remnants of the healthy corn kernels they started as, they're sprayed with vitamins. Cherry drink isn't big on cherries. Instant coffee is distantly related to real coffee---but not close enough to worry about genetic defects in their offspring should they decide to marry. Not bad, maybe, but not coffee. Like canned peas, they're good, if you're not expecting real (fresh) green peas. Better-educated soldiers probably expect real green peas.
Other researchers have seen many similar correlations. Someone has even studied the members of Elvis Presley fan clubs. They tend to be white women in their forties and fifties, and for the most part they haven't continued their education beyond high school. They love Elvis, and they also love canned meat, malt liquor, menthol cigarettes, white bread, Velveeta cheese, and frozen dinners. (We seem to have a stereotype here.)
For years, before yogurt was sold as it is today, mixed with sugar and fruit, marketers knew that people with college educations ate more yogurt than those who stopped at high school. Yogurt is milk, all grown up and just a little sour. The popularity of yogurt today has much to do with all the sugar that has been added to it. (There's also the virtue: It has all those good bacteria, and anything slightly sour has to be healthy. All the bacteria die when we freeze it, but that's another story.)
All these foods are more than token indicators of education levels. Read middle class for better educated, and working class for having stopped at (or before) high school. But the military studies made another connection beyond education levels and that is a link with age. The younger the soldier, the fewer foods he liked---and the sweeter he liked them.
Children, given half a chance, prefer sweets. The famous experiment, once cited by Dr. Spock, which seemed to prove that children, on their own, will select a healthy, well-rounded diet, has long since been discredited. Children simply prefer sweet food. They come by their taste for sweet food naturally. Babies begin life with sweetness---breast milk is sweet, and so is formula. The sweet taste reinforces the sucking instinct. A researcher in Jerusalem noted that almost all babies, after tasting something sweet, had facial expressions of "relaxation" and "satisfaction," even a slight smile; sometimes they licked their upper lips. On the other hand, some infants, poor things, were fed a solution that was slightly bitter. Their tiny faces showed "dislike and disgust"; they spit out the solution, refusing to swallow it, and looked as if they were feeling nauseated.
Babies also develop likings for the foods that their mothers ate while they were pregnant. A study in Pediatrics Journal showed that infants whose mothers drank carrot juice while they were pregnant like their cereal mixed with carrot juice; babies whose mothers didn't drink carrot juice didn't respond to it. The conclusion was that flavors cross from the mother's blood into the amniotic fluid. By the third trimester, fetuses have functioning taste buds and olfactory cells. Thus does soul food begin.
But there is more to sweetness than what our mothers ate before we were born. Sweets are the reward foods of childhood. Eat your vegetables; then you can have dessert. When we're bigger, if we're good---or at our birthday party---we're given ice cream and cake. When you've hurt yourself, a kiss and a cookie---either helps, both work miracles---will make it well. We learn as we go through life that the kiss and the sweet can substitute for each other in all kinds of situations. We'd like them both, but you can't always have your cake and eat it, too. Still, cookies, candy, ice cream, cake: These are for comfort and for being good and for finishing our vegetables. They're the least we deserve, poor darlings.
It's a sweet that is one of the world's single most popular foods, right up there with a Big Mac. Coca-Cola bubbles away in a universal language, the truly global soft drink. Coke complicates its sweetness with a tart, exciting taste. It does exactly the same thing to the bloodstream. Coke provides a lift, a snort of sugar and caffeine, a food fix.
Soldiers prefer sugar too. One of the army's earlier surveys of food tastes resulted in a list of nearly four hundred foods in order of preference. Among the top ten, four were sweet: ice cream, milk shakes, strawberry shortcake, and orange juice.
Plain milk is consistently high on the lists of military favorites---not as high as milk shakes (sweet), but still right up there. Absolute rock bottom---on the lists is buttermilk. Close to last: skim milk. Both buttermilk and skim milk speak of betrayal, of sweet milk gone bad, of promises made and not kept, of disappointment and trickery. Buttermilk is sourish; if you're not used to its fresh, clean taste, it tastes almost on the verge of being spoiled. Skim milk is thin, watery, almost blue. All the cream is gone.
Men and women in uniform dislike some obvious foods. Down at the bottom of their most recent food list were such dishes as braised liver, chicken à la king, lima beans, stewed tomatoes, brussels sprouts, and harvard beets. Some things on earlier survey lists just dropped right off the most recent study: fried parsnips, mashed rutabagas, canned figs, boiled pigs feet, among others. Not a surprising list, and probably one that most contemporary Americans would agree with. In 2003, Bon Appétit magazine surveyed its readers about a number of food subjects, including likes and dislikes. High on their "Yuck" list: turnips and figs.
Some of the yuck-factor foods can be explained by aural, textural, and contextual signals more than by taste. Parsnips, for instance. Properly saut‚ed in butter, they are sweet, tender, and absolutely delicious. But their name makes them sound weird. Parsnippity. A parsnip by any other name would smell much sweeter. Rutabagas, too. Weird word; good food.
In or out of uniform, most Americans dislike the same foods, from buttermilk to brains. Our aversions are not a matter of logic or of taste anymore than are our preferences. We eat cows and sheep but we wouldn't dream of eating dogs and cats. But in many parts of the world, dogs are raised for food, just as we raise cows, lambs, and pigs. There are restaurants in China with cages of live dogs near the front door---exactly the way we keep tanks of fish or lobster---so that diners can be sure that the meat they order is fresh.
We consider veal (baby cow), suckling pig (baby hog), and spring lamb (baby sheep) to be delicacies. Roast puppy (simply baby dog) was once thought to be the same.* There are still many places in the world where if you say that you love dogs, you could be just as easily be talking about your dinner as your pets. When the Olympics were held in Seoul in 1988, the government, aware of the way Europeans and Americans feel about dogs as food for people, tried, unsuccessfully, to ban it from restaurant menus. "The French eat horses, but we give horses a decent burial" said one Korean, savoring his dog stew in a local restaurant. "...Koreans are not lecturing other cultures on how to live, so please tell them to leave us alone."
Dog as food for people even has a pedigree: Aztec Indians bred a hairless dog to supplement their meager supply of protein; American Indians also ate dog, as did white explorers and trappers. Members of the Lewis and Clark expedition ate dog as their chief meat after they had gone beyond the bison range of the Great Plains. In his journal, Clark wrote that his men had come to prefer dog flesh to local game. They traded for all the dogs they could get from local Indians. In The Newfoundland Journal of Aaron Thomas, written in 1794, we read that "One of these Newfoundland Dogs, after he had been constantly worked in the woods during the winter, then slain, is not bad eating. The hams, salted and smoked with juniper Berrys and branches of Rasberrys and their tea, in point of flavor, is superior to the celebrated Hams of Bayonne in Gascony. Dog hams are a new article in the Epicure's catalogue."
Anthropologists believe that Europeans and Americans today don't eat dog meat because dogs remind us too much of ourselves. Eating dog would be a kind of cannibalism. Dogs are man's best friend. Dogs (and horses) are used for domestic service (man's best friend can still qualify for domestic service), and they are strongly identified with humanity and its needs.
Dick Gregory noted during the Vietnam War that American moms and dads who were proud to send their sons off to defend their country would have been horrified and outraged if anybody had tried to draft their dogs.
Rabbits, too, are too much like us---too anthropomorphized, in cartoons and Easter traditions---to be terribly popular at the dining-room table. Chickens, on the other hand, are too silly to be much good as people symbols (even the other chickens wouldn't listen to Chicken Little when it started to rain), so we eat them with impunity. And how many other chickens do you know with names?
When we eat lamb chops and steak, we hover between an unconscious refusal to see these animals on the hoof, and the simultaneous safety of thinking of them purely as animals rather than as friends. Linda McCartney said that she and Paul became vegetarians when, at lunch one day, eating roast leg of lamb, they looked out the window and saw their pet sheep grazing on the lawn.
There are foods, such as dog, which seem to be almost taboo to us, so bizarre is the idea of eating them. Americans don't eat snakes (though sometimes in the American Southwest they are offered and eaten as a novelty---almost as proof of frontier toughness and manhood) and we don't eat snake eggs, though we eat fish (including eels) and fish eggs (for which we are willing to pay a great price). We don't eat rats, though there are forty-two countries where the rodents are considered quite edible. Swans and peacocks have provided happy meals in other times and other places, but not here and not today. Horse meat is quite acceptable in Europe and South America, where dried strips of horsemeat are popular nibbles. It is not on the list of edibles in North America. Horse meat used to be available in American supermarkets packaged as frozen pet food; not anymore---our kittens and puppies have been forced to share our aversions.
The thing is that protein is protein. And there are many protein sources that other people find delicious. The idea of eating insects, to Americans, is either a joke---novelty shops sometimes feature cans of chocolate-covered grasshoppers and ants---or something on an episode of Fear Factor. But most insects are healthy vegetarians, nibbling on fine green leaves and grasses. We scorn them. Other people are not so delicate. In some parts of Africa, where meat is scarce, grasshoppers are a nutritious staple. Grilled, they are said to taste like peanuts. Burmese eat termites, which are supposed to taste like almonds. Termite queens---about two inches long---became a fashionable food in Singapore recently. Residents flocked to a nearby Malaysian town (and paid about seven dollars for each queen) to eat the bugs live, dipped in alcohol, or preserved in rice wine. According to a local newspaper, they are hard and firm on the outside and cool and creamy on the inside. Indians once made flour from ground roast locusts. Aztecs ate cactus worms and made a kind of caviar from mosquito eggs, which float on still waters.
Billions of cicadas emerge from the ground every seventeen years---most recently in 2004. They're high-protein, low-fat, and they have no carbs. They spend their time, in between appearances, sucking sap from tree roots, and so they have a green flavor, something like asparagus, especially, notes one scientist, when they're eaten raw or boiled. Onondaga Indians in upstate New York eat the locusts that appear every seventeen years, between the season of the strawberry and the season of the blackberry. They're stir-fried with butter and salt, or panfried with honey, sugar, and cloves. "They're like flying vitamin capsules," says a local enthusiast. America Online featured cicada recipes in the spring of 2004---cicada pesto, cicada scampi, and Texas cicada popcorn were just three of the recipes. The question of whether they should be accompanied by red wine or white was raised, but not answered.
Cicadas, like all insects, belong to the same biological phylum (arthropods) as do crawfish, lobster, crab, and shrimp. Eating the latter but not the former is nothing more than cultural squeamishness; we've learned it, we weren't born with it. There are probably more countries where insects are eaten than there are where they are not. A water bug that's big enough to eat small fish is on menus in Thailand and Burma; a Mexican restaurant features black-ant larvae soup. Movie theaters in Columbia offer roasted leaf-cutter abdomens instead of popcorn.
Even roaches are edible. They have been used for food in Australia, Japan, New Guinea, China, and Thailand. American prisoners held by the Japanese during World War II found that eating roaches---which they ground into a paste and mixed with their rice---prevented death from malnutrition. American Captain Scott O'Grady survived for six days after being shot down over Bosnia by eating insects and grasses, just as his survival-kit pamphlet recommended. It notes that the hard portions of grasshoppers and crickets---like their legs---should be removed. The rest is edible, and full of protein. It suggests cooking grasshopper-size insects.
The American Explorers Club holds an annual black-tie banquet, with appetizers from the far-flung lands visited by the club's members. In 1907, moose marrow soup was on the menu. In 1960, members ate iguana and Macao monkey. For the 100th-anniversary dinner in 2004, the chef ordered tarantulas and rattlesnakes as well as raccoons and nutrias. A particularly tasty morsel: mealworms in vol-au-vent pastry with roasted scorpions hidden inside, the whole thing covered with escargot butter.
Milk---one of our most basic staples---need not come from cows, though we're most used to it that way. There are people who drink milk from water buffalo, yak, and reindeer. Mongolian koumiss is a sweet, fermented, slightly intoxicating drink made from the milk of horses. In Kazakhstan, the favored drink is fermented camel's milk. Some tribes in East Africa milk their cows and also cut a vein in the cow's neck and bleed it. The blood is either drunk fresh, allowed to clot, or mixed with milk. One man's milk is another man's poison.
There are those who dine on half-digested grass taken from the stomachs of freshly killed antelope. In Iceland rotted shark meat was long considered a delicacy. Even crocodiles---and their eggs---have made it into the dining room on a plate. Calf testicles are not unusual fare in the Rocky Mountain states; Kentuckians prize squirrel brains, though they've been warned away from eating them because squirrel brains can transmit a fatal variant of mad cow disease. (Mad squirrel disease?)
Alexandre Dumas offered a recipe for bear paws, noting that front paws were preferable. The medieval Catholic Church advised that beaver's tails, since they remain submerged in the water while the beaver builds his dam, were suitable for days when eating meat was forbidden. Elephants were eaten until the end of the nineteenth century; one of Baron Rothschild's chefs said best of all was the foot of a young elephant. Henry David Thoreau ate moose nose, and if someone else got the nose first, his second choice was the tongue. Baffin Islanders prize a sauce made with seal meat, chopped and mixed with fat, blood, and ptarmigan intestines. Also eaten at ceremonial dinners is a dip made with the contents of caribou stomach, after grass, leaves, and lichen have been removed. Squeamishness depends on what you're used to.
In India, where cows are sacred and endowed with privilege, the idea of eating beefsteak is disgusting, and, in many places, illegal. In the United States for a large part of this century, beef in one form or another, from hamburger to T-bone steak, was the all-American meal. (Even in this day of low-fat dining and mad cow disease, you can still find steak topped with fried eggs on some hearty breakfast menus.) But beef didn't become a staple of the American menu until relatively recently in our history. Until the development of refrigerated railroad cars in the 1870s, it was impossible to market beef on any kind of mass basis. For the popular taste, it didn't take to preserving with salt, as pork did.
Salt pork was America's main-dish meat for generations; it flavored just about everything on the table except dessert (though lard-based crusts for pies are also pig-descended). Cincinnati, commanding the river trade, was the nation's salt-pork capitol. It was upstaged and up-rivered later by Chicago's railroad tracks and stockyards, and by Mr. Armour and Mr. Swift. Until then, cows were kept not for steak, but for milk. It was later that beef became a symbol of prestige, and then one that was increasingly available, not only to the upper classes, but to the rest of us as well. Now, the idea of a well-marbled steak is triply questionable: It raises nutritional eyebrows, has become politically and morally suspect, and with thoughts of mad cow disease, another level of qualm is added to the red meat dilemma. It was not that long ago when beef was considered essential for a healthy diet. It would have taken a mad cowboy to believe in mad cow disease.
We still choose our dinner on something of a moral basis---today, it's steak and hamburgers that are "bad" foods. Virtue is whole wheat bread, broccoli, mangoes (Kramer, on Seinfeld, told us that mangoes restore potency), wild salmon, flax seed. If you're on a diet and have a piece of cake, your self-judgment is simple: "I was bad." Fat is immoral.
Self-denial is an important part of the way we eat, just as binge eating is, on the other end of the scale. Something that is "sinfully" rich---full of butter and sugar and eggs and maybe even chocolate---can hardly be good for your soul. Somebody has said that the only food to be eaten without guilt is a raw carrot. Now, the Atkins Diet has given even that crunchy pleasure moral question marks.
The virtue of self-denial, of course, is only valid when there's more than enough to eat. Anorexia is a disease of plenty. It isn't healthy to be fat, obviously. But losing and gaining, which is what most of us do repeatedly, isn't good for you either. On a less physical level, we speak of fatness---obesity---as something vaguely repellent, even though so many of us are overweight. "Fat" is a nasty adjective; if there's anything worse than being a pig, it's being a fat pig. And that's part of the problem: Fat means piggishness, overeating, gluttony, lack of self-control, greed, laziness, self-indulgence. Actually, very often it's unhappiness made visible. It also owes something to the abundance of cheap junk food in poor communities as well as to ever-growing portion size, more time spent at desks, and suburbs without sidewalks. A group of overweight people marched in Washington, D.C., in 2004 to protest negative attitudes about weight. "Fat is not a four-letter word," one of their signs read. But what fat is is a four-letter word that has been on a diet.
We're ashamed of ourselves when we're fat. During World War I, some popular writers pointed out that fat was unpatriotic. If you ate too much during a time of food shortages, you could hardly think well of yourself, and if the result showed on your body, nobody else would think well of you either. The war ended, but the attitudes remained. Fat was once the symbol of aristocracy. Louis XIV padded himself to look more imposing. Large was power. Came the French Revolution, one of the rallying cries was "the people against the fat." Really.
More recently, in a study of food choices, a group of college students compared two versions of written profiles of the same fictitious people---all in good shape---runners, say, or tennis players---of average height and weight. The only difference between the two sets of profiles was preferred foods. Those who ate "good" foods were judged to be good people, while those who loved doughnuts and hot fudge sundaes were bad.
Food taboos and tastes are unique to each country or culture but universal in defying the belief that one eats what is available. They're also almost always about meat. (Meat is a much more potent substance than vegetables or fruit. Meat has a power that lettuce lacks.) Chicken is often a taboo food, sometimes forbidden expressly to women, sometimes to everyone, sometimes only to members of certain age groups or social classes. Pork is one of the most common taboos. Many African tribes will not eat pork. Religious Jews and Muslims alike refuse to eat it. The Old Testament forbids the eating of pigs. For Jews, pork is not kosher. For Muslims, who follow Mosaic law, it's not halal. Muslims who are Arabs share food preferences with Jews as well as taboos. Falafel---fried chickpea flour balls---is a Mediterranean staple, as are eggplants, garlic, lemons, olive oil, sesame seeds, and various herbs. Jews and Arabs quarrel in the same brotherly fashion---like Cain and Abel---when their meals are over.
As children, we eat what we are given. Grown up, we close the circle by preferring the food that reminds us in one way or another, by choice or by denial, by safety or by daring, by comfort or by courage, of home.
Ethnic food, the food of our homeland's kitchens, is as individual as the culture from which it originates. The same ingredients magically change form as the globe spins---wonton to ravioli to dumplings to kreplach---the world round, it's filled pockets of dough poached in liquid. For each of us, the food we grew up with is the original, correct form. It is a symbol of our parents, our homes, our beginnings, ourselves. It's what was---or what we wish it was. Ethnic food is the nostalgia of the table.
Some ethnic foods are so powerful that they achieve potency on a mass level. Chicken soup is Jewish penicillin, but everybody, Jewish and otherwise, takes it without prescription. The trouble with Puerto Rico, said a resident who had gone home again after living in New York City for a while, is that you can't get good pizza there.
In The Raw and the Cooked, and various other books and papers, French anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss has written extensively about the cultural importance of food. He writes that the way in which a natural substance---a meat, for instance---is transformed into food goes across cultural lines. The food remains the same but has different shapes (as ravioli, kreplach, dumplings, and wonton.) Ingredients can be the same or very similar, but the whole in each case is different from the sum of its parts, and from the other wholes.
Methods of cooking are also the same across cultural lines---boiling and roasting, for example, are processes that exist everywhere. Levi-Strauss believes that roasts are status meals in every culture because roasting is such a wasteful way to cook food. When meat roasts, it shrinks---and some of its juices are lost. Boiling or stewing or braising or poaching preserve the juices so that they remain part of the meal. Stewing is plebian---peasants eat stew---and roasting is aristocratic. If you can afford to waste it, you must have more than enough; this is wealth; this is status.
Animals choose their food more simply. Even domesticated pets eat on a universal basis. There is no true ethnic food difference between a cat in the south and one in the west, or between a Maltese and a Manx. They all catch mice or eat cat chow. But people eat differently, depending on where they are and where they come from. In Georgia, grits are on the menu for breakfast and for dinner and in California they're a joke. Manhattan clam chowder---with tomatoes---is blasphemy in Boston, where clam chowder is made with milk or cream. Does chili come with beans or without, with tomatoes or without? All this variation, within one nation's borders. In Italy, the debate is between olive oil in the south and butter in the north; in France, the geographical fat of choice is either goose fat, olive oil, or butter. Culture shapes food, as a theme with variations.
Even the texture of food is affected by culture. Where bread is a staple food---the backbone of the diet and not just a wrapping for a sandwich---it is hard and dense, chewy, substantial. When bread becomes a dietary afterthought, not much more than a pusher or a sop, it becomes fluff, as is packaged white bread.
The same principal applies to rice. In countries where it's a mainstay food, it is substantial and glutinous. When it's just another side dish, not the main event, or the basic filling substance of the meal, rice becomes light and airy. The land of plenty polishes its rice along with its nails and bleaches both its flour and its hair.
America used to be called a melting pot---a place where the cultures of its immigrants merged and blended into a brand-new mix: American. But until fairly recently---in the historical scale of things---Americans melted more outside of the kitchen than in. At home, we ate what our grandparents ate. The best products of the American kitchen were thus international: Italian, German, Russian, Irish, "Czech and double check" American. Something like Spanish rice was considered a bit exotic to most non-Spanish Americans a mere fifty years ago; Chinese food was limited to chow mein and chop suey in Chinese restaurants; and gazpacho was simply unheard of.
World War II was the impetus toward the international menu. Pizza, for one, was hard to find in America before GIs returned home from the beaches and mountains of Italy. After the war, the new prosperity meant that international travel was possible for more people than ever before, and some of their food discoveries followed them back home. More than anything else, though, television has been the great assimilator for American food, just as it has been for everything else. We watch the same shows from coast to coast and the media has become the mother of us all.
Television advertising created the true melting pot kitchen, something that all of our cookbooks and magazines were never able to do. A chicken in every pot was a political promise; the recipe was left up to the voter. Now, fast-food hamburgers, canned biscuits, potato flakes, instant coffee, and take-out food have almost replaced sponge cake, ricotta pie, sauerbraten, and borscht. Ethnic food is something we've come back to---because we had left it behind.
Media food is sold with a media message. On television, a mother-in-law watches a bride open a jar of spaghetti sauce, tastes, and---amazed---approves. That's Italian! Media food is rarely sold as a convenience---though that is all it is. What is pushed at us is its moral goodness. It's just like mother used to make.
Merchandisers are cheating the next generation of adults of their memories when they sell instant cocoa (with dried marshmallows on top) and instant soup. Images---like a politician and his promises---may be enough for election day for the first time around in the supermarket. But images are not filling when you're hungry. What kind of love is it that offers only boiling water or a five-second timer when we think of mother making cocoa on a snowy day, we feel warm and comforted. We'll come in from the cold, our fingers icy, chilled to the very heart, and in the kitchen---the warm, steamy kitchen, filled with the thick smells of dinner, of cake baking and meat roasting---we'll drink our warm, sweet milk, dark with chocolate, and it will sustain us until we are hungry again. Microwaves just can't do that. They're an echo, not a source.
Instant food is sold with images of comfort and love: On the packages there are pictures of steaming bowls of hearty soup, and inside there are plastic mugs filled with cardboard noodles, which spring to some kind of rubbery life when they are dipped in hot water or microwaved for microseconds. Instant love could be the same, and last just as long and be just as real. And if food is sex, will today's children grow up to be as satisfied with fast sex as they are with fast food, instant intercourse, wham bam, thank you ma'am, and know only a half-perception, a faded promise, of something ineffably better? Instead of intimacy, they will have a cardboard sort of passion that passes away quickly and leaves all concerned hungry again.
Eating is intimate behavior. We've learned, with civilization, to keep our most intimate selves secret. Only our bed partners know how---or if---we make love. We keep the bathroom door closed. We pick our noses in private.
But we eat with friends and colleagues and strangers. We eat too with memories---good or bad---of mother and father, of home, of childhood.
Hunger is just the first of the reasons why we eat, and very often when we eat we aren't even really hungry. When we eat without hunger, taste has nothing to do with what happens in our mouths. When we're lonely or bored or anxious or angry, we turn for relief to the refrigerator. Couch potatoes have a food name. Most of us stuff or starve ourselves when we're stressed. Falling in love makes some innocent souls lose their appetites. But most of the time, we nibble and suck and chew, as we did when we were little babies. We snack almost continuously, sip and sup, feeling safe as a baby at the breast just as long as our jaws keep moving up and down.
We live again our anger, our needs, our love, three times a day. Between meals, we still keep our mouths busy, one way or another. There aren't as many smokers as there used to be, making jokes about adult pacifiers---inhaling and exhaling great clouds of smoke, ready to die as they were born, sucking. In vast numbers, we keep drinking too much alcohol, surrendering ourselves passively to liquid voluptuousness as infants do, and designating a stand-in mom or dad to drive us home.
The compulsive eater---but isn't everybody by nature?---uses food and mouth to fill the gap, whatever that unhappy abyss may really be.
Copyright © 2006 by Bunny Crumpacker
Meet the Author
Bunny Crumpacker, a New York native, has been a professional caterer, editor, newspaper columnist, and school public relations officer. She is the author of two books based on food and recipe pamphlets issued from 1875 to 1950—a chronicle of American cooking in those years. She and her husband, a record producer, lived in the Hudson River Valley region, just north of New York City.
Bunny Crumpacker (1933-2010), a New York native, has been a professional caterer, editor, newspaper columnist, and school community relations officer. Her book reviews appear in The Washington Post. She is the author of How to Slice an Onion, The Sex Life of Food, Perfect Figures, and two cookbooks based on food and recipe pamphlets issued from 1875 to 1950--a chronicle of American cooking in those years. She and her husband, a record producer, lived in the Hudson River Valley region, just north of New York City.
and post it to your social network
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
See all customer reviews >