February 2004

Tom Bernard


Community Standards

Sorry, Jessa, but I just can’t do it.

I can’t face another cookbook right now. I can’t test another new recipe, or indulge in any new caloric or gastronomic sins at this juncture. I’ve made it through the first month of this new year -- and to date, 2004 is shaping up to be yet another banner year for me, woo-friggin’-hoo -- but I’m still paying for my lax discipline throughout the fall, and especially during the whole Thanksgiving to Christmas gauntlet o’ gorging. Factors ranging from the resultant net increase in my overall lard assitude, combined with the recent discovery of depressingly vast new belly fat deposits, and abetted by my recent inability to stick to my workout schedule with anything resembling due diligence have taken their toll on my waistline and my self-esteem.

Granted, since I’m feeling bad about myself anyway, this seems like the perfect time for something involving large amounts of molten cheese, but that tactic strikes me as being singularly self defeating. Besides, I’m a good fifteen hundred miles from the nearest Chuy’s, and absent the publication of The Big Book o’ Molten Cheese I can’t really see a way to get a column out of it.

On the other hand, while I certainly want to remain faithful to the spirit of my fitness and health goals, there’s nothing that says I can’t violate the letter of this contract with myself.

That’s right; I’m talkin’ about Food Porn.

You’ve seen it before: glossy, airbrushed photos of pots du crème, dewy mounds of succulent berries, a pair of ripe, luscious tomatoes arranged with an eye toward the maximum seductive effect and leaving nothing to the imagination. Such photos give lie to the whole, “Well, I just buy the cookbook for the recipes” excuse.

By the same tautological token, when there’s nothing left to the imagination, there’s nothing left to imagine. Photos are one thing, but this is one area where, given a choice, I’d sooner have a thousand words than a single image. Food is sensory, at times sensual, occasionally even sensational. Writers about food understand this. They also know that sex -- or at the very least the hint, the tease and the suggestion of something sensually charged and implicitly illicit -- sells.

While Bonnie Marranca’s anthology A Slice of Life: Contemporary Writers on Food is not explicitly a Food Porn collection (meaning, dear reader, that this market segment is open for anyone willing to exploit it), many of the selections contained in the book certainly rise to the standard of gastronomic solicitation. Indeed, certain of the offerings can be seen as culinary variations on the infamous “Where’s the strangest place you’ve ever made whoopee?” trope.

How you approach the book depends on how you like your kink. There’s plenty of tame, Cinemax late night style softcore come hither if that’s your taste, from the patron saint of the Cook Smut movement, M.F.K. Fisher (whose “W is for Wanton” offers guidelines for designing a menu to bring a strategy of seduction to its intended consummation) to Charles Simic’s paean to the sensual glories of eating a perfect tomato, and the frustrations of finding such perfection in a world where the sensual is subsumed, commodified and commercialized. For those of a more adventurous bent, Marranca offers diversions ranging from “One,” Nigella Lawson’s essay on gastronomic self-pleasure to Sallie Tisdale’s almost clinically anatomical “Meat.”

What’s interesting about these offerings, and others throughout the book, is how much or how little each writer chooses to leave to the reader’s imagination. The line between fantasy and reality is by its very nature a moveable feast, but it’s worth noting how each writer sets the banquet table.

In the end, the book, like any sensual simulation, can’t approach the real thing in terms of intensity or satisfaction, but as a fat-free, low cal alternative, it more than gets the job done.

Dear Bonnie Marranca: I never thought the stories in your book A Slice of Life: Contemporary Writers on Food were true, but recently I had an experience that changed my mind…

A Slice of Life: Contemporary Writers on Food edited by Bonnie Marranca
Overlook Duckworth
ISBN: 158564729
400 Pages