Food history reviewed by Shirley Dent
Stewart Lee Allen epitomises the patchwork quilt quality of much new writing today. Writing, not being what it used to be, and writers, too oft finding themselves in make-do-and-mend moonlighting scenarios, there is a tendency towards catholic styles and fast food eclecticism.
IN THE DEVIL'S GARDEN
Stewart Lee Allen
Scholarship is subsumed into lifestyle sound bites, which, undoubtedly, can add sparkle to the page, but, at the end of the day, are frequently tasty tit-bits masquerading as a banquet.
And as historical hors d'oeuvres go there are certainly some interesting nibbles in this book, which, if ultimately not leaving you with that much to chew on, at least introduce some surprisingly new flavours. Based around the seven deadly sins, Allen cooks up a menu of damnation for each of the seven no-nos, drawing on historical research and providing fascinating litanies of taboos and transgressions. The menus always contain a bona fide recipe dug out of humanity's licentious past, and food is presented as intimately tied up with bodies sacred, social and physical. As Allen says in his introduction "people have judged, fought and slaughtered others because of what they had for dinner" and as such "the daily meal" can be a "meditation on humanity's relationship to the delicious and revolting, the sacred and profane." That muser on humanity's totems and taboos, Georges Bataille, would find his "solar anus" the symbol of sacrificial desire and bodily transgression well matched by the Aztecs' "precious eagle-cactus fruit", which were in fact the still beating hearts of human sacrificial victims torn from their chests while still alive and offered to the Sun.
There is much of this type of gore in the book. One of the most interesting and historically rich from a humanist perspective examples is the cannibalistic tendencies of transubstantiation. For the anti-religious humanist, there is ammunition aplenty here. From dough-covered infants salaciously stabbed to death in early Christian initiation rites to "bleeding" hosts caused by the red fungus prodigious microccous, the pagan roots and sham expansionism of the Holy Roman Empire is exposed. For the humanist who believes in humanity's innate ability to reason and progress, Allen's take on transubstantiation tantalises the taste buds but proves of little substance, spiritually or intellectually.
The reader is justified in thinking that Allen might be cooking up a succulent slice of social commentary when he states: "But whatever the causes of these bizarre apparitions, the Pope had succeeded in manipulating the strong emotions tied to cannibalism to help make himself the world's wealthiest human being. His magic cannibalism had bound Christians together as criminals and God's Chosen, a brilliant merging of humanity's two most binding social contracts, while simultaneously driving a stake into the heart of the older religions by appropriating their most powerful rite into a ceremony that was exalted, refined, cruel, and forgiving the ultimate forbidden food was now divine, fulfilling the prophecy of the apostles who wrote that all shall be eaten and found delicious." Indeed, this is a fascinating subject: the privilege and brutality attached to what we eat and how we eat, and its sacred symbolism, combined with the society's refinement in the literal breaking of bread between fellow human beings. And as such I wanted a little more insight, a little more probing, a few more threads drawn together.
But what we get instead is cod science served up in over-sized chunks. Suddenly we jump from magic cannibalism to the eating of monkeys, and the part that such practices may have played in the spread of HIV and AIDS, together with the potential LSD kick that man and monkey alike may get out of chomping on sister species' brains. Historical fact is one thing, but cooking the books where science is concerned is another altogether. There is far too much of this sort of shadow boxing and showing off in Allen's book to sustain the potentially insightful argument about humanity, food and history that bubbles along under the surface.
However, there is plenty to amuse and amaze, not least the menus Nipples of the Virgin anyone? with the additional recipes. One thing's for sure: it ain't Mrs Beeton.
In the Devil's Garden is available from Amazon (UK).