Forbidden foods

Henri curls up with a new book about devilish delights

Photo Illustration by Carey Wilson

The other evening, I cooked up a lovely tomato-and-basil pasta and sat back with a bottle of Bordeaux to watch the remake of Bedazzled, with Brendan Fraser and Elizabeth Hurley. Quelle erreur!

In the original film, made in 1967, Dudley Moore plays Stanley Moon, a lonely short-order cook who agrees to sell his soul to the devil (Peter Cook) for seven wishes, which he will use to win the heart of Margaret, a waitress with whom he works and who doesn’t know he exists. Cook is brilliant as the mischievous devil—tossing a jar of honey bees at a group of picnickers, tapping phone lines and lying to women about their husbands—and Moore is hilarious as the mooning Moon.

In the remake Fraser plays a lonely computer technician who agrees to sell his soul to the devil for seven wishes—to win, but of course, the heart of a coworker who doesn’t know he exists. Fraser is occasionally amusing, but Hurley’s Beelzeboob is pathetic, très embarrassante.

Besides, the remake completely does away with one of the charms of the original, the Seven Deadly Sins personified as the devil’s henchmen—though it pains Henri to watch Vanity, constantly walking into things he can’t see for the mirrors he holds before him, and Envy, the jealous lover, writhing in his satin sheets. Raquel Welch as Lust, on the other hand, has clearly found herself one gifted hairdresser.

After the movie Miss Marilyn and I tried to salvage the evening. I fixed a big mug of steaming hot chocolate, took a leftover half of an apple pie from the refrigerator, and snuggled up on the couch with a brand-new book, In the Devil’s Garden: A Sinful History of Forbidden Food, by Stewart Lee Allen.

Organized by chapters named after the Seven Deadly Sins, Allen’s book looks at foods that cultures over the centuries and around the world have considered taboo. Thanks largely to Milton’s Paradise Lost, where the fruit that “brought death into the world, and all our woe” is referred to as a “love apple,” many people assume that the “forbidden fruit” was in fact an apple (which, according to legend, gets lodged in Adam’s throat—hence “Adam’s apple"). Actually, apples are never mentioned in Genesis. Rather, it is the fruit from one specific but unnamed tree “in the midst of the garden” from which God forbids them to eat.

According to Allen, it was the smug Roman Catholics who identified the forbidden fruit as an apple. The Celts, those lusty pagans, held the apple sacred, and their priests, the Druids, used them to make a ceremonial alcohol. What better way to demonize a people, asks Allen, than to identify their sacred fruit as evil incarnate?

Christians are also to thank for a tomato taboo that lasted nearly four centuries. Early Spanish explorers brought back from the New World a “slut-red fruit oozing lugubrious juices and exploding with electric flavors. Clearly an aphrodisiac,” according to Allen, particularly since they discovered the tomato in an area that Columbus thought was the gateway to Eden.

Et chocolat, Henri’s favorite? Bien sur! Said to arouse “unnatural passions,” Allen writes. Indeed, one of the mistresses of Louis XV, Madame du Barry, won the king’s affections by her ability to “sate his lecherous appetites,” which, according to stories of the day, she did with her strategic use of chocolat and techniques she had learned working en bordelles.

It’s a fine book. Stewart covers a lot of ground and along the way invokes a wide range of sources and writers, including James Joyce, Pythagoras, Nikolai Gogol, Joan of Arc and the Marquis de Sade. We learn about some extremely odd, even disquieting eating customs from around the world, including why we are supposed to scream obscenities at basil before we pick it, and in the end find that many food taboos are born of classism, racism, sexism, homophobia and, naturellement, the proverbial provincial anxieties about sex.

I fell asleep reading that night and dreamt I made a delicious stew from oysters and sea cucumbers—and served it up with a little pitchfork.