Pleasures of Food
I have always been passionate about food. It has, in fact, been a cornerstone of my existence. I recognised the signs early on, when I did not come off the bottle (alas breast feeding was out of vogue at this time) until I was about four years old, and I made quite a commotion about it then. That warm white milk spurting forth from that rubber teat was obviously a sensual and nourishing feed. Following that I remember a wonderful meal that mother used to make me, consisting of warm runny soft boiled eggs mashed up with torn crust less fresh white bread and the merest splash of milk and salt & pepper, mmmmm I could murder a bowl now.
Ah food…it is a heady mix of psychological spells wound up in tasty matter. Foods that comfort us, foods that excite us and foods that calm us down. Our palate and our attachments to certain foods are I think all born of a time when we inhabited a yeasty humid world of milk sops and wet nappies. Textural considerations are of utmost importance when discovering dishes that provide us with inner sensual happiness: viscous soups and sauces, gooey eggs and soft steaming scoops of mashed potato, or balls of sweetened sticky rice and slippery steamed dim sum…
Eating food is pleasure and. filling the empty tummy with something very scrummy is best. Pleasure. Is it a universal primary motivation? Or is it simply the avoidance of pain? Is hunger, once satisfied, the end of the matter? Or do we seek to enter that satiation by choosing just what we put in our mouths? The pursuit of pleasure: to achieve sensual gratification. Is it inextricably linked with our need for nourishment? Babies must have succour and must be touched to survive, and thrive to adulthood. Food in my opinion is not just fuel and not simply the sum of its parts. It is more than a list of kilojoules, fats, carbs and proteins. Like love it must be made pleasurable to do its work well.
Greek philosopher Epicurus (341-270 B.C.) states:
The magnitude of pleasure reaches its limit in the removal of all pain. When such pleasure is present, so long as it is uninterrupted, there is no pain either of body or of mind or of both together.
The flesh receives as unlimited the limits of pleasure; and to provide it requires unlimited time. But the mind, intellectually grasping what the end and limit of the flesh is, and banishing the terrors of the future, procures a complete and perfect life, and we have no longer any need of unlimited time. Nevertheless the mind does not shun pleasure, and even when circumstances make death imminent, the mind does not lack enjoyment of the best life.”
However, perhaps Oscar Wilde put it more succinctly when he said, “Pleasure is the only thing to live for.”
Has my passionate relationship with food ever got out of hand? Yes. I was a fat child for a couple of years, and I paid the price with my slim, bordering on acetic father, ridiculing me whenever possible about my new found weight. Lolly addiction was a real problem for me at this time, as my mother, who did not enjoy making cut lunches, would endow me with forty cents tuckshop money and I would invest it at the corner shop in a large white paper bag stuffed with mixed lollies. I would share these with my best friend at the time, Scott Stewart, and he would entertain me with half his lunch, which consisted of sliced white bread sprinkled with hundreds and thousands. . So as you can see my flirtation with food as pleasure flourished a long time ago. Trips to the dentist, despite all that fluoride in the water, were far too common.
Appetite and control. Appetite – the desire to eat until one is full, or to eat a certain kind of food; to experience a particular feeling as that substance slides down your gullet. Control or denial – the decision not to satisfy that desire and to go without, or to distract oneself by exercising; having sex or working. Or to appease or tease, by allowing only one mouthful, or two or three mouthfuls, or just a homoeopathic dose of your bodies desired dish. The sins involving food and the bible’s condemnation of gluttony inhabit us culturally and permeate all realms of our western civilisation. The way fat people are ostracised in our communities and portrayed in popular media as sad laughing stocks, and perhaps we all secretly feel that our derision will inspire them to lose weight and return to the company of the slim.
Can you remember the power of the lolly? Or do you have children who have reignited your experience with this over whelming obsession with these sugared jewels? The startling variety of colours, shapes and flavours. Surely these are the building blocks of taste experience for us all, as we sit quietly on the footpath outside the local deli sucking upon that first lozenge of truth. Milk bottles; musk sticks; bananas and sherbets, cobbers, raspberries, snakes and jelly babies, just to name a few of these highly desirables. Of course these addictions were managed in a cloak of normality, whilst competing at sport and doing homework, but always at the core of the pleasure principle was the lolly… and for me pleasure was life. I remember going to visit my maternal grandfather who was a doctor and lived in another geographical state, and he had a huge jar of jelly babies on top of the fridge. I thought this was great as we didn’t have anything like this at home and he was a doctor after all. Such was the alluring power of the lolly that it permeated even the highest levels of society…
Later, working in a liquor store I came upon that same phenomenon again; but this time for adults. Shiny bottles of spirits and wines were their lolly equivalents. I could feel their hardly suppressed excitement as they fingered the bottles and read those colourful labels with gleaming tiny gold and silver medals stuck to them. Big spenders would choose their mixed dozen and then stand in the check out queue, quietly bubbling with childlike joy. Alcoholics; drug addicts and sugar fiends we are all dependent on the balance between our appetites and controls, and the psychology of our passions. What did the Buddha say, “that all life is suffering and suffering is caused by desire.”
What about the neurological pleasure systems in the brain? Well, quoting Michael A Bozarth from the University of New York’s Dept of Psychology:
“Neurological research has identified a biological mechanism mediating behavior motivated by events commonly associated with pleasure in humans. These events are termed “rewards” and are viewed as primary factors governing normal behavior. The subjective impact of rewards (e.g., pleasure) can be considered essential (e.g., Young, 1959) or irrelevant (e.g., Skinner, 1953) to their effect on behavior, but the motivational effect of rewards on behavior is universally acknowledged by experimental psychologists.
Motivation can be considered under two general rubrics—appetitive and aversive motivation. Appetitive motivation concerns behavior directed toward goals that are usually associated with positive hedonic processes; food, sex, and wine are three such goal objects. Aversive motivation involves escaping from some hedonically unpleasant condition; the pain from a headache, the chill from a cold winter’s night are among the list of conditions that give rise to aversive motivation. The notion that hedonic mechanisms might provide direction to behavior can be traced at least to the Greeks (e.g., Epicures); Spencer (1880) formalized this notion into psychological theory and suggested that two fundamental forces governed motivation–pleasure and pain. Troland (1928) suggested that pleasure was associated with beneception, events that contributed to the survival of the organism (or species) and thus ‘benefited’ the organism from an evolutionary biology perspective; pain was suggested to be associated with nociception, events that had undesirable consequences for the organism. This schema—emphasizing hedonic processes in the regulation of behavior—lost favor with the advance of the Freudian and later behavioristic schools, although variations on this theme have occasionally resurfaced among motivational psychologists (e.g., Bindra, 1969; Young, 1959). “
Hedonism then appears to be something that we should understand. The Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary defines hedonism as “belief in pleasure as the highest good and mankind’s proper aim.” Personally I have been a big fan of hedonism and have lived my life as hedonistically as possible. However, having been brought up in a Christian /Presbyterian household, where hedonism was given a pretty bad name, it was necessary to throw off the shackles of the church’s wowserism and to embark single mindedly upon the pursuit of pleasure. I imagine that many people reading this have felt similarly about their lives in terms of giving to themselves and grasping the true meaning of ‘charity begins at home – and in my case the kitchen.
One of the most fulfilling aspects of cooking that I have found is making up new dishes. When you are cooking everyday for hundreds of people, and although often making batches of the same dishes, it is in my nature to want to break out and try something completely different. I was at this stage in my own little restaurant cum takeaway in King St Newtown and like many young people I found pleasure in novelty and variety. I had one particular customer, who by tacit arrangement, would receive whatever I could challenge myself to come up with. A dish or plate created right then and there with no prior thought, and as luck would have it, he would often arrive at the busiest possible time during service. I would be swearing sweating and smiling, (we had an open kitchen), and making haste with the pans. Usually the result would be rather good, and although frazzled by the experience it was ultimately rewarding. Creativity can be a hard task master, especially when you operate out of chaos. Cooking is however one of the few great arts that you physically put inside yourself, try eating a painting for instance.
So food has always been important to me and although when I first began cooking professionally I had not really recognised that, as I always thought that it would be something I would do until I found my true vocation. Cooking was not the supposedly glamorous job, that it is perceived to be today. Then, no, it was just another trade but I found it to be a very satisfying one. It was essentially creative once you had mastered technique, each day I would be challenged to come up with new and diverse dishes. Regular trips to the Flemington produce markets would have me coming across vegetables that I had never seen nor heard of. What does one do with a box of Kasava?
This turned out to be a thankfully humorous failure, as I was working as the head cook in the Rajneesh commune in Darlinghurst back in the early nineteen eighties. Each day I would make a buffet selection of vegetarian dishes for around hundred and fifty orange clad disciples of the master. After a previous stint in the Zorba the Buddha restaurant in Taylor Square, where I had learnt the basics, it was going pretty well. On this particular day with my box of newly found treasure; the Kasava Root, which is grey and looks like a cross between white sweet potato and really old ginger, I was challenging myself to present a rare and tasty experience for my fellow devotees, who, it must be said, worked long and hard, albeit joyous hours in the service of the master and our own spiritual ideals; and were generally a hungry lot. It was dinner, and as an accompaniment to baked spinach and fetta filo pie I thought I would roast my Kasava similarly to how I would treat sweet potato. So into the oven on a baking tray brushed with olive oil went my Kasava, salted and peppered and ready for a juicy bake. Forty minutes later I checked my Kasava to find it still hard as wood but a little singed, and after an hour an a half these burnt roots were like charred bits of four by two. This stuff was a mystery. Next night, after humble apologies to my waiting guests, I decided to tackle this Kasava on a different front and into my large boiling pan I deposited the remainder of the box, covered in salted water. I set a match to my gas burner and plonked down the heavy pan for some serious cooking; to make tender this obstreperous root. What wonder, what reward would my meditating family be in for now that I had found the culinary key? Well after a seemingly adequate time of cooking, I lifted the lid to discover a grey steaming sludge of fibrous matter that I would not classify as cuisine of any type that I was even remotely familiar with. Once again I apologised to the hungry and the meal was serve… sans Kasava. My foray into the exotic world of Kasava was at an end, and I satisfied myself with vegetables of a more common nature. What do you do with Kasava I hear you say? Well from Africa & Fiji come these recipes:
3cups.(or 2lbs.) grated kasava or manioc root
1cup. shredded frozen fresh young coconut
1 12 oz. jar of Macapuno Balls
1/3cup. evaporated milk
1 14 oz. can unsweetened coconut milk
1/3cup. whole milk
1/2cup. white sugar
1cup. light brown sugar
1tbsp. melted butter
Mix everything together, and bake in a buttered 9 X 13 inch pan for 2 hours at 325 degrees.
Method 1. Peel the kasava and put it in a basin of water.
2. Grate the kasava in a large basin.
3. Scrape 4-6 coconuts and squeeze out the juices.
4. Heat sugar in a pot until melted, then add the lolo and stir it, until it is thick enough, remove from the heat and cool it.
5. Put the grated kasava in a ‘vasili’ leaf and wrap around and then tie it properly.
6. Heat a pot of water till it boils, put the wrapped kasava in and cook for 1 hour.
7. When the kasava is still hot, beat it with a clean wooden stick so that it becomes soft.
8. Roll into balls and dip it into the basin of cooked lolo.
Appeared in WellBeing Magazine