Where’s a reviewer to start? Food writer and television presenter Peta Mathias confides that ‘This book started off as a missive about love with recipes, commissioned by my publisher Harriet Allan. She told me, “With everything going on at the moment, what the world needs now is love.” But then, as I researched love stories, I became less interested in recipes than in some of the outrageous tales that Harriet and I were finding’. These tales are represented manifold. This book brings together a potpourri of the greatest, most passionate, and often strangest love stories ever known.
Within its pages, I found Catullus, Ovid, the Māori legend of Uenuko and the mist girl, courtship rituals in which young couples were wrapped in blankets so they could get to know each other without things getting too steamy, rose petals that made quail taste so good it led to fornication on galloping horses, a Japanese woman with an unfortunate beginning who cut off her lover’s testicles, an unlikely love story between a swan and a goose – the list goes on and on. There’s the sexiness and sensuality of eating food with your hands – even better, feed your lover with your hands and/or let him/her eat off your body – the many, pleasurable uses of olives, the aphrodisical qualities of ripe strawberries and a famous chocolate and almond torte. Included are a smattering of recipes, even the New Zealand hokey pokey. Many of the stories are prefaced by poems and quotations. A friend glanced across while I was reading and exclaimed that she had to copy that quote down. (In case you are wondering, the quote was Man Ray’s ‘There is no progress in art, any more than there is progress in making love. There are simply different ways of doing it.’)
So is Eat Your Heart Out a book about food or a book about love? The truth is, sometime it’s one and sometimes it’s the other. All in all, it’s a little bit of both. Not all of the love stories revolve around food, but most do. This is first and foremost a book about romantic love and food, but a sense of community does enter the story – at weddings where bride, groom and family drink a whole lot of tea, and Mathias comments that the groom proves his love by the strength of his bladder. Even though Mathias has narrowed the book down to only the love that is romantic or sexual, she manages to incorporate a wide variety of topics. Somehow, whatever story or fun fact or recipe Peta Mathias brings to the table, she manages to tie it into the flow all thanks to her witty, lively narrative voice. The conversational style means that as a reader you respond to her opinions and sometimes downright disagree. I think a judicious editor should have pruned (or at least diplomatically redirected) the phrase ‘the belief that some foods are aphrodisiacs is irrational and arbitary, like religious dietary restrictions, sacred food, forbidden food, vegetarianism and allergies’. I further strongly disagree with Mathias that icing sugar is indispensible to making shortbread. I prefer the crunchy, salty, non-sweet Edmonds classic cookbook kind.
Eat Your Heart Out is a brilliant conversation starter. In eye-grabbing hardcover red-and-white gorgeousness, it’s a perfect gift and something to savour. It’s not something you can keep to yourself (if only because other people are invariably going to ask you what you’re giggling about). Like love, food, and basically all the best things in life, this is a book that’s meant to be shared.
Reviewer: Susannah Whaley
Penguin Random House, $35