April 2008

Eryn Loeb

Girl, Interrupting

A Hungry Heart

As part of a recent article in the New York Times Magazine, writer Randall Patterson had lunch with two college women from opposing sides of the abstinence debate. Patterson describes the campus sex columnist eating "every crumb of everything, including a ginger cake with cream cheese frosting and raspberry compote." Meanwhile, the co-president of an abstinence advocacy group looked at the dessert menu, "paused at the prospect of a 'chocolate explosion,' said, 'I may as well -- I mean, carpe diem, right?' And then reconsidered -- she really wasn't that hungry."

In her new book of essays, Sex and Bacon: Why I Love Things That Are Very, Very Bad for Me, Sarah Katherine Lewis is a lot less sly about the relationship between a culinary appetite and a sexual one. Eating and fucking, she says, are practically the same proposition. It’s not an unfamiliar idea (among my favorite writers to take it on is Dorothy Allison, in her story “A Lesbian Appetite”), but Lewis takes it in some fresh directions that prove very, very entertaining.

I stuck with her through pungent accounts of eating bone marrow and whale (the latter tasted kind of epic, “like eating the ocean itself,” the former like an “old, bloody tampon”). I lapped up butter-drenched descriptions of preparing fried chicken and lamb roast with a lust not exactly befitting a longtime vegetarian. Though I have some trouble accepting that the same woman who eagerly scraped marrow out of a cow femur harbors a passionate hatred for any and all cheese, I really like the idea that our palates are such personal places.

Lewis has had her share of experience with "food-sex," but prefers "not to mix the process of digestion and excretion with anything romantic.” After all, “if I'm cramming fresh strawberries into my mouth, cramming them into my coochie just seems redundant." There are no cute stories here about licking whipped cream off a lover’s nipples; Lewis is interested in darker, more layered tastes. Describing the sensations and byproducts of "eating pussy" and "sucking cock" (she disdains the expression "oral sex" -- "a term so prim it's nearly virginal”), she doesn't hold back, imagining the "sheer volume" of ejaculate she's consumed collected in "restaurant-sized jugs of mayonnaise occupying shelf-space at Costco in a neat industrial phalanx." Incredibly, this doesn’t feel like over-sharing. Lewis’s wit is both sharp and sensitive, and she has some serious guts.

What she cares about most is pleasure. In cooking lessons for treats like her special "fancy sauce," she breaks out of the standard cookbook format, presenting her recipes as gracious narratives instead of static lists, winking and all but guaranteeing that these meals will get you laid. It would be foolish, though, to take the process for granted on the way to a predictable climax. After cooking and eating mussels the way Lewis instructs, "You may be too full to fuck, but amazingly enough, this will be totally okay."

She’s an unabashed cheerleader for fat: it “keeps your hair glossy and your curves plump and most of all, it gives a certain silky roll to each mouthful, a smooth satin glide across your palate that feels like a long, deep kiss.” In one essay, Lewis sets out to discover her personal “bacon quotient.” How much is enough? She stands in her kitchen for two and a half hours, shuffling between her stovetop and her table, drinking in the unmistakable smell of sizzling bacon -- an aroma she correctly describes as “unfair” -- and gorging on piles of crisp, greasy strips. She finally attains maximum satisfaction after consuming three and a half pounds, but eats the full four she has on hand just to be sure. Yes, this is pretty gross. It’s also just plain awesome, and Lewis’s bold voraciousness will trigger more laughing than gagging.

As a feminist and a former sex worker (her first book was the memoir, Indecent: How I Make It and Fake It as a Girl for Hire), it's not surprising that these subjects eventually turn to body image. Describing the distressing appearance of an anorexic friend, she calls the eating disorder “internalized misogyny” before dishing out her own suggestions for healthful eating: satisfaction should be priority one, diet foods are like fake orgasms, “hunger makes women mean and dumb.” She acknowledges the irony of having learned to love her body through “a legendarily woman-hating industry,” and calls out the sex industry for being “mostly very, very fucked up” even as she amusingly recounts her experiences working in it.

There are some rough spots, sure. Lewis may really love Britney Spears, as she attests, but her description of the pop star as "manifesting need and want, representing appetite and pleasure, and… showing us a female body that reflects a woman’s state of mind" is pushing it. Of course there’s resonance in the Britney spectacle. That isn’t a good enough reason to dress it up and let it mingle with the other smarter, more stirring ideas here.

Through it all, Lewis is a romantic. A little danger is on her list of cravings: with just a gesture at apology, she cops to her habit of condom-less sex, writing breathlessly about the lure of physical vulnerability and intimacy without barriers. Pondering the models whose naked bodies occasionally serve as living sushi platters at upscale Japanese establishments, she sighs, "it's really bad for us to get used to viewing other people as things."

Hanging out with the insatiable Lewis will inspire you to keep eating, loving, and making a mess until you’re truly full. That she’s struggled to follow her own advice -- “I haven’t been laid in a month and I can’t afford groceries,” she confesses in a concluding chapter -- doesn’t make this any less true.

Seriously. Someone give this woman a cooking show.