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The Devil's Picnic: Travels Through the Underworld of Food and Drink Paperback – August 22, 2006

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

This detailed chef's tour of prohibited pleasures for the palate, from Norwegian moonshine and Bolivian coca leaves to Spanish bull testicles, is laced with magnificent descriptions—some mouthwatering, others quite repulsive. Grescoe (Sacre Blues: An Unsentimental Journey Through Quebec) uses food as a pretext to lead readers on a heady quest to corroborate the libertarian principle of free will. Through his well-researched history lessons, readers learn of the birth and evolution of nine different foodstuffs, and the politics behind their prohibition. Grescoe paints colorful portraits of contemporary cultures by walking the land, sampling the fare and providing firsthand interviews with various food experts: aficionados, suppliers and officials charged with enforcing interdiction. His narrative makes a convincing case that most restrictions are based on unwarranted or outdated health concerns, or political agendas that profit the government (up to 86% of the price of liquor in Norway can go to taxes!). And while he successfully illustrates the arguments used by supporters of legalization, he surprises himself by conceding that certain governmental intervention can indeed be a necessary evil (e.g., protection of endangered animals). With amusing anecdotes and exotic imagery, this walk through the garden of "forbidden fruit" is a savory and powerful scrutiny into the psychology, markets and politics of prohibition.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Booklist

Be prepared for a little weirdness. The author, hungry to learn more about fascination with the forbidden, crisscrosses the globe in search of danger, excitement, and really wild stuff to eat and do. Stew made out of bull testicles, Norwegian moonshine, absinthe, exotic cheeses--the bizarre, the forbidden, the just plain creepy. What is it about "forbidden fruit," Grescoe asks and asks again, that compels us to taste it? What is it about some foods and plants that make governments outlaw them? This is a compelling story of adventure, obsession, repression, and the limits of human gastronomic endurance. Not for those with timid tastes (some bits are right out of Fear Factor), the book makes great reading for those who imagine themselves as adventurous, should they ever venture out of their armchairs. David Pitt
Copyright © American Library Association. All rights reserved --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 384 pages
  • Publisher: Bloomsbury USA (August 22, 2006)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1582346151
  • ISBN-13: 978-1582346151
  • Product Dimensions: 5.5 x 1 x 8.2 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 11.2 ounces
  • Average Customer Review: 4.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #2,609,210 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Customer Reviews

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

15 of 15 people found the following review helpful By A. Ross HALL OF FAMETOP 1000 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on April 25, 2006
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
The unapologetic underlying message in this travelogue of forbidden fruits is a resounding libertarian one: don't ban stuff, instead, let intelligent adults make up their own minds about what they put in their bodies. And it has to be said that the book makes a fairly convincing case for the notion that free will should trump governmental decree (at least when it comes to what we ingest). Each of the nine chapters takes Canadian journalist Grescoe to a foreign land in search of a forbidden experience (only some of which are food-based), and his wonderfully assured writing takes the reader along for the ride.

First we visit Norway in search of hjemmebrent, which is essentially moonshine. There he finds a government willing to let junkies literally die in the streets while filling state coffers with massive liquor taxes. Naturally, this means there's a booming smuggling industry and as a corollary, many people who indulge in distilling their own spirits. It's a very curious dichotomy, the country has the world's 2nd highest GNP per capita and the most restrictive alcohol laws outside the Islamic world. This affords Grescoe the license to examine the history of prohibitionist movements and alcohol consumption trends around the world. Next up is Singapore, where he tests the prohibition on poppy seeds, chewing gum, being naked with his window open, downloading porn, and other such activities. This chapter doesn't really fit so well into the book's framework, as he's not actually seeking any particular item out, so much as he is testing the concept of prohibition in general. It's also rather irksome because although his behavior is essentially "research" for the book, he is fulfilling the stereotype of the Western tourist who ignores local laws and customs because he feels like it.
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5 of 5 people found the following review helpful By Tim Leffel on September 5, 2006
Format: Paperback
The Devil's Picnic is a fascinating, engaging collection of stories about what we put into our body and why governments try to stop us. It is a joy of a romp, one man's tireless pursuit of the history of prohibitions and their failure around the world. The author looks at the big question of why we must be protected from ourselves, while showing how individual prohibitions reflect the history or society where they are in force--and who can make a buck by keeping something off the shelves.

It's a lively and fun adventure, with more questions than answers in the end. There's the philosophical dilemma of how a banned substance becomes more desirable, except when maybe when you're talking about cigarettes or something else that will obviously kill you. There's the question of why countries like Norway would rather have distillers making their own booze for home use than make it easier to purchase the legal stuff at a reasonable price.

The extensive pure research is presented in a compelling way, but is enlivened by an impressive number of interviews with key players in a variety of countries, from important government figures to people on the street. A strong dose of self-effacement helps also, as the author gamely drinks Norwegian moonshine, gets tanked on absinthe, and starts chain-smoking again to see life from the perspective of a smoker in the city. He ingests plates of offal that would make even the most hungry carnivores retch.

Along the way he touches on nearly every prohibition and its consequences throughout the ages, from the Opium Wars to the banning of absinthe to the current debate over assisted suicide. The issues are always a bit gray of course.
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9 of 11 people found the following review helpful By John on October 24, 2005
Format: Hardcover Verified Purchase
This is a very informative and interesting book about prohibited substances. I was really surprised by how much this book captivated me. The facts, history and current status of these substances are cleverly woven together with wonderful writing, colorful interviews and great travels. Well done, Taras!
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful By takingadayoff TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICE on July 25, 2007
Format: Hardcover
If it's banned, Grescoe wants it. This means he has to bend rules and break laws. These are risks he's prepared to take, purely in the name of journalism, you understand.

Canadian journalist Taras Grescoe's risks allow us to experience second-hand such exotic and forbidden delicacies as unpasteurized cheese from France and tea made from coca leaves in Bolivia. Actually, those delicacies aren't illegal in the countries where he samples them. So it's a bit odd when he goes to Singapore to eat poppy seed crackers. They're illegal in Singapore but not in Canada or anywhere else. Aside from that out-of-place chapter, The Devils' Picnic is a lot of fun. Grescoe has his hobby horse, which is that none of these forbidden items should be illegal and he makes a good case for that argument. But the best part of The Devil's Picnic is Grescoe hunting down the forbidden items and then sampling them. Sometimes it's worth the trouble, as with the epoisse (stinky cheese), but usually the forbidden fruit is a let-down (absinthe). And sometimes, he doesn't quite find what he's looking for, as when he inadvertently samples pig's testicles rather than the bull's testicles he was searching for.

Along the way, Grescoe tells us the history of the comestible in question and interviews experts and it's all very informative in a magazine article manner. Grescoe tries to keep it light, but he seems inclined toward the dark side of things, so he ends with another slightly out-of-place chapter, in which he visits a clinic in Switzerland where you can end your own life with pentobarbital sodium. So be warned.
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