Food, sensuality and virtual exhibitionism

Adir Sodré, Curls of breasts [oil on canvas, 100 x 80 cm, 1980]


Comment on the book “The food sensualism in Portugal and Brazil”, by Dante Costa

Sociologist Gilberto Freyre (1900-1987) usually charms readers with his fluent, tasty, literary text, where he subverts the idea that sociological essays should be heavy, academic, devoid of any concession to pleasure. Casa Grande & Senzala, his most famous work, is full of erotic, funny, musical, passionate descriptions. Freyre ends his fabulous essay talking about food, and we can almost smell the tapioca, the sweets, the trays of the black delicacies, the “mocotós, vatapás, porridges, pamonhas, canjicas, acaçás, abarás, coconut rice, beans. coconut, angus, rice sponge cake, corn sponge cake, cane rolls, burnt, that is, sweets, etc.”

Every time I tidy up the shelves and weigh the massive volume (a commemorative edition of the author's 80th birthday, from 1980, with poems by Drummond, Bandeira and João Cabral, drawings by Santa Rosa, Cícero Dias and Poty), I reread some passages, enjoying the delicious Pernambuco style.

A few years ago, a friend gave me a booklet published in 1952 by the Brazilian Ministry of Education and Health. The title: Food sensualism in Portugal and Brazil. The author, Dante Costa. I confess that I had never heard of the author. A little research shows that he has written other food-related titles, as well as travel books and even a The Socialism.

Costa's thesis is that the Portuguese have a love relationship with food, and Brazilians, disdain. Somewhere along the way he cites Freyre, of course, but his research method is based on literature, not on wanderings around the Bahian people. It begins with Camões, from where he picks up verses from Canto IX of the Lusíadas:

A thousand trees are rising to the sky

How we make fragrant and beautiful:

The orange tree has beautiful fruit

The color Daphne had in her hair.

It lies on the ground, which is falling,

The lemon balm with the yellow weights;

The beautiful lemons, there smelling

There are virgin tits mimicking.”

And Camões also speaks of “blackberries, which the name has of loves” among other saliences that show the strong relationship of the Portuguese with food since the beginnings of the language. Our Dante quotes Fialho D'Almeida, Eça de Queiroz ("the character of a breed can be deduced simply from its method of roasting the meat") and Ramalho Ortigão ("streams of string eggs sprout from nogada rocks, covered with chalets of dough, over Alicante nougat vats, in which doves of sweets and sponge cakes with sugar cubes and cream innards were drunk.”).

For him, a Brazilian writer only talks about hunger, not food. “Poverty robs him of much of his joy. With the others, the joy of eating is gone.” According to Dante Costa, descriptions of dinners and delicacies "are rare in literature, because they are rare in the average life of the people." Quoting a lecture by Joaquim Ribeiro, he says that “hunger, in Brazil, began with civilization”.

The essay was published in 1952. Would Dante write this today? If he lived in a big Brazilian city, probably not, unless he focused his analysis on the most peripheral populations. But if he walked through the northeastern backlands, he would prove the validity of his thesis. Which does not mean that in the most destitute corners of Portugal, food poverty did not exist either. After all, Eça and his colleagues lived in the city, not in the fields. Where sex is just reproduction, there is no sensuality. Where the act of eating is just a matter of survival, it cannot be a refined source of pleasure.

But the essayist would come across an impressive phenomenon in contemporary Brazil: the posting of photos of food on social networks. Does it mean a new Brazilian attitude towards food? Would the sensual relationship with food be dominated by the visual aspect, before the other senses?

It depends on which Brazilian we are talking about. In addition to clinical cases of compulsion or eating disorders – and there are many on the internet! –, there is a still little studied exhibitionism, which does not hide a feeling of affirmation of the social level through food.

Who was poor and became well-off, flaunts this through the new menu: "See what I'm eating now!". The middle class, always aspiring to the luxury of the wealthy, does not miss the chance, when they can “eat out”, to flaunt their gluttony on the hammocks. It's almost impossible to go to a restaurant in São Paulo and not see someone at the next table photographing the ordered dish. Needless to say, the truly rich and the truly poor, for very different reasons, do not practice this kind of perversion.

With the pandemic, this behavior has moved to the home environment. Dishes continue to be displayed ad nauseam, now with the addition of “I did it”. However, the retro taste of “I can” or “I have” is almost always noticed. With a few honorable exceptions, what is perceived is not a love for food, but for the status that it gives to the individual.

It can be said that the proliferation of culinary programs on TV, open or closed, in the last decade, contributed to the emergence of this new sect of food lovers. But we cannot forget what Dante Costa noticed, back in the 1950s: we are still a country of the hungry, where this type of exhibitionism does not fail to carry an uncomfortable flavor of class.

* Daniel Brazil is a writer, author of the novel suit of kings(Penalux), screenwriter and TV director, music and literary critic.


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