Insatiable Appetites

Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda in the romantic comedy
Barbara Stanwyck and Henry Fonda in the romantic comedy "The Lady Eve" (John Kobal Foundation/getty Images)
Reviewed by Julie Powell
Sunday, February 12, 2006


When Body and Soul Meet to Eat

By Bunny Crumpacker

Thomas Dunne/St. Martin's. 260 pp. $24.95

"The first meal is a simple one. Eve's was just a bite of apple; a baby's is just a bit of milk." Thus, with admirable forthrightness, begins Bunny Crumpacker's sly meditation on the delicious and dirty convergences of sustenance and psyche.

It's a formidable subject, and an irresistible one for those of us who find eating to be one of the great fascinations of life. The writer wisely avoids a doomed attempt at comprehensive analysis. The Sex Life of Food turns out to be instead a semi-comic, opinionated, book-length prose poem. Like a character out of Dickens (and who else could have come up with a more appropriately naughty name for the author of such a book?), Bunny Crumpacker rambles willfully, making gleefully strained connections, stating as incontrovertible fact some fairly suspect notions and cracking wise on topics ranging from the erudite to the sophomoric. (She refers to Hitler, in the title of her chapter on peculiar eating habits, as a "Vegetaryan.") Sometimes she manages both vulgarity and bookishness at once, as during a lengthy breakdown of the etymology of the word "poot."

In truth, the title is a bit misleading. Certainly you will get a list of supposed aphrodisiacs -- everything from oysters to parsnips to avocados. M.F.K. Fisher's menu for seduction and the famous turkey leg scene in "Tom Jones" make multiple appearances. But perhaps a more representative title would have been "The Freud of Food." This is not to say that her writing is not sexy -- it is often very sexy -- but her true interest is in how mother's milk and all the pivotal meals that come after influence not only the way we love but the way we fear, comfort, mourn, rage -- even vote.

In pursuit of this interest, Crumpacker ranges far from sex to take in, for example, teenage suicide rates or the imbibing mistake Sargent Shriver made in a New Hampshire tavern that cost him the 1972 presidential primary ("Beer for the boys," he said, "and I'll have a Courvoisier"). More often than not, though, the author is able to bring her narrative back around to the erotic in one way or another. In the chapter on eating and the body politic, "Chewing the Sound Bite," she makes this typically pithy observation about presidential hunger: "Maybe it was right to be uncomfortable about Bill Clinton's appetite. What was true about food was true about interns, too." But these neat narrative bows often seem forced, more a submission to her title than a true indication of where her curiosity is leading her.

And her curiosity leads her nearly everywhere. Crumpacker's prose tends to touch down briefly on one point after another, paragraph after paragraph, moving from The Golden Ass of Apuleius to cooks "as hermaphroditic as hydra[s]" to Sue Grafton crime novels to butter in a refrigerator as a subconscious symbol of the feminine -- all with only the slenderest of threads linking one to the next.

This makes for quick, hypnotic reading but also for frustration. Just when you think she's about to delve into a subject, she flits onto another branch. She's got the attention span of a bird -- or a bonobo monkey, maybe, always chasing after the next tryst. And when she does settle on something, such as when she devotes three pages -- in this book an ocean of print -- to a Freudian analysis of the Hansel and Gretel fairy tale, the result is more likely boredom than enlightenment. Ultimately the psychology of The Sex Life of Food , while credible, also seems a little travel-worn.

Crumpacker is best when she's idiosyncratic, explaining, for example, that kiwi remind her of "a boy I knew in high school -- just too precious, we all thought, for sex. Not that a kiwi is asexual, exactly, just unsexy, like Billy." Or take this slightly mysterious musing on food as status: "The land of plenty polishes its rice along with its nails and bleaches both its flour and its hair."

The author has a fondness for unsubstantiated fun facts and uncredited survey results, many of which stick with you long after you've put down the book. I keep thinking of a tidbit in there about how mothers with severe morning sickness bear babies who grow up with a craving for salty foods. (That's me!) I did find a survey conducted by Mihaly Csikszentimihalyi, then of the University of Chicago, showing that "cooking was the seventh most common daily activity" and "lovemaking was number one." (I'd like to meet these common people and ask them for a few pointers.) The Sex Life of Food is not the stuff of academic rigor, and Crumpacker does herself a disservice when she tries to make it so. She is better when she realizes that her book's rightful place is on the bedside table. You can do no better for bedtime reading than this: "Wherever they kiss, lovers do so . . . for all the world like babes at breast. . . . Kissing comes close to fulfilling the search for our most imperious needs -- food and sex, again and again -- at the same time." ยท

Julie Powell is the author of "Julie & Julia: 365 Days, 524 Recipes, 1 Tiny Apartment Kitchen."

© 2006 The Washington Post Company