Cafe Reviews

Second Helpings

Book Notes: Sometimes I think the next best thing to good eating is good reading about eating. If you share that view, you may want to take a look at the current issue of Granta (Winter 1995), called Food: The Vital Stuff. Granta is an English quarterly magazine, packaged as an $11.95 paperback by Penguin Paperbacks.

This issue features 19 entertaining articles by some exceptionally gifted authors.

Several chew on the issue of vegetarianism. In "Meat Country," J.M. Coetzee describes the perils of being a visiting vegan in Texas. He also ponders why it is that, when we read of the Roman emperor Vitellius' feast at which the piece de resistance called for the brains of 1,000 peacocks and the tongues of 1,000 flamingos, we're repulsed. After all, we're unmoved by the daily slaughter of millions of cows, chickens and pigs.

Margaret Visser's contribution, "The Sins of the Flesh," intelligently takes us through thearguments for vegetarianism. For her, the strongest argument derives from vegetarianism's moral component: "The twentieth-century's concentration-camp mentality, where cruelty takes place in secret so that we can muffle our consciences, claim ignorance and comfortably carry on worshipping 'efficiency,' makes consciousness-raising more important than perhaps it has ever been."

By pitching the issue at a level anybody can understand--think what you're doing, economically, environmentally and morally, when you eat meat--she argues that the movement may someday lead to social and spiritual progress.

Geoffrey Beattie provides a grittier look at this subject in his bizarre tale, "Men As Chickens." He profiles vegetarian-cookbook author Rebecca Hall, who two years ago decided to publicize simultaneously her principles and her book by offering four men $4,500 each to live like cooped-up chickens for a week.

The quartet would occupy one wire-mesh cage, 40 inches square and 63 inches tall. The men would be barefoot, with no bathroom facilities and nowhere to wash. The light would be on 17 hours a day. And the men would hear continuous noise from an audiotape that Hall described as "human madhouse noises with lots of wailing and screaming, because hens live in a madhouse with a cacophony of noise."

How'd the hired chickens do? I'll let Beattie furnish the details. But suffice to say they didn't last 24 hours. As the shaken victims departed the cage, Hall gave each of them a copy of her book.

You can also find some interesting explorations of eating disorders in the Granta collection. Jane Rogers' "Grateful" gives disturbing insight into anorexia nervosa. Another eating disorder, cannibalism, is the subject of Joan Smith's "People Eaters."

Actually, it's not so much the mechanics of cannibalism that engage her interest as the reaction of "civilized" societies to its practice. Smith uses the work of English writer (and vegetarian) Joseph Ritson, who wrote a study of cannibal practices 200 years ago, to glean many fascinating nuggets. I particularly relished Ritson's detached reaction to the then-ongoing extermination of the man-eating tribes in the Caribbean: "They are now nearly extirpated by the Christians."--Howard Seftel

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