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NewCityNet Cheez Whiz!

Taking a look at the great gross-outs and kinky quirks of food history

By Margaret Wappler

JULY 17, 2000:  So how about a steaming slice of cockney stinking, with a scrumptious side of spotted dick? Or do you prefer faggots?

If your stomach turned by the offering of these dubiously named delectables, don't spend any quality time in the U.K., where cockney stinking doubles as baked eel pie, and steamed suet (hard, white fat from the kidneys or loins of cattle) pudding is also known spotted dick. The British, with their magnanimous talent of taking our silliest slang and legitimizing it, also consider faggots a "treat," consisting of fried pork liver balls made with, again, suet.

But it's not just the British Isles that dub strange names for even stranger food. After all, America is home to such wondrous creations as Spam and Cheez Whiz, as detailed in Alan Ridenour's dizzying, awe-inspiring and sometimes annoying book "Offbeat Food: Adventures in an Omnivorous World" (Santa Monica Press, $19.95). In six fat chapters-hyperkinetically-designed with more graphics than are good for you-Ridenour lays out all that is vile, disturbing, kinky, quirky and enticing about food and how we eat, prepare, wear and a whole other host of squirm-inducing inhabitations of our life-blood.

Thankfully, Ridenour takes off slow, meandering through the decently weird liturgical uses of manna as a substitute for the body of Jesus and the ins and outs of kosher, a Jewish food law with a main tenet inspired by one, just one, biblical injunction: "thou shalt not seethe a kid in its mother's milk," i.e. don't serve dairy and meat together. Actually, kosher food practices go beyond not serving a pepperoni pizza after temple, and include meticulous methods of killing the animal, such as removing the sciatic nerve and having a bodek inspect the animal's internal organs for anything abnormal. Armed with an informative yet glib style, Ridenour keeps this potentially boring section light and brisk.

It's in the latter sections of "Offbeat Food" where things get cooking. Chapter three, a dive into all things edibly American, takes a magnifying glass to our odd creations, many of which were--fittingly, considering our reputation for embracing technology in all its bizarre forms--whipped up in the lab. One has to wonder if Bill Cosby is aware that the jiggly dessert he's been peddling to the youth for the past decade or so once was considered an experimental laxative (yikes!) developed by a male carpenter named Pearl, who eventually sold the patent to a man named, ahem, Orator. Jell-O has come a long way, baby.

"Offbeat Food"'s most fun chapter is "Chewing on Metaphors," which explores art's tempestuous relationship with food. Or, perhaps more accurately, art's tempestuous relationship with culture, for which food makes a wonderful symbolic stand-in. Just take Karen Finley, who immortalized herself in the pantheon of NEA scandals by dipping herself in chocolate for her 1989 performance piece "We Keep Our Victims Ready." Finley asserted that her work served as commentary on the circumstances surrounding Tawana Brawley, a young black woman who was found alive in a garbage bag with feces on her body, who charged that she had been abducted and raped. Finley continued to make other pieces involving food, including the crux scene of her play "The Theory of Total Blame," in which an alcoholic matriarch places a meatloaf up to her crotch before smearing it all over her son's face. Freud would've been proud. Ridenour takes full advantage of Finley's and other artist's shenanigans, to take food and their relative oddities beyond the "Ew gross!" level into the truly quixotic and provocative realm.


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