Thursday, February 19, 2009

A Slice of Heaven and A Dip in Paradise

"Getting Wet- Adventures in the Japanese Bath" - Eric Talmadge
"Pizza - A Global History" - Carol Helstolsky

National identity is a strange, elusive subject, best left to boring, long incomprehensible philosophical treaties (the exception being Norbert Elias “The Germans” which is still a heck of a long book). National obsessions however, are more my speed. Anecdotes abound, history is breezy, meaning can be found just about anywhere, be it in a pizza or a bathtub.

“Getting Wet – Adventures in the Japanese Bath” could probably be shorter, but the black and white photographs and illustrations sort of make up for excessive length. The Japanese are crazy about their bath: boiling hot, communal and filled with yummy minerals is the ticket. This particular obsession has nothing to do with hygiene (you thoroughly wash before getting in the tub, whether at the public baths or at home) and everything to do with relaxation and health (and probably a little to do with pain, since a lot of baths are scalding).

As Eric Talmadge expertly guides the reader through the many facets and rituals connected with Japanese bathing, we learn about the antiquity of this custom (a must for any self respecting national obsession), the etiquette of bathing, and its more recent metamorphoses (in ancient Japan themed baths in Tokyo, for example). Japanese culture being what it is (a mixture of extreme politeness and equally extreme perversity) even sex got into the bath-related craziness in the form of brothels named Soapland (the former name Turkish Bath created a diplomatic incident, when Turkish Girls became synonymous with prostitutes, and tourists started calling the embassy to arrange appointments), where clients pay officially not for sex but for a bath.

Of course sometimes a bath isn’t just a bath. For the Japanese it’s about the whole experience which, done well, involves a beautiful natural environment, a very nice meal and a very comfortable night’s sleep. As often happens with pillars of identity, the younger generation doesn’t seem too interested in keeping up with tradition. The biggest Japanese consumers, (single girls 20-30) are not courted by the (dying) industry and the tattooed are barred from entering (a measure first in stored to keep Yakuza gangsters out of the baths).

Tourism isn’t much of a draw either because everything in Japan is so expensive. Now, if you really want your national obsession to conquer the world you need something cheap, adaptable and…edible – like pizza.

Pizza is the complete opposite of the Japanese baths – it’s a national obsession that successfully turned global, and is capable of adapting so seamlessly into so many corners of the world, that it begs the question – is pizza still Italian?

In “Pizza – A Global History” Carol Helstolsky sort of proves it isn’t. The pizza we mostly enjoy today (take-out pizza, or pizza with lots of toppings, some very exotic) bears little resemblance to the original pizza that the XVIII century Naples lazaroni (beggars and poor men generally) bought on the street to fool hunger – an unleavened bread with a little olive oil, mozzarella cheese and some tomato. Pizza, of course is an ancient dish, so much so that several Mediterranean populations ate variations of thin bread covered with whatever else was available regionally and seasonally.

In that sense, it can be argued that pizza wasn’t specifically Italian to start with (Italy itself being a fairly recent construction) and in that sense very well equipped to become the most popular fast foods ever. It even started out as a fast-food – something to be consumed in the street, while walking.

Helstolsky follows the path of pizza from Naples to the east coast of the USA, to the Midwest where two different sets of brothers founded Pizza Hut and Domino, companies that would alter the dish forever. Softer crusts, more cheese, pineapple and barbecue chicken – you name it, if there was a craving for it you could translate into pizza. If there is a dish that can adequately satiate young and old, carnivore and vegetarian, pizza is it.

While Italy is fiercely protecting the “real” pizza, the author, introduces us to a polish pizza-hut favourite (Indian toppings), gourmet concoctions with truffles and the like, and even regional variations such as “Japanese pizza”, (now if only I could have one after indulging in scalding bath).

“Pizza – A Global History” is from the Edible Series of Reaktion Books – they are small, hardcover books filled with colour photographs, and everyone who likes food will probably want to collect them. “Getting Wet” I got from a sale bin – at 2 euros it was quite the bargain even if the dustcover is torn –in that sense it is great value for money, otherwise it’s more of a gift for Japan enthusiasts.

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