What's behind our obsession with food?A dashing gentleman in a white linen suit cracks open an egg. He deftly separates the egg white and places the golden orb of raw yolk into his mouth. Carefully, in order to not burst the fragile load, he moves toward his young lover, seeking her mouth. She parts her lips and receives the whole, unpunctured yolk. Sliding it over her taste buds, she then proceeds to kiss the ovoid joy-toy back to him. Moments later, he glides it back to her.A few more back and forths before the inevitable climax: it pops.Amber nectar glistens out of her moaning mouth and onto his suit. Her body goes limp with satisfaction.This scene, in the Japanese film Tampopo, isn't merely one of the weirdest love scenes ever. As mesmerizing as it is visually, the film-ostensibly about a search for the perfect ramen recipe-is also a meditation on food obsession. Part of the reason we've become such a food-frenzied society has to do with luxury, it suggests, but behind the materialist glaze lies a puffy inner layer of primal human motivation.Let's start with the obvious: sex.Tampopo's yolk-kissing scene recalls a passage in Miles Davis's autobiography that describes the trumpeter's first wet dream. It felt, he wrote, like he had "rolled over an egg and burst it." Just as music fans gobble up tawdry rock bios, foodies today have limitless cravings for stories about food. Perhaps unsurprisingly, many of the books and films about the insatiable pursuit of food perfection have torrid, hedonistic undertones. It seems obvious that Anthony Bourdain's books would be debaucherous, but even Gourmet magazine editor Ruth Reichl's memoirs are full of unbridled romps, and Top Chef host Padma Lakshmi's cookbooks contain dewy confessionals of infidelity. In one instance, on a supposedly romantic getaway, Lakshmi divulges that she was caught in the pantry stalking an earthy, silent, "god-like" Mexican cook.
"Eat fruits. Too Much. Mainly Sexy Ones."The commingling of fleshly delights goes beyond the canon of key foodie texts: In certain areas of Brazil, natives used the same word for "eating" and "copulating." This link is primordial, even prenatal. It's in the womb that we first suck our thumbs while thinking of food-around the same time male fetuses start getting erections. Tampopo taps into our food-sex beginnings by concluding with a long shot of a mother breast-feeding her child. This intertwining of basic drives is at the root of life. Single-celled organisms, such as amoebas, do only two things: They eat and replicate, feeding and then splitting in half. These twin hungers are still fueled by a genetic imperative to reproduce.A recent book, The Sex Life of Food by Bunny Crumpacker, inventories countless literary and historical examples of people getting turned on by food. Her account is as strange as it is matter-of-fact. She quotes NPR host and author Garrison Keillor as saying, "Sex is good, but not as good as fresh sweet corn." Crumpacker, who has the best food-writer name ever, spends ample time on what is perhaps the most arousing of all foods: fruits. Bananas are phallic, she contends, cherries feminine- while kiwis are "hermaphroditic" and "bisexual." Does that make figs bi-curious?Fruits are what happen when plants have sex, which may explain why humans can be sexually aroused by them. No book captures this attraction quite as luridly as Edward Bunyard's The Anatomy of Dessert (recently reissued with an introduction by Ruth Reichl, as well as a foreword by a more temperate food authority, Michael Pollan). Bunyard's motto might've been "Eat fruits. Too Much. Mainly Sexy Ones." He achingly described waiting in quiet carnal anticipation for certain fruits' "lustiness."A peach picked with love, Bunyard explained, must be "stroked off." He certainly wasn't the last to note the voluptuousness and sensuality of peaches. Reading Lolita in Tehran explains that girls can be expelled from university if they eat a peach indiscreetly. In China, the juices of a peach are compared to vaginal syrups, and saying "we shared the peach" is a polite way of saying "we had anal sex."In Chinese mythology, peaches are also a symbol for something less tangible: eternal life. Peaches tended by Hsi Wang Mu, the Queen Mother of the West, grow on the mountains at the summit of the world. Beside a lake of gems, where invisible instruments play gentle melodies, Mu's beautiful daughters serve peaches that take 3,000 years to ripen. These fruits render the eater immortal.
Fruits are what happen when plants have sex, which may explain why humans can be sexually aroused by them.Western mystics also knew about transcendental fruits. Thoreau, for example, spent his sunset years trying to find heaven in wild berries. As he writes in a lost final manuscript reprinted recently under the title Wild Fruits, "My profession is to be always on the alert to find God in Nature-to know his lurking places." Thoreau believed God liked to lurk in fruits: "Nectar and ambrosia are only those fine flavors of every earthly fruit which our coarse palates fail to perceive-just as we occupy the heaven of the gods without knowing it."By now, we've bitten into something meatier than flesh. Indeed, the flip-side of our ongoing obsession with food is more meta than physical. Nowhere is this notion articulated as simply yet completely as in the wonderful film Big Night, a story about two Italian brothers who've opened an Italian restaurant called Paradise in 1950s New Jersey. The message of the film? "To eat good food is to be close to God."This idea is also explored in the Oscar winning Danish film Babette's Feast, about a group of self-denying religious ascetics who believe salvation lies in refraining from earthly happiness. They reject any thought of food and drink for fear of losing their souls. Their world is shaken when they meet a chef from France who can transform dinners into a kind of "love affair that makes no distinction between bodily appetite and spiritual appetite." Her cooking teaches them that it's no sin to enjoy this life as well as the next one. Bliss and righteousness, they learn, aren't mutually exclusive.What all these stories have in common is the suggestion that food is a doorway into a greater field of experience. There can be something transformative about eating and drinking-and everyone mentioned in this essay would argue that a sensual experience of life fosters, rather than hinders, creative output.There's a reason it's called soul food. A memorable meal nourishes-profoundly. The chicken noodle soups of the world allow us to get past difficult times, to make the most of our existence in the moment. The ways we eat, just as much as the stories we tell about the ways we eat, allow us to confront and sublimate reality in unexpected ways. If food can be healing, sexual and transcendental, after all, so can life.The top 10 films and books about food obsession.The Sex Life of Food (St. Martin's Press, 2007)Countless crumbs of edible erotica are sprinkled throughout this study of culinary carnality by Bunny Crumpacker.Tampopo (dir. Juzo Itami, 1985)A quest for a perfect bowl of ramen, punctuated with surrealist food-sex vignettes.Tangy Tart Hot & Sweet (Weinstein Books, 2008)Soft-focus shots of Padma Lakshmi are as suggestive as personal food reminiscences. Some pretty good recipes, too.Comfort Me With Apples (Random House, 2002)From pre-AIDS Californian hippy sex antics to gluttonous Parisian flings, a tantalizingly honest page-turner by Ruth Reichel.The Anatomy of Dessert (Modern Library edition, 2006)This reissue of Edward Bunyard's 1929 masterwork is a fetishistic handbook of fruit exaltation.Wild Fruits (W.W. Norton edition, 1999)When Henry David Thoreau sees apples at the market, he doesn't just see fruit-he sees "Iduna's apples, the taste of which keeps the gods forever young."Big Night (Dir. Campbell Scott, Stanley Tucci, 1996)The final scene alone, of Primo and Secondo eating eggs in silence, is a moving testament to the power of food in storytelling.Babette's Feast (dir. Gabriel Axel, 1987)After eating the best meal of his life, the hero says: "There comes a time when our eyes are opened and we come to realize that mercy is infinite. We need only await it with confidence and receive it with gratitude."Candyfreak (Algonquin Books, 2004)Steve Almond explains how our obsessions "arise from our most sacred fears and desires and, as such, they represent the truest expression of ourselves."What's Up Tiger Lily? (Dir. Woody Allen, 1966).In his directorial debut, Woody "Sex Is Like Having Dinner" Allen overdubs a Japanese spy flick with racy sex gags about the world's most delicious egg salad.