Reviewed by Karen Palmer
Jonah Campbell, a wine manager in Montreal and the author of Food & Trembling, is an eater focused on the small details. Not the way a few grains of spice can change a recipe’s flavour, but what rumbles through one’s mind as tastebuds brush against tastebuds while eating tongue.
Campbell’s latest collection of food writing, Eaten Back to Life, isn’t about ancient cooking techniques or, as he calls it, “the sort of orgiastic, high-sensualist, macho hyperbole” that has become the hallmark of the genre. It’s not about the dish—it’s about the experience of eating that dish, a deeply intellectual take on food that often focuses on the rituals and ambience that can or should influence how we feel about what we’re eating.
In “Hot Dogs on the Brink of Insanity,” Campbell takes us on an alcohol-fuelled trip to Niagara Falls, the sort of lark that begins with a bar-stool dare and barrels headlong into a hazy binge of watery beer and bourbon shots and his ultimate quest to find a dish amongst the gaudy chain eateries that will provide some relief from his crushing hangover.
“Hot Dogs” is one of Campbell’s lighter pieces. He writes vividly about the mild depression that haunts the Thanksgiving table, the nostalgia of cocktail bars-cum-tourist traps, the sensation of “biting up” through a candy bar’s caramel layer, and whether the flavours often associated with Scotch—tar, peat, trawling ropes, plastic buckets—should ever, in fact, be consumed.
The collection is described on the book’s jacket as “overly intellectualized meanderings,” and Campbell’s thoughts about anti-colonial eating, engineered meats, and trends in food and wine writing certainly qualify. His writing can veer toward the precious (“I am infatuated with this Calvados. I want to hold a cup of it between fantastically callused hands as I wake up with the sun. I want to appreciate it in a yellow pavilion between rounds of Russian roulette with a jealous baron”), but the philosophical flourishes are tempered with a clever wit and personal reflections that will challenge readers to think more deeply about their own eating experiences.
I confess that these essays grew on me once I understood the book’s title. I’d been expecting a food memoir—perhaps a collection about eating experiences that had made the author feel more alive. Instead, Campbell explains in an author’s note that “Eaten Back to Life” is actually a reference to an album from a Florida death-metal band. He dissects the title, eventually noting: “Food, like life, is but another ever-twisting hole down which you descend, chasing some sense of satisfaction. You never truly reach the end; you just run out.”