Displacing desire

Apr 11, 2007 at 12:00 am

Let's face it: Food is sensual. Besides sex, there's nothing else like it. We use our five senses to tear into something, to put it inside us, where it becomes part of us. Enjoying food is one of life's great sensual pleasures, and its connection to sexuality is a basic fact of life.

Why else do so many first dates involve dining? At the table, people get to know each other over food. It's rumored that we eat the way we have sex. Dates watch each other eat and look for clues about their sensual natures. Does she wolf her food? She's may be in a hurry to get filled up. Does he steal morsels off her plate? He evidently enjoys nibbling on her tender bits.

But, as a puritanical culture, are we letting the chastely sensual pleasures of the table stand in for the ecstasies of the bedroom? To put it another way: If sports programming often supplants sex for men, doesn't food programming do much the same thing for women? And isn't all that sublimated stuff somehow more potent and dangerous than a night with the Chippendales?

At face value, all that sensuality is wholesome enough. But food magazines are loaded with little titter-inducing double entendres. And on cable television, you can't flip through five channels without some teaspoon-wielding trollop either whipping or churning or kneading or pounding something. This collective sexual repression is a Freudian gold mine. Think about it: Ever since the FCC cracked down, Howard Stern has to take it easy — but some TV dowager can cry, "I just love it when meat comes in hunks!"

Speaking of which, when it comes to innuendos about men, the operative metaphor is often animal protein (loins, beefcake, sausage, meat, bones), though phallic vegetables (cucumbers, gourds, carrots) are usually good for a knowing laugh. Some food talk will likely cause guys to wince, such as a "banana split," "cracked nuts" or "being deboned." And, as with all male sexuality, simmering homoeroticism is always in the offing, especially when it comes to guzzling energy drinks from squirt-tipped bottles, asking for bun-length wieners, and learning how to make beef chunks in gravy. Who's going to protect American manhood from this lurid food writing? Is anybody out there? Are you listening, Pat Robertson?

For the ladies, the major culinary metaphors include plenty of produce (hot tomato, fruit of the womb, peaches, melons, cherry, apple), some seafood (clam, hot tuna) and several baked goods: the kinds guys love (muffin, tart, hot buns, cheesecake) and the kind they fear (a bun in the oven).

Now, if you read food magazines at all, you'll notice how food writers love describing what's going on in your mouth. You imagine some of them getting a little bit too excited about it, especially in their blogs. For instance, on her blog, a foodie named Greedy Goose rhapsodizes about "achingly beautiful chunks of melt-in-your-mouth meat." It may be time to get a room, what with all that succulent slurping, all that tender, finger-licking, thumb-sucking, bone-gnawing, sauce-savoring, swirling, gooey, melt-in-your-mouthy nibbling on pungent, creamy, fleshy substances. Buttercreme éclairs exploding in your mouth. Salmon roe bursting against your tongue. This isn't culinary prose; it's a freakin' "Dear Hustler" letter. But instead of mailing them a check from Van Nuys, they send these guys to Provence for the summer.

As a pungent, creamy substance, most cheeses are patently obscene, whether fresh, ripe, semi-firm or blue-veined. And not only the names are vile. A recent cheese wedge advertisement shows a corn-fed MILF sucking on her finger. You don't need to be Camille Paglia to figure that out.

And food is consistently trending in a more sexual direction. For instance, when Americans went from eating beef to eating chicken, they invited potent sexuality into the kitchen. As with all flesh, beef and pork had sexual implications, but what stood up on your plate was a cut of meat, not a body part. The chicken, however, as a little animal, is more easily sexualized. Over the last 30 years, Americans have gone from cooking a rump roast or a skirt steak, to talking about big, juicy breasts, dark meat, thighs and legs. Everywhere today, formerly chaste red-meat eaters discuss "how to get a good, moist stuffing" with "breasts that are plump, juicy and tender, basted with a lovely gravy."

Indeed, food writing is an almost inexhaustible mine of steamy sublimated sexuality, and that's not even getting into descriptions of beer ("foamy head"), booze ("cocktail") and wine ("popping the cork").

In fact, if you read enough food writing, it all starts to seem lewd. Pretty soon, you're thinking twice about what "apple brown betty" really is, or whether angels on horseback is a page from the Kama Sutra. And what are bangers and mash? Of course, that depends on what kind of bangers you're talking about: Pork bangers or beef bangers?

Oh, forget I asked.

Michael Jackman reads and edits way too much food writing. Send comments to him at [email protected]