Friday, April 21, 2006

The Devil's Picnic by Taras Grescoe

# Hardcover: 372 pages
# Publisher: Bloomsbury USA (2005)
# Genre: Travel/Culinary

forbidden fruit
An indulgence or a pleasure that is illegal or is believed to be immoral.
"Forbidden fruit tastes the sweetest"

And isn't that precisely why we mere mortals desire forbidden fruit so much? Make it acceptable, it loses its notoreity and becomes commonplace. In order to put this to the test, travel writer Taras Grescoe decided to embark on a global culinary journey looking for food prohibited by various governments - " that had been vilified, demonised and banned by the lawmakers of the civilised world” and studying the effects it has had on the populations of those countries.

The Devil's Picnic: Around The World in Pursuit of Forbidden Fruit is cleverly laid out like a 9-course meal, starting with Chapter 1 aptly titled, "The Apertif" (Viking Moonshine in Norway) and ending with "Night Cap" ( pentobarbital sodium sipped by suicide tourists in Zurich). But between the apertif and nightcap, Grescoe tries everything from sipping tea laced with cocaine in Bolivia, to munching on "Marks & Spencers" poppy-seed crackers that are banned as "narcotics" in Singapore, to bull's testicles stewed in garlic and gravy in Spain... (a delicacy disappearing from restaurants because of anxieties over “mad cow” disease)

What he found is that prohibition, rather than limiting one's consumption of the forbidden substance, can actually cause people to covet it and it go to great lengths to procur it, leading to dangerous trends . To to give you just one of many examples he cites in his book, Norway, which has some of the greatest restrictions on alcohol sales, has a hidden associated binge-drinking culture. "...Getting staggeringly shellshacked on a Friday evening in Norway was a cultural norm. The overnight ferry from Oslo to Copenhagen is a notoriously debauched booze cruise, where adults, loading up on duty-free alcohol as soon as they hit international waters, peed in their jeans and vomited over their sweaters, returning with trunks full of Danish spirits. Drinking to excess was about overcoming legal, rather than psychological, constraints."

Also, because the price of alcohol is prohibitively expensive in Norway, inhabitants of the world's richest welfare state are reduced to drinking the Scandinavian equivalent of bathtub gin with at least 95 per cent alcohol, more useful for lighting fires than drinking!

Grescoe is a curious, witty, entertaining and perceptive writer and his encounters with forbidden foods make great "food for thought" - in Singapore he risks imprisonment for carrying three sticks of "Wrigley's" gum (banned, except for medicinal purposes) and a copy of "Fanny Hill", considered pornographic literature; in Switzerland he tastes absinthe, a huge fad among the arty crowd in the 1920's , but banned since then, and has this to report about an absinthe hangover:"I lay prone in the sun, oozing toxins, until the jackals stopped chewing out my belly and the larvae had finished tunnelling through my brain."

In France, he buys Époisses cheese which stinks (probably the whiffiest cheese in the world) so much it is banned on Paris metros (but ofcourse Grescoe has to carry it) and clears out half the metro! The other, more important reason for him buying Epoisses is because this unpasteurised cheese is banned in the US. He regards this as ridiculous, pointing out that E. coli in hamburger meat and listeria in all-American hot dogs have killed hundreds, while the listeria deaths linked to époisses were ultimately traced to a pasteurised version of the cheese. In San Francisco he smoked a Havana cigar, smuggled from across the border in Canada in defiance of US laws against importing Cuban goods, and so on.

In Bolivia, he chewed coco leaves like the natives do and found that it gave him a pleasant buzz that left him neither tired, nor hyper. In its non-industrial form, coca, whether chewed or served as a tea, is a relatively mild intoxicant whose health consequences are far less severe than alcohol and tobacco and yet, no country has imposed a blanket ban on tobacco!

The stories may be funny, but Grescoe has a serious message - he is of the opinion that governments ban substances not so much because they are harmful, but out of political and commercial motivation. He is not a liberatarian and does support moderate controls, but he does have a problem with governments trying to paternalistically keep people away from certain foods which they (the government) perceive as being "bad" for them. His solution? To slap a warning on an item considered bad for the health and then to let people make their own decisions on consumption. He is against outright bans because prohibition comes with its own set of problems. According to him, any authority that would prescribe incarceration for what we as individuals decide to eat, smoke or drink, is violating a fundamental human right. "... why in ostensibly free states should we be criminalized for behaviour that concerns no one but ourselves?"

He gets a little philosophical when he claims that when a government witholds the means to intoxication (which provides escapism, an important stress-relieving tool for humans) and other forms of sensual experience, “society denies its members self-knowledge and allocates itself punitive power over sexuality, consciousness, and self-determination—the most intimate domains of individuality.” Case in point, Singapore: a country so repressed sexually that their birthrates have dropped to an all time low and the government is now embarked on a campaign to encourage people to fall in love, get married and start families.

One other very insightful point he makes is this: wherever the forbidden (or potentially dangerous) foods happen to be a part of that population's culture, abuse of the substance is rare. For instance, in Bolivia where coco leaves are immersed in tea and soft drinks people don't have problems with cocaine addiction. The French, for all the wine, cheese and pastry, are neither alcoholic nor fat. So, is prohibition really the right answer? Grescoe says, there is a middle ground between abstinence and excess: it's called moderation. Let's say "Cheers" to that!


Anonymous said...

You make this sound interesting. I may have to but it. Grompy

Anonymous said...

Sorry, that's Grumpy

Lotus Reads said...

How nice to "see" you here, Grumpy! Yes, you will enjoy this book. I think of it as a nice, juicy bone with a lot of meat on it. You'll be chewing on it for days! I learned a lot reading it. Geishabird (another bookcrosser) put me on to it.

Susan in Italy said...

Hi Lotus,
I think this one may have also fit in your Anthropology blog. This looks like something similar in scope to Fast Food Nation (an ananysis of culture through food consumption) although with different goals.

Lotus Reads said...

That's an accurate observation, Susan! As a matter of fact, this is what I wrote in my bookcrossing journal after reading two or so chapters of the book:

"Ok, so I know the reviewers haven't been particularly kind to this book by Grescoe, but he's my kind of travel writer. Bill Bryson may be funny, entertaining and what have you, but Grescoe tells me what I want to know - he has the stats and the socio-political explanations on why different foods make it to the forbidden lists in countries. He's an anthropologist with an eye for sensationalism. He is also a rebel - the more he is told NOT to do a certain thing, the more he seems to want to do it and it is this quality of his which becomes the thrust of this book."


Glad to see the travel/culinary genre taking off. Have you read Anthony Bourdain?

Susan in Italy said...

I have read "Kitchen Confidential" and what struck me most (other than the "don't order fish on Mondays" etc.) was the seeming link between the restaurant business and drug addiction. He was able to sort of keep it together while being on (was it?) heroin since the hours were very late and the job could be done (not well, but done) while intoxicated. I never thought about things like this when walking into a nice restaurant.

Janelle Martin said...

I've been wanting to read this one so I'm really glad you reviewed it! Thanks for the great I definitely have to pick this one up.

Lotus Reads said...

Hi, Susan

I haven't read the book, but I did hear about the "heroin" bit. Makes you wonder, doesn't it? I have a book here called "Waiting: waiters' true tales of crazed customers, murderous chefs, and tableside disasters". A must for everyone that likes to eat out! :))) But it also makes you see things from a server's perspective - some customers can be as nasty as anything. I know, I've seen a few and I've always pitied the server that had to deal with them.

Lotus Reads said...

Janelle, I can always lend you my copy if you wish. I think you will really enjoy the read.

Thanks for stopping by!

Guinness_Girl said...

This looks like a fascinating read! I'll have to check it out!

Drive By Fruiting said...

Your blog rocks!