Sex and a Cheese Sandwich

The once and future brilliance of food writing.

Image: Iain Watson via Flickr

When it comes to food writing that stands alone, you’d be on solid ground if you identified Anthony Bourdain’s Kitchen Confidential as the most iconic work to arrive in the last generation. The book lifted the hood on a world we’d all wondered about but, for whatever reason, never thought to investigate. Moreover, it spawned a style of chest-thumping, hyper-masculine food writing that led to derivative, but equally compelling expressions, including Bill Buford’s Heat, Jeffrey Steingarten’s The Man Who Ate Everything, and Marco Pierre White’s The Devil in the Kitchen: Sex, Pain, Madness, and the Making of a Great Chef. The common thread running through this genre is the tacit acceptance of an unfortunate fact: The production of upper-shelf cuisine inevitably comes with a toxic brand of libertine behavior. Be it rank gluttony, drug abuse, kitchen bullying, or outright sexual exploitation, the acceptance of a generous amount of id leakage as the cost of doing business is endemic to the culture these works so effectively explore.

But that’s changing. The #metoo movement has inevitably gravitated beyond Hollywood, Capitol Hill, and the media to start flushing out bad behavior in the professional kitchen. Accusations and revelations surrounding Mario Batali—all of them swinish abuses of power intended to sexually harass subordinates—in addition to brilliant revisionist assessments, help to ensure that the cult of the kitchen will become a bit less bad-boy in tone, and perhaps even more sensitive to the implications of a previously unfettered tendency to swagger around the stove. One obvious reaction to this impending change is to celebrate it as a long-overdue corrective to a workplace culture that has, for too long, exceeded the bounds of decency. The other (less obvious) is to hope for a reformed genre of food writing that ditches the easy (albeit wildly entertaining) resort to intensified masculinity for a more humane and thoughtful exploration of the raw symbiosis between food and life. Fortunately, in the interests of this latter cause, examples from the last century of food writing abound. Three stand out.

Jim Harrison, a novelist and essayist who wrote movingly about food, has long served as my personal touchstone. His book of food writing, The Raw and the Cooked, merged cuisine and life to accomplish at least two things: a) highlight his own heroic gluttony at the table (simple); and b) go past that gluttony into the vulnerability of being human (not very simple). This is not to suggest that food ever faded into the background of the gout-ridden and one-eyed drama that was Jim Harrison. Not in the least. Heroic amounts of meat (most of it hunted) and wine (most of it imported) weigh down the project of Harrison being Harrison on every page. But it is Harrison the man, a deeply flawed but impassioned and vulnerable creature whose sense of self evinced a sage-like sensitivity to the savage beauty of ordinary life, who ultimately comes through as a full being. He is a person inseparable from his glorious indulgence in rugged feed but attuned enough not to be wholly defined by it.

The Raw and the Cooked is a volume that people hear you reading. Snorts and gasps create the book’s impromptu soundtrack. Most Americans, he writes, “couldn’t tell a chicken thigh from Jon Bon Jovi’s chin” Then there are the anecdotes, of which he excels. One is a grocery store experience that, while uncomfortably close to reiterating the predatory male behavior now being exposed on a daily basis, backs down from it, tellingly, with at least a somewhat assuring dose of humility:

A mature woman in tennis togs of startling attractiveness passed the cheese display, and my body became spasmodic with an involuntary humping motion. No one noticed except a very old lady who raised her cane, pointed it at me, and said, ‘Bang,’ a living precursor to feminism.

Harrison, while explicating the pleasure of, say, sautéed cow brain, had no problem with a choice diversion. My favorite is his 1993 commentary, made in a separate essay about birthday dinners, on elite liberal journalists whose understanding of the American South evidently derived from “The Dukes of Hazzard.” Harrison erupts: “You are the shitsuckers that sank Jimmy Carter’s noble ship. . . See if you can write a piece without mentioning BBQ, dogs, the local sheriff, chewing tobacco, bubbas pop coolers, and pickups. It is important not to miss the world that is actually there.”

In the hands of a lesser writer, this kind of irreverence can turn sour fast. But anchoring Harrison’s ire is a generosity of insight that, reliably achieved through food, quickly takes us beyond the flushes and bushels of woodcocks and oysters, hunks of smoked elk and foie gras, to revel in the tender quest to live an authentic life in an increasingly inauthentic culture. The natural world—the ultimate source of everything culinary—is for Harrison a sacred place “made up of nouns and verbs on which we have heaped millions of largely inappropriate and self-serving adjectives.” In the thicket of this grammatical quagmire, usually in the role of a woodsman wandering the world with hounds, Harrison “wondered how we may shape ourselves, body and mind, to fully inhabit this earth.” His idea of union with nature, quite Thoreauvian in conception, and certainly evocative of Wendell Berry, meant guarding our identities from the traps and lures of modernity.

This was a task that required agitating the mind just enough to recognize that “the buzz of the airport metal detector is more familiar than the sound of the whippoorwill or coyote”—and then to lament that fact with all our soul (yes, Harrison refers to the soul, and he does so without irony). Standard fare nostalgia was not for Harrison. Still, he often skirts its outer edge with surprising affect. Every adult reader will, with a dash of pathos, go to a different version of the same place when he writes, “I miss feeling the thrill of the possible future so adumbrated by despair and empty pockets, the night thick with the scent of garbage and flowers, the fecund low-tide odor of our beginning.”

Harrison’s mid-twentieth-century predecessor in both feedbag antics and human insight was the New Yorker writer A. J. Liebling. Liebling’s single culinary collection, Between Meals: An Appetite for Paris, is similarly a gastronomic tour of a gargantuan appetite. (Harrison, with what seemed a touch of envy, wrote that, Liebling’s raging case of gout had, toward the end, infected his ears.) Likewise, Liebling was similarly caustic toward “low-calorie diets or the new cult of the human liver” (Harrison, for his part, called those concerned with such health matters “food ninnies.”)

And at times Liebling was just as witty. Take his wayward hypothesis on the origins of healthy eating: “Before the First World War, the doctors of France had been a submissive and well-mannered breed, who recognized that their role was to facilitate gluttony, not discourage it.” But, after doing time on the front, “they returned to civilian life full of a new sense of authority, gained from the habit of amputation.” Rather than actually treating gout and indigestion—thus enabling ongoing gustatory indulgence—these noisome, activist docs now “proposed the amputation of three or four courses from their patients’ habitual repasts.” The nerve! Harrison’s and Liebling’s insouciance was of a type—privileged but intemperate, Plimpton with dash of Bukowski. It served their food writing well.

Although Liebling’s culinary ambition was impressive on its own terms, it was also integral to becoming a complete human being engaged with the quest to live a real life. For him, the bridge between food and life was engineered with the steel of friendship and familial love. Liebling writes with rare empathy about his father’s support of his student days in Paris, the evolution of his belief in culture over commerce, and, most touchingly, his relationship with the food historian, and fellow gastronome, Waverly Root.

It takes a while to figure out what’s happening, but “between meals” is ultimately the account of a beautiful awakening into a youthful and expanding universe of ideas, the inherent thrill of sharing them, the quiet charms of being alone, and the even deeper pleasure of carefully selected companionship. Never before has a writer so quietly but meaningfully expressed his affection for a friend by comparing him to a restaurant. Liebling writes: “Root admires La Pyramide, on the whole, but he holds that no restaurant on a byway can be called truly great . . . The truly great restaurant is the one who can please essentially the same clientele week after week without boring or disappointing it.”

When is the last time you heard a writer call a restaurant who? Liebling’s was a fine tribute to a dear companion, a paean to a friendship forged at the table.

By demanding that we do more than simply drool over food porn, by asking us to enter human complexity and eat as mercurial human subjects with real lives, Liebling and Harrison pioneered a genre of literature that, attentive as it was to the modern condition, evoked the brilliant—and largely unrecognized—food writing of James Joyce. Section eight of Ulysses, Joyce’s masterpiece of interiority, offers some of the finest modern culinary writing in existence. It is no surprise that Liebling and Harrison were fans of Joyce, both mentioning him favorably in their food books. Harrison in particular latched on to Joyce’s real-life appreciation for fine food (he loved that the man could eat), perhaps aware that his multiple appetites were just as tightly wound as his protagonist Leopold Bloom’s bathic feelings for his cuckolding wife Molly.

And that’s exactly where the gustatory episode begins. Between meals—during a search for a decent lunch on June 16, 1904 that begins at 1p.m.— Bloom ponders the blackest mark on his marriage: his inability to have sex with Molly since the death of their young son a decade earlier. It is, understandably, the preoccupation of his life and Joyce plays that sad tune to great effect as Bloom seeks a sandwich. Walking through Dublin, Bloom becomes obsessed with Blazes Boylan, a cocksure tenor whom Bloom knows will be visiting Molly at 4p.m. that afternoon—ostensibly to deliver a program for a choral recitation (Molly is also a singer), but really to help Molly sing her own tune. Images of the dashing Boylan continue to distract Bloom, who eventually tells himself: “Think no more about that.”

Not a chance, Leo. Bloom eventually settles down at Davy Byrne’s pub. “Moral pub,” Bloom thinks, choosing a glass of burgundy and a gorgonzola cheese sandwich with two “yellow blobs” of mustard. Sitting at his usual barstool is Nosey Flynn, who asks after Molly. Bloom proudly responds that she’s “engaged for a big tour at the end of the month.” Flynn, curious about the production, asks, “Who’s getting it up? . . . Isn’t Blazes Boylan mixed up in it?” What a blow. There’s no way the reader’s heart doesn’t shudder for poor Leo Bloom. As the allusion reverberates, Joyce writes, “A warm shock of air heat of mustard hauched on Mr. Bloom’s heart.” Bloom looks at the clock: 2p.m. Only two hours before the tryst.

Bloom then wrenchingly reminisces. He recalls a time when he was able to make love to Molly: “Young life, her lips that gave me pouting. Soft, warm, sticky gumjelly lips . . .Hot I tongued her.” As the memory fades, Bloom’s inner sanctum sends up a devastating remark: “Me. And me now.” Bloom then departs the pub, only to spot across the street—you knew it was coming—Blazes (or at least his hat, shoes, and pants). Mortified, Bloom ducks into a museum. “His heart,” writes James, “quopped softly.” Last summer, in Dublin, my own heart quopped like a gong when I retraced Bloom’s lunchtime steps with a guide from the James Joyce Centre. At Davy Byrne’s, as our tour ended, she pulled out a map of Dublin, retraced our journey on it with a pen, and noted that the shape resembled a human esophagus.

So perhaps there’s hope for a future of food writing liberated from the tired trope of the sexually supercilious chef. Liebling and Harrison—and even Joyce—showed us this much and more, reiterating the fact that first-rate food writing thrives best without cheap nostalgia, toxic masculinity, or gratuitous references to grandma’s home cooking. By integrating food with a more honest and generous acceptance of being a human adult in the real world, these writers took our desires as readers—and humans—more seriously, asked more of us, and refused to separate what we eat from the more subtle human dramas of its production and consumption. They reminded us that our hunger for satiation of all sorts—and not just for sex, food, and fun—is insatiable.

Today, unlike in the era that sustained Joyce, Liebling, and Harrison, we are finally starting to demand food writing that, moving ahead, will reflect a wider array of diverse voices—voices poised to introduce us to an unappreciated range of perspectives and experiences. Gem-like harbingers have already arrived—Gabrielle Hamilton’s musings on how to eat your tofu and maintain your culinary integrity, Tejal Rao on the indigenous foods of the upper Midwest, Tom Nimen on how his family’s middle eastern cooking subdued his bullying New Jersey classmates, and Helen Rosner’s James Beard award-winning essay on chicken tenders come to mind. Through examples such as these, future food writers can bring literature back to food, and food back to a more honest sense of humanity. We’re ready for it. We need it. Bring it.