There is no subject -- not sex, not money, not even sports -- that has occasioned as much bad writing over the past decade as has food. It's not the food's fault; there's just something about the subject that flushes out the snobs and the hacks and the bores. Evidence of this, in case you haven't looked recently, is spreading across bookstore shelves and magazine racks like the Blob that Ate Barnes & Noble. Foodie magazines are indeed the signal form of fin de siècle pornography, and the prose that accompanies most of the moist, inviting photographs therein has a lonely, reheated quality -- it's as if the writers knew that whatever they'd dash off would be as irrelevant as the text in a crisp copy of Hustler.
Our oral obsessions have spilled over into the Fiction section, too. The success two years ago of Laura Esquivel's frothy "Like Water For Chocolate," which made bestseller lists after the film version became an art house hit, led to a small flood of novels where a busy kitchen serves as the warm, burbling soul of family life -- and the spot (forget the bedroom) where chests heave with giddy ecstasy. Not all of these books arrived underseasoned, either. This fall, both "The Invention of Curried Sausage," by Uwe Timm, and the more whimsical "Recipes From the Dump," by Abigail Stone, were complex, richly evocative books that weren't merely rewarding -- they had you racing to see what was left in the larder.
As good as these novels were, they left you hungry not only to reread some of this century's best food writers -- A.J. Liebling, M.F.K. Fisher, even Calvin Trillin -- but to snort around in some recent anthologies of writing about what we put in our mouths. Unfortunately, the most comprehensive of these in recent years, "Food: An Oxford Anthology" (1994), is so British and above-board and tasteful that despite many wonderful moments -- Hawthorne on macaroni pudding! Austen on apricots and apple tarts! -- it feels a bit like homework. "Nothing could be more delicious than dinners among friends," Alphonse Daudet once wrote, "at which people can speak openly, their wits alert and their elbows on the table." The problem with the Oxford anthology (besides that it doesn't include Daudet) is that it doesn't seem to allow elbows on the table -- everyone's sitting at attention, their salad forks and soup spoons in perfect order. Everything is just so.
Karen Elizabeth Gordon's new anthology, "The Ravenous Muse" (Pantheon), is a perfect corrective -- it's a wild, uneven, very personal collection of food writing from the past two centuries, and it doesn't pretend to any sort of completeness. In fact, it reads more like an old-fashioned literary chapbook; Gordon's selections are the fruit of decades of purposefully nonlinear reading, not the result of a deadline-driven cram session. Her oddball obsessiveness, in fact, once led her to be thrown out of Paris' Bibliotheque Nationale -- after she was caught absentmindedly inserting blinis between pages to mark her place. "I was hustled out," she reports, "my bliny and notebooks thrown after me into the courtyard." Quelle impolitesse!
Gordon's kookiness seeps over into the running commentary she provides throughout "The Ravenous Muse." ("Trees have died to make this book," she warbles at one particularly low point. "Can't you feel their leaves quaking as the pages turn?") But she is very much like the strange lady you abide because she has the only key to a strange and wonderful museum, and throughout "The Ravenous Muse" her choices are indeed inspired.
This is the kind of book that tosses a hilariously randy scene from Stella Gibbons' novel "Cold Comfort Farm" ("The firelight lit up his diaphragm muscles as they heaved slowly in rough rhythm with the porridge") next to Dickens, or one of Paul Klee's food dreams ("A light breakfast, including eggs, was appetizingly laid out on the ceiling") next to Vaclav Havel, in his "Letters to Olga," fretting that he's become a fanatical devotee of Earl Grey, despite the fact that the English scorn it as a perfumed, old-maidenish drink.
Gordon's odd gems keep coming. "Ah, Ye Gods of Gluttony!" the yea-saying S.J. Perelman bellows as he digs into an ice cream soda, noting that "the climax of enjoyment" is "when with the froth gone, ice cream gone, you discard the straws, lift the glass, tilt back your head and subject your tonsils to the first superb shock of the pure Ichor of the soda, syrup, bubble water, water, melted ice cream, all blended into one Ambrosia of flavor, action, and chill." (Oh, where have you gone, S.J.?)
In her search for ecstatic nuggets, Gordon doesn't overlook more probing food theory -- she reprints part of Anthony Burgess's wonderful essay "The Language of Food," in which he contrasts British and French feeding habits in light of their political inclinations. ("A Parisian dinner is meant to be a single elegant statement, like a well-turned sentence or an outfit from Yves Saint-Laurent. The Anglo-Saxon view of a banquet can be expressed in terms of the history of the world.")
Gordon's special fondness, however, is for the dandies of the literary world -- the Flauberts, the Nabokovs, the Gogols -- the writerly equivalents of Michelin three-stars. She strews selections from these palate-cleansing writers throughout: Nabokov admits that "I like to eat and drink in a recumbent position (preferably on a couch)"; Flaubert reports from his own couch that "Me and my books in the same apartment: like a gherkin in its vinegar."
One of the final selections in "The Ravenous Muse" is, appropriately enough, a hymn to that noted Roman dish, perhaps the sine qua non of excessive meals, where the chef places "the olive in the robin in the pigeon in the chicken in the duck in the rabbit in the capon in the lamb in the deer in the calf in the boar in the beef cooked on a spit, and finally you are served only the olive, bathed in all the juices, the twelfth essence."
Ah, Ye Gods of Gluttony! as Perelman might have ejaculated. And the great thing is, reading "The Ravenous Muse," you don't doubt that Gordon tried this recipe -- and that she got all the meat from the bones.