The Sex Life of Food

When Body and Soul Meet to Eat

Bunny Crumpacker

St. Martin's Griffin/Thomas Dunne Books

Chapter One
Eating Secrets
My definition of Man is, “a Cooking Animal.” The beasts have memory, judgment, and all the faculties and passions of our mind, in a certain degree; but no beast is a cook. . . . Man alone can dress a good dish; and every man whatever is more or less a cook, in seasoning what he himself eats.— Your definition is good, said Mr. Burke, and I now see the full force of the common proverb, “There is reason in the roasting of eggs.”
—The Journal of a Tour to the Hebrides with Samuel Johnson, LL.D.,
by James Boswell
The first meal is a simple one. Eve’s was just a bite of apple; a baby’s is just a bit of milk.
Some babies try to eat even before the first meal: There are infants born with tiny calluses on their thumbs from sucking in utero, already working at filling the void. Once delivered, eating is the first continuing encounter the hungry babe has with the rest of humanity. Food is our first comfort, our first reward. Hunger is our first frustration.
Simple as it is, that small sip of milk, the first meal is the beginning of a complexity of food and emotion that is mirrored over and over again in a pattern that never stops. When we begin to eat as babies, we fall in love. We discover pleasure, we make friends, we learn to smile. We sup with darker things, too—loneliness and fear, anger, even pain—and relief, after having waited so long, empty, for the next meal.
No wonder, then, that grown up, when we open our mouths to eat, our souls fly out. We are too thin or too fat. We go on food binges, secret eaters alone with the refrigerator in the middle of the night. We eat too little, and are afraid that too little is too much. We eat too fast and develop heartburn. We work our mouths constantly: We chew gum, we make a fashion of cigars, we drop in for a cup of coffee, we suck on candy, we smoke cigarettes, we talk too much, we drink too much.
In one way and another, we’ve been worrying about food since the apes moved down from the trees when the fruit ran out. We’ve been so busy chewing that we haven’t sat down and thought about the missing link between our dinner and our selves, between the way we eat and what we eat and who we are—why we eat in the ways that we do.
Eating is not a rational process. It is enmeshed in our childhoods, our families, our own personalities. If we were rational, we would eat spiders—juicy tarantulas!—as well as lobsters. We’d eat mice and rats, as well as frogs, snails, and crabs. What we actually do eat is chickens, but not blue jays, rabbits and sheep, but not cats and hamsters. We eat honey, and name it after flowers and ponder the merits of its various flavors. The idea of eating anything produced by a mosquito—or any secretion of any insect—is disgusting to us. But what is honey if it isn’t the secretion of an insect?
Supposedly, human beings eat what is available. But for those of us fortunate enough to live in the lands of plenty, food choices are not limited by the local flora and fauna.* Seasons certainly don’t matter anymore: We eat strawberries in December and asparagus year-round. With affluence comes choice. Milk and honey are just the basics. Milk comes in all sorts of ways, most of which are far removed from a cow: You can buy skim milk, homogenized milk, skim milk with milk solids added, lactose-free milk, chocolate milk, organic milk, milk with bacteria taken out, and milk with bacteria put back in. And heavy cream and half-and-half. Ultrapasteurized, sweet, or sour. Honey is available at the corner deli in every flavor, from Greek thyme to killer bee; orange blossom honey is ubiquitous, even though oranges only blossom in warm places. It doesn’t matter what grows around here—the peanut butter tree grows everywhere.
Eating is a very complicated business. Taste is not only a question of what happens to the surface of the tongue when you eat or the number of taste buds that you were born with. It is a cumulative question of judgment, history, and personality jumbled up with smell, texture, sound, sight—and, yes, of course, taste. We think of taste when we think of food, but we forget how important all of our other senses are to our sense of taste (which is the one sense, in many ways, we know the least about).
Separating taste from everything it is tangled up with is not easy. Texture, for one, is not really taste, but it is certainly related. Crunchiness (the mouth word for noise) can go a long way toward replacing flavor. Crispness is not an attribute of taste; snap, crackle, and pop have no taste at all. Crunchy food makes a lot of noise as we chew it, and taste gets lost in the uproar. Crunch replaces flavor and we are left with nothing but the sound and the fury.
Sound is also a part of texture, and texture is the feeling of food in the mouth—hard crackers and chewy meats, soft puddings and purees, crisp vegetables, melting chocolate, crunchy nuts. Outer sounds aren’t taste, but they are a source of eating pleasure. Think of bacon sizzling and a stew making small bubbling noises as it simmers. These all have to do with expectations of taste and they enhance taste.
What we see affects what we taste even more than what we hear. In one memorable experiment, a researcher served a panel of tasters six flavors of sherbet. Each serving was normally flavored, but each was without any color. The tasters had a hard time tasting: Flavor is linked to color, both visually and in terms of expectations. Purple tastes grape; lemon tastes yellow.
It is a cookbook basic that the way food looks affects the way it tastes. Vary the menu, we are told, so that food appeals to the eye before it ever reaches the mouth. Don’t serve chicken with cauliflower and mashed potatoes. Too white! Think of cranberry sauce and turkey. They look right.
Merchandisers have long since adjusted their products to our visual involvement with food. Margarine didn’t become a food staple until it was colored yellow. (Somewhere along the line, we stopped calling it oleo except in crossword puzzles. Oleo sounds greasy and cheap; margarine has more dignity.) Even butter often has yellow coloring added to it because butter’s natural shade is, to many people, unappetizingly pale.
Orange juice doesn’t seem to taste good unless it’s bright orange. Tests have shown that most people don’t want to drink yellow orange juice; orange juice with an off taste is all right—even preferred—if it’s a nice bright orange. That’s how it’s supposed to be.
In 1981, Tropicana donated 26,000 quarts of grapefruit juice to a Florida food bank. The juice had been discolored by an error during production—it wasn’t spoiled, or bad; it was just brown and Tropicana knew it would be hard to sell. But even as a give-away, brown grapefruit juice didn’t work. “Everybody that drank it said it was good,” said a local minister whose church ended up with a thousand cases of the stuff, “but the color was icky.” The church was left with the problem of where to dump it.
We trust hot dogs that have been colored red and Jell-O that is equally tinted, though we’ve been told the red coloring probably causes cancer. Cancer is a relatively impersonal threat compared with a grayish brown hot dog that we are actually expected to swallow. Same for the nitrites in corned beef, salami, ham—all the cold cuts and preserved meats. Better to deal with cancer tomorrow and have a reddish brown slice of bologna today. Eating is not a rational business.
Food companies are very aware of the niceties of food color, even on the outside of what they’re selling. Packaging colors are most often red and yellow—colors that are cheerful and warm. Black, of course, is pretty much out. White is good, but as we eat—and buy—more natural and organic foods, green and brown are used more often.
There isn’t any difference in taste or nutrition between brown eggs and white ones. Yet people have strong preferences between the two, often with a geographic link. In some parts of America, shoppers prefer brown eggs; in others, white. In recent years, consumers have been buying more brown eggs than they used to, probably as part of the national movement toward eating healthier food. Brown eggs look more natural, and the thinking goes that if they look more natural, they’re probably better for you. Before our organic era, in the days when cleanliness was next to godliness, buyers preferred white eggs because they seemed “cleaner,” not as much as if they might actually have passed through the body of a chicken.
All of our senses—sight, sound, smell, and, when we’re very young, touch—affect the sense of taste, but more than any of the senses except perhaps smell, taste is affected by relative intangibles—our childhoods, our moods, our personalities, our expectations, even our heritage. Some food is ethnic and reminds us of home and Mother, from pasta to sauerbraten, from pastrami to enchiladas. Food can be male, like sausage, or female, like eggs, or simply get tangled up in our feelings about sex because food and sex are so inextricably linked. Food can be painful and hot, like curry or chili, or soothing and sweet, like custard or turkey in cream sauce. Food can be maternal, like rice pudding, or sexy, like chocolate mousse. Food can be decisive, like broccoli, or just a little vague, like plain mashed potatoes.
Preferring asparagus to creamed spinach is more than a matter of taste. Asparagus is finger food, and it’s biting food, too. Creamed spinach is mushy, very plainly baby food, whether we spoon it in ourselves or have Mommy to help. Spinach is good for you—look at Popeye, another echo of childhood. Asparagus is more sophisticated; you have to know how to eat it. They’re both green, but creamed spinach can have a messy, dark look to it; properly cooked asparagus is bright green. Asparagus is a little crisp in the mouth; creamed spinach is smooth and—by definition—creamy. And then there’s shape. Creamed spinach has none. Asparagus has plenty; it’s the very definition—well, almost—of phallic. Asparagus and spinach are both delicious. Our choice speaks of our mood, our associations, and our memories as well as our taste buds and the rest of today’s menu.
In the years since World War II, the U.S. Army has commissioned three studies of the food likes and dislikes of its soldiers with the goal of giving them what they want. While there have been changes in the results over the years—food tastes have become more adventurous and more ethnic, as the soldiers themselves have—the foods at the top and bottom of the list have been consistent. No one likes stewed prunes. Everyone likes lasagna.
In the first two studies, clear correlations emerged between the food preferences and education levels of military men and women. In one, soldiers with higher degrees of education put mushrooms, hot tea, grapefruit, crisp relishes, and maple syrup toward the top of the list of foods that they liked. Less well-educated soldiers steered away from all of those choices. The more education a GI had, the less that soldier liked corn flakes, cherry drink, and instant coffee—all of which were preferred by less well-educated GIs.
To consider these choices in order:
Copyright © 2006 by Bunny Crumpacker. All rights reserved.