That food satisfies the stomach and the soul is an established fact. Not equally known is the belief that it tickles the funny bone. If you don’t believe me, go through Secret Ingredients: The New Yorker Book of Food and Drink. A friend lent me her copy a few weeks ago, and I have been laughing my way through the pages.
I have been focussing on a section called ‘Tastes funny’. It starts with a piece by Dorothy Parker, who describes a scintillating conversation over a meal. And then it goes on to quote the poem, ‘Quick, Hammacher, my stomacher’, by Ogden Nash:
Man is a glutton.
He will eat too much even though there be nothing to eat too much of but parsnips or mutton
On a diet
I like the chapters that deal with being overweight. In ‘Eat, drink, and be merry’, Peter D. Vries writes about being put on a diet that allowed him for breakfast half a grapefruit, one boiled egg and black tea. “To eat that at 7 am and practise rigid self-denial until lunch at 1 o’clock is to engage in what theologians call mortification of the flesh,” he writes.
He could eat low-cal food items such as tangerine — of which he had seven in a row, pips and all. “Another was cottage cheese, of which I sometimes devoured an entire container. One Sunday, my wife returned from shopping to find me hunched over an 18-ounce jar of it, a flying spoon in my hand.
‘What are you gorging yourself for,’ she asked.
‘I am on a diet,’ I said. ‘You know that.’”
Then there is Woody Allen. In ‘Notes from the overfed: After reading Dostoevski and the New Weight-Watchers Magazine on the same plane trip’, he writes:
“‘I am fat. I am disgustingly fat. I am the fattest human I know.’’’
But he wasn’t always so. On what was possibly his 20th birthday, he met his uncle over tea and cracknels. And then his uncle asked him if he believed in God.
“‘I do not believe in God,’ I told him. ‘For if there is a God, then tell me, Uncle, why is there poverty and baldness… Why are our days numbered and not, say, lettered?’’’
God is everywhere, his uncle answered, including in cracknels.
‘‘My uncle’s statement reverberated to the core of my very existence. I went to the kitchen and started to eat. I ate everything in sight. Cakes, breads, cereals, meats, fruits. Succulent chocolates, vegetables in sauce, wines, fish, creams and noodles, eclairs and wursts totaling in excess of 60,000 dollars. If God is everywhere, I had concluded, then He is in food. Therefore, the more I eat the godlier I would become.”
I am now going through a delicious chapter called ‘Your table is ready’ about a much-fêted Japanese restaurant. John Kenney and his wife are one minute late for dinner. They have to hire a Japanese interpreter and are made to wear robes with Japanese inscriptions that say, “We were late. We didn’t respect the time of others.” When the entrées arrive — bay scallops, yellow clams, red clams, and exotic needlefish, all lightly dusted with purple shiso leaves — they learn that the food is not for them, but for the waitstaff, who eat them with gusto standing next to their table, smiling all the while.
‘‘I noticed another guest a few tables away being forced to do push-ups while the waitstaff critiqued his wife’s outfit,” he writes. Their robes had a different message: “‘We were 20 minutes late. We are bad.’”
How nice it is to laugh about food! I am still chuckling away at this cartoon which has a man looking all flustered and flushed, waiters hovering around him. His wife tells one server: “The trout babette was awful, but the Heimlich Maneuver was excellent.”
It is a great book, the kind that you need to go over leisurely, like you would with a jar of caviar, relishing it bit by bit. As you can tell, I am not returning this book to my friend in a hurry.
The writer likes reading and writing about food as much as he does cooking and eating it. Well, almost.