Gut, the German doctor Giulia Enders’ bestseller about the gastro-intestinal system, will do well in India, a nation that is deeply constipated in more than one sense. But for those of us who do not regard the abdomen as the essential seat of human welfare, it gets really interesting in the latter half, where she investigates the effect that things we ingest have on us.
The point of departure from gastroenterology to the Wild West of interactive biology is Toxoplasma, standard flora in the intestines of cats, which hitches rides on cat lovers and other mammals in order to reach other cats. Enders recounts the experiment of Joanne P Webster at Oxford, in which she demonstrated that rats exposed to toxoplasma lost all fear of cats and gambolled in places marked by cat urine, which uninfected rats flee on instinct. The question that arises is, once ingested, does Toxoplasma screw with the heads of rats, and urge them to lay down their lives in its service? In that case, are the higher mammals also influenced by what they eat? The very highest? Are we what we eat, and could our inexplicable psychoses be food-related?
That question has obsessed religion and popular culture from the dawn of time. Nectar and ambrosia brim over in the oldest stories, and the apple is really the central character in the Garden of Eden, not the rash mortal who eats it. In modern literature, the idea of food as an influencer of human minds was rekindled by Gunter Grass in The Flounder, which opens with the simplest of dishes: a few jacket potatoes roasting in embers in a Kashubian field, cooking slowly as the reader and the first character wait for the story to begin. Four years after it appeared in 1977, Salman Rushdie harnessed the device to give the Western readership a taste of the soul of a masala nation, obsessed with food and its instrumentality in human affairs. Midnight’s Children relied on pickles and chutneys as much as political and social history in its depiction of the Partition generation.
Anglo-American publishing is taxonomy-driven and has followed this tradition only erratically. It seems to believe strongly in the division between cookbooks and other books. But there have been fairly glorious departures from the norm, like John Lanchester’s The Debt to Pleasure, in which the journalist and food writer ventured boldly forth into a dark, food-laden tour of France.
Last year, a fine account of food in English literature appeared in the US. In Fictitious Dishes: An Album of Literature’s Most Memorable Meals, designer, photographer and classic reader Dinah Fried took food photography far beyond the stock image of the still life with moodily lit cantaloupe. Her book is a collection of 50 almost edible top shots picturing the most famous meals in books. Sadly, the images do not seem to include Enid Blyton’s buttered scones and the stuff on the Hogwarts Express trolley, which English readers encounter long before they read of the Last Supper. The element of surprise is served well by the dish of thin gruel that was presented to Oliver Twist, in reaction to which he famously asked for more. There is also the Swiss toasted sandwich and glass of malted in which Holden Caulfield drowned his sorrows. And there are the makings of the Mad Hatter’s timeless tea party, a very spare table setting compared to the positively sybaritic splendour inspired by The Great Gatsby.
Unfortunately, the book never came to Indian stores but a few spreads can be salivated over at fictitiousdishes.com. And hopefully, the next edition will include some of the most striking meals from popular literature. Not a Hannibal Lecter dinner, the first thing that springs to mind. Not the Last Supper either, that was done to death in the Renaissance. But maybe the bizarre scene in the essay ‘The Kentucky Derby is Decadent and Depraved’, in the Louisville restaurant where Hunter S Thompson met his brother and sister-in-law for dinner along with the twisted artist Ralph Steadman. What did the waiter serve just before the father of gonzo maced him? And how had Steadman rendered the sister-in-law’s portrait just before that, causing her enraged husband to offer the artist grievous bodily harm, triggering the preemtive macing which turned the waiter into collateral damage? The annals of gonzo do not disclose the details of this scene. Reconstructive photography could be the only way to recapture the moment in all its randomly murderous energy.