Cheever's problem, as anyone familiar with his journals will know, is
that the same gulf between appearance and interior that makes his
stories – "The Enormous Radio", "The Day the Pig Fell into the Well",
"Goodbye, My Brother" – so beguiling was also at work in his own life.
Despite an increasingly command performance as an upstanding member of
the bourgeoisie, Cheever couldn't shake the sense of being essentially
an impostor among the middle classes. Writers, even the most socially
gifted and established, must be outsiders of some sort, if only because
their job is that of scrutiniser and witness. All the same, Cheever's
sense of double-dealing seems to have run unusually deep.
This burden of fraudulence, of needing to keep some lumbering secret
self forever under wraps, was not merely a matter of class anxiety.
Cheever lived in the painful knowledge that his erotic desires included
men, that these desires were antagonistic and even fatal to the social
security he also craved, and that as such "every comely man, every bank
clerk and delivery boy was aimed at my life like a loaded pistol".
During this period, his sense of failure and self-disgust could reach
such agonising heights that he sometimes raised in his journals the
possibility of suicide.
Who wouldn't drink in a situation like
that, to ease the pressure of maintaining such intricately folded double
lives? He'd been hitting it hard since he first arrived in New York,
back in 1943. Even in the depths of poverty he managed to find funds for
nights that might, head-splittingly, take in a dozen Manhattans or a
quart apiece of whiskey. He drank at home and in friends' apartments, in
the Brevoort, the Plaza and the Menemsha Bar on 57th Street, where he'd
pop in after collecting his daughter from school and let her eat
maraschino cherries while he attended to his needs. Though not all these
scenes were exactly civilised, alcohol was an essential ingredient of
Cheever's ideal of a cultured life, one of those rites whose correct
assumption could protect him from the persistent shadows of inferiority
Instead, it did just the opposite. By the late 1950s,
Cheever was using the word alcoholism to describe his behaviour, writing
grimly: "In the morning I am deeply depressed, my insides barely
function, my kidney is painful, my hands shake, and walking down Madison
Avenue I am in fear of death. But evening comes or even noon and some
combination of nervous tensions obscures my memories of what whiskey
costs me in the way of physical and intellectual wellbeing. I could very
easily destroy myself. It is 10 o'clock now and I am thinking of the
In order to understand how an intelligent man
could get himself into such a dire situation, it's necessary to
understand what a glass of champagne or shot of scotch does to the human
body. Alcohol is both an intoxicant and a central nervous depressant,
with an immensely complex effect upon the brain. A single drink brings
about a surge of euphoria, followed by a diminishment in fear and
agitation caused by a reduction in brain activity. Everyone experiences
these effects, and they are the reason alcohol is such a pleasurable
drug; the reason why, despite my history, I too love to drink.
But if the drinking is habitual, the brain begins to compensate for
these calming effects by producing an increase in excitatory
neurotransmitters. What this means in practice is that when one stops
drinking, even for a day or two, the increased activity manifests itself
by way of an eruption of anxiety, more severe than anything that came
before. This neuroadaptation is what drives addiction in the
susceptible, eventually making the drinker require alcohol in order to
function at all.
Not everyone who drinks, of course, becomes an
alcoholic. The disease, which exists in all quarters of the world, is
caused by an intricate mosaic of factors, among them genetic
predisposition, early life experience and social influences. As it
gathers momentum, alcohol addiction inevitably affects the drinker,
visibly damaging the architecture of their life. Jobs are lost.
Relationships spoil. There may be accidents, arrests and injuries, or
the drinker may simply become increasingly neglectful of their
responsibilities and capacity to provide self-care. Conditions
associated with long-term alcoholism include hepatitis, cirrhosis,
gastritis, heart disease, hypertension, impotence, infertility, various
types of cancer, increased susceptibility to infection, sleep disorders,
loss of memory and personality changes caused by damage to the brain.
More stress, of course: to be drowned out in turn by drink after drink
That the rich ate in grand style and quantities comes as no surprise.
History tells of Roman emperors who gorged from midday to midnight on
the tongues of song birds and the bladders of fish and the soft, pink
teats of heifers. Later kings and queens proved as voracious as their
imperial forebears, as did prosperous merchants, burghers and other
commoners. Anyone who had money made a show of it at table. A wealthy
late 14th-century Englishman’s ordinary meal consisted of three courses,
the first featuring seven dishes, the second five and the third six. On
festive occasions the number of dishes increased to nine, eleven and
twelve, making for some thirty to forty plates of food in all. And this
for a man of middling fortune!
the dinner is defective the misfortune is irreparable; when the
long-expected dinner-hour arrives, one eats but does not dine; the
dinner-hour passes, and the diner is sad, for, as the philosopher has
said, a man can dine only once a day.” — Theodore Child, Delicate Feasting (1890)Those
with deeper pockets wedded spectacle to surfeit. One winter’s night in
1476 the fabulously wealthy Florentine Benedetto Salutati hosted a
banquet. He spared no expense. A first course of petite pine-nut cakes,
gilded and doused in milk and served in small majolica bowls greeted
guests. Eight silver platters of gelatin of capon’s breast followed.
Next came twelve courses of various meats representing the bounty of
barnyard and forest: great haunches of venison and ham, a bevy of
roasted pheasants, partridges, capons and chickens, all accompanied by
thick slabs of blancmange. Fearing that his guests might weary of this
parade of animal flesh, Salutati ushered in two live peacocks, their
breasts pinned with silk ribbons and their feet affixed to silver
platters. From their beaks curled tendrils of incense. Then came the piéce de resistance: a large covered platter, also of silver. When Salutati’s attendants lifted its lid, out flew a flock of birds.
For all their inventive excess, the regal feasts of prosperous
commoners could not match those of true royalty. England’s Henry VIII,
for example, boasted an appetite as invariable as it was insatiable. His
favorite dishes he ordered to be brought to him, even when he journeyed
abroad. Before visiting France in 1534, he dispatched a communiqué
across the Channel. “It is the king’s special commandment,” it read,
that all of the artichokes “be kept for him.”
Joseph Stalin, it was reported, would become “very cantankerous” if served a substandard banana.Other
monarchs had their gustatory quirks. Soup France’s Louis XIV slurped to
the point of chronic diarrhea, and gluttony overtook him at his wedding
feast to such a degree that he ate himself impotent (much to his
bride’s chagrin no doubt). Even the Revolution did little to discomfit
the royal belly. So ravenous was the restored king Louis XVIII that
attendants had to supply him with pork cutlets between meals.
The distaff side matched their male counterparts bite for bite.
Catherine de Medicis, the Italian-born wife of France’s King Henry II,
regularly sickened herself on roast chicken and heaps of cibrèo,
a thick Florentine ragout of rooster gizzard, liver, testicles and comb
mixed with beans and egg yolks and served on toast. Britain’s Queen
Victoria too suffered unremitting peckishness. When Lord Melbourne, one
of her ministers, advised her to eat only when she was hungry, she
replied, “I am always hungry.”
“The farmer is not a man: he is the plow of the one who eats the bread.” — Georges Bataille, Theory of Religion (1973)Subjects
expected their sovereigns to be hungry. Power rested on conspicuous
excess. Abstemiousness occasioned distrust. In 888, Guido, Duke of
Spoleto, a contender for the throne of the Frankish kingdom, found his
bid derailed by his small appetite. Quipped the archbishop of Metz, one
of Guido’s critics: “No one who is content with a modest meal can reign
went into the workhouse on Sunday last (April 30) after church…. I
asked them [the inmates] how they lived, whether they had sufficient
[food] … they said, that if they could be allowed four ounces more bread
three times a week, which was the day in which they had their pea-soup,
they should have all they could wish for.” — The Parish and the Union; Or, The Poor and the Poor Laws Under the Old System and the New (1837)
Keen to emulate their antecedents, new money ate as voraciously as
old. This was no more true than in nineteenth-century United States,
where it seemed anyone who struck gold spent it on lavish refection. The
American self-made millionaire, James Buchanan Brady, better known as
“Diamond Jim,” exemplified Gilded Age excess, breakfasting daily on
beefsteak, chops, eggs, pancakes, fried potatoes, hominy, cornbread,
muffins and a beaker of milk. Mid-mornings he snacked on oysters and
clams. For lunch came more shellfish accompanied by two or three deviled
crabs, a pair of broiled lobsters, a joint of beef, a salad and several
fruit pies. To round out the meal and to make, in his words, “the food
set better,” he would polish off a box of chocolates.
When meals didn’t “set better,” they set decidedly worse. About the
time that Diamond Jim was inhaling crustaceans by the dozen, a certain
Mr. Rogerson (nationality and profession unknown) reportedly gorged
himself to such a miserable extent that at meal’s end he committed
The Coffin Factory: Fear of Food focuses on conceptions of food which you prove to be “groundless or at best unduly exaggerated” by the media, corporations, and our government. Do you see this authoritative manipulation as a trend in America that extends beyond the food industry?
Harvey Levenstein: To see that, sadly, this is indeed the case, you don’t have to look any further than Paul Krugman’s columns in the New York Times, which regularly show how the ridiculous ideas propounded by the media, corporations, and all-too-many politicians and are not only taken seriously, but often become the basis of government policy.
The Coffin Factory: Has your research for this book affected the way you eat, and the way your family eats? For example, have the discoveries of “pink slime” deterred you from trips to McDonalds with your grandchildren, or have you stopped eating American meat after learning that the sloppy practices on the kill floor facilitate fatal bacteria like E. coli.?
Harvey Levenstein: When I wrote about “pink slime” (before it was labelled that) in my book, I remarked on how unappetizing it looked. I also wrote about hot dogs, whose slimy, gray, extruded ingredients look even worse. However, since neither of these pose a health risk, I rarely allow myself to think of this. Indeed, I enjoy a good hot dog (particularly in Pittsburgh and Chicago, and I still eat hamburgers when I travel in the States (“pink slime” is not allowed here in Canada.) E Coli. is, of course, a much more serious threat, and although I also enjoy a good hamburger (including, occasionally, a not-so-good one at McDonalds) I no longer buy ground beef, or any other meat, in supermarkets. I am lucky enough to have a reputable local butcher whose meat comes from identifiable farms and is not processed in the huge “finishing” and slaughtering operations where the problem originates. As for my grandchildren, not to put too fine a point on it: my daughter would kill me if I ever took them to McDonalds.
The Coffin Factory: Advocates for the Pharmaceutical industry have argued that the rise of obesity in America is a new “disease,” which they are hoping to cure with a pill. There are other arguments that obesity is a result of irresponsible parenting, or lack of self awareness, or the processing of food (particularly corn), or the privatizing of government responsibility. What do you think is the major cause of obesity in America?
Harvey Levenstein: One thing I find interesting about the obesity scare is how it parallels our reaction to hearing that someone has contracted a serious illness. It is hard not to blame it on their doing something that we don’t do—smoking, of course, being the best example. So, exercise enthusiasts blame obesity on lack of exercise, habitual dieters blame it on overeating, leftists blame the giant food processors, right-wingers blame the lack of self-control of the poor, and so on. My wife, who is fiercely anti-smoking, likes to point out that Americans’ weight rose at the same time that smoking decreased, something that I, as an ex-smoker who put on the 8 pounds after quitting, cannot readily dismiss. Obviously, there is no single major “cause.” One must also be suspicious of those who have exaggerated the extent of the “disease.” As with the heart disease “epidemic,” those with a stake in scaring us about it lowered the BMI for “overweight” so that it would include all kinds of people (such as me) whose weight would seem to pose no health risk at all. Yet, in order to gain support for whatever solution they are pushing, they normally confound us with the minority who are truly scarily-obese to conclude that a huge percentage of Americans are “overweight or obese.”
Peruvian food is becoming a global phenomenon. The culinary scene in Lima and the rest of Peru keeps improving. Food festivals, such as Mistura, are expanding. Young chefs who have trained in top kitchens in North America and Europe are returning home to open restaurants. In the same regard in North America and Europe Peruvian chefs are being called upon to a greater degree to launch new restaurants. Gastón Acurio is not holding back on his expansion plans. Culinary ideas are being refined from every angle. Here’s what to expect from Peruvian food and restaurants in 2012:
1.) Amaz Opens: Pedro Miguel Schiaffino, in my opinion the best chef in Peru right now (he’s the chef of Malabar in Lima and has also had a hand in La Pescaderia and the menu aboard the MV Aqua riverboat in the Amazon) is opening this Amazonian bar and restaurant in Miraflores. Expect his already adventurous cocktails and food to be the most talked about restaurant in Peru this year. Av La Paz 1079 (entre Av La Paz y 28 de Julio,) Miraflores.
2.) Organic Produce and Sustainability Will Be Emphasized To a Greater Degree: Peru’s agricultural industry is booming, partly in thanks to the rapid growth in exports of organic produce. Farmers are opting to grow organically as they are seeing the long term benefits, though chefs are pushing hard too. At Nanka, Australian chef, Jason Nanka, and his Peruvian wife Lorena use mostly locally sourced organic produce and even have a small kitchen garden, in which grow many of their own herbs. Central has a rooftop garden as well. In Callao and now Barranco, La Pescaderia is showcasing sustainable seafood, including utilizing the otherwise discarded bycatch.
"JUST TRY TO IMAGINE ITALIAN FOOD WITHOUT TOMATOES, Mr. Duane. Or spanish cooking without chiles. Really, face it, my friend, the Inca domesticated fowl, so there would be no foie gras in France without the food of Peru." Arturo Rubio's voice begins to rise now, and he swings his soft hands around to illustrate his point—that every great culinary tradition on earth owes a debt to Peru. "No chocolate in Switzerland," he cries, laughing at himself now. "No potatoes in Ireland." Pausing to gulp a Peruvian beer, he nearly spits his next line with glee: "The Irish would've starved. New York would have no cops. My God, it was Portuguese traders who brought South American chiles to the Asian subcontinent; there would be no curry in India. No spices in Thailand!"
Worldly, portly, impeccably dressed in Paris-by-way-of-Oxford upscale casual, Rubio is both the owner of Restaurant Huaca Pucllana, which is located near a 1,500-year-old ruined pyramid in the Miraflores district of Lima, Peru, and the impassioned former president of the Committee for the Promotion of Peruvian Cuisine. Which explains not only his harangue but the four appetizers suddenly set down by his waiters: Italian-Peruvian grilled baby octopus with lima beans, Afro-Peruvian-Creole beef heart rubbed with dried chiles and then grilled, Japanese-Peruvian tiradito of raw sole marinated ceviche-style in lime juice and chiles, and Chinese-Peruvian lomo saltado.
Peru, Rubio now wants me to know, doesn't just have great ingredients; it has one of the world's great culinary fusions.
"Because you see, the first people who came to the New World from Spain were not only Catholic Castellanos," Rubio says with the intensity of a scholar, "they were Spanish Jews and Muslims fleeing the Inquisition. So our gastronomy has Sephardic and Arabic Mediterranean roots. And then the European diseases wiped out all of the indigenous peoples in Peru, so the Spanish brought in West African slaves and put the women to work in plantation kitchens, and voilà! African Creole cooking becomes and remains the essential home cooking of Spanish-Indian Peru."
And there was more: emancipation of those slaves leading to importation of Chinese indentured servants and, with them, Chinese culinary influences; Italian immigrants fleeing Garibaldi's 1861 reunification of Italy; Japanese immigrants fleeing the shogun wars. "That was in the early 20th century," Rubio tells me. "And was maybe the most important [event], for our gastronomy. You can see how it happens, all these Peru-born Japanese children begging Mommy to add maybe a little hot chile to the nightly sashimi so that it would taste like the food from those African-Creole street carts. And this is how you get what we Peruvians call the Nikkei style of restaurant. And you must know Nobu, yes? In New York? Well, Nobu worked in Peru."