By Bob Schwabach
Originally published in the Chicago Tribune, January 22, 1979
Woody Allen has this routine in which he talks about a country where anything sexual is perfectly all right but food is dirty. He checks into a hotel room in a sleazy district and ask the room clerk to send up a tuna fish on rye. The food is brought by a beautiful girl, a lady of the supper, so to speak. He asks if they can eat a bagel together. She says, “I don’t do that.”
Well, sex and food have caused their share of anxiety, and as Freud once said, anxiety is the source of humor. But times change. There no longer is any anxiety about sex, so the only thing left to be funny about is food. Considering there’s a lot of anxiety about food, you better have something amusing to say if you still think mussels are biceps instead of bivalves. So we went to some of America’s funny people for help.
STEVE ALLEN (of course you remember Steve Allen) says chicken is funny. He says cheeses are funny too, but for some reason words with a “k” are funnier –pickle, tickle, kangaroo, et cetera. Jewish foods are a lot funnier than Swedish or German foods, he says, and that’s probably because Jews seem to have more anxiety about food. There are, if you think about it, a lot of Jewish comedians.
Calvin Trillin, who writes for the New Yorker and has done a couple of hilarious books about eating, says mixing humor with food is distasteful but admits that “once you’ve told a food joke, you’ve said a mouthful.” He devotes his energies to more serious concerns such as what soft drink goes with what dish. (He finds Coke and Pepsi are appropriate with red meat and Seven-Up with fish or chicken. Dr. Pepper, of course, is best with game.)
Trillin also notes that there is only one fruitcake in the whole world. This fruitcake keeps getting sent around to different people and it gets slightly larger each time. No one ever opens it or eats it. It remains as a kind of cosmic force.
NOW IF BY chance you ever again eat in a restaurant (and Trillin says to never eat in a place called Mom’s, but if the only other restaurant in town is called Eats, then go ahead and eat at Mom’s.) follow Henny Youngman’s advice: He always asks the maitre d’ for a table next to a waiter. If the kitchen fouls up his order, he walks back there and shouts “Immigration!” which will clear a kitchen like a vice raid on Rush Street.
Dick Cavett once went to a Chinese-German restaurant. The food was OK, but in an hour he was hungry for power. He once went to a wedding where the bride was pregnant; everyone threw puffed rice.
Jack Carter’s favorite place is a steak house where the steaks are so fresh they still have the whip marks. Carter, by the way, knows who a gourmet is — that’s someone who knows what wine goes with an orgy.
Rip Taylor remembers the Pump Room’s flaming cherries jubilee. “At last,” he said, “food you can read by.”
Chicago restaurateur Mel Markon says he saw a little old lady go into a delicatessen and ask the counterman to slice here some lox. He started slicing and asked, “How much do you want?” She said, “Keep slicing.” So he sliced and sliced until he got to the end of the whole side of salmon, and then the little old lady said, “Ah, that’s the piece I want.” You can believe that if you want.
THE SOLUTION to the restaurant problem, of course, is to eat at home or the home of friends. This has its own pitfalls. Dr. Samuel Johnson once returned from a dinner party and commented to Boswell, “It was a good dinner, but not the sort you’d invite a man to.”
Of course, you have to show moderation. Phil Soltanek, a comic who plays at Zanies and other clubs around Chicago, says he was so fired up by a Dannon Yogurt ad on longevity that he went home and ate three gallons of the stuff. Two weeks later he looked like a 150 year-old Russian woman.
Phyllis Diller says her husband, Fang, keeps asking for food like his mother used to make, but it’s so hard to get buffalo meat. She knows when he likes her cooking — he swallows it. She has only two cooking rules: If it falls, it was a cake; if it turns black, it was a roast.
Stu Allen says his girlfriend was a biblical cook: Everything was either a burnt offering or a sacrifice. When Phyllis Diller was learning to cook she thought shishkebab was a Jewish holiday. (By the way, Israeli airlines is putting three stewardesses on every flight — one for meat, one for milk, and one to walk up and down the aisles and say, “Eat! Eat! Eat!”)
THESE ARE known in the trade as “rim shots,” because when standup comedians deliver one-liners in night clubs the drummer will often deliver a flourish on the rim of the drum after the line is thrown.
Rim shots have been with us always. Scottish poet Robert Burns was asked to say an impromptu grace at the beginning of a dinner party and, slightly annoyed, got up and asked, “What, is there no clergyman here? Thank God,” and sat down. Beau Brummel was invited to a dinner party where the food was practically inedible. He told the hostess, “Well, I believe that I now owe you a dinner in return. How about tonight?”
Now, if you didn’t like any of those, how about:
W.C. Fields describing a trying experience in which he and a party of friends found themselves in a mountain cabin without liquor: “We lived for days on nothing but food and water.”
“Seeing is deceiving. It’s eating that’s believing.” — James Thurber
“Shake and shake the catsup bottle. First none’ll come and then a lot’ll.” — Richard Armour
“Breakfast foods grow odder and odder; it’s a wise child that knows its fodder.” — Ogden Nash
“Cheese is milk’s try for immortality.” — Clifton Fadiman
“A gourmet is someone who can tell from the flavor of a drumstick whether that was the leg the bird was accustomed to roost on.” — Lucius Beebe
“There is more simplicity in the man who eats caviar on impulse than the man who eats grapenuts on principle.” — G.K. Chesterton
“Cooking is like love, it should be entered into with abandon or not at all.” — Harriet Van Horne
And lastly, this marvelous advice from Emily Post:
“The only occasion when courtesy permits a hostess to help herself before a guest is when she has reason to believe the food is poisioned.”