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The Devil's Picnic: Around the World in Pursuit of Forbidden Fruit
By Taras Grescoe
Bloomsbury Publishing
ISBN 1582344299

In the Devil's Garden: A Sinful History of Forbidden Food
By Stewart Lee Allen
Ballantine Books
ISBN 0345440161

Runnin' With The Devil

Reviews by William I. Lengeman III
Here's a quick primer on human nature - as if you needed it. If something is rare and expensive we tend to covet it. If it's forbidden, well then, we simply have to have it.

The latter fact is not lost on Taras Grescoe, who confesses to a fairly relaxed history when it comes to forbidden and illicit things and whatnot. In The Devil's Picnic, which is as much travel book and sociology tome as it is about food, Grescoe takes a pretty liberal attitude toward the forbidden and rarely misses an opportunity to comment on the absurdity of prohibiting things.

The book is structured like a hypothetical nine-course meal of a decidedly international bent. The aperitif is hjemmebrent, a wicked moonshine popular in Norway, a "nanny state" - apparently a term of Grescoe's coinage - where a simple purchase of alcoholic beverages is not just a big pain in the ass but also a big pain in the wallet.

The next course is served in Singapore, which is apparently the template for the nanny state. Here the author flagrantly flaunts the law by smuggling in crackers festooned with poppy seeds, but alas, avoids any run ins with the quite long arm of Singaporean law.

From there it's on to various points for the cheese course and an examination of the hoopla over those oh so lethal raw milk cheeses. Then to Spain for the elusive criadillas, or bull testicles. These turn out to be so elusive that Grescoe doesn't actually get to taste any during his stay, instead having to make do with pig testicles.

At this point it's time for a smoke break - Cuban cigars, of course - in a piece that evolves into a search for "smoke-easies" in allegedly smoke-free zones in San Francisco and New York City.

Then back to Europe to consort with the Green Fairy. Yes, what discussion of forbidden foods would be complete without mentioning the fabled absinthe? Desert, served in France, is chocolate mosseux and a jaunt to Peru provides a chance to sample coca leaves and mate de coca - coca tea - and to muse on the folly of the United States' absurd drug policies.

Grescoe closes with a nightcap of pentobarbital sodium, the only course of which he does not partake, unless you count the bull balls. That's just as well since this is a substance used by terminally ill people in Switzerland to end their lives. If you guessed that this has sparked a little bit of controversy, well...duh.

Stewart Lee Allen apparently has a devilish streak, given the fact that his last book was titled The Devil's Cup: A History of the World According to Coffee.

This time around, in In The Devil's Garden, Allen takes the reader on a grand historical tour of proscribed foods, complete with a smattering of recipes for such delights at nettle soup and dates in saffron. Things kick off - surprise - with the oldest of all of the forbidden foods, the apple.

Like Grescoe, Allen also attempts to impose some sort of structure, in this case by associating each of the no-nos with one of the seven deadly sins. Thus, along with Eve's apple, we read about such lusty delights as tomatoes and ketchup, basil, chocolate and assorted and rather exotic aphrodisiacs. In Gluttony we're regaled with tales of Roman and Arab...well, gluttony, not to mention the asceticism of saintly and other anorexics.

Pride finds Allen tackling such topics as dirt eating, kosher laws, Hindu castes and corn, among other things. In Sloth, he takes on the English and their apparent loathing for tasty food. Also toast and the politics of the baguette (who knew?), potatoes and alcohol. And yes, Virginia, there is the obligatory mention of absinthe.

The centerpiece of Greed is a lengthier piece examining similarities between communion and cannibalism. Also touched on in this chapter is a discussion of bush meat consumption in Africa and yet another piece on cannibalism.

In Blasphemy, Allen examines links between Jewish cooking and the Spanish Inquisition, as well as a religious debate over leavened and unleavened bread. Oh, and there's are sections on dog eating and holy cows. In Anger, the author takes a novel tack when he suggests a possible link between the loud crunch of certain snack foods and aggression.

The proceedings close with The Eighth Sin, Allen's brief rumination on the apparent lack of enjoyment of eating in an era when many food taboos have fallen by the wayside. His ultimate conclusion - "The urge to break the rules is, after all, the most human of pleasures."

Here, here.

--- Food writer and book reviewer William I. Lengeman III maintains Tea Guy Speaks, a Web site devoted to the appreciation of tea.

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