In the early 1980s, the BBC approached novelist Kazuo Ishiguro — this year’s Nobel laureate for literature – and asked if he would write a television screenplay. He agreed, quit his day job, and wrote The Gourmet – an absurdist, gothic satire about hunger in its many dimensions: physical, spiritual and sensual. His exploration of what food means to different sections of society — bread for the poor, a circus for the rich — is as strikingly relevant today as it was 30 years ago.
The Gourmet is set largely in a London church that offers a soup kitchen and overnight shelter for the city’s tramps. The scriptural roots of its charitable mission are proclaimed on a plaque carrying a quotation from St. Mathew’s gospel:
I was hungry and you gave me food
I was thirsty and you gave me drink
I was a stranger and you welcomed me.
One evening, a man with a “large, formidable British upper-class presence” steps out of his Rolls Royce and joins the crowd of hobos outside the church. He is Manley, the titular gourmet, and he is desperate to enter the church, because he, too, is consumed by hunger, albeit of a different kind. Bored and disdainful, there is “a maverick streak in his face — a hint of the decadent or criminal.” Manley, we soon learn, is a distinguished epicure who has traveled the world to taste of every kind of bizarre food on offer. His palate has boldly gone where no man’s has before. He is a cynosure of gastronomes, who write academic papers extolling him as “one of our great pioneers in taste.”
But the fêted Manley is horribly bored. Having eaten everything on the planet, including the rotting refuse from garbage bins and a “soft, pinkish, bloody” joint of what is clearly human flesh, nothing has excited him in a very long time. Now, however, he is at the church, eagerly awaiting a feast extraordinaire, something so outlandish and sensational that it is “not of this earth.”
Manley is at the church to eat a ghost.
No, he isn’t thirsting for communion with the Holy Ghost — though the punning inference is a deliberately misleading one. Manley’s hunger is not a spiritual but a spectral one. Armed with a butterfly net, a stove, a wok and other cooking paraphernalia, he cuts a rather ridiculous figure, but is determined to go to any lengths to capture and cook the spook that, he has been reliably informed, haunts the vestry.
Ishiguro wrote this at a time when Margaret Thatcher was in power and her social policies were being severely criticized for exacerbating poverty and homelessness in England. Drawing form Ishiguro’s own experience of working with the homeless in West London, the play, which is more on-the-nose than his oblique novels, exposes the sordid underbelly of capitalism, as well as the limits of Christian charity. The nocturnal scene of the tramps squatting on mattresses in the church’s “comfortless, airless” crypt eating rolls and drinking beans from “polyester beakers,” with beans dribbling down their chins, is a bleak and dismal one.
But the play’s central critique is aimed at the hedonistic culture of consumerism that treats food as a recreational drug. When Ishiguro wrote this play, the word “foodie” had only just been coined and was not yet widely used — instead, the word for the food-obsessed was gourmet. If he were writing this today, his screenplay might well have been called “The Foodie”.
Manley is a prototype of a certain kind of millennial foodie who is constantly chasing after the latest hip food, whether it is maqui berries, algae fats or chaga mushrooms. The all-too-recognizable sort who eat with their iPhones first and tongues later. The play captures our current era, which writer Ron Rosenbaum calls “The Era of Crazed Oral Gratification,” one in which the global food industry has been turned into a circus, endlessly whipped on by fads, new superfoods, dietary scares, Instagram-friendly dishes, and hysterical television shows that focus less on the cooking and eating than on the circus of cooking and eating.
For all his sophistication, Manley is nothing more than a slave to the two most tiresome clichés of food television: Every dish has to be “a party in the mouth” and every recipe must be “taken to the next level.” Eating ghost, he thinks, will satisfy both those aims, and for nine years now, he has unsuccessfully hunted it.
This time he must succeed. After a long and tense wait in the vestry, a tramp with a “friendly, cheeky face” suddenly appears from an inner door. Manley is taken aback. This is not at all what he had expected. But then the tramp turns, and his friendly face changes to that of “a dead man — staring, horror-struck, blood on the lips.”
The tramp, of course, is the much sought-after ghost — but there is an ugly twist to the tale. It is the ghost of a pauper who, on that very night 80 years ago, was murdered in that very church for his organs. And here we see the seeds of a theme that, two decades later, would animate Ishiguro’s tour de force dystopian novel, Never Let Me Go, about cloned children who are raised for the sole purpose of being organ banks in a world that has made its peace with medical cannibalism.
Manley kills the tramp — now twice murdered — and quickly cooks him in his wok, his face “impatient and lecherous” with anticipation. What does tramp ghost taste like? What is its “mouthfeel”? Is it sour and moldy? Slimy or leathery? Airy? Gamey, perhaps? With characteristic restraint, Ishiguro doesn’t say, but he offers one pungent detail: The meat smells “powerful and awful.”
The next morning Manley emerges on the street violently sick and vomiting into a bin. The party in the mouth has turned out to be something of a bad trip. When a sympathetic tramp asks if he has had a bit too much to drink, Manley is deeply offended. Ishiguro describes the exchange:
HOMELESS MAN: Bit too much of the old . . . [Makes a drinking gesture.]
Manley looks at the homeless man with disdain. Then with dignity:
MANLEY: I was hungry. I ate. Now I am sick.
HOMELESS MAN: [Shrugs.] Right, right. See what you mean.
MANLEY: You see what I mean? I very much doubt that. How could you ever understand the kind of hunger I suffer?
HOMELESS MAN: Well. We all get hungry, don’t we?
Manley gives the homeless man another disparaging look.
MANLEY: You have no idea what real hunger is.
Homeless man shrugs. Manley continues to look broodingly into space, slowly rubbing his stomach.
There is something richly satisfying about this pompous gourmet being mistaken for a common drunk on the morning after his great epicurean misadventure. Immersed in his quest for self-gratification, Manley is utterly contemptuous of the hunger of the homeless. He doesn’t even notice them — they are invisible, the real ghosts of the play.
Cold and wolfish though Manley may seem, he is not so different from the contemporary tribe of foodies who claim to be passionate about food and its pedigreed provenance but show far less concern about the working conditions of those who grow it or the underpaid and invisible labor chain that makes it possible.
Manley has fetishized food to the point that it has become a pathology. Ghost meat may have given him food poisoning. But his indignant retort, with its tendentious allusion to Matthew’s gospel — “I was hungry. I ate. Now I am sick” — reveals that he’s utterly unaware that the hunger inside him can never be satiated with exotic flesh.
“Life gets so dreary once you’ve tasted its more obvious offerings,” he murmurs wearily, as he is driven away in his Rolls. Disappointed, dissatisfied and hungry, he is already planning a trip to Iceland, no doubt to feast on rotted shark, or whatever it is that promises to take life to the next level.