The following essay "Eating My Words" was written by Betty Fussell and originally published as an introduction to A Slice of Life: Contemporary Writers on Food. It is reprinted here with permission from Counterpoint, publisher of Fussell's life-spanning collection of essays Eat, Live, Love, Die.
FOOD IS NOT a subject in the way that the great subjects of literature like War, Love, Death, Sex, Power, Betrayal, or Honor are subjects. Neither is food an object, in the way that a Car, a Washing Machine, a Computer, a House are objects—generic commodities that we desire and consume. Rather, food is an action, more primal than speech and more universal than language. And for humans, there’s the rub. While everything in the created universe eats, not everything speaks. Wind and water eat stone, night eats day, black holes eat light—silently. We find words to address these actions, but long before we ever arrived on the scene or said a word about it, every link in the terrestrial food chain, as in the cosmic chain, was chomping away and changing one thing into another. It’s one of those givens we like to avoid because we don’t fancy our table companions or dining conditions. We don’t like to be reminded that if dung were not caviar to the dung beetle, the earth would be covered in shit.
Nor do we like to be reminded that we are steak tartare to worms or, if we thwart their slow munch, a grillade to flames. We want to be exempt, special, excused. We don’t want to be reminded that in the game preserve staked out for us, we are flesh and blood like our fellow animals, subject to the same feeding frenzies but with inferior teeth. In terms of brains, we may be first among mammals, but we are mammals nonetheless, and as such we cannibalize our mothers in order to live. Each of us, no matter how noble his sentiments at a later stage of development, drinks mother’s blood from the time he is a tiny egg clinging hungrily to a uterine wall. Long before speech, the drama of communication begins in the womb and is merely amplified with baby’s first intake of breath that ends in a howl, acknowledging in premonitory outrage that life-long separation of the feeder from the fed. From birth on, what comes out of the mouth and what goes in are inextricably mingled because there is only the one orifice for both feeding and speaking, not to mention kissing. Was that a mistake in engineering or a brilliant subversion of human pretense?
Elias Canetti asks whether it wouldn’t have been better to have one orifice for food and another for words. “Or does this intimate mixing of all our utterances with the lips, teeth, tongue, throat, all those parts of the mouth that serve the business of eating—does this mixing tell us that language and eating forever belong together, that we can never be nobler and better than we are?” But what if we ask the question another way? Does this intimate mixing of language and eating suggest that both are forms of knowledge and communication, that ingesting what is outside us with lips, teeth, tongue, and throat is intimately related to excreting from within the cries, sighs, babbles, and prattles that are eventually transformed into words and sentences in the cauldrons of the human mind and imagination? Could we go further and suggest that the lineaments of the mouth lick into shape the very images that the mind of man conceives in his struggle to find sound bites and transform them? The crunch of teeth biting into an apple shapes the image of the father of mankind, who hungers and thirsts after righteousness with actual lips and throat. Does not this intimate mixing suggest that the human animal is forever a bewildering compound of body parts and spirit sensors, a belcher of hymns, an angel that farts, and that wise eaters and speakers will savor the mixture?
For is not the mouth our primary mediator in distinguishing what is without from what is within, as we suck first our own and then other people’s fingers and toes? We learn to say “Mama” out of hunger, for both speaking and eating express similar actions of hungering, desiring, gathering, preserving, communing, laughing, fearing, loving, and dying in the long agon of separation and connection. Even a mouth eating in solitude—and silence—is engaged willy-nilly in discovering and communing with what is outside itself, which its hunger transforms by taking the outside literally in. We eat the world to know it and ourselves. If we fail to distinguish outside from in, we are stamped with a name and a story: Narcissus, hungering to eat himself, imaged in a pool, opened his mouth and drowned.
Eating, like speaking, reconnects through the imagination what reason has learned to disconnect through the senses. In this way, eating is a form of magic. When Shakespeare’s Leontes discovers in The Winter’s Tale that the statue of his Hermione is alive, he exclaims, “If this be magic, let it be an art lawful as eating.” Eating, like speaking, mediates between opposite worlds, forging a bridge over the natal chasm between mind and body, images and substances, symbols and things that reason works hard to keep apart. Even as a noun, food suggests the action of ferrying meaning across species, across ontological continents, ensuring that despite the logic of appearances, you can turn a sow’s ear into a silk purse through the “turn” of trope, or the “transfer” of metaphor, through speaking pictures, or images in action.
Food is always image and icon as well as substance. Semioticians explained decades ago how food, cooking, and eating create a tripartite language of their own through which a culture expresses itself, and this language dances between the literal and the figurative in the way that we usually expect of speech but not always of food. Despite laboratory analyses, mother’s milk is never simply the sum of its biochemical or molecular parts, no more than a bottle of milk is. Who’s holding the breast or the bottle or the baby, and where? Are mother and baby sitting on the grass in suburban sunshine or are they flat on a canvas surrounded by drapery and haloed cherubs? Are they on a railway platform herded into a cattle car by soldiers in uniform? Food always condenses a happening, a plot, which unfolds like any enacted drama in the spotlit present, surrounded by shadows of the past.
The most ancient originating plots in the Western world, in fact, hinge on the relation of food to language. Before the Madonna there was Eve, and before Eve there was Ninti, the Sumerian mother goddess whose story, told in the world’s first written language, Sumer, is a food story. After the water god Enki ate eight of Ninti’s magic plants, the goddess cursed eight of his bodily organs with death, then relented and restored the god to life. Ninti’s name was a pun, which meant both “rib” and “to make live.” In the language of Sumer, Eve’s name also meant “rib,” but the language and the food got muddled in the translation from Sumer to Hebrew, so that in the Hebrew story the lady Eve was given life by the rib of man, whose death was caused by the woman’s eating of a magic plant. Despite the gender and cultural reversal from mother goddess to father god, the paradox of the human animal remains intact: that which gives him life also kills him, and his tragedy is that he knows it.
Human life is so bound up with food—the sounds, textures, smells, tastes, emotions, ideas, and rituals of the one so meshed with the other—that to take a slice of life at any point is to cut into a full loaf, a pie, a roast, a terrine of meaning. Personal and cultural memories are so integral to eating and speaking that simply to name a food is to invoke the lifetime of a person—and a culture. We don’t need Proust’s madeleine. We have Twain’s cornpone. Even when the nominal subject is a single food, such as coffee or oysters or beans, it is also about place and time and occasion and memory and need, just as it is about politics and economics and trade and war and religion and ceremony. While the first person singular is the instinctive voice in which to express our thoughts and feelings about food, the point of view will be as diverse as the position of the speaker: social critic, gardener, connoisseur, athlete, chef, housewife, farmer, dentist, historian, garbage man, politician, pastor, poet. All walks of life eat, in every corner of the world, whether in Nigeria, Bombay, Austria, Israel, Kyoto, or Iowa. Although attitude and tone of voice may play every key from rhapsodic to obscene, both the particularities of food and the universality of hunger keep the speaker, or writer, rooted in common ground.
Food, like language, forever unites the concrete with the universal, and a writer’s attitude toward food will appear in how he manipulates the nervy relation between substance and symbol, jittery with dramatic tension, that dictates the behavior of us all. The materialist asserts the primacy of flesh: “Erst kommt das Fressen, damnn kommt die Moral,” sings Brecht. The spiritualist denies or subjugates the flesh: “I need nothing. I feel nothing. I desire nothing,” writes Wole Soyinka in prison on the eleventh day of his fast. The ritualist transforms substance and symbol alike into physical sensation: “The gamey taste and smell of ripened cheese is sexual, and provocative; the smell is maternal still, but now it is the smell of cyclical time,” writes Paul Schmidt. The satirist mocks symbols of fabricating ridiculous substance: “The correct drink for fried bologna à la Nutley, Nouveau Jersey, is a 1927 Nehi Cola,” writes Russell Baker. Writings about food are necessarily as diverse as writings about any art of life and as illuminative of the things that matter because food is connected to everything. Homer, whether speaking of epic wars or journeys, never neglected food and drink. He specified in detail how to roast and salt the joint of meat and how to mix wine with water to invite the gods in. Greek gods ate and drank in the company of man long before Christians turned their God into cooked food to be eaten by men. That changed the nature of the feast, of course, although there is nothing new in gods who existed to be eaten. Think of Prometheus with his eternally gnawed, eternally renewed liver, wherein man’s lips and tongue tasted forever the sour of cyclical time, the bitter of eternal hunger, the sweet of immortality, the salt of death.
In imaging the unavoidable and appalling fact that life eats life, the Ancient Maya invented a language in which men and gods were made of the selfsame food in an eternal interchange of substance. A literal ear of corn growing in the fields was also the finely shaped head of the sacrificed young corn god with his hair of green leaves. To eat corn was to eat one’s mother, father, sister, brother, and ancestor gods. Substance and symbol were so intimately mixed in the mouth of man that life and death were as mingled as body and soul, as eating and speaking. Maya speech wrapped the cosmos in a language of verbal and visual food puns, so that eating and speaking were alike actions of punning. To eat a kernel of corn, the substance of life, was to swallow a drop of blood, a sign of death. The Maya sign, or glyph, for bread abstracted the cornhusk wrapper and the ball of corn dough of an actual tamale, so that both speaker and eater alike shared in the bread’s layered meanings of “sacred offering,” “sacrificial blood,” “something precious,” “day.” Every kernel of corn condensed the plot of the Popul Vuh and its hero, the sacrificed god Hunahpu, whose decapitated head in the calabash tree, after he and his twin brother outwitted the Lords of Death, impregnated Blood Woman who gave birth to man from her body of corn.
And so then they put into words the creation,
Of our first mother
Only yellow corn
And white corn were their bodies.
Only food were the legs
And arms of man.
Those who were our first fathers
Were the original men.
Only food at the outset
With their bodies.
Nothing else can do for man’s mind and imagination what food does because it is the one and only thing that accompanies every single man, Maya, Christian, Muslim, Buddhist, on his journey from cradle to grave. If his first sound is a cry for milk, his last may be a whimper for sugared tea or a spoonful of Jell-O. Sans teeth, tongue, or throat, he still must open the veins of his body to the outside world to sustain life, whether or not he is conscious of that mechanized connection. His final image may not be of the loved face hovering over his bedside at all, but of a wished-for muffin or martini, as real and intense as the griever left behind.
Never underestimate the power of food to summon images and dictate lives in the here and hereafter. Why are the graves in almost every ancient culture stuffed with containers for food and drink to accompany the corpse on its journey between worlds? As in life, so in death, food remains our most faithful attendant on the ferry across the river Styx, giving comfort and sustenance to the frightened soul soon to swallow and be swallowed by a realm where outside and inside have no meaning and where that peculiar mixture of eating and speaking will vanish in the emptying out of appetite and the entering in of silence.
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