Saturday, June 20, 2009


I’ve been reading “From Fasting Saints to Anorexic Girls: A History of Self-Starvation” by Walter Vandereycken and Ron van Deth. The book charts how in various times in history self-starvation has been a religious discipline, a freak show attraction, a medical condition, and lately a career move for fashion models.

The book tells us that in the early days of Christianity, believers were a tiny, fervent, oppressed minority within the Roman Empire. To be a Christian at all meant that you were a kind of extremist, keen to distance yourself from the pagans around you. Fasting was one way of doing that, and although it was practiced widely among early Christians it hadn’t become formalized. You fasted as and when you saw fit as a demonstration of your asceticism and piousness.

Once Christianity had become the official religion of the Holy Roman Empire and spread around the world the church considered it necessary to lay down rules about fasting. Good 4th century Christians fasted for 40 days prior to Easter. Later there were fasting periods associated with Christmas and Pentecost. By medieval times fasting days took up a third of the year.

And what’s the point of rules if they’re not enforced? Those who didn’t fast properly or at all were punished either by exclusion from celebrations, or more simply by having their teeth knocked out. Having no teeth would surely make it much harder to eat, though whether that’s quite the same thing as fasting, I doubt.

The book also tells the story of Marie-Joseph Dahl. Marie-Joseph was an agricultural worker who in 1773, in France, at the age of 33, fell in love with the son of the farmer who employed her. The farmer didn’t want his some marrying a poor peasant woman, and one day, mockingly said to her that if she could harvest a whole field in 3 days all by herself then she could marry his son.

Marie-Joseph did what she’d been asked to do, and only then realized that the farmer had been mocking her. She took it badly. She adopted a crouched position and refused any food for the next 11 years. To ensure her survival, concerned neighbors force-fed her. Since she wouldn’t open her mouth, they broke some of her teeth and poured diluted honey in through the gap.

I don’t know much about religion, but it seems to me there’s something a lot more holy about breaking someone’s teeth to ensure they live, than to break their teeth to ensure they fast better.

Thursday, June 18, 2009


I don’t know a whole lot about orgies, but I think they must run a high risk of disappointment. That’s how it is with desire and high expectations: however good the reality, it’s always easy to imagine something better. The modern orgy has so many historical precedents to compete with, not least that most ancient orgies involved excesses of food consumption as well as excesses of sex.

Suetonius, not exactly a neutral observer, tells us that Caligula invented “new and unnatural varieties of food and feasts,” drank pearls dissolved in vinegar and served “loaves and meats of gold.” This is gold leaf, I assume. Suetonius doesn’t mention butter.

One of Caligula’s successors Vitellius invented the Shield of Minerva, which I always think sounds pretty impressive – the brains of peacocks and pheasants, the livers of parrotfish, the tongues of flamingoes, the entrails of lampreys. When did you last eat the liver of a parrotfish? Not at a swinger’s party, I’ll bet.

For some years now the photographer Naomi Harris has been recording the activities of modern day swingers. The word “orgiast” sounds way too grand. These are just plain folks who meet up for parties in hotel rooms or each other’s houses and have sex of a rather premeditated sort. And of course a party always involves food.

I’ve always thought that people who don’t really care about food porbably don’t really care about sex either. And this is surely one of the problems with genuine promiscuity; to be totally omnivorous suggests a definite lack of connoisseurship, maybe even a simple indifference to what you put in your mouth.

And so Naomi Harris’s photographs show lumpen proles drinking boxed wine, having canned cream sprayed on their nipples, eating pizza in the bath, having sex and eating potato chips while watching the Super Bowl on a big screen TV. Most of the food looks pretty unappetizing.

There are however a few photographs that show a Thanksgiving dinner where all the diners are naked. Here the food actually looks pretty decent.

The problem is that neither the food nor any of the people look even remotely sexy or sensual or orgiastic.

Monday, June 15, 2009


Alfred J. Kinsey, sexologist, obsessive, author of the Kinsey Reports, lover of snails as well as oysters; made no claims to be much of a gourmet or much of a cook. His real appetites were elsewhere. But according to his biographers he did have some curious food habits.

Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy says Kinsey was a frugal eater at home but when he went on road trips with his staff he became oddly passionate about food, and enjoyed eating out, making a “collection of restaurants.” Nevertheless “he had to impose himself on food, perhaps stamp it with his personality, control it as he did with everything else. He did so by covering it with salt or mayonnaise. In O’Donnell’s Seafood Restaurant in Washington the specialty was turtle soup. Kinsey invariably swamped it with sherry … He seemed immune to the snatched late meals or hurried snacks, but the team often got fearful diarrhea.”

And although he didn’t cook often at home, when he did it was very much in character. He threw in everything he could find in the fridge and called it a goulash. “He threw in a banana once,” a witness recalls.

Well he would, wouldn’t he?

Friday, June 12, 2009


And speaking of butter and unlikely phallic symbols, I’m reminded that there’s a famous butter scene in Tinto Brass’s “Caligula,” represented here.

At one time the movie was going to be called “Gore Vidal’s Caligula” but then Vidal denounced the whole project and had his name taken off, so it’s hard to know if he was the writer of the butter scene. Brass is certainly a fan of the bottom, but only of the female sort as far as I know.

I always misremember and think that Vidal wrote the famous homo-erotic oyster/snail scene in Kubrick’s “Spartacus.” He didn’t of course, he wrote the famous homo-erotic scene in “Ben-Hur.”

So I’m not sure who did write the oyster/snail scene - Dalton Trumbo was the main scriptwriter, with uncredited contributions from Peter Ustinov; and frankly it sounds more like Ustinov. Still, I’m sure Gore Vidal would have been very happy to have written the following: (in the movie, Crassus is played by Laurence Olivier, who we know was sexually versatile, Antonius is Tony Curtis: a pretty straight arrow by all accounts):

Crassus: Do you eat oysters?
Antoninus: When I have them, master.
Crassus: Do you eat snails?
Antoninus: No, master.
Crassus: Do you consider the eating of oysters to be moral and the eating of snails to be immoral?
Antoninus: No, master.
Crassus: Of course not. It is all a matter of taste, isn't it?
Antoninus: Yes, master.
Crassus: And taste is not the same as appetite, and therefore not a question of morals.
Antoninus: It could be argued so, master.
Crassus: My robe, Antoninus. My taste includes both snails and oysters.

Now it’s pretty darn obvious we’re talking bisexuality here, and I can see that the oyster is a reasonable stand in for the vulva; but what man in his right mind would want his genitals compared to a snail?

“Spartacus” was based on Howard Fast’s novel of the same name. It contains no reference to snails or oyster, but it does contain an extraordinary scene in which a character called Senvius claims to have bought “a quarter of a million pounds of slave to be turned into sausage.” “I will never eat sausage again,” declares a delicate flower called Claudia. “I never ate it,” says her companion Helena. Once you start looking for sexual metaphors you can find them just about everywhere.

Gore Vidal supposedly once asked his mother what the 19th century was like. She said, “Well, the food was awfully good.”

Above, far right, is Gore at the elegantly named Cafe Nicholson.

Wednesday, June 10, 2009


OK – sago fork mystery solved – at least to my satisfaction.

Above is an exhibit labeled as a Hiloi eating utensil, that can be found in the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco. It’s part of the Jolika Collection of New Guinea Art.

And yes, I get it. I can see how you could use this to eat porridge. And I can also see that it’d be easy enough to keep it in your hair.

And in fact looking at that picture of the Mafulu men more closely, I think it's quite possible that those pointy things sticking out of their hair may well be sago forks.

All the same, as a phallic symbol, I still think the sago fork leaves a lot to be desired.


Still on the subject of what a sago fork actually looks like, correspondent Matt D draws my attention to a book entitled “The Mafulu People of British New Guinea” by Robert W. Williamson, first published in 1912.

Part of the text reads, “Their (The Mafulu’s) only eating utensils are wooden dishes and small pieces of wood, or sometimes of cassowary or kangaroo bone, which are used as forks, and pieces of split bamboo, which are used for cutting meat; but these latter are used for other purposes, and rather come within the list of ordinary implements, and will be there described. They also use prepared pig-bones as forks;”

And then there’s this photograph:

The caption for item number 3 reads “Bone implement used (as a fork) for eating.” Now only a fool would argue with a text of early 20th century anthropology but it looks more like a skewer than a fork if you ask me.

There are quite a few other plates in the book including this one captioned “Types of Men:”

I studied these hoping to find a picture of a man with a fork in his hair, as per Richard Wrangham, and they certainly seem to have some odd things in their hair, but nothing that I'd swear was a fork. The mystery remains unsolved as far as I can see.

The book can be found at

Also someone sent me this image of a Star Trek titanium spork: those guys sure did have some cool collectibles.

Sunday, June 7, 2009


There have been literally several responses to my blogging about the semiotics of the fork.

“Margihealing” commented, “I lived part of my childhood in Papua-New Guinea - unfortunately too young to observe sago-forked and other mating rituals.
 Nevertheless, the fabulous 1970s-80s mating ritual of the middle-class Australian wedding was often represented by the gifting of at least one box of Splayds. You want them. You need them. 
Damn. I left them with my husband when I left him.”

Australian mating rituals are obviously a law unto themselves, and I admit I’d never heard of a Splyad, but the latter at least is now rectified.

The Splayd, it turns out, is an Australian “multipurpose eating tool,” the invention of one William McArthur, combining the features and functions of knife, fork and spoon. From 1943 onwards McArthur’s wife Suzanne used and sold them at the Martha Washington CafĂ© in Sydney. In 1960 she sold the design to the tableware manufacturer Stokes and they went into mass production. 800 million have now been sold, apparently, and it seems the trademark word has become a generic term. says they “make for the easy eating experience. Everyone who uses them loves their sturdy and special design.”

“George R” asks “Where does the almighty Spork fall in all of this.....?”

Well I had actually heard of the spork, which combines the spoon and the fork, so I suppose it could have been called a Foon, and again, although it’s used as a generic term it turns out that patents for the combined spoon and fork go back to the late 19th century and it was a registered trademark in England and America at that time.

Recently it seems that cutting edge designers have started to embrace the spork - the Japanese seem especially keen. Above is something called the “Light My Fire Spork” by Swedish designer Joachim Nordwall, which actually puts fork and spoon at different ends of the utensil, so that presumably you get food all over your hand when you move from one to the other.

Spork is also, I discover, out a kind of canned meat, its name obviously inspired by Spam – spice pork instead of spiced ham. I can see how this might create problems in certain situations, “Honey, pass the spork,” "That spork hit me in the eye," etc

Saturday, June 6, 2009


Here's my latest piece of book reviewing that just appeared in the San Francisco Chronicle - Friday, June 5, 2009:

EDIBLE HISTORY OF HUMANITY' Tom Standage (Walker; 269 pages; $26)
CATCHING FIRE, HOW COOKING MADE US HUMAN Richard Wrangham (Basic; 309 pages; $26.95)

When Alan Davidson published "The Oxford Companion to Food" just a decade ago, he wrote, "Food history is not recognized as a discrete subject for academic work." Well, a decade is a long time in academia and even more so in book publishing, and the table is now groaning under the weight of books that endlessly slice and dice the historical and cultural significance of food and eating.

To stand out in this all-you-can-eat buffet, you need a new angle, maybe even a cheap gimmick. Four years ago, Tom Standage came up with one and wrote "A History of the World in 6 Glasses." Now in "An Edible History of Humanity" he's attempting something with much less of an angle, looking at history as "a series of transformations caused, enabled, or influenced by food." This sounds like a subject of infinite scope, though the book clocks in at about 250 pages.

In it Standage covers such topics as the history of the spice trade, the invention of agriculture, the connections between sugar and slavery, the role of food during war, famine in Ireland, in Stalin's Russia and Mao's China. This is all fine as far as it goes, but mostly it doesn't go very far. Given the vastness of any one of these topics, Standage's attempts at compression and synthesis are always likely to seem superficial.

I found myself far more engaged by the parts than the whole. I was delighted to learn, for example, that the ancient Romans considered lions, leopards and Indian eunuchs to be "spices" and that carrots were white or purple until 16th century Dutch horticulturalists bred new species in honor of William of Orange. I was also amazed to discover there are 1,400 seed banks in the world. The biggest and best is Norwegian and located in the Arctic Circle; the most vulnerable is in a freezer in the corner of a wooden shack in Malawi. I'd have preferred more of this and rather less waffle as when Standage writes, "That food has been such an important ingredient in world affairs might seem strange, but it would be far more surprising if it had not."

Standage's book aspires to a lofty overview. In "Catching Fire" Richard Wrangham, an evolutionary anthropologist at Harvard, is aiming for nothing less than a new theory of human evolution. His hypothesis is that while we ate raw food we were bound to remain primitive. It was only with cooking, made possible by the harnessing of fire, that we became recognizably human.

Wrangham begins by effectively proving that eating raw food is time-consuming, inefficient and not especially healthy. If this annoys members of the raw-food movement, he'd be delighted, I think. An adult chimpanzee, he tells us, spends six hours a day chewing food. This has very high "digestive costs," meaning that large amounts of energy are used up simply in digestion. By cooking food we've already completed the first stage of the digestive process. The calories in cooked food are therefore extracted more easily, saving time and energy. And what did our ancestors do with that surplus time and energy? According to Wrangham they used it to evolve big brains.

He also asserts that cooking transformed social behavior. Cooking demanded a level of organization and cooperation that basic hunting and gathering didn't. The sharing of meals also had a "civilizing" effect. Only the calmer, more amenable neighbors got invited to dinner.

However, the lone cook was vulnerable and needed a protector; a husband, in other words. "The rule that domestic cooking is women's work is astonishingly consistent," Wrangham writes, and is usually assigned a very low value. This leads him, unhappily, to conclude that "cooking created and perpetuated a novel system of male cultural superiority." Evolution, it seems, is no respecter of liberal niceties. Wrangham is willing both to accept and regret this inconvenient possibility, which is all part of his book's appeal.

Wrangham has a curious mind, in all the best senses. His range of references includes James Boswell, Mrs. Beeton and Mick Jagger. He recounts stories of lost adventurers who survived in the most inhospitable places as long as they could cook their food, others who starved when there was food but no way of cooking it. He tells of the Bonerif tribe of Indonesia in which single women were free to have sex with any man they chose, but the moment they cooked for him they were considered to be married. This is colorful stuff, and Wrangham obviously has an eye on a general readership, but he never talks down, and he's a trustworthy guide through some daunting intellectual terrain.

I think we'll have to leave it to Wrangham's fellow evolutionary anthropologists to decide just how valid his theory is, but to an interested layman his conclusion that "we humans are the cooking apes, the creatures of the flame," is thoroughly plausible. As new angles go, it's pretty much unbeatable.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009


My pal Laura Brody, a costume designer by trade, has just begun making bondage gear for a company called Dungeoncorp.

Yes, yes I do run with a fast crowd.

Bondage is one of those things that I almost understand, but not quite, and to be fair to the blameless Ms Brody she says she feels much the same way. Still, a gig’s a gig. She also tells me she’s been involved with several theatrical productions in which raw meat was thrown around the stage, and sometimes into the audience.

In a gesture of mild support I checked out the Dunegoncorp website, and you can too, though I don’t want to put any of the more racy images on my blog for fear of getting one of those “Content Warning” alerts on my front page.

Anyway, my eye was caught by a DVD called The Damsel Gift starring Skyler Blake, an actress who looks like this:

and is surely a girl who must have some trouble eating while in character.

If the blurb on the DVD is to be believed, the movie is the story of “A happy couple. A cute dog. They have everything they want and need. Or, do they? What lurks in the mind of the one you love? Do you really know them anymore? What is waiting to destroy the trust? His wife gets taken away by cruel thugs. Dragged into a van and into a world of submission and control. Kept in a room of torment and perverted pleasures. Made to sleep in steel shackles in the dank confines of a dark cellar.“

So far so standard issue.

But then, one of the many shout lines on the back of the packaging reads, “She became their slave … and they covered her with hot butter.”

Now that’s almost sexy. Was there also garlic and lemon and black pepper? I hope so.

It’s more or less impossible to think about butter and sex without thinking about Last Tango In Paris, in which Marlon Brando butters the rear end of Maria Schneider as a prelude to rather unconvincingly mimed entry.

I was a callow youth when I first saw the movie and I didn’t know what the heck was going on. Even so, as the years have gone by, and my sexual tastes have become more sophisticated and no doubt more jaded, I’ve still never been tempted to reach for half a pound of slightly salted as a prelude to intimacy.

I guess we all draw the line somewhere.

Maria Schneider obviously drew it too late. In a 2007 interview with the Daily Mail she said, "That scene wasn't in the original script. The truth is it was Marlon who came up with the idea . . . I should have called my agent or had my lawyer come to the set because you can't force someone to do something that isn't in the script. I was crying real tears. I felt humiliated and, to be honest, I felt a little raped . . . Thankfully, there was just one take. I never use butter to cook anymore - only olive oil."

Integrity at last.