by Tobias Rosen
In March, during the most stringent period of Germany’s lockdown, my partner decided to visit her parents for a week and leave me in our apartment in solitary confinement. I was secretly looking forward to a break from our increasingly unbearable habit of watching and being watched while eating. Each morning, our food routine would begin with an elaborate menu plan for the evening; next, we would spend an excessive amount of our time and budget on hard-to-find ingredients; lastly, the table had to be properly set to welcome piles of food that would surely have sufficed for many guests. Petulant and ashamed, we would end up spending the meal analyzing one another’s handling of the silverware, trying to adjust our individual eating paces to match the other’s, and even calculating who had eaten more. When left alone, I could instead whip up a kitchen sink stir-fry and plant myself in front of the projector, eating everything directly out of the large mixing bowl, as slowly as I wanted. After stuffing myself, I would even be able to go for a walk after dinner—not to burn off the meal, but to sluggardly consume a Magnum.
Ice cream stick in hand, I wandered past countless Dönerläden, where streetside men armed with sword-length knives carve great sizzling columns of meat, and paused in front of gallery Baeckerei on Gotzkowskystraße. A small ‘90s television in the window was playing the famous vignette of Andy Warhol eating a hamburger from Jørgen Leth’s 66 Scenes from America (1981) on loop. At first, I wasn’t really watching the screen, but was instead giving my eyes something to rest on as I clumsily tried to avoid letting any chips of the chocolate shell fall to the ground. But the more I delved into my processed treat, while numbly letting my eyes drift back and forth between the food artist books littered throughout the gallery and the black box of red, white and blue, the more I found myself slipping alongside the sugar into a chiasmic relationship with Warhol and his meat.
The nearly 5-minute take is painfully self-conscious throughout. Warhol’s unhurried gestures feign a sense of ease, yet a subtle smirk betrays his frustration as he struggles to shake ketchup out of a Heinz bottle. He dips into the sauce with restraint and fidgets with the various wrappings and napkins as he eats. Between bites, his eyes wander around the room, and when they do peek up to meet the camera’s gaze, they smoothly bob back down, as if there were nothing much to see. Warhol chews with his mouth closed, slow and deliberate, perhaps even more times than necessary. He knows that he is being watched—that’s the worst part about eating! And yet underneath the nervousness, the Whopper also affords Warhol a moment of impassivity, an enjoyment that he works hard to conceal. Rather than exciting flavors, the junk food offered Warhol and me alike a moment of distraction from the ongoing torment of having to eat and all the ensuing decisions about what to eat next.
Historians who attempt to decipher the use of food within Warhol’s art by contextualizing it within the artist’s actual diet,1 draw on a famous quote from The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (1975): “I’ll buy a huge piece of meat, cook it up for dinner, and then right before it’s done I’ll break down and have what I wanted for dinner in the first place—bread and jam. I’m only kidding myself when I go through the motions of cooking protein: all I ever want is sugar.”2 With his typical verve, Warhol subverts the taboo on sugar widespread in health-conscious communities then and now, but the confession also gains allure from how it upsets commonplace assumptions about a proper male diet. Men eat meat—big generous slabs of it—not candy.
It is startling to see how many commentators attempt to extract Warhol’s deadpan performance from its context amongst the other fragments of Leth’s film, suggesting that it is the most evocative or inscrutable fragment, and therefore, worthy of interpretation.3 The scene’s necessary pendant is the film’s fourth shot of Gallaghers’ Steakhouse in New York.
Wood wall paneling, red and white checkerboard tablecloths and little white napkin teepees fill a dimly lit restaurant with old-school Americana decor. One after the other, five male waiters in bow ties walk into the frame and put their heavy load on display. 14oz Filets, 40oz Porterhouses and the like. Patrons of Gallaghers’ and Burger King did not mingle (aside, apparently, from Warhol himself, who did visit the restaurant around this time), for $50 steaks (today’s prices) are exclusively intended for rich businessmen, real estate tycoons or clients in from Albuquerque or Amarillo eating out on an expense account. The restaurant’s old-timey dessert menu reminds me that it is a convenient simplification to associate the production and consumption of meat with male dominance on the one hand, and the relishing of sweets with gender deviance on the other.4 Instead, virile masculinity is marked by a sovereign balancing act of maximalist tendencies in both the umami and sweet dimensions of the palate. Don’t forget the pecan pie or banana split.
A sugar addiction was not something that Warhol celebrated in the time immediately preceding the filming of 66 Scenes from America. In July 1980, he writes, “I’ve just been reading Gloria Swanson’s book about sugar and she has me in it as the prime example of evil because she read the Philosophy book and interviews with me talking about how much candy I eat.” In January 1981: “I had Brigid write a thank-you note to Gloria Swanson telling her how much I loved her book and saying that thanks to her I’m trying to get off candy.”5 Perhaps most famous for her autobiographically-inspired performance in Billy Wilder’s film-noir Sunset Boulevard (1950), Swanson published Sugar Blues with William Dufty, her soon-to-be 6th husband, in 1975.6 The book is part manifesto for their macrobiotic vegetarian diet and part fearmongering about the negative psychosomatic effects of sugar. When asked about her remarkably young-looking appearance during the book’s promotional tour (76 years old at the time), she famously quipped, “no one can have skin like a baby’s bottom if they’re going to stuff that hole in their face with chocolate and banana splits.”7
Sugar Blues recommends the simultaneous elimination of sugar and red meat becuase “[m]eat (which is masculine yang) sets up a powerful yen in your system to be balanced with its opposite—something very sweet and feminine and yin, like fruit or sugar.”9 Recommended substitutions tend to be pure and exotic products, like tamari, or at least those with the semblance of such, like sugar-free honey Häagen-Dazs, an American brand lauded for its Nordic-sounding name and short ingredients list. More than anything else, the book evinces the various privileges of its authors, who can doctor their own eating disorders with global food and food philosophies while exempting themselves from mass pleasures and afflictions.
Swanson’s new-age lifestyle has an insidious dark side: she chaired the New York chapter of seniors for Reagan-Bush during the 1980 election. As part of their ‘trickle down’ economic policy, which involved reducing government spending, cutting social welfare and increasing tax breaks for the wealthy, the administration reduced the federal budget for school lunches by a third.10 But in order to feed the same number of students, the USDA reduced portion sizes and redefined standard categories, like grains, proteins and vegetables. The so-called Ketchup as a Vegetable scandal erupted, when the public found out that pickle relish or one tablespoon of tomato paste counted as a standard vegetable serving.
What exactly is a condiment? Heinz ketchup makes various appearances in 66 Scenes from America: once hidden in the door of a fridge in Long Island, the second time with Warhol, and a third time amongst salt, pepper, sugar and napkins in an ordinary diner in New York.
red sauce, from 66 Scenes from America, 11:50 & 24:30
The unclassifiable quality of the red viscous substance captures all the ironies of the era: some members of the elite could cast it out for its sweetness, while other members of the same class claimed it as nutrition for the poor. Warhol’s controlled application of ketchup to the tip of each bite, rather than its uniform spread across the bun’s entire surface, allows us to reconsider a condiment whose ubiquity in America goes unabated. To what extent do these ideological differences actually determine our behaviors at the table and the wetness or dryness of a single bite?
While school lunches were being defunded, dinner events at the White House—including the Reagan administration’s inauguration ball—and galas at the Metropolitan Museum of Art were becoming increasingly expensive and gourmet, a trend described brilliantly by Debora Silverman in Selling Culture.11 Swanson, Warhol, Nancy Reagan, and Diana Vreeland all belonged to a chic group of socialites, millionaires, celebrities and politicians—‘Heavies,’ as Warhol liked to call them—that crossed paths at openings and after-parties at places like La Grenouille, Gallaghers’ or Sardi’s.
booze, from 66 Scenes from America, 06:30 & 08:30
Although Leth does seem to be cynically implying that only alcohol sutures together city and country in America (compare the cocktail bar at Sardi’s and the Jack Daniel’s billboard in Tucson), he does not attempt demasking New York’s elite.12 Due to Warhol’s previous work with popular cuisine, feeding him a Whopper could pass as a suitable service. That’s all the better, for we get to watch a member of the elite fumble through biases and desires of his own palate, and also ask why something so simple may have tasted so good.
- For example, see: Casey Lesser, “What Warhol Really Ate,” Arsty, Feb. 8, 2019.
- Andy Warhol, The Philosophy of Andy Warhol (San Diego: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1975), 94.
- For example, see: Gary Santoro, “Andy Warhol Eating a Hamburger,” Vertu Fine Art, June 17, 2016, & “Andy Warhol Eating a Hamburger, And Simply Because of His Fame, We Watch…And Watch,” Vintage News Daily, October 24, 2018.
- For a feminist critical theory of meat politics and consumption, see: Carol J. Adams, The Sexual Politics of Meat (New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group, 2010).
- Andy Warhol, “Monday, July 28, 1980” and “Wednesday, January 14, 1981,” in The Andy Warhol Diaries (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 1989).
- William Dufy, Sugar Blues (New York: Grand Central Publishing, 1975).
- “Gloria Swanson’s Glamor Never Fades,” The Palm Beach Post, November 8, 1975, B1.
- Rachel Syme, “It’s the Pictures That Got Small,” Bookforum, Summer, 2019.
- Dufty, Sugar Blues, 209.
- Amy Bentley, “Ketchup as Vegetable: Condiments and the Politics of School Lunch in Reagan’s America,” Gastronomica: The Journal for Food Studies, Vol. 21, No, 1 (January, 2021): 17-26.
- I had originally come across the German version of this book: Debora Silverman, Amerika hält hof (Germany, Rowohlt, 1989).
- New York foodies might remember that most of the menu at Sardi’s in the 1980s was hardly edible. As captured in Leth’s film, the place served exclusively as somewhere for the elite to get liquored up. See the hilarious slam in the New York Times from 1981: Mimi Sheraton, “Restaurants,” New York Times, March 6, 1981.