Food, Glorious Food!
(As They Sang in the Musical Oliver!)
"Nearly everyone wants at least one outstanding meal a day,"
-- Duncan Hines
On the other hand, I am taken with former restaurateur Dan Ho's sardonic, "I've always found it funny that we've all decided cooking and feeding are high art. Art lasts; you know what food becomes!"
Why do we want to glorify food? Food makes us fat, and in these times, being fat is not a good thing. We aren't out there anymore as field hands, warriors on horseback, or hunters and gatherers just trying to keep body and soul together with enough nourishment to sustain ourselves day-to-day. We are actively working to avoid food, with its attendant evils -- fat, high cholesterol, high blood pressure, heart problems, obesity weighing down our bones and muscles, and so on. As someone has pointed out, instead of being hunters and gatherers, these days we are shoppers and consumers.
But Thackeray said, "Next to eating good dinners, a healthy man with a benevolent turn of mind must like, I think, to read about them."
Ah, reading about food. Now, that's another matter. Setting tables in our minds can be quite a lot of fun. And Clifton Fadiman noted that we are all food writers in our way, "every man...having in him an autobiographical novel....This would consist of an account of ourselves as eaters, recording the development of our palates, telling over like the beads of a rosary the memories of the best meals of our lives." He added that writing about food belongs to "the literature of power, linking brain to stomach, etherealizing the euphoria of feeding with the finer essence of reflection."
Ford Madox Ford said that Anglo-Saxons don't really talk about food any more than they talk about love and heaven. But he certainly found food a fit subject as he deplored other forms of popular passion: "The tantrums of cloth-headed celluloid idols are deemed fit for grown-up conversation, while silence settles over such a truly important matter as food."
Well, I personally have had a lifetime of talking, writing, and lecturing about "cloth-headed celluloid idols" over fifty years in the gossip and show biz vineyard. So it has been a relief to abandon celebrity culture, infotainment, sex-drugs-rock 'n' roll and think about food. My philosophy is that you can serve people fattening food. In their hearts they'll love you for it and maybe even forgive you for it. The answer to the problem lies in not doing it too often nor to excess, and the answer also lies in the self-discipline of eaters when it comes to proportion. The great and attractive cooking of France and Italy seems rich and fattening to the diet-conscious, but it's funny, no one I know ever gains weight on vacations in those countries. You'd have to be a real pig. If one never serves anything forbidden or delicious, then it seems to me you are forcing a kind of unilateral "it's good for you" regime on your guests. We need to do unusual, wonderful things for special occasions. People must diet on their own terms and at their own times. The great New York hostesses I know always offer fabulous menus and assume their guests have common sense.
Dieting is probably the most unpleasant word in our current lexicon. It can make us awfully unhappy even as we embrace its necessity. It is noted that before he was executed in 1984, one Ronald O'Bryan ordered his last meal -- a T-bone steak, french fries, salad, and iced tea. With the tea he took an artificial sweetener, not sugar. A reporter observed, "He was going for the healthy option."
Even cookbook authors get the overkill blues. Reporter Chris Howes points to disgust as "the strongest emotion seeping out of the late Elizabeth David's Christmas book. She loathed December 25 and said, " 'My Christmas day eating and drinking would consist of an omelette and cold ham and a nice bottle of wine at lunchtime and a smoked salmon sandwich with a glass of champagne on a tray in bed in the evening.'"
As the old saw goes, "Everything I like is either illegal, immoral, or fattening," and some people do associate eating as a surrogate for illicit sex -- wickedly tempting, licentious, or guilt inducing. So reading about food is the next best thing to eating it. People want to eat and not gain weight just as they like to have sex without getting pregnant, but the only comparable contraceptive would be to read a book rather than eat everything or even anything described in it. Mr. Howes adds, "For consumers of food porn, cookery books are not manuals but fantasy reading -- if it can be called reading."
People seek companionship, comfort, reassurance, a sense of warmth and well-being from food. Maybe they can get some of that from this book.
Copyright © 2005 by Liz Smith