Where do foodies come from? 

Explaining the psychosexual thrill of hedonistic eating

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Years ago, in my 20s, I regularly visited the only gay bar in Augusta, where I was living at the time. Surreal enough to appear in a Jean Genet novel, the Peacock Lounge was usually packed weekends with military people from nearby Fort Gordon, drag queens, druggies, drunks, and a few somewhat mainstream people. It was located in a cinder-block building, and a jukebox next to the tiny dance floor blared disco all night. Outside, police often recorded license plate numbers. I loved it. And hated it.

One summer evening, a guy asked me to follow him home. I was coming out at the time and rarely hooked up with strangers, but decided I'd give it a go. He was hot and appeared to be one of the stable customers (not to imply that I was). When we got to his house, he asked me to follow him to his basement.

The room was empty except for a blue tarp on the floor and a refrigerator. The guy stripped off his clothes, opened the refrigerator and removed several large containers of chocolate syrup and about six aerosol cans of whipped cream.

"Do you like mayo?" he asked, smiling. I told him I wasn't especially crazy about it.

He began spraying the whipped cream on the tarp and pouring the chocolate syrup on top of that. Then he put three pies on the floor in front of me. "I want you to smash these pies on me," he said, "starting with my face, then any place you want."

I was stunned, to say the least, but I was accustomed to being stunned in my journey out of conventional life. I grabbed the back of his head and planted a coconut cream pie in his face. Then he sunk to the tarp and began rolling around in the gooey mixture.

"Come on. Get naked and join me," he said.  I declined.

"That's OK," he said. "Just watch."

It quickly became apparent that my presence was quite secondary to his experience on the tarp. That is typical of a fetish in the purest sense of the word. A fetish, first described in the early language of psychoanalytical theory, is an inanimate object that provokes intense sexual desire. There is nothing unusual about fetishes. A common example is a man who gets excited by wearing female underwear. For many who wear leather, the erotic appeal of the clothing far surpasses attraction to its wearer. There are also fetishes that focus on parts of the body. Foot fetishism is very common.

Later, I learned that my Augusta friend's fetish is referred to as gunge. It is also the only explicit food fetish I've encountered and, even so, the gunge mixture can contain anything slimy — motor oil instead of olive oil, for example.

According to the hugely controversial Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fetishes are not classified as pathological unless they interfere with day-to-day life. That's all well and good, but most people still publicly regard them as perversions, even though the average person's sex life is crazy as hell, almost always a kind of mad, metaphorical representation — a waking dream — of everything going on in the person's life.

The use of food in sex play is not strictly fetishistic since it usually intensifies desire rather than becoming the sole object of desire. This, too, is quite common and rarely talked about, at least until recently. But the practice has been represented in many movies such as Tampopo (1985) and Like Water for Chocolate (1992). We watch them and maybe get stimulated. But most people would never suggest over the dinner table that seeing a beautiful woman peel and eat a fig evokes the desire to perform cunnilingus, as Alan Bates does in Women in Love (1969). In our repressed culture, something's not sexy if there is not a pinch of shame in the brew.

For convenience's sake, I'm referring to all these behaviors as fetishes. The big question is, how does a fetish begin in the first place? Freud's explanation for male fetishists — he never looked at women in this regard — has long been jettisoned. He attributed fetishism, like so much else, to castration anxiety. (It's complicated.) Those succeeding him in the psychoanalytical movement produced all kinds of related explanations. Post-Freudians observed that as the mother withdraws from the child, the kid naturally projects mama's attraction on an inanimate object, a "transitional object" like a teddy bear, which it eventually outgrows. In the case of adult fetishism, the need for such an object has not been outgrown.

You don't have to take these explanations literally to appreciate them. They're all basically about being nurtured and one's orientation toward love. Don't we all tend to fixate on the "comfort food" our mamas made us? An example of an extreme food-related fetish that demonstrates this explicitly is feederism. In this case, erotic stimulation derives from feeding a mate to get her fat. The two mates can also feed one another. Attend a "stuffie" party if you want to check it out.

A broader way of looking at a food fetish psychoanalytically is to call it oral fixation. Freud designated five stages of psychosexual development: the oral, the anal, the phallic, the latent, and the genital. Each of the stages is characterized by some kind of pleasure. One may become fixated during the early stages because the signature conflict of giving up the particular pleasure and moving to the next stage goes unresolved, creating emotional distress. In the oral stage, the pleasure is sucking, biting, and swallowing. Fixation can result in two personality types, according to Freudians:

"The Oral receptive personality is preoccupied with eating/drinking and reduces tension through oral activity such as eating, drinking, smoking, biting nails. They are generally passive, needy and sensitive to rejection. They will easily 'swallow' other people's ideas.

"The Oral aggressive personality is hostile and verbally abusive to others, using mouth-based aggression."

This feels a little like astrology, but, again, it's unnecessary to take Freud literally (and he admitted that he was more of an artist than a scientist later in life). What is true to anybody with minimal powers of observation is that foodies do indeed pursue the perfect foods and potions with obsessive zeal, always endeavoring to increase pleasure. We are, after all, a consumer society, so it's not surprising that oral gratification has become a national obsession. (Think "Top Chef" and the endless blather of the Food Network.) And lest you dismiss the notion of oral-explosive personalities, consider the personae of many judges and competitors on TV shows. For that matter, consider the mean mouths of us critics.

And then there is the growing cult of foodie purists who are so picky in their consumption of healthy foods that they end up malnourished, with an eating disorder called orthorexia nervosa. Dr. Steven Bratman identified the condition in 1997 as a "fixation on righteous eating." The disorder is dominated by middle-class, well-educated men and women over 30.

Except for obviously extreme food fetishes and fixations that result in malnourishment or obesity, most psychologists today dismiss any notion of fetishes being pathological. So what if my Augusta friend got off by rolling around in slime? Is it that different from people who roll from one restaurant to the next, stuffing their mouths and groaning with pleasure?

Of course, the latter mostly don't see themselves expressing a psychosexual thrill. To do so would violate the puritanical — dare we say "hypocritical" — values of Americans who can't buy enough porn to peruse after Sunday church services. Sorry, but licking your fingers, rolling your eyes heavenward, moaning, and talking endlessly about some esoteric dish you inserted in your oral orifice in your quest for ever kinkier food is a clear expression of sensual desire and its fulfillment. It's too parallel to the usual sexual interaction to call it unrelated. Hell, spicy food even adds the note of pain that often precedes la petite mort.

Now, don't be self-conscious about this. Become a recumbent Roman at the banquet table. Hedonistic eating can be a good thing. Don't deny your own desire and use your mouth to condemn the unabashedly lascivious. Eat and lick. Chocolate, after all, has charms to soothe the savagely tempting breast.

Cliff Bostock holds a Ph.D. in depth psychology, and a clinically oriented M.A. in psychology. He is in private practice, principally as a life coach specializing in creativity and the imagination. His website is cliffbostock.com.

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