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Book reviews

Food & Trembling: An Entertainment, Jonah Campbell, Invisible Publishing, 2011, 232 pages

  • Frederik Byrn Køhlert

Corps de l’article

The title of Jonah Campbell’s blog, from which the short essays collected in Food & Trembling have been adapted, is Still Crapulent After All These Years. It is a fitting title, and not only because Campbell’s forays into writing about food more often than not concern excess of the vomiting-in-the-gutter-variety, but also, and perhaps even more appropriately, because the adjective perfectly describes his somewhat overwritten and often self-indulgent prose. The choice of the word, in fact, is indicative of Campbell’s approach in many of these essays: beginning with a slightly obscure or heavily specialized word, of the kind that is richly suggestive (crap? opulent? flatulence?), he spirals through a self-consciously unscientific combination of etymology and random associations before settling on a memory of a thing eaten and perhaps adding a few lightly philosophical observations before ending the three-page exploration with a humourous and noncommittal one-liner meant to deflate the pomposity of his most ornate stylistic flourishes. But while Campbell’s verbose prose can at times be both tiresome and obfuscating in Food & Trembling’s book-length dose, it is also the main reason for the book’s often considerable charms, and one gets the feeling that food is merely incidental to his real subject: the sensuous pleasures of language, and especially of esoteric vocabulary, interminable sentences, and digressive footnotes.

Consider for example Campbell’s ruminations concerning a mushroom alternately known as trompettes de la mort and cornes d’abondance:

But while they don’t (unlike other, less morbidly-identified fungi) actually kill you, it occurs to me just this very moment that the seemingly opposed nomenclature actually says just that − something very apposite about mushrooms in general, the saprophytic (death-eating) ones at least: that great bounty does, in the form of delicious fruiting bodies and soil/partner-plant-nourishing mycorrhizae, derive from the dead and decaying and decayed. How exciting!

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Exciting, perhaps, on a purely linguistic or philosophical level, but what of the mushrooms themselves? Compared to Michael Pollan’s considerations of mushroom biology, foraging, cooking, and eating in The Omnivore’s Dilemma, to take but one obvious example, there is very little here that actually concerns the thing supposedly eaten and enjoyed − a few words in the beginning about how their taste is “earthier, nuttier” (127) than chanterelles is all we get. And while that is not necessarily a shortcoming of an idiosyncratic and for the most part entertaining blog-to-book project such as this, it does point to Campbell’s limitations as an aspiring literary “foodie” (his objections to the term notwithstanding): he simply is more interested in etymological wordplay and culinary taxonomy than he is in savouring or writing about the food itself.

Seemingly at odds with Campbell’s love for the refined and recondite realms of language is his choice of subject matter, which more often than not is picked from the trashier jurisdictions of the supermarket aisle, if not directly dumpster-dived. In the pages of Food & Trembling, consequently, we get a spirited defense of margarine, a contemplative ranking of the importance of the various ingredients to a successful BLT (the conclusion might surprise you), a European tour of unusual chips flavours, an ode to the “drama” of cabbage (mostly dictionary-based, as it turns out), and not one but two thoughtful essays on why some experimental incarnations of Reese’s Peanut Butter Cups are better than others (it has to do, apparently, with the “p.b.:choc ratio” [87]). In these animated explorations into the ephemera of the ordinary, the greasy, and the industrial, Campbell rarely touches on the troubling particulars of modern food production or the ethical quandaries of meat eating in the way popularized by Pollan and Eric Schlosser and exemplified also by David Foster Wallace’s classic “Consider the Lobster” essay for Gourmet magazine. For Campbell, the importance of food is found not in the socio-cultural implications of the culinary-industrial complex or the aestheticized refinement of Michelin-starred destination restaurants, but instead in the ability of even its lowest and most common forms to act as a forger of community and trigger of memories.

The result is a series of essays anchored in personal memoir and loosely tracing his development from DIY straightedge punk to adventurous eater of calf brains, but always with language as their real subject. Campbell, however, can also be a surprisingly direct turner of phrases, such as when he describes green peppers as tasting “at best like batteries and grass-flavoured bubble gum” (208). Even in unexpected and evocative language such as this, though, the real subject of Food & Trembling is always words and Campbell’s evident facility therewith. But while a consideration of the food itself sometimes tends to disappear under a layer of enthusiastic etymology, it is that same linguistic virtuosity that makes the book worth reading.

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