The Ethics of Excess: Food and Satire

The Ethics of Excess: Food and Satire

By Clare Kearns


Food and eating have always figured prominently in the work of satirists. That food plays upon the somatic realism of satire is evident, but the relationship between food and satire’s moral criticism is more slippery. What, if anything, makes food consumption an appropriate vehicle for the satirist’s moral commentary, rather than other forms of consumption and excess? Horace, one of the earliest examples of satirists, takes food as central to his work as the perpetual observer and sometime moralist of Rome. Jonathan Swift picks up on this theme in the Irish paedophages of his A Modest Proposal, and food is a perennial point of reference for modern day satirists such as Chris Rock and Sacha Baron Cohen. The interaction of food and morality in satire as a genre becomes clear when the similarities between the use of food in ancient satire and that in contemporary satire are compared. In particular, Horace 2.8, in which the proud Nasidienus serves a lavish feast to his skeptical guests, is an effective example as one of the earliest introductions of food to satire, while a segment of Sacha Baron Cohen’s 2018 TV series “Who Is America?”, in which Cohen’s character serves an extraordinary meal to food critic Bill Jilla, provides reference for contemporary satiric usage of food. Both Horace and Baron Cohen play off of excessive or otherwise extravagant consumption of food in their satires; moreover, these moments of excessive consumption interact with the underlying moralizing tone that the satirists take in their work. For the satirist, food and its excessive consumption signifies a departure from an acceptable—that is to say, the satirist’s own—moral code, via such moments of interaction.

Horace’s Nasidienus is defined entirely by the kind of food he serves at his dinner parties. The party described in Satire 2.8 is an elaborate affair which is less of an opportunity for discussion in the vein of Plato’s Symposium as it is an excuse for Nasidienus to parade his exquisite food taste and his wherewithal to do so. Fundanius, a guest at Nasidienus’s meal, tells Horace of the lavishly prepared food, much of which is of unique or peculiar origin. He begins with a boar from Lucania, noting that “it was caught in a light south wind, as our host kept mentioning” (leni fuit captus, ut aiebat cenae pater) (6-7), and of the courses to follow he tells Horace that Nomentanus, the right-hand man of Nasidienus, “pointed out anything that might have escaped notice” (qui si quid forte lateret indice monstraret digito) (25). Horace thus makes clear that nothing is more important to Nasidienus than the luxury of his dinner party and ensuring that each of his guests understands how far this meal goes in surpassing conventional fare. Indeed, the largest threat to his dinner party is, at first, the possibility that heavy drinking on the part of his guests would “dull the subtle palate” (subtile exsurdant. . . palatum) (36-38) and the guests, as a result, would not be able to appreciate the food. Nasidienus’s exorbitant food taste, for Horace, represents a departure from normal standards of food consumption.

Nasidienus’s deviations from the gastronomic norm calls attention to deviations from moral norms that Horace examines in his Satires. The dinner party guests, and thereby Horace, see Nasienus’s lavish taste as a reflection of a moral code less virtuous than theirs. The tension between the different standards of conduct becomes apparent as Nasidienus reacts to his wall-hanging falling down and landing in the food: “Rufus [Nasidienus] wept, head in his hands, as if his son, still a boy, had died” (Rufus posito capite, ut si filius immaturus obisset, flere) (58-59). Nasidienus’s reaction is, in Horace’s estimation, overblown. In comparing the host’s despair with that of a bereaved father, Horace both highlights the intemperate sensibility of Nasidienus and criticises it. Horace suggests that while most men, acting in accordance with an acceptable moral code, would react in such a way to the death of their son, Nasidienus reacts thus to something as inconsequential as a wall-hanging falling onto his meal and that this behavior is to be looked down on. Later on in Satire 2.8 Horace once again criticizes the host’s inordinate manner as more courses come out: “then we saw blackbirds with scorched breast and pigeons without rumps. . . sweet things, if our host had not gone on about their reasons and qualities” (tum pectore adusto vidimus et merulas poni et sine clune palumbes, suavis res, si non causas narraret earum et naturas dominus) (90-92). Horace makes it clear that Nasidienus’s desire to lecture his guests on the “causes and properties” of the food he serves is improper and not admirable, contributing to his characterization of Nasidienus as morally disgraceful. At the end of the meal, the guests ensure that Nasidienus understands how they look down on his behavior as they repay his hospitality with the ultimate humiliation: refusing to eat the meal, “as if Canidia had blown on them, whose breath is worse than an African snake’s” (velut illis Canidia adflasset peior serpentibus Afris) (93-95).

Similar to Nasidienus, Bill Jilla is defined by the food he eats. Baron Cohen uses his “ex-con” persona, recently released prisoner Rick Sherman, to trick American food critic Bill Jilla into eating what Jilla believes to be a truly horrifying meal. While Horace clues his readers in on Nasidienus’s gastronomic excesses through Nasidienus’s own speech, Baron Cohen allows the fact that Jilla even eats the food to speak to his extravagant taste. After Baron Cohen/Sherman serves Jilla a first course, “a beans-on-toast medley,” the second course comes out: a “cut of veal, anally-aged in a strawberry prophylactic.” Jilla looks at the meat sitting in the condom, not very encouraged by Baron Cohen/Sherman’s insistence that it is “the most tender veal I have ever tasted.” But, keeping to his own standards of consumption—that he will eat anything and everything—Jilla cuts into the pink condom and eats the veal sitting inside. His response to the veal, too, speaks to his gastronomic deviance: “this is straight from the heart,” he says between satisfied “Mmm”s. Through this second course, Baron Cohen establishes the kind of man Jilla is: one who defines himself by the sort of food he puts in his body and how he can enjoy something others are unwilling to even test. Baron Cohen’s portrait of Jilla is then completed in the third course, when Baron Cohen/Sherman feeds Jilla what he believes to be “a filet of vegetarian-fed Chinese dissident and a cauliflower puree.” Jilla can hardly bear to look at the cannibalistic “pièce de résistance,” as Baron Cohen/Sherman dubs it, but ultimately he cuts into it and takes a bite. Once again, it is Jilla’s reaction to the food that defines his character: “Mmm. Butter. It’s, like, butter soft. Who needs a knife? It’s melting on my palate; I don’t even need to chew it!” With this final course, Baron Cohen exposes Jilla for just how far he will go to fulfill his own image of himself as an extravagant and unrestrained consumer of food, and just how far that extravagance differs from an accepted alimentary norm.

Just as in Horace 2.8, the most telling moment of Baron Cohen’s segment comes when Jilla’s gastronomic deviance seems to intersect with a deviation from an acceptable moral code. After Jilla eats the “Chinese dissident,” Baron Cohen/Sherman explains how the political dissident was named Chung Fae and tastes so good because he was kept in such a narrow cell for so long. Baron Cohen/Sherman then mentions that it would be a great honor for Chung Fae’s family to know that their son was being enjoyed by someone “so respected in the West.” Jilla then turns to the camera and says “to the Lao family, thank you very much; it’s truly an honor and a pleasure. This is Chung Fae’s loin that I am enjoying very much.” Though Jilla has already seemed to exhibit a certain absence of morality by eating what he believes to be another human in the first place, Baron Cohen drives the point home with the politicization of the meal by making the subject a political dissident and by insinuating that major human rights violations took place. Baron Cohen exposes Jilla’s lack of awareness of his own place in society in relation to the fictional Chung Fae as well as his ability to overlook human rights violations in the pursuit of his own alimentary extravagance. Commenting on the segment, Washington Post columnist Tim Carman argues that “the critic’s combination of ego, ambition and cluelessness is the subtext for practically every word that falls from his mouth during the segment.” More than just exhibiting how far some will go in their commitment to exotic food consumption, Baron Cohen is revealing that Jilla’s moral code—comprised of his ego, ambition, and cluelessness—is, as Nasidienus’s, less virtuous than the accepted norm of morality.

In his segment with Jilla, Baron Cohen is doing something different than in the rest of his sketches. He is not trying to make fun of a celebrity or expose a well-known politician for certain extreme beliefs. Rather, Jilla’s relative anonymity in American society makes it clear that he is trying to make a point about the basic ethical code, or lack thereof, of an average American. Similarly, Horace is criticizing a particular way of life and sets of values in his characterization of Nasidienus in Satire 2.8, as Frances Muecke argues. The question that remains is why both satirists would identify food in particular as the location of a deviant morality. Roland Barthes, in his 1961 essay “Toward a Psychosociology of Contemporary Food Consumption,” homes in on a fundamental tension in the act of consuming food that gets at the theme’s prevalence in satire: “no doubt, food is, anthropologically speaking, the first need; but ever since man has ceased living off wild berries, this need has been highly structured.” Barthes is highlighting a contradiction between the status of food as a basic human necessity and its ability to be manipulated to signify something other than that basic need, particularly when it signifies excess and extravagance. Every human must have food to survive, a position which would seem to make it a universalizing commodity amongst them; and yet, as Barthes argues, it becomes a “system of communication” which distinguishes humans as “needs are transformed into values.” It is able to do so by the very fact that all humans must partake in food consumption to survive. As such, food becomes the most obvious location for differing values and morality. In the introduction to their collection Vile Bodies: Roman Satire and Corporeal Discourse, Susanna Braund and Barbara Gold note how “satirical texts do not shy away from bodily functions. On the contrary, they tend to use bodily functions as an index of human conduct.” They argue that it is the “primacy”—necessity—of the body and its functions that renders it such a useful subject for the moralizing satirist.

It is fitting, as such, that Sacha Baron Cohen would choose a food critic for a segment in which he attempts to disgust the audience with such an egregious moral code, and that Horace would use the dinner party setting to explore departures from a moderate lifestyle in Rome. Many satirists in the intervening 2,000 years have also made good use of the theme for their own ethical criticisms. That food is both a universal necessity and a signifier for value systems allows for examination into how such value systems become non-universal and come to distinguish their adherents. For a genre such as satire, in which shortcomings and mistakes are the topic of concern, a system of communication that simultaneously incorporates and distinguishes all men is imperative. In satire, that system of communication is food.



Further Reading

Barthes, Roland. “Toward a Psychosociology of Contemporary Food Consumption.” In Food and Culture: a Reader, edited by Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik, 20-27. New York: Routledge, 2012.

Braund, Susanna Morton and Barbara K. Gold. “Introduction, Vile Bodies: Roman Satire and Corporeal Discourse.” In Arethusa 31:3 (1998), p. 248.

Carman, Tim. “Sacha Baron Cohen’s Punking of a Food Critic Makes Me Gag — and Not because of Cannibalism.” The Washington Post. August 23, 2018.

Muecke, Frances. Introduction to Horace Satires II. Warminster: Aris & Phillips, 1993.