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Food & Chefs as Sexual Metaphor in Romance Novels

My days before starting at Brown are numbered, so while I’ve done some fun things (#rhodetripping) and productive things (proofreading chapters in the forthcoming Food Activism (Counihan and Siniscalchi, eds., 2014) and peer reviewing papers submitted to The Graduate Journal of Food Studies), when I’m not binging on Netflix, I’ve been reading perhaps more than my fair share of romance novels. The most recent of these saccharine literary indulgences employed a food theme.

While there are literal connections between food and sex—from aphrodisiacs cooked up throughout history to food foreplay à la 9 1/2 Weeks or Tampopo (coincidentally the king of all food films in my opinion) or the entertaining comparisons put forth in Porn Sex vs. Real Sex: The Differences Explained with Food—food can also be used as a sensual metaphor and literary device.

All for You

All for You (2013) by Kate Perry. (No, this is not Katy Perry’s new single.)

While employed far more successfully and with greater sophistication in other novels, such as Like Water for Chocolate or in this interesting analysis even in Alice in Wonderland, food is, at a minimum, a consistent literal and metaphorical sexual theme in Kate Perry’s All for You, which when I (perhaps foolishly) downloaded it, was free on iTunes.

In this insanely simplistic little novelette, Anna, a new and aspiring lawyer, wants to get back together with Max, a sexy chef who she dated throughout law school before parting ways given their competing life priorities.

While the cover provides no clues whatsoever [Is that sidewalk chalk?], the story opens with Anna on a blind date, which she departs abruptly when she realizes that she does not want a man who is “white bread.” On the other hand, Perry uses another food metaphor repeatedly framing Max, Anna’s love interest, as “spicy,” not only establishing his appeal in stark contrast to the bland-white-bread-flavor of other men, but also a stereotypical reference to his Latin heritage. Further reinforcing his appeal, Max is the head chef at Spark, a restaurant aptly named for the sparks flying between Anna and Max.

'Celebrity' chef, Todd English, described in the "New York Post" similar to how Perry describes Max: "By turns macho and sexy, charming and just a bit cheesy, he’s the guy you get your mojo back with on some far-flung Mediterranean island."

Celebrity chef, Todd English, is described in the New York Post similarly to how Perry describes Max in All for You: “By turns macho and sexy, charming and just a bit cheesy, he’s the guy you get your mojo back with on some far-flung Mediterranean island.”

By casting Max as a chef, Perry taps into the increasingly commercialized and popular sex appeal of celebrity chefs (life Bobby Flay above), who — even as women make great strides in restaurant kitchens — continue to be mostly male; for example, a ROC United study found that women are hired for only 19 percent of chef positions. Max is exactly this sort of macho head chef; in “dark pants and a pristine white chef’s coat, the sleeves rolled up,” Max “looked capable and in charge. Hot.”

Max’s culinary character is grounded in conventional masculinity, as he is in control in both the kitchen and the bedroom and so full of “charisma and star quality” that a New York restaurant group believed he could be “the next Wolfgang Puck.” Should Anna have been cast as the chef, this pint-sized romance novel might have played out quite differently. Or perhaps not, given the perfect predictability of the romance genre, but you see my point.

With Max as a “hot” chef, spicy in every way, Perry also sets the literary table, if you will, for a host of sensual food scenes, from the sex scene descriptions of Max “lapping, licking, nibbling, and noshing” Anna (the last of which doesn’t even sound remotely sexy) to Anna licking Max “like he was an ice cream cone.” Beyond metaphor, food also becomes a literal sexual prop, as recommended in seemingly every issue of Cosmo (consider, ahem, “Very Naughty Things to Do with Candy”). In a twist on the normalized whip cream scene, a menu tasting is put on hold when things heat up; Max instead eats zabaglione off of Anna, a dessert familiar to them both from when they dated previously. A memory of their past relationship, sharing this dessert again (granted off of one another’s flesh) helps to lead them down the path of reconciliation, love, compromise, and, of course, more hot sex.

While overly simplified, All for You reinforces the potent power of food metaphor in literature of all types, from novels to comic books (you’ve got to check out Chew, as well as Fabio Parasecoli’s forthcoming analysis) to, well, romance novelettes.

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