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"If you'd prefer, Your Excellency-a private dining room will be free in a moment; Prince Golitzin is with a lady. And we have fresh oysters."
Oblonsky began to reconsider.
"Should we change our plans, Levin?" he said, as he took the menu. His face expressed serious indecision. "Are the oysters any good? Eh?"
"Flensburgs, Your Excellency. We don't have any Ostends."
"Flensburgs or not, what I asked was, are they fresh?"
"They arrived yesterday, sir."
"Well, then. What do you think? Should we start with the oysters, and then change our entire program?"
"It doesn't make any difference to me. I'd just as soon have cabbage soup and kasha, but I don't suppose they've got that here."
"You'd like kasha a la russe kasha a la russe?" said the Tatar, bending over Levin like a nurse over a child.
"No, I'm only joking, whatever you decide is fine with me. I've just been skating, so I'm quite hungry. And don't imagine," he added, as he noticed an expression of dissatisfaction on Oblonsky's face, "that I don't appreciate your choices. I'm looking forward to a good meal."
"I should hope so! No matter what you may think, eating is one of life's pleasures," said Oblonsky. "Very well then, my good man. Give us two-no, that's not enough-three dozen oysters, then the vegetable soup..."
"Printaniere," the waiter added. But it was clear that Oblonsky did not intend to give him the pleasure of ordering in French.
"Vegetable, you know? Then the turbot with cream sauce, then...Roast beef, if it's any good. Then the capon, I suppose, then some fruit compote."
The Tatar, aware of Oblonsky's habit of not calling the dishes by their French names, did not repeat what he had said, but allowed himself the luxury of repeating the entire order as it appeared on the menu: "soupe printaniere, turbot sauce Beaumarchais, poularde a l'estragon, macedoine de fruits... printaniere, turbot sauce Beaumarchais, poularde a l'estragon, macedoine de fruits..."
And then immediately, like some kind of automaton, he set down one folded card and s.n.a.t.c.hed up another, the wine list, which he put down in front of Oblonsky.
104 "What should we have to drink?"
"Whatever you like is fine with me, only not too much. Champagne," said Levin.
"What? To start with? Well, that's not a bad idea, actually. Do you like White Label?"
"Cachet blanc," said the waiter.
"Well, bring us that with the oysters, and then we'll see."
"Of course, sir. And what would you like to follow it with?"
"Bring us a bottle of Nuits...No. A cla.s.sic Chablis would be better."
"Of course, sir. And would you like your favorite cheese?"
"By all means. Parmesan. Or would you prefer something else?"
"No, that's fine with me," said Levin, who could barely keep from smiling.
The Tatar waiter rushed off, his coat tails flying; in five minutes he returned with a plate covered with oysters in their pearly sh.e.l.ls, and a bottle.
Oblonsky opened his starched napkin and tucked it into his waistcoat, settled his arms comfortably, and began on the oysters.
"Not too bad," he said, lifting the quivering oysters from their pearly sh.e.l.ls with a little silver fork, and swallowing them one after another. "Not too bad," he repeated, glancing with soft glittering eyes at Levin, then at the Tatar waiter.
Levin did eat his oysters, though he would have preferred bread and cheese.
But he enjoyed watching Oblonsky. Even the Tatar waiter, who had drawn the cork and poured the foaming wine into tall thin wine gla.s.ses, straightened his tie and glanced at Oblonsky with an obvious smile of pleasure.
"You really don't care for oysters?" asked Oblonsky, as he drained his gla.s.s. "Or are you thinking of something else, hm?"
He wanted Levin to be happy. And it wasn't exactly that Levin wasn't happy, but he felt constrained. His feelings for Kitty made him ill at ease and uncomfortable in the restaurant, with its private rooms where men took "ladies" to dine, in the midst of this fussiness and scurrying, these bronzes, these mirrors, this gaslight, these Tatar waiters....
There will always be, some evening when we are sitting in a wonderful restaurant, full of ourselves and antic.i.p.ating the delights of the menu, someone sitting with us who doesn't much care what he eats.
His reasons may vary, but all the same there he is-someone who rejects the excitement we expect of the evening and the sensual pleasure, the artistic pleasure even, we have been contemplating. Composing a menu can be a serious and perplexing affair, but not in the presence of people who 105 find nothing serious or perplexing about it.
Not that they have anything against the excitement we may be feeling-Levin here is experiencing pretty much the same emotion as Oblonsky, but his is inspired by Kitty, not by food. The casual waiter, I imagine, would be unable to distinguish between the "contained radiance" that fills Oblonsky when he enters the restaurant, and the "smile of triumph and happiness" that shines in Levin's eyes. Both men glowed with excitement, and what would any waiter think but that they had come to celebrate something in common? And yet Levin is ecstatic because he is in love and contemplating marriage to Kitty, and Oblonsky is ecstatic because for a few hours he is free from his depressing marriage to Kitty's sister Dolly.
The perfection we imagine and hope we will find in a restaurant cannot be gotten at casually. It is, first of all, as much a matter of security as anything else. That first stroll-Oblonsky, hat c.o.c.ked to one side, talking, smiling to friends, stopping for a gla.s.s of vodka and a bite of zakuski zakuski from the hors d'oeuvres buffet-that's the apotheosis of the restaurant diner. That's what he lives for. Who doesn't want to be addressed by name in a restaurant, shown to one's regular table by a respectful waiter, offered a prince's private dining room, and then sit down to the contemplation of oysters and champagne? To feel completely at home there is the first aim of anyone who likes to eat in restaurants. That is the reason for Oblonsky's familiarity with the place and the waiters who attach themselves to him, as he bows to acquaintances who greet him joyfully, as he jokes with the Frenchwoman. And that familiarity spreads: Oblonsky's guest is treated respectfully because of Oblonsky, even if that respect is a bit patronizing. The waiter treats Levin like a child, someone who is not quite up to the elaborate game that the waiter and Oblonsky are about to play. from the hors d'oeuvres buffet-that's the apotheosis of the restaurant diner. That's what he lives for. Who doesn't want to be addressed by name in a restaurant, shown to one's regular table by a respectful waiter, offered a prince's private dining room, and then sit down to the contemplation of oysters and champagne? To feel completely at home there is the first aim of anyone who likes to eat in restaurants. That is the reason for Oblonsky's familiarity with the place and the waiters who attach themselves to him, as he bows to acquaintances who greet him joyfully, as he jokes with the Frenchwoman. And that familiarity spreads: Oblonsky's guest is treated respectfully because of Oblonsky, even if that respect is a bit patronizing. The waiter treats Levin like a child, someone who is not quite up to the elaborate game that the waiter and Oblonsky are about to play.
For it is a game, and everyone in it has his role, even Levin. Tolstoy brings together the cla.s.sic components of eating in restaurants: a French menu and a waiter whose airs and graces derive from it; a visitor from the country to be impressed with the splendor of the event, but who turns out to like just plain food, nothing fancy thanks; and the restaurant diner, the city mouse, who mediates between all these elements and gets out of them what he wants most-a few lavish hours with one of the great sensual pleasures in life. What greater dissatisfaction could there be in a moment like that than someone across the table who would just as soon have a hamburger and french fries, or cabbage soup and kasha?
Nothing wrong with kasha, or with cabbage soup either- shchi shchi, the 106 106 Russians call it-it's just that Tolstoy introduces them into this pa.s.sage quite deliberately to offset the French menu. They do that quite force-fully in the Russian, since they echo the well-known peasant proverb "Cabbage soup and kasha is the food we we eat": eat": Shchi da kasha, pishche Shchi da kasha, pishche nashe nashe. Around the rock of that rhyme, the French phrases of the menu ripple very frivolously indeed. But Oblonsky handles the moment wonderfully, and partly for Levin's sake translates the menu back into plain Russian. This throws the burden of the moment onto the waiter, who is deprived of his private poetry, the carefully learned exoticism of the menu, and who has to wait for his his pleasure until Oblonsky has finished ordering, when he translated the entire order back into French, like the litany of some private ritual. It is a ritual, of course, part of the game, and they all get their turn to play. Levin registers his down-home rejection of big-city frivolity; the waiter gets to show off his only show-offable talent, and Oblonsky, the perfect host, mediates between the two and still gets his oysters in five minutes. pleasure until Oblonsky has finished ordering, when he translated the entire order back into French, like the litany of some private ritual. It is a ritual, of course, part of the game, and they all get their turn to play. Levin registers his down-home rejection of big-city frivolity; the waiter gets to show off his only show-offable talent, and Oblonsky, the perfect host, mediates between the two and still gets his oysters in five minutes.
For the oysters, after all, are the heart of the matter, and the matter is a complicated metaphor. Anna Karenina Anna Karenina is a novel about adultery, and one that condemns it in no uncertain terms. It is a novel about the relationships between men and women, and the constantly problematic place of marriage and the family in those relationships. Behind these two men dining in a restaurant stand three women, and their shadows fall across those plates of oysters. is a novel about adultery, and one that condemns it in no uncertain terms. It is a novel about the relationships between men and women, and the constantly problematic place of marriage and the family in those relationships. Behind these two men dining in a restaurant stand three women, and their shadows fall across those plates of oysters.
Is opening an oyster a rape? We want so much to unclamp the bivalve, to spread those hard muscles and get at the softness within. Yet Tolstoy found, as every man who loves women has found, that the situation is pretty problematic: Exterior hardness does not always hide softness within. Nor does exterior softness, for that matter. Who can believe, on pa.s.sionate occasions, that softness can be so unyielding-or, alas, hardness sometimes so soft? Tolstoy was obsessed with the problem all his life. He was constantly jumping peasant girls on his own estate and hating himself for it afterward. Then at some point he transferred his hatred to women, and transferred the jumping-sin to them too, as if it were their fault and they were the ones who led him on. It was an endless Moral Drama, and Tolstoy played all the parts at once. First he was the simple, innocent country boy, lured into sin by the women who crossed his path. Then he was the rabid sinful rapist, pale with l.u.s.t, but paler afterward, shaken and empty and full of remorse. And finally he played the great part: he played G.o.d Almighty to his own transgres-sions, the vengeful deity who would punish him for his jumping, and punish 107 women for having attractive hidden softnesses, and punish the whole world for containing them all. Tolstoy was the stern patriarch, hard and rough and bearded, Old Oyster himself, the G.o.d who saw all and knew all, the Omniscient Narrator who would open everything to the light of day, whose all-seeing vision would pry apart the soul with the oyster knife of judgment.
The one role, alas, that Tolstoy could never play was the part of the peasant girl he jumped. Nor, for all his talent, could he ever really understand the women he described, though it was a trick the oyster might have taught him. Did he ever know that the oyster switches its s.e.x?
At the overlapping point of all these images and metaphors of Tolstoy's imagination lies the innocent mollusk, the poor oyster, condemned on all points. Sin is hidden, then revealed? So is the oyster dredged up and pried apart. Flensburgs, Ostends-the oyster is foreign? Therefore offensive, like the perfumed and powdered Frenchwoman at the cashier's desk. The oyster is secretive, dark and hidden? Then it is sinful and must be exposed! The oyster is dumb? It cannot speak honest peasant language any more than the Frenchwoman can! The oyster says nothing? But ah, G.o.d, it smells of the sea, of all the iodine and ooze and slime and wetness of the great primeval Mother! Tolstoy's oysters are smelly, smirking signs of immorality; the glitter in Oblonsky's eyes, the gleam of silver forks and pearly sh.e.l.ls, is the glitter of sin. The opened oyster is the mark of the adulterous affair, and it lies there looking at Tolstoy (who of course pictures himself as the innocent Levin), winking lewdly at him from its bed of ice.
And what are the moral choices? Opposed to Oblonsky's oysters are Levin's cabbage soup and kasha, honest brown mushes both of them, made of vegetables that go from open field to open pot to open bowl-a single wooden bowl set in the middle of a rough table. About that table the Russian peasant family gathered, and each member in turn dipped into the bowl with his homemade wooden spoon, just as they dipped with homemade wooden plows into the brown earth that provided the stuff in the bowls. That bowl is the foundation of the home, the center of the family circle that is so elaborately broken in this novel of adultery.
Seen from the family table and the edge of the kasha pot, this scene in the restaurant is perverse. Two men sit by themselves alone at a table, beneath imported bronzes and velvets, in a nest of starched napery.
Everything is light and brilliance and glittering surfaces. They tear away with silver forks at oysters, images of iniquity, complex metaphors of the 108 whole cycle of transgression and guilt and punishment, of the temptation and fall of men and women. The two men who eat them are an adulterer and a young man about to marry, and each must surely taste them differently, though they eat them face-to-face. Is Levin's lack of interest in oysters simply a sign of his own virginity? Oblonsky's pleasure in the oysters, his glittering eyes, are signs of experience: they speak of voluptuousness, of sensuality-turned here to oysters, perhaps, for lack of anything better at home.
Because there's nothing at home but the kasha pot. Behind these two men seated at their oysters stand the two women at the back of their minds: two sisters, innocent Kitty and wronged Dolly. And behind them further still, in the darkness of Tolstoy's imagination, ready to burst upon the scene, stands the great adulteress herself, Anna the Oyster-Woman.
109 FRANCINE PROSE.
c.o.c.ktail Hour at the Snake Blood Bar: On the Persistence of Taboo Not long ago, at a dinner party, the conversation turned to the subject of why we generally don't eat household pets or our near-neighbors on the food chain. It was a warm summer evening; we were eating vitello vitello tonnato tonnato and a tomato-arugula salad. and a tomato-arugula salad.
Almost everyone had heard the story of the formal, diplomatic dinner at which the raw, pulsing brain of a monkey was served from the still-warm monkey skull. And everyone knew of some Chinese restaurant, somewhere, suspected of serving cat meat.
A friend said that there are Cambodian restaurants in Washington, D.C., at which you can order dog meat.
He said that you have to know the code. You must ask for "traditional food."
The best beef I ever tasted was, perhaps needless to say, in Bombay, at a restaurant gleaming with chrome, chandeliers, and mirrored walls, not far from the central market where cows, in their capacity as manifestations of the divine, were permitted to roam freely and graze at the produce stalls.
The beef on my plate at the G. Restaurant had been considerably less lucky.
Or was it actually buffalo? The menu called it steak. Steak Honolulu, Steak Milan, Steak Peking, Steak Paris, steak prepared in the imagined, unimaginable style of a dozen distant cities where cows were not allowed to wander through the streets, and it was perfectly normal to eat them.
It was not at all normal in India in 1976, where from time to time one read accounts of Muslim butchers lynched by Hindu mobs on the suspicion of selling beef. Beef (or buffalo) was expensive, not illegal, but hard to get, except at the famous G. Restaurant, which drew a chic 110 crowd of Anglo-Indians, Parsis, Goan Christians, liberated Hindus, and especially Bombay film stars.
Always there were a few tourists present, but fewer than one might have expected, considering that every travel guidebook enthusiastically recommended the G. Restaurant as a welcome break from vegetable curry for homesick carnivores. Perhaps most tourists suspected-wrongly, as it turned out-that the guides were describing a cultural rather than a culinary experience.
In fact it was both, and I have never again had a steak as tender and sweet as the G. Restaurant's Steak Ma.r.s.eilles, a plump little pillow of beef done rare and topped with a pleasantly briny sauce that claimed to be anchovies and French b.u.t.ter, but was probably ghee ghee (clarified b.u.t.ter) and the omnipresent, desiccated tiny fish oddly named Bombay duck. (clarified b.u.t.ter) and the omnipresent, desiccated tiny fish oddly named Bombay duck.
Of course it's impossible to gauge how much the atmosphere contributed to the deliciousness of the food: for all the place's glitter and brittle display, the mood of the patrons at the G. Restaurant was furtive and intense, and an aura of the forbidden floated over every banquette.
People studied one another in mirrors, their faces bright, flushed, and slightly strained-you would have thought everyone there was engaged in some adulterous tryst.
It used to be that we knew who we were by the foods we refused to eat, and perhaps some species memory is behind the vehemence with which infants a.s.sert their autonomy by flinging dinner across the room, the righteousness with which every sentient American child goes through a phase of vegetarianism.
Claude Levi-Strauss helped us see food preparation as a profound form of social expression, and Margaret Visser's recent book, The Rituals The Rituals of Eating of Eating, makes it clear that even cannibalistic rites were not the stumbly chaotic bloodfeasts out of The Night of the Living Dead The Night of the Living Dead that we might have imagined. Strict rules governed whose flesh you ate, and how and when you consumed it, mostly depending on your emotional, familial, and tribal ties to the taboo or edible dead. that we might have imagined. Strict rules governed whose flesh you ate, and how and when you consumed it, mostly depending on your emotional, familial, and tribal ties to the taboo or edible dead.
For centuries, Orthodox Jews and Muslims haven't eaten pork, Christians did eat pork but didn't eat meat on Friday, upper-caste Hindus and some Buddhists ate no meat, especially not beef, and Jains didn't eat anything that had ever possessed a living soul, a category that for some reason included onions and garlic. It may be that food taboos 111 affirm special covenants with G.o.d, but they also affirm the covenant with like-minded avoidants and (perhaps most importantly) an essential, unbridgeable distance from the food tastes of the Other.
Not only does the Other blithely and greedily consume what we know is unclean; they would like nothing better than to defile us by making us eat it, too. During the early, horrific wars between Indian Sikhs and Muslims, Sikhs were said to ritually wash down mosques with the blood of freshly slaughtered pigs. During the Inquisition, secretly practicing Marrano Jews pretending to have converted were tested on how far they'd progressed by being forced to eat pork; and it seems, sadly, that the fantastic, medieval idea that Jews bake Pa.s.sover matzos with the blood of Christian children is, even now, not quite so safely dead (or so far from the surface) as one might reasonably suppose.
All of us have heard gossip about the wily Asian restaurateur who kidnaps dear Fido and Mittens and tricks us into ordering and eating our darlings, served sweet-and-sour. A friend once told me that the princ.i.p.al (indeed the only) amus.e.m.e.nt in her small home town in Wales was beating up Tony, the Chinese waiter, every Sat.u.r.day night; to work themselves into the proper violent, vengeful frenzy, local teens swapped rumors about the pets slaughtered and stir-fried that week.
Much of this, of course, is flat-out racism, but one also detects a milder note of strain and unease in our best efforts to confront the spectrum of multicultural dietary diversity-to understand and defend the right of those with cultures unlike our own to eat, if they wish, their dogs, their cats, their monkeys, and even their dead.
One needn't be an anthropologist to make the obvious a.s.sociations between taboos regarding food and taboos about the body and about s.e.x-specifically about (as they say) exogamous relations with the Other who dines on the forbidden and a.s.similates the unclean flesh into his or her own body.
If, as they say, we are what we eat, then the same must be true of the Other; our flesh, we imagine, is unlike their flesh, made of different stuff, characterized by different colors, tastes, and smells. I remember reading a story about a girl who grew up in China and, on first encountering a crowd of white people, nearly became sick, so repulsed was she by the sour-milk odor of people whose diet included dairy.
Our ideas about the Other's diet are allied with ideas of exotic s.e.x, with the s.e.xual prowess (or lack of it) of some untrustworthy group or race or tribe. Americans are curious and (in the case of environmental-112 ists) enraged by the Chinese belief in the aphrodisiacal properties of various powdered horns and tusks.
Indulging in a taboo food, forbidden since early childhood, can often be, to judge from published accounts, at once sickening and erotic.
Gandhi's autobiography contains a fascinating and highly charged description of how he once broke his vow to his mother to never eat beef-a sin for which he repented with a bout of illness and a renewed commitment to activist vegetarianism.
There is a grade-Z exploitation movie currently available in the sleazier and more politically incorrect video stores, a low-budget pseudodoc.u.mentary purporting to report on the shocking s.e.xual customs practiced in today's "Orient": a j.a.panese brothel in which businessmen dress up in diapers and pretend to be infants, the s.e.x-change-operation mill in Sri Lanka, etc. The movie is deeply frightening, though not at all in the way it intends.
In one scene, a group of worried (indeed, almost stricken-looking) Taiwanese businessmen are shown quaffing the house drink at a Taipei snake blood bar: vampirizing hapless reptiles to render themselves more amorous. The camera lingers lovingly on the nasty serpentine kris kris with which the bartender makes an incision just below the snake's head, then focuses on his rather hammy fist, squeezing out the blood-drip, drip, not a single drop wasted-into a gla.s.s. The bartender is all business, he shows neither pleasure nor disgust; for all the emotion on his face, he could be pulling draft beer from a tap. with which the bartender makes an incision just below the snake's head, then focuses on his rather hammy fist, squeezing out the blood-drip, drip, not a single drop wasted-into a gla.s.s. The bartender is all business, he shows neither pleasure nor disgust; for all the emotion on his face, he could be pulling draft beer from a tap.
Then the camera zooms in on the customers' faces, as if to catch some dreamy, abstracted expression; perhaps they are musing on the pleasure that the snake blood is meant to enhance? The customers (or are they actors?) nervously eye the lens; one gets the impression that this is not where they stop off on their way home to their wives. Meanwhile the sonorous voice-over narration drones solemnly on and on: these men, we hear, share the belief that the blood of certain rare vipers can prolong a single act of intercourse for upwards of seven hours.
A friend told me that he and his wife were taken to such a bar on a business trip to Taipei. Determined to be polite, and also frankly in-trigued, my friend drank a shot gla.s.s of snake blood. Then the company employee a.s.signed to shepherd him around the city asked him if, now that he was properly fortified, he would like to visit a brothel full of fresh country girls, all fourteen years old or younger.
113 It is necessary for us to think that such things happen only in faraway places, where the poor and benighted still observe their arcane food tastes and taboos. If we tolerate food superst.i.tions at all, we insist they be benevolent: we like hearing about the good-luck dishes various ethnic groups cook on New Year's Day.
We do know that there are otherwise apparently sensible Muslims and Jews who still still atavistically persist in not eating pork, Hindu friends we would never invite for a steak dinner. But most of us in the "rational" atavistically persist in not eating pork, Hindu friends we would never invite for a steak dinner. But most of us in the "rational"
West consider ourselves light-years beyond all that. As some strictly macrobiotic neighbors once said disapprovingly of my family: They eat everything everything.
Though, naturally, there are limits.
At the dinner at which our friend explained about "traditional food,"
another guest said that he knew a Venezuelan artist who for a mere four hundred dollars could arrange to have a cube of fresh human flesh shipped, on ice, direct from Caracas to Manhattan. He waited. There were no takers. Was it because of the expense? The guest with the Venezuelan friend said, Wasn't it interesting that no one wanted to try it? He said that the desire to partake of human flesh is the only desire in human history that civilization has ever successfully eradicated.
But civilization (so-called) has apparently been more widely successful at eradicating other food taboos. Aside from obvious exceptions, like the ban on cannibalism, we have (or we flatter ourselves that we have) evolved beyond the forbidden. We no longer really need diet to affirm our group ident.i.ty or to encourage us to despise those whose diets are different from our own-we have so many neater ways to set ourselves apart (nationalism, for example), careful methods of differentiation that don't muck about in those fuzzy, gray areas involving individual food preferences and unclean forms of animal life.
No longer deemed politically or spiritually necessary, and finally, just an inconvenience, the Church's ban on eating meat on Fridays has been lifted during our lifetimes. Few of my friends are (in any traditional sense) religious, and, though I realize that many do exist, I myself know few Jews of my generation who, were it not for the taboo on cholesterol, wouldn't happily and guiltlessly dine daily on prosciutto and Canadian bacon.
My paternal grandparents read a Socialist newspaper and kept a kosher kitchen. My mother's parents ran a small restaurant near the docks in 114 lower Manhattan and served ham and pork to stevedores but never once (that they admitted) tasted it themselves. Their children, my parents, ate lobster, shrimp, and bacon, but never ham and pork; and my brother and I, their children, were clearly made to understand that these distinctions were all about health and not at all about religion.
My father, who was a pathologist, informed us about trichinosis, and seemed to take an almost uncanny pleasure in describing the larvae-or were they worms?-who migrated through your bloodstream and, if they didn't kill you right away, took up residence in your brain and rendered you a helpless, jumping ma.s.s of uncontrolled tics and twitches.
Yet no one appeared to worry when my brother and I went through a phase of preferring our bacon underdone, pearly and translucent.
Our parents might conceivably have let us eat raw bacon if it meant we at least went off to school with something in our stomachs. No one ever suggested that undercooked bacon could harm us-as opposed to, say, dangerous Chinese-restaurant pork, fried till it was closer in texture to cellulose than protein.
During those years, it seemed, Jews who no longer believed in G.o.d learned to believe in trichinosis; fear of parasites supplanted the fear of G.o.d and the prohibitions in Leviticus. And now we have even lost our religious faith in the punishment-by-parasite for disobeying the G.o.d of our Fathers. We know about meat inspection and how the FDA, inefficient as it is, has rendered the incidence of meat contamination statistically insignificant.
Yet the spirit, if not the letter, of the dietary laws remains. The awful little secret of many mixed marriages is that the Jewish member of the couple is always accusing the Other of lethally undercooking the pork, of not roasting or broiling or frying it, until, as the prudent cookbooks say, it "loses its pink color."
If taboos no longer speak to our spiritual lives, they do still address issues of longevity and health. Perhaps now that we no longer believe in G.o.d or in an afterlife, now that we no longer expect the strict observation of dietary restrictions to a.s.sure us a berth in heaven, we must endeavor to do the next best thing-that is, live forever.
It's too drearily familiar to track the changing fortunes of various foods that, through no fault of their own, have lost their reputation as elixirs and been identified as poisons. Many of us hope wanly for the day 115 when b.u.t.ter, cream, and cheese will be discovered to be better for us than their pale and ascetic low-fat equivalents.
Those who have any doubt about the extent to which health concerns and taboos have edged out simple good manners should try serving, at a dinner, anything that includes a minimal, detectable trace of animal fat. Many hosts have had the dismaying experience of seeing perfectly healthy guests (those who have not yet been warned by their doctors that overindulgence may prove fatal) push offending, suspect, or high-cholesterol items off to the edge of their plates, or conceal them under the parsley.
Such guests might do well to meditate on the example of the vegetarian Zen monk who, when asked why he'd unprotestingly eaten beef at a dinner party, replied that the cow was already dead-but his hostess wasn't.
It's no secret that patterns of dietary attraction and avoidance bear a skewed and often ironic relation to privilege and social cla.s.s: in the 1980s a generation discovered that one of the perks of new money was being able to pay astronomical prices for comfy, uninspired, solid middle-cla.s.s, Mom-like "home" cooking: meat loaf and mashed potatoes.
One of the luxuries of cla.s.s is that we can afford to make exquisite nutritional, esthetic, and culinary distinctions-or, perversely, con-versely, dispense with those distinctions altogether. The rich and the stylish often take a certain pride in being catholic in their food tastes-the earliest to "discover" this or that peculiar ingredient, the first to value the cuisine of some remote and starving province. A recent movie, The Freshman The Freshman, turned on the conceit of an exclusive, decadent club whose members paid huge sums to dine on endangered species, rare South Seas dragon-lizards and so forth.
Often, the poor and the working cla.s.s distrust the weird foods of the rich and ethnic: the brains, the sweetbreads, the snails, the b.l.o.o.d.y duck breast, the nasturtiums and edible flowers. (The obvious irony is that many such foods-tripe, organ meats, etc.-were at one time the despised and discarded sc.r.a.ps tossed to the poor.) Meanwhile, the rich, who flatter themselves that nothing humanly edible is foreign to them, do in fact draw the line at the pitiful, unesthetic, unsavory food of the poor: the white bread, the processed spreads, the rat-tail-pink luncheon meat and the sugary, carnival-colored cereals.
Certainly there are gourmets who would happily dine on monkey brains 116 116 and Venezuelan human cube steak, but would flee in horror from the prospect of a white-bread-and-bologna sandwich.
Some will say this is personal taste, but it is a form of social taboo, or perhaps it is a social taboo masquerading as personal taste. Indeed the food taboo is very much alive and well, and has only gone into hiding under the shiny sheets of Velveeta, in the airy puff of Wonder Bread and the rare pork bleeding onto our plate.
As we lurch into the future, and the population continues to grow in advance of the food supply, it may be that the luxury of taboo becomes less and less available. By the time we're all lunching on sea kelp and cheap, plentiful science-fiction protein, fine distinctions about diet may have even vanished completely.
But that seems unlikely, and certainly inconsistent with what little we know about our own natures. It's easier to imagine our descendants establishing their ident.i.ty in terms of what kind of algae they resolutely refuse to eat, or else searching out the sinful, mirrored restaurants of the future, where they'll whisper the guilty, secret code of taboo, and ask for traditional food.