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What (and How) to Eat Naked

Published in Gourmet Live 05.16.12
Geoff Nicholson explains what to do if you should suddenly find yourself naked and insatiable…for food (what else?)

Edouard Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe

The title of Mei Ng’s 1998 novel, Eating Chinese Food Naked, is so wonderfully provocative that it raises expectations any book would struggle to satisfy. Some readers (not me, of course) are disappointed to find it’s a serious work about cultural assimilation and sexual identity, rather than the food and fetish extravaganza they anticipated. Needless to say, few readers would have such salacious expectations for a novel titled Eating Scottish Food Naked.

But say, for the sake of argument, that you actually are going to eat in the nude: Chinese food isn’t the worst choice. Probably it’s best to stay away from sizzling shrimp and hot and sour soup, but if you happen to drop the occasional noodle or morsel of fried rice on yourself or your partner, well, no great harm done. It’s certainly a whole lot better than dropping a plate of chicken vindaloo in your lap, or a steaming hot artichoke, or (to think again of Scottish cuisine) a deep-fried Mars bar.

Indeed, the first rule of naked dining is this: Hot food is generally to be avoided. If hot food is risky for the nude eater, it’s even riskier for the nude cook. Yes, Jamie Oliver did start out by calling himself the Naked Chef, but that was metaphorical rather than literal. No one—with the possible exception of James Beard—really wants to fry or grill in the buff. The body needs protection from all that spattering fat and oil.

So, cold food is always likely to be safer than hot. A cold sandwich or a picnic, as in Manet’s Déjeuner sur l’herbe (which sounds so much more fun than Luncheon on the Grass), comes close to totally unthreatening—certainly the women in Manet’s painting, one of them completely naked, the other in a “chemise,” look perfectly comfortable. There’s a casual arrangement of bread and fruit on display, though this being France, you have to imagine there must be wine and cheese hiding somewhere. Of course, when seen through modern eyes, there’s something unpleasantly patriarchal, not to say downright unfair, about Manet’s women being undressed while the men are extravagantly overdressed. What’s sauce for the goose is sauce for the gander, if you ask me.

If a French pre-Impressionist picnic is unavailable, sushi is another excellent choice for the naked diner. Not only is it temperature-appropriate, but there are hundreds of years of history behind it, according to the Japanese traditions of nyotaimori (literally, “female body presentation”) and nantaimori (the male version), whereby a naked body can be used as a kind of sushi buffet. Whether the diners are also naked is a matter of personal choice and, perhaps more important, restaurant policy.

Nyotaimori notwithstanding, nudity in restaurants has historically been a tough sell. As far as I’m aware, there’s no restaurant proclaiming it’s been “serving nude customers for 25 years.” Back in the Aughts, New York City experienced a minor naked-dining trend when activist John Ordover threw monthly clothing-free dinners at local restaurants. But just last year, San Francisco banned restaurant nudity (nudity outside of restaurants is legal as long as individuals aren’t conspicuously aroused). One of the basic objections to eating in a nude restaurant would seem to be that other people’s bare skin must be a distraction from the food, one way or the other: Either you’re ogling the beautiful bodies on the other side of the room, or you’re trying to avert your eyes from the saggy flesh looming at the next table. However, speaking from personal experience, this isn’t always the case.

When I had dinner in the restaurant of a clothing-optional resort in Florida—it was research, trust me—I was dreading it, and it definitely was awkward and embarrassing, but only for about five minutes. It took amazingly little time to get used to the abundance of, in this case, perfectly ordinary bare flesh all around me; if I had been surrounded by naked supermodels it would no doubt have been a different experience. But after those first few minutes it was just like eating in any other not-very-good resort restaurant. I seem to recall I had macaroni and cheese, and I laid out my napkin very carefully.

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