Erotic Review – February, 2004
Talking about caviar makes most people smile – the pink-cheeked, eyes-down, embarrassed but suggestive smile of someone talking about sex. Perhaps the elusive tang of the sea is a reminder of the oyster scents of the bedroom. Or possibly what causes the frisson is a troubling memory of the voluptuous way that those dark bubbles burst, releasing their rich fluids in the mouth.
But after years of eating too much caviar with the wrong kind of people in Russia, I’ve stopped believing that this is the secret. It’s too romantic; too, well, nice. What really gives sturgeon roe a nasty erotic edge is the sheer amount of money that needs to be spent on getting a spoonful near a mouth in the first place.
To be willing to part with a king’s ransom for a taste of something rare, ambiguous and endangered suggests being willing to countenance thrillingly improper relationships between all pleasure and all payment.
The point of caviar has never been to have a tiny, mean-spirited taste – a few eggs smeared on the back of your hand, or genteelly picked up with a prissy horn spoon. The point is excess, glut, extremes – the head-rush feeling that everything is possible that comes from shovelling glistening dollops of the stuff into your moth; the euphoria of not giving a damn how much it costs.
This is mistress food, not marriage food. To buy and eat caviar is to enter naked-under-mink, diamond-studded-handcuff, sinning-on-tigerskin domination-fantasy territory: a place where the cash you flash can enslave the world (and the women) around you; a place where there are no ideals, everything has its price –and only you can pay it. No wonder the Russian Mafiosi who make millions out of smuggling caviar call it power food.
Cora Pearl, the legendary English grande horizontale, who was the toast of glamorous, brittle, Second-Empire Paris, understood the (im-)proper use of caviar. It was part of her bait to hook moneyed new lovers. But it was only ever one dish in an extraordinarily extravagant evening of feasting, which might also feature lobster, peacock in aspic, partridge with champagne, strawberries in kirsch, not to mention generous quantities of Chateau Yquem and Chateau Lafitte. “Money is no object for us,” was the subliminal message; what fresh-faced young fool of a nobleman could resist the implied compliment, or fail to pick up both bill and beautiful woman?
As caviar has become rarer, and more expensive, and more often poached – making eating it ever more morally repellent – it has also acquired progressively darker bad-guy associations.
The earliest caviar villains are still viciously appealing. Back in the 1920s, the Hollywood silent-movie director and actor Erich von Stroheim, the “Horrible Hun”, earned his living by making shocking films that showed ageing Old-World decadence in conflict with New-World innocence. Von Stroheim, typically, would himself star as the corrupt European pseudo-aristo (a kinky figure with a scar, a monocle, black leather riding boots and a riding crop) debauching dewy American damsels. He was hated at his studio, Universal, and perhaps never more so than when, in the film Husbands, (in which he and two phoney countesses share a chateau), his character began his mornings with an eye-opener of ox blood followed by a “cereal” – of caviar. Naturally, the extravagant von Stroheim, whose own personality was so close to those of his antiheroes, insisted on real caviar for the scene.
This brand of scary sex seems innocent enough in our jaded times. But who would not still shiver at the 21st-century horror stories told about Uday and Qusay Hussein, playboy killers par excellence, who combined the command of the brutal Iraqi Republican Guard and secret services, and the shredding and mangling of innocent human flesh with orgiastic feasts of whisky, champagne, and piles of caviar spooned into the mouths of terrified women in sequins?
Yet the control exerted by those who buy caviar doesn’t have to be the brutally physical sort. A more subtle form of dominance can be exercised by the civilized connoisseur, who need do nothing more than discourse knowledgeably about the difference between beluga (large, fragile, grey eggs, with a delicate and nutty taste) and osietra (large brown eggs, with a strong and distinctive taste), or about the difference between Russian caviar (softer and riper) and Iranian (firmer and fresher), to impress a wide-eyed date into stunned, acquiescent submission.
The method doesn’t matter. Feed someone the soul food of a land of masters and serfs, of voracity and excess, whose empresses died having sex with stallions and whose poets rushed into women’s bedrooms yelling, “we will fuck like bears!” – oh, and pick up the bill – and the result will always be the same.