Culture

More Than a Mouthful

Paul B. Hertneky

The proliferation of food pornography threatens to overwhelm one of our most fundamental pleasures.

If anyone wonders what happens to sexual appetite as we grow out of our 20s, the answer can be found in the media and the marketplace. As our libido becomes less urgent, we direct our lust and anxiety to another delicious and potentially ruinous obsession: food. Rather than fretting about unwanted pregnancy and crabs, we begin to worry about cholesterol and carbs. Where once we worshipped mutual orgasm, we find ourselves falling to our knees for truffles.

Here's a glimpse from a foodie anthology: "We packed the maw with fleshy figs, the sticky milk oozing from the stems." "Then the soft sensuality of the pink papaya - if there is such a thing as fruit orgasm I had one as the sloppy pulp ran down my throat, my chin, my chest…" Images and words, millions of words, rapturous and stern, clever and cocky, gush out of critics and experts, chefs, doctors, and those like me, who obsess and unleash our imaginations on food, craving and coveting it, loving it and fondling it, very much fearing it, and essentially having it replace sex in our middle age.

All the fanfare about food runs to what will shock me and delight me, impress me, remind me, transport me, seduce me and impel me to write and tell others all about it. Readers and writers say they can't resist -- tasting, indulging, overeating, and bringing every known adjective to bear on the cellular structure of, say, poblano chilies.

The distinctions and specialties make us who we are. The media urges us to define ourselves by our choices and to talk about them while stuffing our faces. We can subscribe to at least 40 established food magazines, from Chatelaine to American Vegan, and ogle more than 200 cookbooks published every year, from Entertaining With Insects, for example, to Dirty Sugar Cookies. Food channels have introduced saucy celebrities like Nigella Lawson, with expanding empires of licensed goods. Imagine getting a spanking with the Mario Batali Risotto Paddle. They're bought, sold, traded, auctioned, and rated by hundreds of websites and countless blogs, like egullet, fork this, and pie whore, to name only a very few. An Internet search of culinary yields 51 million responses. And tapas brings 18 million.

The need to yammer on about our pleasures and boast about our mastery stems from two unattractive sources: bad manners and privilege. At the dinner table growing up, I would be banished to the basement stairs for remarking on my mother's cooking methods or questioning her choice of vegetables. She had little tolerance for blathering and judgments, up or down.

I once found myself at the table of a budding caterer who wouldn't let her guests eat until she described every dish. I was hungry. The food looked good and I wanted to yank the bowl of scalloped potatoes -- demi-peeled and braised in fresh whole milk and creamery butter, finished with dill, chives, and Hungarian paprika -- right out of her hands while she pantomimed pinching the tender loins of pork to accommodate a series of moist injections.

I know, a table groaning with luscious food makes senses bloom and can trigger a torrent of imagination, intellect, emotion and wonderment. But talking about the food itself, at that moment, is like discussing lip tissue while kissing. Focusing on the catalyst feels self-conscious and conspicuous. And I know, as a cook, that nothing makes me happier than the hush -- that exquisite stretch of silence that comes when everyone tucks in.

But we are goaded into elaboration by a culture that offers limitless choices. Lavishly endowed foodies strive for cavernous kitchens and countertops that will withstand cruise missiles. As virtue, I support organic farmers, cottage industries, and lychee growers in hardscrabble provinces, sharing my wealth with every corner of the world. I entertain. And show off. And gather to compare and compete. And why not?

Because our consumption has created a cult of fetishists and fussbudgets. And we're breeding children within earshot of our fussing over wines and breads and artisanal cheeses. (Funny, how the word artisanal has "anal" in it). Now they too lift the top slice to peer what's underneath and announce it. All of our fears and preferences culminate in awful table manners and wrinkling brows. Even in praise, deconstruction often follows, which can turn food into a pile of parts and processes. Tittering over the Vietnamese pepper, the key limes, the bruised lemongrass, the texture, and a dish possesses brings to mind my mother's scold, "Don't talk with your mouth full!"

I try to mind my manners, but abundance has corrupted me. I am never hungry unless I pursue it for sport, fasting or exercising to chase away the effects of excess, and to justify another feast. I sweat through a workout while watching a Napa Valley chef press herbs into a rack of prime rib. Minutes after seeing me at a family gathering, an aunt and cousin I hadn't seen in years were flipping through Bon Appetit, saying "get a load of this." I began drinking a double tequila -- a blue agave, tequila lapiz, on spring water crystals -- too quickly and my embarrassment sank into shame.

Like a bored tart in a peep show, I serve up copy for drooling class-anxious consumers and health nuts. I beckon those who sit in the dark, panting over precious metals in saucepans and 5,000 btu cooktops capable of carmelizing an elk. I soothe those intent on curing themselves with blueberries and completely outwitting enemy toxins. And forget about shame, enlightened foodies wear indulgence like a badge, a well-deserved aioli stain.

History shows that a day will come when a new generation will deride its parents' fashionable and twisted behavior. They will giggle over mother's insistence on sel du mer and Talamanca peppercorns the way their parents scorned Velveeta and Tang. They will tease fathers about their limo-length grills, showing no urge to lay out a bed of mesquite chips and massage a spice rub into a boston butt. They will mock finicky affectations, hosting their friends for weenie roasts (too near the rosemary bush!), yellow mustard, and bleached rolls.

I place faith in the backlash. Imagine the health benefits future generations will derive from eating without fear. They will have seen their bacon-loving grandparents, apart from the drunks and smokers, live well past 80. And they will have witnessed their own parents driving 50 miles out of their way for a craft chevre, while hearing them fret over every possible free radical. Imbued with good sense, they will eat less, worry less, shop less, crave less, weigh less. And they can go back to talking about sex.

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