When did sauce become saucy?

Eoghan Conway examines the sexually charged language that troubles food

Food is fundamental. Food writing, however, is not. It’s lavish, embellished and ostentatious. Eating is essential. Reading notes about the umami taste of mushrooms on the other hand, is not so essential. Regardless, food writing sells. The dusty cookbooks and weekend magazines that decorate your presses are a testament to this. Ultimately, food writing is about communication: describing a dish, an experience or an act. That said, no one wants to read humdrum descriptions about boiled soggy cabbage now, do they? People want hedonistic gastronomic gluttony. 

“A food writer sells the sizzle, not the steak. Yet if you don’t want to sell the sizzle, you can probably sell sex. Sex sells, we all know that.”

A food writer sells the sizzle, not the steak. Yet if you don’t want to sell the sizzle, you can probably sell sex. Sex sells, we all know that. People want to hear about the seductive cake with enough sugar to give you cavities upon the first bite. We want to hear about the naughty little starter that was so oozy it could clog up your arteries. Raunchy right? Though has this quest for embellishment gone too far? I mean, sure — if you want to draw parallels between sauce and saucy, be my guest. Go for it. Describe that salad as sexy or that ketchup as kinky, but I do find myself questioning this ongoing fetishisation of food. When did a brownie become slutty and why is it that fries have to be dirty and loaded? It’s just flour, sugar, and chocolate really, and some potatoes sliced lengthways. There can’t be that much more to it, can there?

The food critic M.F.K. Fisher wrote that food writing was about three elemental needs: food, security and love. These are so “mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others.” This is the crux of the argument. When you want to write about food you write about how food makes you feel. Eating is ultimately a pleasurable act, one that fulfils a primordial desire, but that’s only looking at it on a fundamental level. Food writing, if done correctly, can instil a deep sense of safety, expression, and longing. The sum tends to be greater than the parts — when assembled in a certain manner, the mere combination of produce can be euphoric (note: I didn’t say orgasmic). 

For example, if I were to describe a simple custard, I’d mention its lovely vanilla notes and state how beautifully it pairs with a Tarte Tatin. I’d also say how it reminds me of my granny. How she used to microwave half a box of Bird’s custard for my grandad each night for his dessert. How its pasty pastel yellow reminds me of the Simpsons characters, a show that was a cornerstone of my childhood. How the sugar content used to send me into a rush like no other. Fisher’s three aforementioned elemental needs are intertwined within this: the sustenance or pseudo-sustenance the sugar brought me, the security that a TV show gave me, and the love family members have for each other. These all oscillate around, informing my thinking and, ultimately, my writing. 

“I think it’s time to kick the kitsch and, dare I say, kinks, from the kitchen.”

Yet why is it that Nigella Lawson describes custard as “firm but not immobile; when you press it with your fingers, it should have a little wobble still within. Soft, warm and voluptuous — like an eighteenth-century courtesan’s inner thigh.” What do custard and courtesans have to do with one other? Firstly, how does she know what an eighteenth-century courtesan’s thigh feels like? Secondly, no matter how much you want to talk it up, it’s just vanilla extract, egg yolks, single cream, milk, and sugar (well, according to Mary Berry anyway). Lawson once said that she puts the kitsch in the kitchen. I hope it is the likes of Mary Berry who sits her down and tells her to cop onto herself. However, even Mary Berry, everyone’s favourite grandmother and pastry puritan, can’t escape from the sexualisation of food. I’ve seen you, Mary. Tasting that undercooked Victoria sponge cake, and, with the suggestive wag of a finger, proclaiming that “no one likes a soggy bottom.” Call me a prude, but I think it’s time to kick the kitsch and, dare I say, kinks, from the kitchen.

Of course language matters. The pen is mightier than the sword. No need to add to the adage. Yet the pen, when combined with the knife and fork, is a treacherous combination. I don’t know what it is with food writers, blog posters, or even Instagram captioners but maybe the list of adjectives to describe food is too sexually charged (juicy, sticky, oozing — I could go on). Why does everything have to be filthy, erotic, or arousing? Frankly, I just want to manger à trois, not a ménage à trois. 

On a serious note, the ongoing fetishisation of food is a dangerous one. One that glorifies unhealthy relationships with the food we eat. One that makes cooking a glamorous and aspirational feat. Food writers need to be aware of this, if people want to read gastronomic gluttony, let them. But can we at least make it more realistic? Less Fifty Shades of Grey and more Fifty Shades of Greying Gorgonzola, please. It’s time for the food-porn directors to get a real job. Stop cutting that egg yolk in a suggestive slow-motion manner and take it easy on the frosted glazing. The kitchen and food columns should be a safe space — a space not in need of a safe word.