Travel literature review: The Devil's Picnic

The Devil's Picnic: Travels Through the Underworld of Food and Drink by Taras Grescoe

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

Reviewed by Ben Handicott

A book about hedonistic experiences around the world should tempt you, and the prospect of picnicking with the devil is bound to excite. It’s funny though, this isn’t really what this book does. The Devil’s Picnic is well-written: Taras Grescoe has a keen turn of phrase and he writes with insight and obvious affection for some of the finer things he sets out to experience. The issue seems to lie in his ongoing analysis of the political and social circumstances that have made the various pleasures he pursues illegal. While it’s quite informative, and compelling enough in his tacit argument that, in most cases, the laws are not necessarily in greater society’s best interests, the book just doesn’t fill me with hedonistic desire. But that’s OK, it’s just not that kind of book. It’s still worth a read, don’t get me wrong.

The book is divided (more or less) into the stages of a great night’s feasting and decadence, beginning with aperitifs (moonshine in Norway) and ending with a nightcap (a very final nightcap at that, in a discussion of assisted suicide by pentobarbital sodium in a Swiss sanatorium). The courses between include crackers banned in Singapore because of their poppy seeds (the reasoning being an irrational link to opium); stinky (delicious) Époisses cheese, banned in the USA for its raw milk origins; and bull’s testicles in Spain, in a discussion of EU politics on regional/traditional eating practices in Europe. A gustatory refrain in this global menu involves cigarettes and Cuban cigars in the USA and a mid-meal shot of absinthe, an enjoyable enquiry into its true origins, and its true effects. For dessert, the arbitrariness of food and drink restrictions come into the fore with an account of the history of (now completely safe and legal) chocolate as a commodity, a currency, an illicit substance and a pleasure; and a sip of coca tea in Bolivia – a great description of the commodification of a herbal, traditional supplement gone awry.

This book is good journalistic writing. You never doubt the authenticity of the research – he’s on the ground doing the hard yards, drinking and eating all for the sake of true insight. To be sure, it’s not always a thankless task, and it can indeed make you long to experience some of the things he gets to sample, in the places he samples them. But it is ultimately concerned with the dubious rationale for banning the stuff we imbibe, inhale and (mostly) enjoy. Read it and enjoy it for what it is.

Ben Handicott is Lonely Planet’s Publisher for Trade & Reference titles.

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