Overweening Generalist

Monday, August 22, 2016

Food/Sex/Death: Edition Beth

Shake and shake
The catsup bottle,
None will come,
And then a lot'll.
-Richard Armour

Food: Tomatoes and other Fruits and Veggies and Tom Robbins
As a kid my mom served up a lot of sliced tomatoes on our sandwiches. I remember she diced tomatoes for the bean tacos that were mostly refried beans and Crisco-based tiny corn tortillas that were prone to disintegration upon first touch.

At least I thought those were tomatoes mom bought from the big corporate grocer. One day, just out of high school, I got a day gig painting a guy's parents' house. As I remember, the guy who hired me seemed to put out an "I'm a low-level mobster" vibe. His parents were very Italian and his father - who I will call "Mario" - didn't speak English, except for the word "fuck." He liked to say "A fuckeen..." a fuckeen something; I could never quite make out the rest. He'd then look at me and laff, like we were two guys sharing a guy moment with him swearing. He could have had no idea about the sort of language my fellow musicians and I were using in the evening.

Anyway, this guy grew his own tomatoes, and his wife - a little firecracker who was always cooking killer-ass italian food and spoke English fluently and was about 4'6" - gave me a big bag of Mario's tomatoes each day before I went home. That first day was a revelation, and you saw it coming with my foreshadowing: it was the first time I ate REAL tomatoes, and crikey! they were ridiculously tasty-good, and constituted a minor variety of religious experience. I had friends over and held out a tomato:

"Here, check this out. Eat this thing."
"Uhh...looks like a very red red tomato to me, what's the catch?"

I said, just walk over to the sink there and eat it plain; if you want to put a little salt on it it's next to the sink. And in moments they knew too: we'd all been had: tomatoes were not the watery vaguely tomato-ish things we'd been led to believe. I now think those fake tomatoes were merely meant for texture. 

And now at farmer's markets all over Unistat you can get these goddess-sent delicious things, if you don't already grow them yourself. What a simple, life-giving, unadulterated joy to eat REAL tomatoes! The "little things in life" can loom large at times.

After that, anytime I went to the corporate grocer and saw the tomatoes all piled up I had to stifle the urge to corner the manager and personally indict him for conspiracy to foist faux tomatoes on the unsuspecting public.

Now, as I said, you can find flavorful tomatoes all over Unistat. It almost cancels out that whole Iran-Contra Scandal, in my spacial hemisphere's moon-logic...

One of our greatest poetic prose writers, Tom Robbins, has been riffing on fruits and vegetables in a psychedelic way throughout his career. Here he is in a slightly more sober mood, commenting on our topic:

"Without apparent guilt or shame, supermarkets from coast to coast regularly post signs reading VINE RIPENED TOMATOES atop produce bins piled high with tomatoes that have never ever experienced the joys of ripening; that, in fact, are hard, usually more pink than red, often streaked with yellow, orange, or even green; and when cut open will reveal pectin deposits of ghostly white. Back when one of those babies last saw a vine, it might have passed for the viridescent apple of Granny Smith's eye. Merchants who through ignorance, indifference, or outright chicanery untruthfully promise 'vine-ripened tomatoes' could and should be prosecuted under truth-in-advertising laws."
-pp.69-70, "Holy Tomato" from Tibetan Peach Pie

Robbins tried LSD in 1963 and soon after quit his day job by "calling in well." He moved to Manhattan looking for the Others, and attended a talk by Timothy Leary at Cooper Union. Afterward Robbins found himself at the same vegetable stand as Leary. Uncle Tim asked Tom Robbins (then a totally unknown writer) "how to tell which brussels sprouts were good." Robbins told Leary to choose the ones that "were smiling."
p.244, Aquarius Revisited, Peter O. Whitmer

Here's Robbins riffing on the ubiquitous blackberry brambles found all over the Pacific Northwest, and even down into my San Francisco Bay Area:

"And the fruit, mustn't forget the fruit. It would nourish the hungry, stabilize the poor. The more enterprising winos could distill their own spirits. Seattle could become the Blackberry Brandy Capital of the World. Tourists would spend millions annually on Seattle blackberry jam. The chefs at the French restaurants would dish up duck in purplish sauces, fill once rained-on noses with the baking aromas of gateau mure de ronce. The whores might become known, affectionately, as blackberry tarts. The Teamsters could try to organize the berry pickers. And in late summer, when the brambles were proliferating madly, growing faster than the human eye can see, the energy of their furious growth could be hooked up to generators that, spinning with blackberry power, could supply electrical current for the entire metropolis. A vegetative utopia, that's what it would be. Seattle, Berry Town, encapsulated, self-sufficient, thriving under a living ceiling, blossoms in its hair, juice on its chin, more blackberries - and more! - in its future. Consider the protection offered. What enemy paratroopers could get through the briars?"
-Still Life With Woodpecker, p.130

It would be easy to index a gaggle of vegetative riffs in the Robbins oeuvre, but I'll leave us with this one:

"Of our nine planets, Saturn is the one that looks like fun. Of our trees, the palm is obviously the stand-up comedian. Among fowl, the jester's cap is worn by the duck. Of our fruits and vegetables, the tomato could play Falstaff, the banana a more slapstick role. As Hamlet- or Macbeth - the beet is cast. In largely vegetarian India, the beet is rarely eaten because its color is suggestive of blood. Out, damned mangel-wurzel."
-Jitterbug Perfume, p.76

Bonus Track: Here's sociologist Lisa Wade on the history of tomatoes being thought of as "vegetables" and not what they "really are" according to botanists: fruit. I like this short article because we're reminded of the longstanding scientific dipshittery of the Unistat Supreme Court, that fruits are like "ovaries," and that social constructionism may be the most important part of what people now seem to dismiss (stupidly) as "postmodernism." My labeling of dipshittery was hasty: the unanimous SCOTUS in the late 19th c were merely basing their opinion on their preferred social construction; scientific classification seems also largely a social invention.

                                     an erotic money-shot from the vegetable world

"Of all sexual aberrations, chastity is the strangest." - Anatole France

Sex: Gender 
Speaking of social construction...

A few months ago I was re-reading an old Robert Benchley book, The Early Worm, from 1927. In one comic essay he begins joking off something he'd read by a German biologist named Max Hartmann (<----curiously paltry Wiki, eh?). Benchley had read that Hartmann's sexual determination studies revealed that no one was purely 100% male or female. The Wiki here says Hartmann was later critical of the Nazis, but some source I neglected to mention in my notes revealed that Hartmann had continued to do research in Germany under the Nazi regime. Anyway, Benchley had a fine time with this idea - Hartmann (as filtered through Benchley) thought that if 60% of your cells were male, then you were "male." And so on. Benchley wondered how this might pertain to the Broadway stage:

Roger: Ever since that night I met you at the dance, my male percentage has been increasing. I used to register 65%. Yesterday in Liggetts I took a test and it was eighty-one.

Mary: You had your heavier overcoat on.

Roger: Please, dear, this is no time for joking. I never was more serious in all my life. And that means only one thing. Haven't you - aren't you - do you register the same as you did?

Mary (looking at her finger-nails): No. I have gone up seven points. But I thought it was because I had cut down on my starches.

...Benchley goes on for a couple of pages here. What a different time. Now, in 2016, if you're a transgender person you are subject to being followed into public restrooms and outed...but that's North Carolina, and I'm sure their battle with sexual fascism will turn out okay.

I do think parts of Unistat are horribly behind. Not just North Carolina, either. The Swedes have been talking about abolishing gender for at least five years now. In Australia you can declare yourself male, female, or "nonspecific," which seems like a start to me. As of early 2013 in Nepal they added a third gender, if only for "ease of legal documents." Indonesia has had a non-binary conception of gender for hundreds of years. Here's a link to a documentary (Two Spirits) about a Navajo "boy" who was also a "girl" and was murdered. The Native American/First Nations had, for probably a thousand years at least, not constructed a gender binary.

Here's an article by a person named Cory Silverberg that discusses how the concepts of "sex" and "gender" are different.

Lately, my own cis-male problem with gender has been with book clubs: for some reason - which, the more I delve into it, seems darker and darker in its implications - men don't "do" book clubs in Unistat. Which I find depressing. I've had my problems in this female-gendered world of book clubs, and it's really touchy; I don't know how to address it. I've been forced out of book clubs in which I was the only male, and I was convinced that nothing I'd done was sexist, obnoxious, or unpleasant in any way. Right now I'm in one, and it's in a very progressive community, and the group is fairly large, and there are often two or three other guys at the monthly meetings, and the women seem accepting of us. So far. I'm sorta paranoid. But what's so overwhelmingly female about reading books and discussing them? I found a short piece by Jesse Singal - a male - who nailed it pretty well for me, and I sent it to the group email for my current book club, saying "this is sorta 'meta' but Singal speaks for me here," and wrote that I was open to hearing the opinions of anyone who cared to chime in. So far one female answered and was as open-minded and sweet about males expressing themselves emotionally without having to fear being labeled as gay or whatever. I assume other guys in the group identify as gay, but I don't know and I honestly don't care: I'm just glad they're there. I like reading books as a group and discussing them; it's very pleasurable. I ask open questions, I listen, I give opinions, I try to get a laff or two. The Man Book Club referred/linked to in Singal's article is something I do not want to join: too toxic in its Unistat social construction of male-ness, cis-male gendered. I get that already, everywhere.

This seems like a huge problem to me, but I don't think it will capture much attention space for a long while, as we seem much more taken by our relatively new (and felicitous, to me) acceptance of homosexuality, and we're now grappling with transgendered people.

What a utopia if people could just openly be as they feel they "are" and not be subject to violence or discrimination! I know I've had my mind expanded by my personal experiences with gay males, lesbians, the professed and apparently bisexual, and a couple of times I have experienced the mild and bracing shock that I'm currently talking to someone who has transitioned from one sex to another...or wanted me to think they had.

It has always been like this. We're making progress, but it's too slow.

"If I could drop dead right now, I'd be the happiest man alive!" - Samuel Goldwyn

I was recently reading in Clifford Pickover's delightful Strange Brains and Genius: The Secret Lives of Eccentric Scientists and Madmen, about the some of the more bizarre ideas of the great utilitarian philosopher Jeremy Bentham. Get a load of this:

"Bentham had a peculiar interest in the rituals of death. For example, to Bentham, cemeteries and burials were a waste of money. Instead, he suggested that embalmed corpses be mounted upright along stately drives and busy thoroughfares. I can just imagine his pleasure at seeing corpses planted like palm trees along Santa Monica Boulevard or affixed to lampposts along New York's Fifth Avenue, for as far as his eye could see."

Pickover reminds us we can all go visit University College in London and see Bentham's lifelike corpse and mummified head, but warns us that his artificial eyes "stare at you like Linda Blair's in The Exorcist." 
-Strange Brains, Pickover, p.103

Hey, you out there: don't go gently into that good night. Good night!
PS: I had forgotten I'd planned to do 22 of these Food/Sex/Death thingies. I hardly ever look at the stats for this blog, but the other day, stoned out of my wig, I checked to see who was reading me at that moment. It appeared someone in Japan (really?) was reading the sole Food/Sex/Death spew I did way back in December 2013. So I tried another. Hey, better late than never to spew again, no? Wot?

                                 まばゆいばかりのボビー・キャンベルによっ て当


Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...

When we finish throwing all of the supermarket managers in jail for selling fake tomatoes, can we start jailing them for selling fake peaches? My wife and I have largely given up buying peaches in the grocery store, because they are always terrible. Only the ones at the farmers markets or local orchard outlets or the "locally grown" section of the local upscale grocery store are edible. There are certain foods where getting locally grown makes a big difference.

I think blackberries are good too; I need to get around to reading the Tom Robbins memoir. I read one of the novels years ago.

Eric Wagner said...

I have had mostly male Finnegans Wake book clubs for 31 years, as well as Pynchon groups, etc. Of course, these clubs had relatively little expressing of ourselves emotionally.

Mathematicians use the Hebrew alphabet for the cardinalities of infinity. Terrific post.

Wes said...

Strawberries from the garden make strawberries bought from the store seem like an abomination. Gone the taste of succulent somewhat mushy sweetness replaced by this bland tart somewhat crisp red imitation.

Picking the bounty from a garden provides an invigorating sustenance which I pity the city dwellers have never experienced.

I enjoyed Tibetan Peach Pie by Tom Robbins. His other works comprising metaphoric medley does become a bit tiresome though.

michael said...

@Tom- I hate to say it, but I wish you were here in NoCal to taste the peaches, which are so good it's insane. I had a huge white-meat peach the other day that was perfection, as if it broke through the membrane of Plato's Ideal World of Forms and came down to me as Peach. And at our local Trader Joe's we buy for $5 a crate of smaller peaches which, even when slightly hard to the finger-poke, are nonetheless sweet, the ichor attracted to chins, obviously.

I was also basing my assumption that "real" hearty tasty tomatoes are available everywhere on hearsay based on family and friends in different parts of the country; but I don't know anyone living in Ohio or Michigan, or even PA for that matter, so I hope you get the real stuff where you are, near Cleveland.

Farmer's markets (which are everywhere round these har parts) are the best place to look for over-the-top flavor in any fruit and/or veg. I hope ya got 'em where you are...

Speaking of peaches and Tom Robbins (and sex), in _Still Life With Woodpecker_ his female hero's vag is described lovingly as her "peachfish":

"Yet, on the premise that it would aid preparation for her mission in life; on the premise that were she ever to resume her studies in environmental sciences she might not be so easily distracted by vibrations from the half-shellfish half-peach that occupied that warm, watery bowl of her lower regions, she made herself available to maturation, if maturation would have her."

michael said...


In my current club, at the end of a session everyone gets to pitch a book for the group to read. Based on what we've read so far, I don't even consider nominating Joyce or Pynch or RAW. (I did mention "John Carter"'s _Sex and Rockets_ last time, and it didn't win, but a few of the women said it sounded great.)

I'm using the Hebrew alphabet not due to Cantor (who is the most psychedelic mathematician ever? maybe?), but because of the Jewish humor tropes of Food/Sex/Death.

Thanks for reading!

michael said...

@Wes: Yep. I wish everyone could taste even the wild blackberries that bramble all through my yard.

Permaculture is pretty big where I live and lots of people grow tomatoes, zucchini, and peppers in their front yards around here. Neighbors leave a bag of assorted overflow on your porch. In Berkeley you can call a group who will gather your extra fruits and vegs and give them to the homeless. In case anyone from Berkeley, Kensington, El Cerrito or Albany is reading this and it's germane:


Thanks for the choice comment, Wes!

Bob Campbell said...

I feel I should recuse myself from commenting on the brilliance of the OG's presentation here, as I am currently immensely enjoying a re-read of "Jitterbug Perfume as my designated 'beach book' this summer, and just this afternoon had a delightfully delicious garden fresh tomato sandwich for lunch. I question my ability to remain objective given these circumstances :)))


I am now well accustomed to the sideways glances and condescending comments that are provoked by my immediate and automatic removal of the "tomato" & "lettuce" that adorn the various cheese burgers I often order in restaurants. I accept my lumps in good humor, but the truth is I don't want my burger ruined by that soggy mess masquerading as produce!


By and large I am very enthusiastic about the break down of the false dichotomy of gender, and even if I flinch a little at, what seem to me, superfluous labels, it all seems to be towards a greater good.

Besides my comfortability with shedding labels certainly has to have something to do with the privilege of my labels being white/straight/cis/man.

I'm hoping that somewhere down the road the illusory nature of identity itself will become more and more apparent what with all these epiphanies about fluidity going around.


I recently got bit by a bat! I originally read this post while sitting in the emergency room while waiting to receive treatment for exposure to rabies. There was a bit of monkey business that made it so I almost didn't get the proper treatment, and there was thus just that ever so slight memento mori in the air. My primary care doctor, who is super old and super cool, may very well have saved my life by explaining the situation in terms I could understand: "Bob, you can't fuck around with shit like this!"

Bit by a bat, as if I needed more material for self mythologization, and on a day where I already had plans to take my kids to see Tim Burton's original Batman movie at a special screening at our local movie theatre.


Anonymous said...

I read your blog in Japan this spring, perhaps I read posts from 2013, but I definitely read from the viewpoint of 2016. Today, I read from MT, as usual.

I have things to say about death, food and sex, but lets talk book clubs and gender ratios. My book clubs need more women, and less men. The Infinite Jest club's numbers have slowly dwindled, and we've gone from four women to only two. The Prometheus Rising club (which I host at my house) recently went from zero women to one. Progress, I guess? Perhaps you could send some of those ladies up to MT, and I'll send some weird dudes down to your locale.

Anyway, I have a crochet luncheon to attend. Hopefully I'll recruit some guys to spin yarns and trade-in for women looking to read them.

Cleveland Okie (Tom Jackson) said...


I once belonged a book club which consisted entirely of couples, which at least solved the gender imbalance problem.

My current book club is mostly women,but we each talk about what we have been reading,rather than everyone talking about the same book. That seems to reduce tension about what title to talk about.

michael said...

@Anonymous in...is it Montana? I know from my stats that I get hits from Japan, but I always assume they're mistakes, and then I like to daydream about someone actually in Tokyo or near Kyoto or Osaka actually reading the OG...ego!

I'd love to get enough humans to read Infinite Jest with me. My personal experience with DFW and female readers is that he's - for some reason - not taken as "too male", as Pynchon seems to be. This sort of thing is a mystery to me. Pynch's last novel has a very strong, brilliant female main character. His women are independent and smart.

Maybe it has nothing to do with DFW or Pynch, but the commitment to a 1000 page book?

Thanks for the comment!

michael said...

@ Tom-

Yea, I had my own "discuss your own recent reading of books" group - based on your idea. It worked for awhile, but I think the group's interests were too diffuse. I found I could hang and discuss anything with anyone, but the members who showed up seemed put off by the others and their non-germane books.

The way I got pushed out of female-majority book groups: I slowly got the message that, though they wanted to feel democratic, I was cramping their Female style. So the sex-role stereotyping goes both ways, it seems to me.

michael said...

@Bob Campbell- Yea, I think we straight white males probably have it easiest when expressing how cool we are with gender fluidity. I had gay male friends who got "bashed" - beaten up - by putatively "straight" male jocks. I think that's when my limbic system started to become sensitized to the anguish of others who are on the "outs" w/re/to their gender expression. The Matthew Shepherd case nailed it down, hard, for me. Ever since then I've become at times hyper-sensitive to this stuff. Also, I assume you're like me and have been assumed to be a bad guy simply for your straight white male privilege. It's wrong, but I guess I just suck it up.

You got BIT BY A BAT? Were you doing your Ozzy impression again? I told you that was going to come back and haunt you. Now you have to get rabies shots directly in your abdomen. When will you EVER learn?

Oz Fritz said...

If you consider Duane Allmann then a peach could represent all three, food, sex and death. Crowley uses a peach as a sexual metaphor in The Book of Lies. "Eat A Peach" is an album by The Allman Brothers named to commemorate the tragic death of Duane Allman due to a motorcycle accident with a truck hauling peaches. Eat a peach ...

michael said...

@Oz: good point on the peach/Duane triple play. I love that record, and just now hauled it out of my CD stacks to blast whilst showering (one of my favorite places to listen to music: under soft hot water bullets, music bouncing off the tiled room and other hard surfaces in there).

I thought of Duane Allman the other day when I caught this harrowing (to me) video about how California has now legalized "lane splitting":


Anonymous said...

Yes, Montana. Though, I read OG from Hokkaido. So, the mystery reader near Kyoto, or Osaka, or in Tokyo remains a mystery.

I wonder if Infinite Jest passes the Bechdel test? I doubt it. "Too male" seems like valid criticism to me. I agree Pynchon and the lead in his last novel. I think Iain Banks made a conscious choice to write strong, independent women, and he did a better job than any male author I know. Yeah, he wrote a few stinkers, but Whit and The Business have a special place in my heart.

Anonymous said...

Well you have got a fan in Chongqing, China. But due to the great firewall of China, you need a VPN to read it. So no idea where this is registering from?

michael said...

How marvelous to know someone in Chongqing reads me, and likes this!

You made my day, so thanks.

I find I wonder about what your life - and the Anon from Hokkaido - what your lives are like; about your habitus, environment, what it feels like there. Wonderful to contemplate...