Saturday, April 30, 2011

"You Make Me Hungry" and Other Metaphors for What you Really Mean

It seems like a lifetime has scudded by since Gary Allen and I worked at The Culinary Institute of America. I met Gary there in 1994 during an orientation session for new faculty. I knew Gary was cool the moment I set eyes on him. He had the mien of someone who had been there, done almost all of it, knew everything, understood he knew nothing, and thought that his ignorance was amusing. 

I'm not sure when Gary became interested in exploring the philosophical and linguistic aspects of people eating people . But what I do know is that he and I began an ongoing discussion about the nature of human appetite and the language that we use to express it very early on in our friendship. Given that my first teaching assignment at CIA was in Gastronomy, it makes sense that the subject of anthropophagy would come up right away.  But what surprised the hell out of me was when I discovered that he had taken the subject so seriously, that he'd begun to write a book that explored the way that the idea of people-eating had taken root in the language of everyday speech and other forms of human expression. So a few weeks ago when Gary told me that he'd just recently handed over the manuscript of "How to Serve Man" to his publisher I invited him to write something of it at A Hunger Artist -which not at all coincidentally takes its title from story about a man who does not eat and so slowly consumes himself in an act of autoanthropophagy. Bob dG 

I recently completed editing a book I've been writing for over a decade. It's now in the hands of the publisher (and the scholars who review such books for the publisher). I can only imagine the look on their faces when the see its working title: How to Serve Man: On Cannibalism, Sex, Sacrifice, and the Nature of Eating.

Yes, it really is about all those things -- and a lot more.

Over the milennia, we humans have accumulated a lot of irrational notions about sustenance, procreation, life, death, and our relations with divinity, real or imagined. Just because we are modern and scientifically-minded, now, doesn't mean we've abandoned those notions. As each of us ages, we do not shed our younger selves, like snakeskin -- the children and adolescents we once were still live inside us. We merely add layers of experience and, at best, temper our childish urges with more mature behavior.

Our cultures mature in similar fashion; the cannibals and human sacrificers we once were, still exist within us. We merely keep them in check with a veneer of civilization. However, if we look closely, we can still see traces of earlier stages of our evolution. Our language provides just such a glimpse of what we were, and the following excerpt from the book is one such peek.

What's Eating You?

Ambrose Bierce once defined a cannibal as "A gastronome of the old school who preserves the simple tastes and adheres to the natural diet of the pre-pork period."

Of course, we're much more civilized today -- we no longer actually tear into our enemies with our teeth. We prefer to do it symbolically -- with our tongues -- but we reveal our ancient cannibalistic tendencies by using metaphors from the kitchen. To be verbally "roasted" by a superior is be "raked over the coals," and "basted." In French, the verb cuisiner (to cook) also means to interrogate with the help of torture.

Sometimes, if we deserve the hot treatment, we are merely left to "stew in our own juices" or "fry in our own grease." The Spanish equivalent is quemarse en su propia salsa, "burn in our own sauce." Once we are thoroughly cooked, our colleagues may properly describe us as "done to a turn." Likewise, someone who has been (or is about to become) totally defeated is "dead meat" or "gobbled up."

When someone's in trouble at the office, they're said "to be in a pickle" or "in hot water." In Italian, they're essere in un bel pasticcio, "in a lovely meat pie" -- and when an American might say that the boss is going to make "mincemeat" out of such a person, the Italians say that he fare polpette di qualcuno, "is going to make meatballs out of him." To "have someone for breakfast" or to be "chawed (chewed)" or "chawed up and spit out" is to be completely destroyed -- or at least demoralized -- by such a tongue-lashing. A worse insult, that is only implied, is to be "chawed" and not spit out -- because that means the hapless victim is digested, reduced to the status of "used food," (the stuff we flush down the toilet).

It is worth noting that, while there lots of food-based slurs, ethnic or otherwise, for others considered to be inferior (for example: "bagel-benders," "frijoles," "frogs," "fruitcakes," and "krauts"), completely different food-names are applied to superiors. Food terms can be used to indicate flaws in our superiors -- which allows us to treat them (if only surreptitiously) as our inferiors. Almost always, the descriptive insults suggest that superiors eat too much. Consider terms like "the big cheese," "the big enchilada," "old lard-ass" or "lard-bucket" or "tub-of-lard," or the "top banana," or the "big potato." In Spain, the preferred term is el pez gordo, "the fat fish." None of these terms (with the possible exception of those containing the word "lard") would be used for someone we actually believed to be more powerful but less qualified than ourselves. For sure, we don't want to be caught using one of these expressions -- lest we "get our goose cooked."

When someone asks, "what’s eating you?" they're suggesting that some imaginary, corrosive, consuming evil is the source of our discontent. What's really surprising that no one ever asks "who's eating you."

Gary Allen is the author (and/or editor) of: The Resource Guide for Food Writers; The Herbalist in the Kitchen; The Business of Food: Encyclopedia of the Food and Drink Industries (with Ken Albala); and Human Cuisine (with Ken Albala). His latest book, Herbs: A Global History, from Reaktion Press, is scheduled for release in Spring 2012. You can read more of his stuff at his website is On the Table and his blog, Just Served.


Jessika said...

Just started reading his blogg!! Seems very nice. Ignorance not so much. But then there's ignorance and ignorance. Ignorance that you maintain with a sense of not needing to learn anything new, and the kind you make something about. Even if that entails knowing the full details of how lillies sprout (as I now know from self-study for the coming growers season).
But then curious ignorance makes you seek out knowledge so that you end up less ignorant than initially.

Gary Allen said...

Thanx, Bob for inviting me into this august forum. Hope I haven't dragged it's high tone down to my level!

Aunt Messy said...

Mr. Allen, let us know when your book comes out - and put me down for a copy. It sounds fascinating.

Natalie Sztern said...

It has been my experience that the term 'who's eating you' has always had it's place as a sexual connotation. Not meant to be facetious; but that and the loose term 'eat me' has always been a lewd and sometimes vulgar utterance.

Cindy said...

Gary and Bob,

Thanks for making it possible to read this. I love it! Mincemeat, meatballs, who knew? And lovely meat pies, even better.

Bob del Grosso said...

Cindy, And it is our pleasure to be read. Thanks!

Gary Allen said...

Natalie: Needless to say, sex and cannibalism is a huge part of the book. I delivered a paper, derived from one chapter, at a conference at NYU several years ago... its title:"Desire on the Menu."

It was published in Journal for the Study of Food and Society, Vol. 4, No. 2. It has grown and evolved, since then... as you'll see when the book finally comes out.