We have entered an age of appetites. From the outre adventurism (and current chic) of eating offal to niche crazes for cupcakes, artisanal cheese and handmade chocolate, today's gastronomes wear their culinary passions on their sleeves -- or their napkins. But what drives these sometimes erratic tastes? A new crop of books explores appetites and the interplay of food and society -- from a tasting tour of the world's "forbidden fruit" and cultural histories of hunger and feasting to the evolution of American foodways and a photographic memoir of one man's mouth.
Biting Through Bans
In The Devil's Picnic: Around the World in Pursuit of Forbidden Fruit (Bloomsbury, $23.95), Taras Grescoe recounts a yearlong journey around the globe "as a kind of Aleister Crowley with a backpack, determined to track down and try all that was forbidden, scornful of any suggestion that my desires should be regulated." Grescoe is of the Anthony Bourdain school of food reportage, treating the reader as a sidekick on a rebellious gastronomical adventure with lots of boozing (absinthe in Switzerland), drugs (coca leaves in Bolivia) and foods that, tasty as they may be, are not for the faint of heart. (Have you tried epoisses, the very smelly French raw-milk cheese, or criadillas, a Spanish dish of bull testicles?)
The book is organized around a menu of the illicit, starting off with an "aperitif" of hjemmebrent, a variety of moonshine banned in Norway. Some of the chapters feel like stunts, particularly when Grescoe smuggles poppy-seed crackers into Singapore, where they are outlawed because the seeds contain traces of opiates. Before leaving, he scatters a few crumbs at the Botanic Gardens, writing, "With a little luck, the seeds might germinate, and opium poppies would again bloom in the nanny state." But behind this culinary risk-taker hides a true policy wonk, deeply interested in the regulations that make so many forbidden foods, drinks and drugs . . . forbidden. Social taboos and prohibitions on consuming certain foods and drinks "are tools of power," Grescoe writes, noting that "humanity's relationship with psychoactive plants and fungi . . . predates all organized religion, and every existing form of government." Consequently, he rejects punishment for growing, creating and consuming such items as "violating a fundamental human right." But Grescoe is no libertarian, for he argues that a case can be made for regulating commerce in potentially harmful substances, while leaning toward accommodation. To sum up: Slap a warning label on epoisses (which can harbor listeria bacteria), but don't ban it.
The Art of Hunger
When the magician David Blaine infamously spent 44 days without food in a Plexiglas box above the Thames in 2003, he was channeling a series of "hunger artists" who, at the turn of the 19th century, turned starving into a performance. Empty stomachs -- whether for spectacle, religious rite, political protest or medical cure -- are the subject of Sharman Apt Russell's insightful Hunger: An Unnatural History (Basic, $23.95).
She tracks the rise of the hunger strike as a political tool, wielded to powerful effect by British suffragettes and perfected over a lifetime by Gandhi. And she examines a landmark scientific investigation of starvation performed by Jewish doctors in the Warsaw Ghetto. As they themselves went hungry, the scientists recorded the symptoms of otherwise healthy patients as they slowly died of hunger. At first, victims experienced dry mouth and increased urination; then they swelled from edema. Sometimes their faces turned a "dirty brown."
Russell attempted to experience true hunger herself through fasting. But she gave up after just four days, not from hunger pangs, she says, but out of ennui: "I didn't want food anymore. I wanted the meaning behind food. I wanted to go for a walk. I wanted to clean the house . . . . I was bored. So I ate an orange." Hunger is much easier to take when it's optional.
From Famine to Feast
Nichola Fletcher's Charlemagne's Tablecloth: A Piquant History of Feasting (St. Martin's, $24.95) is concerned not with the scarcity of food but with its abundance. The book takes its name from King Charlemagne's post-feast party trick of tossing his tablecloth into the fire. The crumbs would burn away, leaving the tablecloth (made of fire-resistant asbestos) clean and undamaged and his guests dumbstruck.
The book explores feasting across time and cultures, from celebrations in the ancient world through feasting's "golden age" (lasting from the late 12th century through the end of the 17th) and into modernity. Fletcher collects a number of offbeat and quirky gatherings along the way, such as a 1903 feast on horseback hosted by Cornelius K.G. Billings, a New York plutocrat whose guests sucked bubbly through rubber tubes attached to champagne bottles stuffed into their saddle bags. At the other end of the spectrum were the potlatches held by the Kwakiutl people of British Columbia during the late 19th century: Rival chiefs would seek to outdo each other by consuming 18-foot-long strips of seal blubber (and slipping away afterward to vomit).
If the book at times reads like a compilation of gastronomical trivia, Fletcher admits that her topic is unwieldy, writing, "There are infinite ways of having a feast and I do not pretend that this collection is comprehensive. . . . I ask forgiveness of those who find my omissions leave them hungry."
Kernels of Conflict
"There's a saying that only a historian could make a topic like sex seem boring. I hope, as I search America's cooking origins, that I don't do the same for food," notes James E. McWilliams, a professor of history at Texas State University-San Marcos, at the start of A Revolution in Eating: How the Quest for Food Shaped America (Columbia Univ., $29.95).
It may not be sexy, but McWilliams has penned an illuminating account of the evolution of foodways in the colonial Americas, using food as a window into conflict and collaboration between settlers, slaves and indigenous communities in the New World. McWilliams's chief argument is that the origins of American cooking and foodways are rooted in regional differences. While colonists in the West Indies tended to adapt to farming methods and ingredients drawn from slaves and local inhabitants, New Englanders held fast to their English tradition. Falling somewhere in the middle of these two models was the Chesapeake Bay region.
A key element in America's culinary development was the adoption of Indian corn by settlers, who at first saw it as fit only for swine. While settlers relied upon Native Americans for their expertise in farming the staple, it was an uneasy relationship. McWilliams writes about an extreme instance in 1610 when English settlers in Virginia, resentful of their dependence upon Native Americans, destroyed native corn crops before they'd planted any of their own. The shortsighted colonists soon began to starve, "leading one desperate Englishman to chop up his wife, salt her down, and grill her for dinner. Others dug up graves to eat the corpses." That's not boring at all.
A Year in Food
Leaping from the 18th century to the 21st, Tucker Shaw's Everything I Ate: A Year in the Life of My Mouth (Chronicle; paperback, $14.95) presents a photographic record of a modern New Yorker's dining habits over the course of 12 months -- day by day, hour by hour.
The photographs are not the pretty kind you see in cookbooks. They're slightly fuzzy, often poorly lit shots taken with the author's digital camera, along with captions that provide details on his location ("nuts at home") and dining partners ("Duck spring rolls at Chow Bar with Jason"). And that's about it. Aside from a brief introduction scrawled on a paper napkin, we don't know why Shaw eats all the stuff he puts before the camera. Were those spring rolls great or greasy? Readers want to know.
The book is, literally, a snapshot of modern urban existence -- lots of takeout, snacks, the occasional home-cooked success and almost nightly bowls of cereal. You can easily imagine scholars a century from now poring over it for insights into modern American appetites. In fact, if there is any question about whether corn has become entrenched in the American diet, the visual proof lies here in the many late-night bowls of Frosted Flakes posed before the lens of one man's digicam. *
Josh Friedland is the editor and publisher of thefoodsection.com, a blog about food, wine and travel.