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Playing With Food

[whitespace] Playing With Food
Christopher Gardner

For those delicious situations in which only our hands and fingers will do, food play is built into the collective appetite

By Christina Waters

WHETHER OR NOT there were food fights around Paleolithic campfires, it's probable that playing with our food is as old as the birth of humankind. It's certainly embedded in our own infant experiences. It might start with a baby fist plunged into a pile of mashed potatoes. That act creates not only a wonderful mess but also a huge uproar from adult caretakers. They howl. The baby is thrilled with its power. And so the tiny fist hits the potatoes again. And again. This is a crucial discovery--an archetypal moment in the life of every human being.

Stuff that tastes good can be thrown, poked, arranged and rearranged, pressed, prodded, mooshed and mounded, splashed, mashed and otherwise manipulated for no other reason than the sheer fun of it. What we've got here is that primal and irresistible equation of food and play that will stay with us for the rest of our lives.

As an activity--for some, a lifelong pursuit--playing with food straddles a vast phylum. Setting aside for a moment the most obvious and highly publicized subspecies--the food fight--we can identify such categories as Finger Food, Edible Architecture, Food as Foreplay (the Tom Jones archetype), Food Design as Cover-up, Lunch Launching, Dinner Destruction, Ritualized Food Play--the list goes on.

Eating with our hands automatically puts diners in a playful mood; hence the huge popularity of picnics. Eating outdoors--already a harking back to childhood--provides an excuse to hold food in our hands, to come into bodily contact with pleasurable shapes, textures and flavors.

Who among us has not discovered--somewhere near the third grade, in some school cafeteria--that peas effectively may be catapulted across vast distances simply by careful placement on the handle of a spoon that is then forcefully struck. With practice, this action can be honed into a skill allowing precise trajectory of peas and other foodstuffs onto the bodies of classmates sitting across the room. From peas, whose shape makes them natural projectiles, it's an easy progression to rolls, fruit and finally the ne plus ultra of spoon catapulting, Jell-O. Almost nothing flings so well and makes such a dramatically messy statement upon impact.

Much food play has to do with the development of motor coordination, and not solely with spontaneous warfare. A playmate or accomplice is helpful here. My sister and I spent many happy hours taking turns throwing small foods--peas, berries, nuts--into each other's open mouths, an oral variation on the same amusement taken by bored executives who attempt to lob crumpled balls of paper into their wastepaper baskets. And of course, the greater the distance to the target, the more satisfaction delivered by a successful throw.

Clearly food fights can be launched even without the benefit of utensil technology. A scoop of whipped cream lobs just as nicely when thrown by hand as when hurled via spoon. So exhilarating are the best food fights--the kinds that end up with every person in a room throwing food at every other person--that they can leave participants as spent and satisfied as an uninhibited sexual encounter.

CHILDHOOD food play operates on a vastly more nefarious, often more subversive, level than that indulged in by adults. Adults, who playfully feed each other sweet foods or pass foods from one mouth to the other as an overture to seduction, are pretty obvious about it all.

Take food design as an illustration. Kids love to push food all over their plates, either to prioritize main dishes, side dishes, etc., as to degrees of importance, or, more typically, to hide foods they hate. Toward this end mashed potatoes have no peer.

Bless the mashed potato, whose very thickness, opacity and shape-shifting potential makes it the perfect hiding place for such loathed items as zucchini, carrots and liver. Much training in dexterity and stealth takes place at the dinner table as children learn to prod, twist and manipulate their meals so as to make it look like they've actually eaten something. This training proves crucial later in life when unwanted evidence needs to be hidden in plain sight. Children assume, unwisely, that mothers cannot tell when a mound of mashed potatoes is being made to play the Trojan Horse, carrying an entire army of Brussels sprouts within its belly, to be secretly returned to the enemy kitchen.

Food organizing, for instance lining up every radish in a tidy row before eating or making concentric circles out of your refried beans, is often just a way of getting personally involved with dinner. But it can get out of hand. Children who insist on naming and then beheading each broccoli floret often grow up to become serial killers.

Whether or not a case can be built for the importance of playing with food in terms of promoting psychosexual health, it's sure a lot of fun. For the baby who opens wide for a forkful of carrots disguised as an "airplane" as well as the beloved who accepts a spoonful of crème brulée from her sweetheart, food play, it seems, is hardwired into the joy of being alive.

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From the April 1-7, 1999 issue of Metro.

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