Sub-titled: A Tour of Everything the Governments of the World Don’t Want You to Try.
To us freedom lovers, over-protective governments and self-appointed keepers of morality, are a nuisance we eventually learn to live with, but more importantly, manage to skirt around (with a great deal of satisfaction, I may add) in order to continue enjoying our freedoms. In, the Devil’s Picnic, Taras Grescoe takes us on a hedonistic journey around the world, to savour some of the foods and other substances, banned and vilified by nanny-state governments.
The journey starts in Oslo, Norway, in search of the forbidden Hjemmebrent or Karsk; a high alcohol-content drink, a type of moonshine. Apparently, in Norway the tax on liquor is based on the alcohol content; the higher the alcohol content, the higher the tax. On an 80-proof bottle of Vodka, the tax could be as much as 86 percent of the total price of the bottle.
Our intrepid author and tour guide, then journeys on to Singapore, smuggling chewing gum, pornographic materials and crackers coated with poppy seeds, into the country. Yes, you guessed it; these items are banned in Singapore. The book provides further delightful tales of smuggling unpasteurized French cheese into the USA, seeking out and eating Criadillas or bull’s testicles in Madrid, enjoying hard-to-find Cuban Cohiba cigars in San Fransisco, sipping Absinthe (also known as the Green Fairy) in Switzerland, and Coca tea in the Andes.
This book is part travelogue, part guide for food lovers and frankly philosophical throughout.
Prohibitions, the lines that throughout history have been drawn around bottles and behaviors, powders and plants, are tools of power. The drive toward sexual pleasure; the urge to temporarily escape day-to-day consciousness through intoxication; the questioning of the value of one’s existence, particularly when it seems too painful to endure -all are part of what it means to be human. The way we address these powerful and primary questions of identity defines our individuality. By circumscribing them with taboos and prohibitive laws, society denies its members self-knowledge and allocates itself punitive power over sexuality, consciousness, and self-determination -the most intimate domains of individuality.
It was not for nothing that Islam was built on prohibition against wine and gambling, and just about every major faith on proscribing certain types of sexual pleasure. Nor should it be seen as an accident that in the Judeo-Christian tradition, the archetypal humans were warned to stay away from forbidden fruit: the absurdity of picking a harmless apple (though it may well have been a pear, a fig or a pomegranate) says a lot about how power likes to assert itself through arbitrary prohibitions. It was the serpent, the tempter to knowledge, who invited humans to their first picnic. As Mark Twain put it : “Adam was but human -this explains it all. he did not want the apple for the apple’s sake, he wanted it only because it was forbidden. The mistake was in not forbidding the serpent; then he would have eaten the serpent.”