By Lisabet Sarai
Let me start by admitting that I stole my title from Garce's amazing story “Miss Julia's Cake Club”. As I pondered how to address Kathleen's topic, “Soul Food”, this is what came to mind. I believe that Kathleen hoped we'd consider “food” from a metaphorical perspective, but I found myself stuck on the idea of real food and how it acquires meaning beyond its role as nourishment or sensual pleasure.
I've been living overseas for nearly nine years now, with annual visits to see friends and family. Six years ago, my planned trip happened to coincide with my step-mom's mastectomy. Needless to say, it was not exactly a happy time for her to welcome guests. She was exhausted from the surgery and the subsequent medications, not to mention nervous about the chemotherapy that she knew faced her as soon as she'd healed from the operation. My dad, not in the best of health himself, was practically paralyzed with anxiety. As for me, I felt helpless. My words of cheer sounded false even to my own ears.
So what did I do? I cooked. Nothing fancy, just the sort of things I'd make at home, if I were still living in a temperate climate. Pot roast. Meat loaf. Grilled fish. Scrambled eggs. Lentil soup. I spent most of the two weeks I was there either shopping for groceries, or in my step-mom's well-appointed kitchen, assembling meals for anyone who happened to be around.
I couldn't really express my fear. I didn't want to add to the general atmosphere of gloom. Instead, I contributed in a practical way, since, as my Jewish grandmother used to say, “No matter what, you've got to eat.” Preparing and serving food was my way of telling my dad and step-mom how much I loved them.
I do enjoy cooking – and eating. I'd much rather have people over for dinner than take them out to a restaurant, even though it's a lot more work. Food is a sort of gift that I offer our closest friends, tailoring my menus to what I know about their culinary tastes. Food is also a mode of creative expression for me. I'm not the sort to follow recipes. A recipe may provide a framework, but what actually goes into the pot will depend on what I have in the refrigerator, what I'm missing, and my own preferences. (For instance, there are very few dishes, in my opinion, that will not be enhanced by the addition of garlic!)
If food is love, though, how can I explain my years of anorexia? From my senior year in high school until I graduated from college, food ruled my life – through fear. In starving myself, was I actually indicating that I felt unworthy of love? I don't think that was it, exactly.
I craved food. I remember dreams where I'd be walking through lofty halls, past banquet tables heaped high with sumptuous delicacies – all my favorites. I knew it would be fatal to reach out and take what I wanted, yet it seemed so very easy... What I truly feared, I think, was my appetite – and perhaps this could be extended to an appetite for love, or sex. Certainly, during those years, I felt insulated and immune from sexual desire. I did have one or two lovers, but there was a kind of wall between me and them. That wall only began to crumble near the end of my period at university, when I'd recovered from the worst of my odd and dangerous psychosis.
And what about food in my fiction? I've never written a Tom Jones scene, where food becomes a stand-in for a lover's flesh (though I recently read a great example of this, in K.D. Grace's story “Eddie's All Night Diner”). Still, my characters tend to connect over food – frequently my favorite dishes – and I have a special fondness for a hero who cooks. And I have written at least one infamous food scene, in which chillis are employed for their sexually stimulating effect.
Somtow opened another bottle of wine and refilled their glasses. They continued to nibble on the exotic delicacies he had provided, sitting half-naked on the cushions in the balmy night.
Katherine found her gaze drawn again and again to his smooth, muscular chest. The folds of the sarong around his waist hid his penis from her eyes. She wondered what he would do if she reached down to touch him, as she longed to do.
Somtow was talking about Thai cuisine, the two thousand royal dishes and the hundreds of other, ’country-style’ recipes. Suddenly, it seemed, he noticed her looking at his body. She blushed a little. He said nothing, but reached across the table to pick up a bowl of raw chillis.
“Did you know, Katherine, that Thai chillis are considered to be among the hottest in the world?” He picked up a bright green pod between his thumb and forefinger, and raised it to his mouth. Instead of eating it, however, he ran the pepper across his lips, almost as if applying lipstick. Then he leaned forward, and kissed Katherine lightly.
The chilli oil made her own lips tingle and burn. “Mmm,” she murmured, as she returned the kiss with enthusiasm. She felt him untying her sarong, and then, his lips were on her nipples again, first the left, then the right.
She was not prepared for the sensations that assaulted her as the pungent oil touched her skin. Her nipples were still hard, sensitised from her recent arousal. They burned and throbbed, almost painful, as Somtow deliberately anointed them with the remnants of the pepper. The near-pain was overwhelmed by the pleasure, though, as a delicious warmth radiated out across her breasts.
“Oh...,” she sighed, closing her eyes and savouring the heat. “That is incredible.”
A light touch between her legs caused her to open her eyes. Somtow had another chilli in his fingers, brilliant red this time. With one hand, he parted her lower lips gently. Then, holding her open, he began to stroke the rigid little pepper against her equally rigid clitoris.
The effects were explosive. Sensitive though her nipples might be, the delicate tissues of her sex were much more so. Her labia swelled and ached; she rubbed herself against the fingers that held her open. The little knob of flesh directly in contact with the pepper pulsed and flamed. Part of her thought she could not bear it—and she knew he would stop immediately if she asked. Still, another part of her craved even more of this pleasure/pain, hotter, fiercer, consuming her flesh. She groaned.
Somtow made some soft sound in answer. Looking at him, she saw that he had crushed the pepper between his fingertips. Now he was rubbing the red pulp over his penis, up and down its stiff length, over the bulbous top. Katherine understood, suddenly, that his cock must be burning with the same almost unbearable intensity as her labia and clit. He looked into her eyes, without a word, and she knew he understood her wordless consent, as he plunged his fire-laden member into her vagina.
Katherine gasped and dug her nails into his shoulders. Intense sensation nearly overwhelmed her. She was still wet from their previous coupling. He moved easily within her secret cavities, spreading the incendiary chilli oil inside and out.
From Raw Silk by Lisabet Sarai
Re-reading this, I see the connection between food and lust, as well as food and love. That's probably what I was trying to escape, by depriving my body of nourishment, until I was as skinny and sexless as a twelve year old (though actually, when I was twelve I was well-enough developed, as they say, to pass for fifteen or sixteen).
I'm fascinated by the way the human imagination associates new meaning with something as fundamental as eating. Abstaining from certain foods becomes holy. Gluttony becomes a mortal sin. A meal can be an apology, a celebration, or a seduction.
No wonder we talk about “soul food”.