March 2006

Melissa Fischer

features

Judging a Book by Its Cover: Oral Love

In the absence of all other creature comforts, food done right can be a mood-altering, sensual, nearly orgasmic source of succor. Indeed, even the shapes of certain foods are reminiscent of the sex act and appropriated for metaphoric descriptors: think “hide the salami,” “beat the meat,” and “tea-bagging,” just to name a few. Clearly, some take the sex/food connection more literally than others; for example, Splosh magazine is dedicated to WAMmers (Wet-And-Messy), who get off on covering and being covered with edibles like custard, cake batter, fruit cocktail, and even baked beans. While soft-core concerns like Penthouse magazine have addressed the intersection of food and sex with photographic essays and marginally humorous cartoons (January 1997’s issue featured digital illustrations by Jacques Froment in “Fruit of the Womb”), a new book by Bunny Crumpacker examines The Sex Life of Food from a more academic perspective. With Crumpacker as inspiration, I’ve gathered an orgiastic collection of food-related titles capable of satisfying even the most passionate of appetites.

The Sex Life of Food: When Body and Soul Meet to Eat by Bunny Crumpacker
Cover design by Jennifer Carrow
St. Martin’s Press
ISBN: 0312342071

Bunny Crumpacker’s comprehensive treatise is cloaked in an appropriately classical jacket that shows a postprandial Eve being gazed upon by the serpent. Even the spinal portion of this cover is an exquisite snapshot of its larger design; the back cover, too, evokes curiosity with its cropped view that shows only Eve’s legs. All of these elements are set against a stark black ground, and multi-colored fonts harmoniously interact with the painterly illustrations in their periphery. A better cover for Crumpacker’s “delicious and funny” words could hardly be imagined.

The Sex Life of Food is best described as an anthropological investigation of how food and sex are parallel and related to a greater degree than we may admit. Leaving no stone unturned, Crumpacker hits on cannibalism, dentistry, politics, pornography, and pop-stars’ belly-buttons, all with pleasantly sophisticated eloquence and inclusive of a wide cultural context.

It Must’ve Been Something I Ate: The Return of the Man Who Ate Everything by Jeffrey Steingarten
Cover art by Istvan Banyai
Cover design by Abby Weintraub
Alfred A. Knopf
ISBN: 0375412808

Perhaps we should be thankful that Jeffrey Steingarten spent his pre-writerly days as a lawyer, because he clearly had the means to cultivate the elaborate palette and insatiable zest for food that persists in his current efforts as a food writer. As food critic for Vogue magazine, the author has penned columns with a variety of foci; now, Steingarten unleashes his full arsenal in this, the second of his essay collections.

This cover sports a comical illustration by Istvan Banyai, depicting an amused dog looking upon his food bowl, from which an unenthused man, presumably Steingarten, peers back at him. With lightheartedness that reflects the author’s humorous and personal yet intellectually highbrow modus operandi, Weintraub’s jacket design is the appropriate outfit for the writing of this supreme cuisine intelligentsia.

Cooking with Fernet Branca by James Hamilton-Paterson
Cover design by Emanuele Ragnisco
Europa Editions
ISBN: 193337201X

Aside from a dash of the grotesque, the only ingredient that consistently appears in Gerald Samper’s recipes is the bitter herbal digestif, Fernet Branca. Whether in his signature “Alien Pie” or the pseudo-welcoming garlic ice cream he whips up for dinner with a new neighbor, Gerrie never fails to find justification for adding this curious elixir to his concoctions.

I haven’t laughed as audibly or heartily while reading any book as I did with Hamilton-Paterson’s novel, the story of a ghostwriter who moves to a remote Italian village seeking an isolated space to live and work. When he finds that the neighboring house is inhabited despite his realtor’s assurances to the contrary, the decidedly British Gerald rebels passionately against the peasantly Eastern-European Marta. What results from this dynamic is a hilarious mix of perverse culinary efforts of mixed intentions from both parties, and a constant onslaught of wicked curmudgeonry courtesy of Mr. Samper.

Emanuele Ragnisco’s cover design is exactly the cover for a cookbook featuring Samper’s Fernet Branca recipes. It has a dark and sickly rustic feel that one can only imagine echoes the liquor’s complex flavors; fortunately, the cover doesn’t try to illustrate all of Gerald’s ingredients, since smoked cat (off the bone, of course) and otter chunks are, heh, fair game for the twisted epicure. While Ragnisco’s cover is probably as close as it gets, I don’t think any visual representation can quite match Hamilton-Paterson’s nuanced characters and genius. As the jacket announces, his is truly “a work of comic genius.”

Hunger: An Unnatural History by Sharman Apt Russell
Cover design by Rick Pracher
Basic Books
ISBN: 0465071635

In her “kaleidoscopic blend of science, anthropology, and personal reflection,” Sharman Apt Russell explores hunger from every possible angle. Presenting her subject as a normal part of everyday life, a method for political entreaty, the symptom of disease, and as a worldwide problem, Russell shows that the ease of satiation comes at different costs under varying circumstances.

Rick Pracher’s cover design is suitably bare-boned: worn silverware sits atop a bare glass plate. The stark monochrome of the photograph deftly conveys the sense of emptiness hunger summons, and a serious font including all-caps titular and author text seals the serious tone. Austere as it is, Pracher’s cover is nevertheless elegant and attractive, and expertly evokes the historical angle of the book’s contents.

The Epicure’s Lament by Kate Christensen
Cover design by Claire Williams
Anchor Books
ISBN: 038572098X

“I'm conceiving a brutal, half-hateful crush on the late, great, much-lamented food-memoir author M.F.K. Fisher, that uppity little slyboots of a voluptuary autodidact, that fresh-faced Irish smartypants.” These are the words of Christensen’s epicure, Hugo Whittier, a loveable miscreant with a penchant for the legendary food writer and a tendency toward lapsing into vivid reflections on her culinary directives. The cover’s image of fingertips nestling a cigarette references Hugo’s stubborn fidelity for his addiction: he refuses to quit smoking despite suffering from a fatal disease that can only be diverted by the bad habit’s immediate cessation. With this in mind, Hugo plans to live out his numbered days alone in his family’s abandoned mansion, indulging in the things he loves most: the works of M.F.K. Fisher, fine cuisine, top shelf liquor and, yes, cigarettes. The mostly unwelcome intrusions of various characters start to thwart his plans, however, and Hugo’s swan song is unceremoniously paused.

Where the hardcover jacket for Christensen’s novel was bare, white, and displaying the single image of a snubbed out cigarette resting in an oyster shell, the paperback alludes to not only Hugo’s fervor for nicotine but is also evocative of the family home to which he retreats. A damaged chandelier of questionable utilitarian worth dangles above the book’s title, which is printed in an all caps, red text. This cover is successful in its direct communication of the novel’s sense of place and character, and is a harmonious and attractive visual representation for Christensen’s laudable work.

-Melissa Fischer
melissafischer@ameritech.net