Eve Babitz's Hunger
A Taste More Primary Than Art Considers Proper. Words by Philippa Snow; Illustration by Sinjin Li
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A small note: the audio series Taste of Place produced by Whetstone Radio and hosted by Anna Sulan Masing concluded last week with A Pepper Party. If you haven’t been listening, this is a good place to start, or go back to the beginning and listen to the whole series!
Reading about how people eat and what they eat is one of the great literary pleasures. Through the description of pace, the revelation of aversions, idiosyncrasies of seasoning and ticks of body language, a most intimate portrait emerges. So much is expressed – exposed even. Better still when such a portrait arrives with a keen sense of place and time; we can feel how our character rubs up against that which surrounds them.
For example, last week I revisited a piece by Irish writer Maeve Brennan from her ‘Long-Winded Lady’ reports of 1960s Manhattan life in The New Yorker. In the essay, later titled ‘Broccoli’, Brennan starts her account of a meal by describing the atmospheres of New York restaurants and how they vary according to the hour, before shifting to a forensic focus on a patched-up seat that somehow reveals everything about her, and the chain restaurant she’s dining in.
“One of the booths in that Longchamps has a patched seat. It is a booth that faces the back of the restaurant. The patch, of wide gray adhesive tape, is in the form of a Red Cross cross, square and definite. It is reassuring to think of the big Longchamps chain’s having recourse to such tiny, housewifely economy, and being so neat about it. I sat beside that patch the last time I was in the Fifty-ninth-Street Longchamps, so it must have been summertime then, because I would never agree to face away from the window except in the hot midsummer weather, which I hate.”
While in command of language, though, Brennan’s impulse order of ‘fresh broccoli with sauce suprême’ leaves her unable to perform her role of diner. After she declines the waiter’s help serving the sauce, she realises she does not know where she should put the sauce – on the tender stem or the floret? The dish is illegible to Brennan and she dare not go in with her knife and fork willy nilly; the waiter clears it away, uneaten.
I cannot imagine such hesitancy from Hollywood-born writer Eve Babitz, whose will-to-life via fucking and eating in 1970s LA leaps from the page in today’s newsletter by Philippa Snow. Contra the broccoli-shy Brennan and cool tone of Babitz’s West Coast rival Joan Didion, Snow shows us in full colour how Babitz’s oeuvre brims with insights that could only be won through her radical, full-throttle embrace of her appetites in her beloved Los Angeles – a city she maps out with meals and men, the same way it would be with meals and music by her unlikely LA successor, Jonathan Gold. RMJ
Eve Babitz’s Hunger, by Philippa Snow
Eve Babitz, the memoirist, novelist and hedonist, is typically categorised as a trailblazer because of her lusorious attitude to sex, both on the page and in her life. As a prose stylist, Babitz was pellucid, funny in the aphoristic way that every writer who desires to be funny longs to be, and truly hip. As a person, she was Too Much: ravenous, relentless, driven by her id, never dull because she never met a vice she didn’t like. A child (then a voluptuous, gloriously shameless woman) of Los Angeles, she wrote eight books in her lifetime, beginning with the impossibly cool and glamorous Eve’s Hollywood – a kind of proto-autofictional short story volume – and concluding with a slim book about tango dancing, Two by Two, in 1999. One of the things that she hungered for in perpetuity was sex, with men and every now and then with women, and her public image has been inextricably tied to the very famous men she’s slept with – Jim Morrison, obviously; Harrison Ford, obviously; Steve Martin, improbably – to the degree that she is often thought of as a groupie just as much as she is thought of as an author. When rereading her this summer, however, the picture of her that emerged had a subtly different focus, as if a seeing-eye puzzle had resolved itself and revealed some new formulation. Babitz’s writing about food, I discovered, is arguably even more uncompromising and transgressive than her writing about sex – just as much as fucks and crushes, her work revolves around restaurant culture and cuisine, her desire to be fed often equalling or eclipsing her desire to get laid. If her starfucking and her erotic anthropology have been raked over so much that there is no new ground to cover, the expansiveness of her literal appetite still has the power to surprise and thrill.
‘His voice was exactly like chocolate,’ Babitz writes in Eve’s Hollywood, of the married man who deflowered her in her teens. ‘It was like chocolate chocolate chocolate.’ For Babitz, there could be no greater compliment than a comparison to chocolate – the word alone appears seventeen times in the book, three more times than ‘sex’. ‘One of my dreams of childhood,’ she continues, ‘was opening a door and finding an entire room with nothing but chocolate in it, no air, all chocolate so that you had to chip off a piece with a knife just to begin. I have never wondered how the chocolate got into the room.’ Taking advantage of a situation without wondering how it came to be certainly feels like a signature Babitz move, and this early fantasy suggests that her go-for-broke approach to life began at birth. It hints, too, at her love of excess, the way she appeared to see her entire life as an enormous room filled with chocolate that she had to gouge and gorge her way through, never tiring or flagging, always bottomlessly famished.
An inability to enjoy one’s meals is often treated as a signifier of tedium in Babitz’s books, and as with her numerous bedfellows and their aptitude for sex, she privileges the company of those who share her passion for gastronomic indulgence. In 1979’s Sex and Rage – a ‘novel’ that is really more or less an autobiographical retelling of her tortured, sadomasochistic emotional fling with the record executive Earl McGrath, and her alcoholic flameout at the tail-end of her twenties – the Eve stand-in, Jacaranda, can think of no better way to write off her frenemy’s rich and supposedly elegant friends than by noting how impressed they are by flavourless, soulless cooking. ‘They demanded the same French food (what Jacaranda called “kosher fillet of sole”) in every city on earth,’ she writes, ‘and were suckers for going to bars and nightclubs and restaurants because their “dear friends” went, no matter how much better the place next door was.’ Contrast this with Eve’s eternal admiration for a friend called Connie in 1974’s Eve’s Hollywood: ‘a very sleek, dark, fashion girl who lends fastidious elegance to everything she touches… [and] can’t go a month without chili… [and] chorizo.’ A lover of glamour and gluttony herself, it is safe to assume that when Eve met Connie, game, as they say, recognised game.
Being a voracious eater and being a proud slut would both have been seen as utterly distasteful qualities in a woman in the 70s, just as they are in some quarters even now. Where an excess of obvious sex appeal hardly diminishes a girl’s desirability, however – even if it is seen as an impediment to her respectability – gluttony is often seen as damningly unfeminine and unsexy. To concern oneself too much with whether or not a specific figure from the recent past is ‘feminist’, either by contemporary standards or by those of their contemporaries, is not always the most interesting or productive exercise. In Babitz’s case, her feminism is certainly not feminism sensu stricto – she is subtly derisive of the movement once or twice, giving her yet another thing in common with her dark, inverted twin Joan Didion. Still, I would argue that it is as radical to advocate for women’s pleasure as it is to advocate for their careers, their biological rights, their financial security or their sexual freedoms. At a time when the movement might have seen sensual gratification as frivolous or trivial – lacking, say, the life-or-death urgency of subjects like abortion or equal pay – Babitz treated pleasure as if it were the most important thing of all. She appreciated it for its animating qualities, the way it lit a person up and made them somehow livelier and more exciting.
When Babitz, as she sometimes does, makes irritable comments in her writing about being fifteen pounds too heavy, it is maddening, but it is also entirely relatable for any woman who has ever read a magazine or watched a television or existed under patriarchy. At any rate, her occasional self-admonishment is all for show – she would never think of actually giving up one of her favourite vices for the sake of fitting in. When she does lose weight, in 1977, it is not because she diets, but because she realises she is an alcoholic and quits drinking, leaving her free to ‘eat potatoes, rice, bread, meat, ice cream, chocolate mousse, it all!’ ‘I just wasn’t perfect,’ she says, writing about being a ‘plump’ girl as an adolescent in a piece that year for Vogue. ‘[But] I have never liked perfect things; they give me the creeps.’ In Slow Days, Fast Company (1977), she describes the opening of Ports, a one-time LA hotspot on Santa Monica Boulevard that she loved so much she ended up, seemingly accidentally, briefly employed there. By all accounts, the place’s very imperfection was the reason for her ardour: its uncool and shabby cosiness, its willingness to let her hold court.
Throughout Eve’s Hollywood, as in the rest of her career, Babitz seeks to make the case for LA as a destination every bit as rich in musical, artistic, literary and gastronomic possibility as New York. In one chapter of the book, she describes having developed a high-school obsession with, of all things, ‘Byzantine mosaics.’ Hoping to encourage his precocious daughter’s love of art and architecture, she remembers her devoted father Sol taking the entire Babitz clan to High Mass at Saint Sophia, a Greek Orthodox cathedral that still stands in LA’s Byzantine–Latino Quarter. Afterwards, the family sat together in the car and ate ‘white crumbly feta cheese, ham, rolls, another kind of cheese and olives’ and ‘half a bottle of cold retsina’ purchased from the deli right across the street, and just as she tends to describe sex in fantastical and hallucinatory terms, Babitz writes as if the meal had drug-like properties. ‘I… tasted the green oily olives which must have been the same on a Greek cliff tending goats as they were on Pico [Boulevard]’ she writes. ‘I drank [the restino] and the day changed colors. I tasted Athens and I knew what it was like to be Greek… [restino] tastes like pine trees and goes with craggy mountains… I took my second gulp from the bottle and acquired a taste more primary than art considers proper.’ Acquired a taste more primary than art considers proper – what an astonishing phrase! What an astonishing summary of its author’s metier in its entirety! In the piece’s opening line, she argues that the best way to connect with unfamiliar cultures is by studying their art; by the last, she has chosen to amend this observation. ‘For me,’ she concludes, ‘the way to a people is through assuaged hunger.’ It is possible that, for Babitz, both these statements are equally true, near-synonymic: just as she believed that ‘sex is art’ and that ‘sex masterpieces are the best kind. Better than Bach, the Empire State Building, or Marcel Proust,’ she seemed to think of eating as an art, too, just as pure and capable in its stirring of the body and the soul as painting, music, fucking, and so on. In her writing, sex and eating are as complimentary – and transformative – as the components of the Eucharist.
In Babitz’s books, there are other passages of such supreme perfection that she feels untouchable, and many of them happen to be about food. There is a tremendous remembrance in Eve’s Hollywood that pairs a breathless focus on the everyday – taquitos from Olvera Street, eaten with a hot sauce that ‘deserves the Nobel Prize for Science and Art’ – with a brief framing device about the fatal overdose of Janis Joplin. Didion might have turned that overdose into a sprawling essay about Los Angeles evil; Babitz merely breezes past it, keeping her eyes firmly on her lunch. Fruit – luscious, ripe, suggestive of fertility and plenty – also provides her with some of her most decadent material. ‘No wonder he only thought about sex; he’s never heard of mangoes,’ she observes ruefully of a friend in 1993’s Black Swans. One of the most striking qualities in her prose is the way that everyone and everything is depicted as infinitely more beautiful than in life, an illusion that was simpler to maintain before the internet arrived and we could see the truth of things in seconds. All this wide-eyed dazzle might seem like bullshitting self-mythology – a pose – if it did not feel as if Babitz genuinely believed it all: believed that her friends and former schoolmates were the loveliest women ever to live; that she was sexier than every supermodel put together; that her lovers were ‘angel[s] of sex’; that Los Angeles was the greatest city on the planet; and that when she ate and enjoyed a meal, it was because it was the finest cuisine known to (wo)man.
‘When we finished making love that Sunday,’ Babitz wrote in a piece for Cosmopolitan in 1978, remembering sleeping with a(nother) gorgeous man, ‘we lay in each other’s surprised arms looking out the open wall of glass windows at the pink sunset sky and the lavender-tinted garden. All I could say was “I’m hungry.”’ Only boring people get bored, she appeared to imply in her life and in her work – very exciting people just get ravenous. There is an anecdote in Lili Anolik’s Hollywood’s Eve, a biography of Babitz, in which an ex-boyfriend describes her reliably lusty approach to catered parties: ‘She’d bypass the host or hostess and first head to the buffet table and dive into it like Esther Williams on Dexamyl,’ he remembers, ‘then barge back in and demand that I take her home. I’d ask her why… and she’d say, “So we can fuck!”’ The image of her ploughing headfirst into a buffet before hornily bellowing demands is almost too Eve – perfectly reflective of a writer who recorded conquests and consumption in the same slavering register. Given her verve, it is a struggle to write about Babitz in the past tense, not the present, in spite of the fact she died in mid-December of last year. Funny, how impossible it is to conceive of her as anything other than alive, so alive: barrelling towards a catered buffet or a favourite restaurant; prowling mercilessly towards some helpless man; squinting, catlike, in the midday LA sun and saying, as she often did, that she would not desert her favourite city even if it had begun to tip into the ocean. I hope heaven serves taquitos.
Philippa Snow is a critic and essayist. Her work has appeared in publications including Artforum, The Los Angeles Review of Books, ArtReview, Frieze, The White Review, Vogue, The Nation, The New Statesman, and The New Republic. Her first book, Which As You Know Means Violence, is out now with Repeater.
Sinjin Li is the moniker of Sing Yun Lee, an illustrator and graphic designer based in Essex. Sing uses the character of Sinjin Li to explore ideas found in science fiction, fantasy and folklore. They like to incorporate elements of this thinking in their commissioned work, creating illustrations and designs for subject matter including cultural heritage and belief, food and poetry among many other themes. Previous clients include Vittles, Hachette UK, Welbeck Publishing, Good Beer Hunting and the London Science Fiction Research Community. They can be found at www.sinjinli.com and on Instagram at @sinjin_li
Vittles is edited by Rebecca May Johnson, Sharanya Deepak and Jonathan Nunn, and proofed and subedited by Sophie Whitehead.