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Dr. Massimo’s Blah, blah, blah


In Bad Taste? The
Adventures and Science Behind Food Delicacies,
by Dr. Massimo Francesco
Marcone, Key Porter, Toronto,
2007
199 pp. HB $29.95

I’m one of those people who occasionally wonders about the
moments of conception —and cultural motives for—the books that get written
these days. What was it, for instance, that set off Barbara Gowdy to write The White Bone? What triggered Javier
Cercas’ Soldiers of Salamis? With books as good as these two, wondering
instantly transports you to the stratosphere of human imagination and moral proclivity.
Such books derive from a nexus of causes too complicated to parse without
writing a book of one’s own, and that’s why they stay with you and become part
of your own intellectual and moral cogitation.

But then there are the books that you get in a single roll
of your eyes, because the motives behind them are transparently and more or
less exclusively entrepreneurial and mercantile: books, like, say, In Bad Taste? The Adventures and Science
Behind Food Delicacies
, which was recently foisted on readers by Key Porter.

Here is a book almost certainly occasioned by a novelty television news clip
about an ultra-pricey Indonesian coffee that has to be collected from the nether
byproducts of the palm civet, which are animals renowned for having the
skankiest behinds in the animal universe this side of the baboon family. The book
project was almost certainly conceived by the marketing department of the
publisher, and it takes only the lightest touch of malice to script the
in-house dialogue between senior and junior flak that led to its commissioning.
It likely began, glancingly, in the vicinity of the coffee room, thus:


“Did you read that item in the paper this morning about this
coffee called Kopi Luwak?”

“No. What’s special about Kopi Luwak?”

“Well, it’s about $600 a pound, for one thing. And for
another they make it from some sort of catshit in the Far East.”

“Coffee from cat shit? That’s truly gross.”

“Yeah, really. Worse than eating deep fried bugs, or
whatever.”

Then, scene II: twenty minutes later:

“I’ve been thinking about this catshit coffee of yours.
Maybe we can get a book out of it. I mean, whoah, just think about all those
Foodies running around these days with that disposable income. There’s got to
be a market for a book about all the weird and gross food around the world and
how it gets to our tables.”

“Who would know anything about that in this country?”

“Well, they do a lot of cutting edge stuff on food
production up at the University of Guelph.
And didn’t I see some guy from there on television recently with Jay Ingram?
Why don’t you make a few calls and see if
they’ve got anyone with the expertise and the right sense of adventure. Make
sure he has his own travel budget, though. Meanwhile I’ll assign a research for
a day or two, and we’ll see what she can find.”

The “find” turned out to be Dr. Massimo Francesco Marcone,
who is a former University of Guelph
technician and now adjunct professor (it means “part-time”) and PhD noted by
the university’s website as a “co-investigator” of
biodegradable soy-polymer delivery systems for slow release of
micronutrients and biologically active compounds.

Now, I really don’t
know much about Dr. Massimo Francesco Marcone because as an adjunct professor
the university’s website doesn’t bother to list him or his credentials. He’s
done some on-camera work for Discovery
Canada, and Jay Ingram, the Discovery host, enthusiastically
endorsed the book. So did one of the TV shopping bags, Anna Wallner, along with
several other media figures who aren’t famous for their reading habits. I
haven’t seen Dr. Massimo perform on television, so I can’t comment on his
performance abilities. Nor, as a layman, can I offer expert testimony on the
quality of his science, except to note that although he seems to have a fairly
hard time distinguishing between scientific fact and belabouring the obvious,
whenever he actually gets down to offering serious analysis of matters
scientific, he’s pretty interesting.

That said, I’m
always a little suspicious of non-medical doctors who insist on the honorific,
and I harbour similar suspicions about people who have long names that they
insist on others pronouncing. Seems to me in both cases that this constitutes
pumping oneself up in public, and one should thus be vigilant that there’s either
a too-volatile ego in the vicinity, and/or a shortage of substance being
covered up.

Not that we should
all have names like “Sting” or “Shakira” or live our professional lives by the
“aw shucks” code, but I’m sure you get what I’m driving at. And really, I have no strong opinion as to
whether any of this applies to Dr. Massimo. My counter-suspicion is that he is,
in his frantic way, a likeable character I just don’t want to hang out with
personally. What I can say with a little bit of authority is that Dr. Massimo
writes the most over-excited prose I’ve read in many moons, and that his prose is a problem. In fact, his prose style
is so over-the-top that it’s worth taking apart a couple of passages from the
book—which I’ll chose more or less at random—to see what’s going on.

Let’s start with
this one, drawn from a passage where he’s traveling with an Australian coffee
entrepreneur and a couple of German journalists to see where and how Kopi Luwak
coffee is produced. “Water and mud flowed
down from the hillside, making it even more difficult to see where the debris
ended and the road started. We kept edging farther over to the right, until I
could se that our wheels were just inches from going over the escarpment. I
nervously shouted out to Albert to be careful, lest we go over the side and
plunge to our deaths in the darkness of the night. Albert, in a nervous but
controlled voice, told me not to look as he had everything under control. He
informed me that as a ship’s captain he was prepared for every eventuality and
that this would be no different just because we were on dry ground. Albert was
confident—I was anything but!

Slowly we moved further ahead, my heart
pounding all the more as I waited for us to roll off the side of the
escarpment. Finally, our wheels spun faster and we were catapulted forward,
clear of the rocks, mud, trees, and other assorted things that tumbled down
into the darkness. Albert turned to me; his face covered in sweat, and asked
how I was doing. I told him I had been praying all the way and, thanks to God,
my prayers had been answered. I looked behind me and noticed that Nunu and
Detlef were sleeping in the back, totally oblivious to what had just occurred
.”

This passage is a
slightly hilarious demonstration of emotional hyperactivity. Somewhere fairly
far in the background it does serve as a description of a vehicle making its
way across a mudslide in the
Third World. More
important than either of those considerations, it is a passage of prose that contributes
nothing to our understanding of Kopi Luwak, which is more about slightly
over-sized felines squatting on the jungle floor and grunting than about high
drama. From a narrative view, this is much ado about nothing much, and that’s
likely why the German journalists slept through it. It’s an overwrought
description of what was going on inside Dr. Massimo’s hyperactive brain. After I’d
read another 50 pages of this sort of stuff, the thing I was clearest about was
that I wouldn’t get into a car with this guy unless a couple metres of duct
tape had been wrapped around him and a gag stuffed in his mouth, because he back-seat
drives everything so relentless he’d drive any normal person off the road and
possibly off their rocker.

As writing, the
problem is more serious than a penchant for backseat driving. Mr. Massimo
fusses and fabulates throughout the book, worrying about 9/11, the general
threat of terrorism and volcanoes and asteroids as if such things were threats
exclusively aimed at him, not to all of us.
He is, I suspect, one of those guys whose on/off switch is permanently
in the “on” position, and thus he’s perpetually on everything, and perpetually
ragging on everyone.

This falls,
methinks, more in the realm of “irritating” than “evil”. It’s almost certainly
the energy source that got him onto Discovery,
and to the exotic and occasionally stressful locations the books takes its
readers to. For that, more power to Dr.
Massimo. But with everything being on permanent overdrive, it makes for
exhausting reading, at best. At worst, it makes you think that someone has maliciously
handed Dr. Massimo a manual of how to do personal journalism, and that he’s misread
the dictim that he’s supposed to be part of the narrative to mean that he has
to provide constant iteration of his emotional states as the narrative
backbone.

A page onward from
the one I quoted, there’s another telling passage—one that is also repeated in
different formulation dozens of times along the way—which brings us to stand,
metaphorically, in front of Dr. Massimo’s curiculum vitae and be reminded that
all this is happening in the name of science, and that he, Massimo Francesco
Marcone, is the scientist of record:

Finally, we had reached the land of the
luwak, or palm civet. I had shed my distinctive white lab coat for camouflage,
mystery, and subterfuge in the dead of night. I could barely contain my
excitement, and my work had only just begun.”

Several pages later,
we get a similarly self-inflating descriptor: “There at the door stood the village chief whom we had seen earlier in
the day. In his hand he held the leg of a wild deer caught earlier in the day
and this was to be our evening meal. I took the leg, still covered with the
brown fur of the recently slaughtered animal, examining it with the eyes of a
scientist and the same skepticism that I would have brought to bear in my
laboratory thousands of kilometers away. But this was my dinner, so I put away
my scruples
.”

All of this blah,
blah, blah, leaves us with a book that should have been about 48 pages long.
It’s about Kopi Luwak plus some add-ons:
Cazu Frazegu maggot-riddled cheese (from
Italy), birds nest soup ingredients (from Malaysia and Indonesian), argan oil
(Morocco), escamoles (red ant pupae caviar from Mexico) and Can-Am morel
mushrooms, (on the subject of which I knew, at the end of the chapter, exactly
as much as I did going in: that they’re expensive; that they taste better than
button mushrooms;
and—in lieu of the
only truly useful information Dr. Massimo might have delivered—that morel
gatherers don’t give out the location of their picking sites.) I was kind of
puzzled that the morel chapter was even there, since there’s nothing gross
about morels and their harvesting, except maybe the secrecy about where to find
them. There are, of course, mushroom that will make you vomit or even die, so
maybe this is gross-by-proximity.

Here as elsewhere in the book, you easily see how
television-thin the materials are, and the degree to which Dr. Massimo and his
vision of himself in a white lab coat is interfering with what he does have to
deliver to us.
At one point, he conducts
“organoleptic tests”, which consist of frying up the morels in butter, feeding
them to his friends, and judging the relative quality on whether they say “um”
or “ugh”.
I’ve been running organoleptic
tests for years without knowing it, I guess, thinking I was merely entertaining
my friends.

This sort of thing can get, well, irritating after awhile,
particularly if you’re a dedicated Foodie, and really do want the goods Dr.
Massimo is supposed to deliver, and mostly doesn’t.

But then this is a book manufactured by a marketing
department, and its level of moral cogitation, for all the science in it, is a
lot closer to zero than it is to, say, a Barbara Gowdy novel. It’s not completely
fair to blame Dr. Massimo for what in the end, is a dog’s breakfast of a book,
and a deluge of blah, blah, blah. Both he and the subject matter deserved a lot
more editing than either got, if only to ensure that the subject of the book
really was weird food, and not the weird author.

September 5, 2007 2104 words. (an earlier version of this review appeared in Books In Canada)


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Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett

Brian Fawcett is a Toronto-based writer.

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