Eaten Back to Life

By Jonah Campbell

Eaten Back to Life
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A new essay collection by the Philip K. Dick of chips

In this series of thoughtful essays and stink-eyed observations, Jonah Campbell explores food and drink in the modern world, from pig heads and whisky to fine wine and French gastronomy, Nigella Lawson to David Cronenberg, ... Read more


Overview

A new essay collection by the Philip K. Dick of chips

In this series of thoughtful essays and stink-eyed observations, Jonah Campbell explores food and drink in the modern world, from pig heads and whisky to fine wine and French gastronomy, Nigella Lawson to David Cronenberg, with a trail of potato chips and stale chocolate bars along the way. In the tradition of writers like M. F. K. Fisher and David Foster Wallace, Eaten Back to Life renders in delirious prose the ecstasies and absurdities that lie beneath the daily business of feeding ourselves.

"This collection [is] a must for the reader who likes to play with their food, conceptually, as well as eat it. ”Montreal Review of Books

“If food writing today is becoming increasingly blog-like, then Campbell is leaving his self-focused compatriots in the dust. ”The Coast

Jonah Campbell

Jonah Campbell lives in Montreal, QC. He divides his time between food, drink, and research with the Social Studies of Medicine unit at McGill University. He also pours wine. His work has appeared in the National Post, Harper's, VICE, and Cult MTL. He is the author of Eaten Back To Life and Food and Trembling .

Excerpt

A Bag of Assholes

Paris in the summertime is a strange place. Summer is, as anyone could tell you, the worst time to visit, as half of the restaurants are closed, all of the Parisians are on vacation, and in their stead are masses of gaping tourists from the likes of which the rest of us take great pains and great pride to distinguish ourselves, in spite of the fact that the Parisians hate us all more or less equally. But we all make poor decisions now and then, so once I went to Paris in July and dutifully discovered that it was too hot to eat and no one has air conditioning and my grand plans of plumbing the depths of French food and wine had to be subordinated to the more immediate necessity of using an infinity of miniature Kronenbourgs to keep from expiring in a sopping pile on the floor. There were a few moments of reprieve, of course—goose rillettes with white Irouléguy from a spot I persist in misremembering as the “Cave of the Abyss,” the first and best mimolette I have ever had (a cheese temporarily banned in the United States for, as a rule, containing mites), and as much and as varied kebab as I could get into me.

But my most successful, or least most instructive, outing was to a little cave à manger in the 9e arrondissement that had been favourably reviewed and distinguished from another establishment’s “comically pretentious team of radish-fetish nitwits”1 by its execution of traditional, unfussy French fare. I rolled by on a comparatively temperate Wednesday afternoon and found the place quite deserted. The cave à manger, it should be noted, is not so much a restaurant as it is a wine shop that has a couple of tables, a short food menu, and considerably lower markups on bottles than one encounters in a restaurant. The term has become much abused in Paris, but generally one can expect an operation that falls somewhere between a wine shop and a bistro. I ordered a glass of some spritzy Loire red about which I remember very little, and, from the handful of dishes chalked up on the board at the end of the room, I opted for the andouillette.

I considered opening this account with the line “This summer in France, I was defeated by a sausage. ” Let me just say that I did have some idea, when ordering, what I was in for. I know what andouillette is. I know what andouillette is made of, and didn’t really think I would like it. Larousse Gastronomique describes it as “a type of sausage made from pork intestines (chaudins), often with the addition of pork stomach and calf’s mesentery, precooked in stock or milk and packed into a skin. ” What this already evocative description leaves out is the extent to which andouillette is defined by the use of lower intestine, and consequently the extent to which it smells like actual shit garbage on account of it being, yes, basically just a cooked bag of assholes. This is for what andouillette is known, loved, and maligned by diverse parties. It is pungent and aggressive and all up in one’s face, and I, for all that I am drawn to things that taste bad and gross and great (bretty beers, oxidative sherries, bitters of all kinds—all booze, it occurs to me), I am nonetheless not a great fan of powerfully funky charcuterie, or the more “organy” and elect of the offal family.

Hence there was truly no reason for me to expect to like the andouillette. However, I had heard good things about the dish at this particular establishment—that it was rustic and expressive and fidèle (whether to Lyon or Troyes or wherever, or to some Platonic ideal, I don’t know), so in spite of my trepidation and reasonable prediction that it would not be to my tastes, I was curious. And when better to try the thing than when faced with a specimen of agreed-upon quality? I was in France, for god’s sake. I hadn’t come for the watery beer and state racism alone, that’s for sure.

And I couldn’t hack it. Oh boy, could I not hack it. I mean, I tried, in what fashion passes for “valiantly” in the wasteland of moral fibre that is my interior mental landscape. Which is to say that having ordered it I had to try to eat it, even though upon splitting the casing of the quite substantial sausage I was treated to the rather robust aroma for which andouillette is so prized. Which is butts. Butts, unmistakably. But like, living butts, if that means anything. Not shit per se, but like a butt that you are nonetheless fully occupied with. And so, taking grateful advantage of the almost equally pungent (oh, if only it had been more pungent still) mustard with which the sausage was served, I consumed something like one-third (I would flatter myself to say a full half) of the generously provided length. Then, as befitting any self-respecting gastronome, I feigned getting an important phone call and asked for the remains to be wrapped up to go. For this is what “pride” means, in the life that I apparently have made for myself: sitting alone at a table in a casual wine-shop-cum-resto in Paris, France, pantomiming a non-existent phone conversation for the sake of the no-one-at-all who is in the room with me, on the off chance that the peripheral vision of the chef or proprietor is sufficiently acute to register my bland Canadian embarrassment at not being unable to appreciate this sausage that so notoriously tastes like butts.

Not, for the record, that it tasted bad, for it actually tasted very good, but it tasted like something good that had also been in, or was, a butt. Like, a pig’s butt, I guess. Delicious and disgusting simultaneously. Pleasure and repulsion wrenched from their zero-sum relationship through uneasy liaison. In that respect, I am sure it was an exemplary and well-crafted andouillette. This is what it’s like to be defeated by a sausage.

But it’s not defeat, truly, because as vulnerable as is my account to this interpretation, eating the sausage was not about proving something. It was not about triumphing over the food. It was, and is, above all about the attempt to make space for new pleasure in one’s life, not only for one’s own satisfaction, but as a gesture of faith in the possibility of intersubjective understanding: maybe based on what I know, I won’t like this, I don’t like this. But someone likes this, they know how to like this. It is not a competition, although it is a challenge; it is a call to understanding and to enjoyment both—others love me, the sausage cries, why don’t you? One need not out of some abstract devotion to gastronomy love everything that is cool or weird or rarefied or rustic, of course, but there is something gross in the too-easy repair to the refuge of “personal taste. ” The irony of the adage that “there is no accounting for taste” is that while there are reams of sociological, anthropological, and historical writings accounting for taste in all sorts of ways, there forever remains an intimate kernel of indeterminacy, and one can never count on the socializing of tastes to be totalizing, complete. One could say that this kernel of indeterminacy is what makes taste insistently personal. The problem with the notion of the unassailable subjectivity of taste, however, is the presumption that the subject itself is stable and that desire and enjoyment are transparent. “I know what I like” is easy to affirm and impossible to argue against, but what happens when it turns out we are wrong? When it turns out we don’t know what we like? What is the implication when the ultimate in subjective authority is (regularly, perhaps perpetually) eroded? It happens all the time. Or at least it could, if we let it.

It would be too strong to claim that one necessarily comes to understand others (or the Other) better by appreciating their culinary pleasures. This is a well-worn cliché of even the better food writing, and it veers too easily from empathy into appropriation, into the Eating of the Other. But there is certainly merit in trying to understand their appreciation, if only to destabilize the solipsism of pleasure, to undermine on a very intimate level the authority of the subject we assume defines the contours of our experience of the world. One never knows, but how often otherwise has one the opportunity to declare: if fate had it that I was to be defeated by a bag of assholes, I am happy it was thus?

1 From Aaron Ayscough’s consistently worthy and enjoyable blog, Not Drinking Poison in Paris.

Awards

  • NOW Magazine Must-Read Canadian Book for Summer 2017, Commended

Reviews

“Eaten Back to Life distills an omnivorous appetite and intellect into easily digestible bites, offering crisp observations about cuisine and food writing that make this collection a must for the reader who likes to play with their food, conceptually, as well as eat it. ”Montreal Review of Books

“Campbell specializes in literary artisanal prose, which means it is mannered and amusing. ”Toronto Star

“The philosophical flourishes are tempered with a clever wit and personal reflections that will challenge readers to think more deeply about their own eating experiences. ”Humber Literary Review

“If food writing today is becoming increasingly blog-like, then Campbell is leaving his self-focused compatriots in the dust. ”The Coast

“Eaten Back to Life distills an omnivorous appetite and intellect into easily digestible bites, offering crisp observations about cuisine and food writing that make this collection a must for the reader who likes to play with their food, conceptually, as well as eat it. ”Montreal Review of Books

“Campbell specializes in literary artisanal prose, which means it is mannered and amusing. ”Toronto Star

“The philosophical flourishes are tempered with a clever wit and personal reflections that will challenge readers to think more deeply about their own eating experiences. ”Humber Literary Review

“If food writing today is becoming increasingly blog-like, then Campbell is leaving his self-focused compatriots in the dust. ”The Coast

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