Filth, Food and Cleanliness; Or, Lawyers and Poop

I’ve been thinking a lot about my poop post lately. Part of me does indeed regret it (“Don’t s**t where you eat or where you blog about eating”), but the other part of me–the mad scientist part of me–keeps rubbing its hands together and declaring: “We may be on to something here.”

I pushed and pushed and pushed until I came up with it: poop IS an appropriate area of discussion on a food blog because it pinpoints what is often missed by the overly cerebral food critics—the fact that food is VISCERAL.

Watching Alton Brown last night, I became distracted by the overmiked sounds of food preparation: the sloshy sounds of batter being stirred or the almost sexual loading up of the pastry bag. As he rolled back the layer of plastic, the noises bothered me. It was almost condomesque. I felt a certain repugnance: this is a Food Network show, these sounds are supposed to be wiped out!

But, of course, when we cook there is no sound mixer to mute the sounds of the bacon sizzling or the sauce gurgling. In your own kitchen, that’s pleasurable. Those sounds are, in a way, an extension of yourself: like the pride you may take in the echo of a mighty burp.

What I am setting up here is a dichotomy: the private self cooking at home, comfortable with the noises and the sloshing and the dripping and the tasting, and the public self who wants to view food as “clean” and “pure”—which is why William Grimes rarely mentioned his bowel movements.

In her book “Romantic Outlaws, Beloved Prisons,” one of my favorite law school professors–Martha Duncan–writes:

“Human infants enjoy playing with feces, while older children exhibit a special fascination with mud pies, fingerpaints, and other slimy, smeary things. Currently, there is a toy on the market that consists of a green gelatinous ooze; it is called, simply, Slime.

As children grow older, their attraction to slime is overlaid with a veneer of repugnance, and mental conflict results. This conflict has been acknowledged in an amusing way by the creators of another contemporary toy, Icky-Poo. On the back cover of the Official Icky-Poo Book, which accompanies a container of sticky slime, the editors declare, ‘You’ll be disgusted with yourself for loving it.’ Conscious mental conflict is painful; therefore, children develop defense mechanisms to avoid awareness of their attraction to dirt.” (137)

I think fear of cooking is a function of this repugnance. Hence the illusion, when you dine out at a fine restaurant, that everything is clean, everything is pure. The tablecloths are white. The drinking glasses sparkle. The silverware is practically ready for surgery.

The idea of the “open kitchen” feeds into this frenzy. An “open kitchen,” at most restaurants, entails a performance by the chefs who are probably coached not to scratch their faces or sweat too profusely. When I recall my time as a waiter, the image I have of the chefs flying around is of them constantly mopping their sweaty brows. Yes, even at a high quality restaurant the chefs sweat. They’re human.

Sweat, poop, slime—these are terms we don’t want to think about when we think about food. But it is when we think about them that we begin to realize that food, unlike any other medium of expression, is intimately linked to our bodies and that unlike writing a book or composing a symphony, the end result of our labor becomes physically part of us.

It is that visceral quality about food which explains why I and many other lawyers turned to food in law school as a means of escape.

In his eGullet Q&A famed food writer and lawyer Jeffrey Steingarten answers the question: why do so so many lawyers become food writers?

Among his many theories, is this one: “In the Freudian sense, lawyers are orally fixated. They talk a lot. Of course, they don’t do badly at the other end, either. They obsess a lot.”

Anal fixation ties directly back into Martha Duncan’s theory: “When the polarities of filth and cleanliness, mess and order, are central to a person’s mental life, we speak of obsessive-compulsive neurosis. This neurosis derives from an unusually strong attachment to the anal zone….”

For me it’s easy to see how the dry, antiseptic drone of the law school led me to the rich, fragrant world of the kitchen. When Rick, my favorite college professor, asked me why I turned to cooking in law school I answered: “Because it’s visceral.” He laughed because, he said, his partner–Chuck–who also got into cooking in law school uses the exact same word to explain it.

The reason, I think, that this website seems so personal despite the fact that I write exclusively (well, for the most part) about food is that food is intimate. Every time you see a picture of an item of food hovering near my mouth, you are sharing in a very private bodily act. In essence, you are watching me poop.

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