Cartoon characters, animated or otherwise, seem to need a food obsession: Bugs Bunny with his carrots, Popeye with his spinach, Dagwood with his sandwich, Homer Simpson with his doughnuts. These are all common enough foods. As far as I’m aware, there’s no cartoon character obsessed with quinoa or truffles, but maybe somewhere, in some obscure creative corner, there’s one who’s hooked on sour gooseberry, tapioca, and powdered cloves. I’m not making this up at random, I’m quoting Thomas Pynchon’s Gravity’s Rainbow, which I think contains one of the greatest comic food scenes in all of literature. Tyrone Slothrop, an American army lieutenant stationed in London during World War II, is forced to sample Mrs. Quoad’s hideous homemade candies. Gooseberry, tapioca, and cloves are not the worst of it. Licorice drops with mayonnaise and orange centers, pepsin-flavored nougat, and a chocolate bonbon packed with ginger root, butterscotch, and aniseed also make an appearance, all products of the Quoad kitchen.
We know that kitchens are very good settings for comedy, whether the fluffy, rom-com version of Catherine Zeta-Jones in No Reservations or the more challenging absurdist drama of Harold Pinter’s The Dumb Waiter, best known as a stage play, though there have been TV versions. A couple of hit men are holed up in a basement and find themselves trying to satisfy the ever more demanding and ludicrous orders sent down by some scary, unknown presence in the restaurant above. Pinter’s plays from this period are generally described as “comedies of menace,” a term that pretty well describes my own brief career working in restaurant kitchens.
So what’s going on here? Why is food so ripe for mirth? Partly I think it’s because humor is always connected in some way with anxiety. We worry about whether we’re eating right, and we certainly worry about whether our cooking’s good enough. If we go to a restaurant, perhaps we worry that we’ll be confronted by a snotty waiter, or that our palates won’t be refined enough to appreciate the chef’s exquisite creations. In all these cases, humor helps to defuse the anxiety and protect us. We wisecrack about the asparagus we’ve overcooked to the wilting point, lest any of our guests do. We make snide remarks about the waiter behind his back, because we suspect he’s doing the same about us.
If you’re on the other side of the serving hatch, customers can be pretty darn funny, too: the table that sends back the venison because it’s too gamey; Steve Martin in The Jerk, who is incensed that there is a snail on his wife’s plate at a French restaurant; the man who asks for his steak tartare cooked medium rare. In these circumstances—as with the curdled hollandaise, the fallen soufflé, and the bill from that joyless, pretentious restaurant—we laugh to stop ourselves from crying.
Geoff Nicholson is a writer in Los Angeles. His books include the novel The Food Chain and the nonfiction Lost Art of Walking. His other articles for Gourmet Live include “Recipes for Disaster,” and “The Art of Eating, the Eating of Art.”