Even fictional people have to eat. Sometimes food reveals what we should know about a character, sometimes it’s a pleasant pause in the action, sometimes it’s a crucial staging platform for exposition, and sometimes it’s jelly, ’cause jam don’t shake like that. Food Fiction is an ongoing feature that looks at some of the most memorable foods in the history of storytelling.
Songwriter Willie Dixon’s lyrics for the blues song “Back Door Man” allow Howlin’ Wolf to boast about housewives serving their husbands pork ’n’ beans—which he implies is a boring meal—while providing Howlin’ Wolf with more chicken than any man has seen. Elsewhere in the blues repertoire there’s a fair amount of coffee grinding going on, and Robert Johnson singing not just about biscuits, but about rolling them—an action any baker knows is perfectly innocuous and necessary. Over on the jazz side of town, Fats Waller complains about “All That Meat And No Potatoes” and serenades rump steak, while Ferd Morton, who claimed to have invented jazz, encourages the general public to call him “Jelly Roll.”
It doesn’t take a class in folk studies or poetry to get that these foods are code for something.
Bawdy singers have hidden sex and ribaldry in plain, technically acceptable language about food and eating since forever—a hundred years ago you’d have enjoyed a lot of playfully naughty, ostensibly innocent lyrics in any English music hall or vaudeville show (in England you might have been treated to “She Sits Among The Cabbages And Peas,” for example, or songs about cucumbers or having a banana; on stages here in America you might have caught a rendition of “Who Ate Napoleans With Josephine?”). African-American blues and jazz singers added their slang to the mix, and, as is often true in 20th century American music, white performers were inspired and started stealing. It may be that the whiter versions of food-sexy slang tend to come off slightly tamer—but this version of Glenn Miller’s “It Must Be Jelly (’Cause Jam Don’t Shake Like That)” gets rather ecstatic toward the end, thanks partly to some frantic editing.
Why food? For one thing, it’s easy to argue that you’re just singing about how much you like to eat, which gives everybody a way to be willfully naïve about the actual subject matter. In a performance of “Cheesecake,” the food-sexy code allows everybody to laugh along with Louis Armstrong:
Armstrong sang a number of other songs about food that aren’t really about food, and was known to have enjoyed a dirty joke. But what about avuncular Bing Crosby playing along with this only barely disguised vulgarity? Bing started as a jazz singer before visiting each Christmas to croon chastely by the fireplace and harmlessly dress in drag as Danny Kaye’s sister, so it’s not as absurd as it might seem today to have him jazzin’ around in an ode to “cheesecake.” And the song is silly enough that it’s plausible to hear it as only silly, and play it for the kids. Still, if a blues or jazz singer mentions food, they’re almost never talking about food—so it’s a little disconcerting to watch The Muppets cover this particular song (although The Muppets have always been hipper than they appear at a glance).
Maybe our contemporary reboot of The Muppets will cover a more modern descendant of these food-sexy code songs, performing a Warrant tribute with a nice lattice-crust cherry pie placed on Dr. Teeth’s upright. Decision-makers at Sesame Street already paired Danish singer Lorenzo Woodrose with Elmo to sing “Sugar, Sugar,” complete with the song’s suggestion that the singer’s candy girl “pour a little sugar on ‘it.’” If you’re too young to hear the second entrendre, well, no harm done—the moral majority quietly nods its assent. Even our nation’s watchdog reactionaries have tacitly agreed not make a big deal about the fact The Archies were aimed at kids, and “Sugar, Sugar,” the band’s catchy theme song blaring out of loud speakers as a staple of the Golden Oldie mix at amusement parks all over America every summer, is obviously describing the actions of two fully functioning adults.
Possibly the pious are in denial. Maybe it’s easiest to just assume the “sugar” is merely a kiss, insignificant and quick, like at the kissing booth shown in The Archies’ video. Maybe the lollipop in “Lollipop” is just a lollipop, and Steve Miller is simply impressed by his girl’s peach tree—though the wah-wah guitar pedal says differently.
Paul McCartney didn’t even bother to code his reference to “finger pies” in “Penny Lane.” He and John Lennon just used Liverpudlian slang that had a single entendre only, and let the rest of us slowly accept that the cheeky lads in the Saturday morning cartoon were capable of going past naughty to plain raunchy. It’s always interesting to note the moment in one’s adolescent life where the code starts becoming apparent: the first track on Herb Alpert And The Tijuana Brass’ LP Whipped Cream And Other Delights—typically a garage sale find, with a cover photo that has changed many lives—is, significantly, “A Taste Of Honey.”
Clearly, by deploying the code, a song is trying to avoid the censorship of those in charge of selling recordings to a Puritan-influenced, barely post-Victorian society. And from brooms to crosscut saws to all sorts of cat references, the code certainly isn’t limited to food references.
But food and sex conceptually go together well—both are simple biological imperatives that humans have turned into pleasures. Then we turned excessive enjoyment of those pleasures into two of the seven deadly sins.
There are those who claim to be protecting the children. But soon after the kids crack the code, they’re curious. Sometimes, at least in movies, the story of a sexual curiosity is played out by using food—as in the cafeteria at Ridgemont High, or on the counter at home where a warm, apple pie waits.
Beyond being useful for coding sex into song lyrics, or as a humiliatingly ingenious way of approximating sex, fictional food also helps filmmakers show sexy physical contact without violating any rules about what can or can’t be shown in theaters. Possibly the first food-as-foreplay moment that comes to the average moviegoer’s mind is the game Mickey Rourke and Kim Basinger play sitting next to the refrigerator in 9 ½ Weeks, and the mostly bad advice implied by its use of a cute honey-bear squeeze bottle. From the cringe-inducing flirting right down to a jarringly unsexy song choice, that scene is essentially an ’80s-modernized parallel of the encounter in an Olde English inn between Albert Finney and a comely stranger in the 1963 film Tom Jones:
Cinema has plenty of examples of sexualized foods, from Jennifer Beals truly enjoying her lobster in Flashdance to whatever Meg Ryan was having in When Harry Met Sally. Eating is an everyday act that can be either gross or tempting, depending on how it’s presented (and while it can be done alone, that usually seems kind of sad, thus eating a meal is typically shown as something people enjoy with at least one other person). So food is a great alternative when you have to tell the part of the story some people are squeamish about.
Mixing food and sex isn’t always what you’d call sexy, though. In Delicatessen, the least attractive man in the movie—or maybe anywhere—is a cannibalistic butcher whose sex life intrudes into the lives of those around him. And then there’s one of the most difficult, unpleasant moments in all of ’70s cinema: the butter scene in Last Tango In Paris.
But maybe the most creative, unusual food-and-sex scenes come from the movie Tampopo. Tampopo looks at food from just about every angle—as an honorable craft; as a way of life; as a means to ignore the established social order and assert one’s right to be respected on merit; and more. Also, it’s a comedy. One way Tampopo looks at food, for a clever gangster, is as a sensual experience:
Were we making a list of Best Food Movies (which technically we’re not), Tampopo would follow Big Night. Like Big Night, the food in Tampopo is central to the action, and the characters are definted by their relationship to it. Tampopo is more episodic than Big Night, though, full of ideas and scenes involving food that are funny, thrilling, satirical, goofy, weirdly inspiring, or just full of great dialogue and close-ups of food and noodle-making. There’s a central story, but it’s hard to tell where the film is headed from the very first, when the audience is literally acknoweldged as part of the experience. Tampopo wants us to be open to the unexpected and share the creative satisfaction of serving a perfect bowl of noodles—or of pouring brandy into a bowl with a live shrimp in it then inverting the bowl onto a lover’s abdomen to savor the way the scrambling shrimp tickles her.
And that’s the best part of food-sexy code words or eating-as-symbolic-sex-or-at-least-foreplay: the creativity. Apart from the thrill of daring to say or do something you’re not really supposed to say or do in public, it’s just funny and fun: for example, naming yourself with slang for genitalia, and forcing the world to mention you by name with a straight face as they admire your contributions to jazz. That’s the action of a smiling smart-ass. Jelly Roll Morton probably wasn’t a particularly pleasant character to be around—self-aggrandizing as he’s reputed to be—but we can all roll our eyes and smile about his impishly inducing sheet music printers to print thousands of copies of his hit “The Jelly Roll Blues.”
Fifty or so years later, Van Morrison—also a talented guy with a reputation for being difficult—implemented the same phrase the same way. He’s not talking pastry. He’s chosen the old food-slang term to sub in for a topic we’re not supposed to be singing about on the radio, and, yes, Van, we get it—even those in charge of keeping the airwaves pure knows what Van means when he says “It stoned me just like jelly roll.” It’s our little agreement: The food is sex, but don’t tell anyone.
Upcoming: I want you to hold it between your knees.