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The Undead Dracula Lives On

Writer Leonard Wolf. His latest book "Dracula: The Connoisseur's Guide" is about our attraction to vampires and the curiosity they have provoked over the past 100 years. Wolf is thought of as a specialist on the subject, having written such books as "The Essential Phantom of the Opera," "The Essential Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde," "The Essential Dracula," and a number of other horror related books. Wolf is also the winner of the O. Henry Fiction Award and is co-curator of MOMA's film retrospective CineDracula which will be held until May 20th.


Other segments from the episode on April 28, 1997

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, April 28, 1997: Interview with Leonard Wolf; Interview with Richard Sterling.


Date: APRIL 28, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 042801np.217
Head: Leonard Wolf
Sect: News; Domestic
Time: 12:06

MARTY MOSS-COANE, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Marty Moss-Coane in for Terry Gross.

When Bram Stoker wrote Dracula, reviewers saw it as harmless entertainment, an enjoyable, thrilling read, certainly not destined to be a classic. But in the 100 years since its publication, Dracula has never been out of print, and its undead, blood-sucking vampire has become a potent symbol, used in many other books, plays, and films.

While Victorian critics made no mention of the novel's erotic subtext, modern critics and readers endlessly mine the tale for its many taboos. This year, there are centennial celebrations of Bram Stoker's Dracula all over the world.

One of the foremost authorities on Dracula is Leonard Wolf. He's written a number of books on the topic, including "A Dream of Dracula," "The Essential Dracula," and his latest, "Dracula: The Connoisseur's Guide."

He was a consultant on Francis Ford Coppola's screen adaptation of the novel, and he's co-curator of the Cinema Dracula series at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, which runs through May 20th.

Wolf was born in Transylvania. He read Dracula as a boy, but the book didn't really make an impression on Wolf until he re-read it as an adult.

LEONARD WOLF, AUTHOR, "DRACULA: THE CONNOISSEUR'S GUIDE": The primary excitement was the discovery that here I was, a professor of English Literature, and had not known the literary quality of this astonishing book. I remembered my 12-year-old response of mostly fear.

But what I -- what I had as an adult in middle life re-reading Dracula after many, many years, was the extraordinary delight. The -- you know, a sort of expanse of light flowing into my head as I found myself reading a first-rate novel.

MOSS-COANE: Why do you think Bram Stoker's novel has never been out of print in -- in the 100 years that it's been written? What do you think each generation has been able to find in this story?

WOLF: Well, in the decade following its appearance in 1897, I think it was mostly read as an adventure story. Because, he'd created what we nowadays would call a real page-turner. You really want to know who's doing what to whom, when, where, why and how, all the time.

It's an -- you know, it's a macabre tale. This tall dark evil-smelling person from Transylvania who comes to London and then feeds on British womanhood. That's exotic, it's macabre, and Stoker has a very fine plot sense. So that -- you read it for that.

For the first decades, I would say, after the novel appeared, it was read for that. It was not, may I say, a best-seller. It was a steady seller, without ever becoming a best-seller. But then, the movie industry got hold of it in 1922, with the appearance of FW Mornaugh's (ph) "Nosferatu."

And from that time on, the idea of Dracula began to permeate our culture so that by now, with more than some 400 films based on -- or in some way reflecting Stoker's novel it -- the idea of Dracula has begun -- has taken on the proportions of a folk myth to which everyone in America can -- and around the world can refer.

MOSS-COANE: Well, this story and this character of Dracula comes from -- really a long line of myths and folk tales, as you outline in your book. Let's begin with the body and the interest I assume human beings have had since the beginning of human history, in death and what constitutes death and what a decomposing body does and doesn't do and what it means to be dead and what it means to be undead.

Cause I would assume, in times past, there were possibilities of people being buried alive. They might be in a coma, and they might look dead, when they actually weren't.

That undoubtedly contributes to the folklore of the vampire, because the body -- you know, in the movies, bodies are very conveniently dead. Somebody takes a shot, and somebody falls, and that's the end of it. He or she is dead.

In the real world, that -- the moment of death is the beginning of an elaborate physical process, not very pretty, may I say, and I -- I'm not sure we -- all of us want to know all of the details about that process of decomposition. But, it does have certain side effects, so that for example, the body can swell, there are interior gases.

The rigor mortis can set in. And in the process of rigor mortis, the muscles contract and the body can assume positions much different from the recumbent position in which we put our loved ones when we put them into coffins.

The rigor mortis can sometimes produce effects on the face, for example. When the face collides with the top of the coffin, it can be bruised. If later, people open the coffin, and they see either swellings on the lips or -- or contusions of one sort or another, it was an easy to conclude long ago that the body had come to life and was trying to get out.

Now, that would be an accident. On the other hand, since they did not really know how to tell whether someone was dead beyond holding a feather to the lips or sometimes a mirror to see if it moistened, it was not unusual -- at least not unlikely -- that occasionally, somebody who had had, for instance -- who was fallen into a coma was put into his or her grave prematurely.

And the nightmare of that event must have been very, very real and, of course, Edgar Allan Poe makes quite a bit of that in "The Fall of the House of Usher." We -- there is in my book, I think, an illustration from a 19th century device that was put into coffins so that in the event the body did come to life, there was a string attached to the big toe, and the corpse -- or the revived corpse could wiggle his toe and the spring was attached to a bell up in the caretaker's office up on top. It was a patented device, and I hope it did some good.

MOSS-COANE: And it was used, I assume, just because of some of the questions about when death actually occurred.

WOLF: Of course.

MOSS-COANE: When you look through the vampire literature -- the vampire mythology -- when do you begin to see some of the early signs?

WOLF: Well, there is a vampire tale that goes back to the second century. It's in the Apollais' (ph) "The Golden Ass." And somewhere in this book, I think, I've said that vampire folklore takes place wherever anybody has seen anybody bleed. It seems such an obvious thing, that if you see someone bleeding copiously, that person is going to die unless somebody stanches the wound.

It follows rather logically, if a little bit disturbingly, that if "A" loses blood, and "B" takes blood, "B" will live longer than "A." So the easiest thing to conclude is that in order to ensure longer life, you should take blood. And, indeed, there were medieval remedies. In the Roman period, there were people who occasionally drank blood in hopes that it would extend their lives.

MOSS-COANE: Well, I'm thinking even about the ritual in the Christian Church of communion, which is considered taking the blood and body of Christ. That seems very related to this idea of drawing blood in vampires.

WOLF: Yes. And the mystery of transubstantiation and consubstantiation turns, however, on a spiritual mystery. And that is to say: the blood, though in Catholic tradition is actually Christ's blood, it is the blood of salvation. It is -- it comes with the promise of salvation and the novel Dracula, parenthetically, turns on an inversion of that idea.

Stoker's Dracula promises immortal life, just as Christ does, but under the sponsorship of Satan. And in -- under the sponsorship of Satan, you achieve immortal life by destroying your fellow humans, which is something that does not happen under the sponsorship of Christ.

MOSS-COANE: We'll talk more with Leonard Wolf about Dracula after a short break. This is FRESH AIR.

Our guest is Leonard Wolf. He's a leading authority on Dracula. His latest book on the topic is "Dracula: The Connoisseur's Guide." He's in the process of creating a young Dracula for DC Comics. He's also co-curator of CineDracula -- that's a film festival at the Museum of Modern Art which runs through May 20.

Let's talk about the neck, because certainly one of the enduring images of the vampire mythology has to do with the vampire, with Dracula leaning over the exposed neck of a usually very beautiful young woman. Do you see the neck as the erogenous zone?

WOLF: Well, yes I do. Your question is actually so complex. You hear me hesitating because almost all of us who have been raised by loving mothers and fathers will remember nestling against the neck of our mothers or our fathers.

And we'll remember them nestling against our necks -- you know, doing the sort of silly things that daddies and mommies do to little children -- to comfort them, to warm them, to prove to them that they love them.

And the neck is a favorite place for that kind of nuzzling. Then there comes adolescence, where before boys and girls are really ready for sex, they -- some of them -- experience what in my generation was called a "monkey bite," but I gather -- but I gather has been renamed -- what do you now call it?

MOSS-COANE: I think -- well -- I'm a little old for this, but kids my son's age called it a hickey.

WOLF: That's right. Hickey. That's was the word that was escaping me. But you can tell my age from the fact that I still think of it as a monkey bite. So that -- what -- what they're doing, of course, is they're experiencing a kind of precursor of the sexual event.

There's a little tiny bit of pain, and there's a lot of intimacy and a lot of warmth and a certain amount of giggling connected to it all. But think for a moment: the neck is also the place where the main arteries to the brain flow.


WOLF: And of course, it's the site of where Dracula gets his nourishment when he takes nourishment from his victims. So yes, the neck is a complex place for the kind of intimacy we would like to see us all experience.

It is also an exposed place where the life's blood flows. But the more critical thing in terms of reading the novel Dracula or watching the Dracula films -- we have to keep in mind a kind of Freudian reality called "displacement upward."


WOLF: And that is what we see happening between the Vampire and his or her victim is what we know should happen below the waist, but we can't bring ourselves to accept that it is really below the waist where the generating members are, so we displace the event upwards. And so, what we see in the vampire's embrace is an authentic sexual exchange.

MOSS-COANE: So, it's the neck kind of masquerading as genitalia?

WOLF: Well, or as the stage for the erotic event. The neck is -- you know, in the films, it's really rather wonderful. I thought it would be great to create a film sometimes in which we took all of the vampire approaches to the neck and flashed them one after the other so that you see Max Schreck in 1922 and Bela Lugosi in 1931 and Christopher Lee in 1957 -- all of them approaching the victim who is lying recumbent with her neck exposed. They would end up looking pretty much like Groucho Marx.


So -- but, aside from the hilarity of it all, it is perceived -- really perceived -- and in the latest movies -- in Bram Stoker's Dracula, the Francis Ford Coppola film -- it's perceived as an extraordinarily erotic moment.

MOSS-COANE: Well, I think it is one of the more enduring images that's come out of all the vampire and Dracula stories and retellings of the story -- this woman, either offering up or in a passive way being offered up through her neck.

WOLF: Yes, and in Nosferatu, for example, she offers it up as a willing sacrifice to save the town or to save the country from the plague that Count Orlock (ph) has brought to Bremen.

She reads in a little book that if a pure woman can distract the vampire long enough so that he doesn't hear the cock crow in the morning -- and so she all but exposes herself at the window so that Orlock sees her and then he clumps over and climbs the stairs, enters -- she sends her husband away.

It's really -- the dynamics of the thing is very much a French bedroom comedy, except that it's really horrible. And then Max Schreck enters looking like the most appalling monster you've ever seen, with long, long fingernails, a very hooked nose, pointed ears, and a sort of hunchback -- and he kneels beside her bed.

And we never know actually what is happening, except that all of a sudden he looks up and the rooster crows, and he is aware that his life is now over because he's overstayed his leave and she, on the other hand, has -- is about to die.

We see her give a little convulsive death twitch as the movie ends. So that she has understood that her role is a Christian role -- she offers herself up the way Christ did to save humankind.

MOSS-COANE: As a kind of human sacrifice.

WOLF: Yes, indeed.

MOSS-COANE: I wonder if you think about Bram Stoker's Dracula and the way women are portrayed in that kind of story -- whether you see it as a cautionary tale to women about what can happen to them if they break the rules or they step out of the bounds of society or perhaps even taste sex -- if even just for a moment.

WOLF: I think when Stoker was writing, he could not have known that that was possible -- that it was possible to read his novel that way. What he has is the vampire is merely a terrible threat to the women. He takes their blood and he can turn them into Satanic creatures.

It was the post-Freudian readers who recognized that Dracula's embrace eroticized the women. They do -- they are eroticized in the novel, but I don't think Stoker would believe himself responsible for having conveyed that idea.

But later, and there are readers and there are critics who have seen in the Dracula story and in the myriads of films made based on it -- stories in which particularly the male sensibility warns women that if they become erotic, they will get a stake through their hearts.

MOSS-COANE: They will die.

WOLF: They will die -- something very, very bad -- it's sort of a post-Victorian Victorianism that seems still to linger on in the film makers.

MOSS-COANE: It's curious -- and I actually have a book that has some reviews of Bram Stoker's novel Dracula when it came out, and many of them saw it as a tale of adventure -- certainly a scary story.

Some cautioned, you know, don't read this while it's dark outside. But I'm thinking about Gothic fiction, and much of it having to do with these taboos of incest and murder and voyeurism and torture and on and on and on.

You say that a lot of the Gothic fiction of the Victorian era was read by women, and it's hard to imagine that they didn't see all the stuff that seems to obvious to us today.

WOLF: It was not only read by women, it was written by women...


WOLF: ... which is even more astonishing. I have suggested in print that there is a very good reason for that. And that is: Gothic fiction, which enters English literature about the end of the 18th century was the place, if I may make -- mix a metaphor, it was -- created the rug under which all of the unspeakable human acts could be swept.

And women were the victims of any number of those unspeakable acts. So, they found in these stories a kind of resonance to their own situation. What I've suggested, for example, is that the standard villain in the Gothic novel was a tall, dark Italian who was pursuing a pure white virginal English woman or woman -- sometimes, it's a French woman or an Italian woman, but she's white, wealthy, pure.

And he pursues her with unspeakable intent. We all know what that means. He wants to rape her.


WOLF: That's the -- sort of the machinery that makes Gothic fiction move. Within that large framework is included incest of one sort or another, torture of one sort or another, and what I'm suggesting is that the lot of women in the 18th century in the 19th century and perhaps, one tends to hope not, into our own century, was so frequently mirrored in these stories.

Somebody was abusing a woman all the time somewhere -- that women took a kind of bizarre interest, I don't mean pleasure, but at least interest in it. And what is even more interesting to a critic like myself, is that they often wrote the fiction and imagined some extraordinarily bizarre scenes.

MOSS-COANE: Let's talk about someone that actually did live, and his name was Vlad the Impaler -- the infamous Vlad the Impaler. As a native of Transylvania, which -- you were born in Romania -- was -- which prior to that, or many centuries before that -- was called Transylvania. Was this a figure -- a man that was talked about when you were growing up in Romania?

WOLF: Well, two things need to be -- maybe more than two things need to be pointed out. First, Vlad Tepes is considered by Romanians to this day as something of a national hero because he was indeed a very courageous fighter against the Turks -- the Turkish invaders.

But he was also, in his own time, notorious for the cruelty with which he treated his prisoners and his own people. The prisoners, of course, he killed and tormented because they were his enemies. But his own people, he killed and tormented in the name of maintaining order, which is a rather cruel reason to do some of the things he did.

He was not, however, a vampire. And what Stoker did was he borrowed the name and the cruelty and imposed it on his fictional character. You must keep in mind that I left Transylvania as a child of six, so that I have no real memory of anybody talking to me about vampires.

But when I revisited Transylvania in the '70s -- when I was writing my first book on Dracula -- the Transylvanians with whom I spoke were surprised at my interest, which did not, by any means, was not by any means reflected in their interest. They had almost no interest, either in vampires or in Vlad Tepes as a source of vampire lore. And particularly not in Dracula.

Much has changed since then. Since then, two people at Boston University -- Radu Fluoescu (ph) and Raymond McDalley (ph) have done several books on the historical Dracula. And then my own books on Dracula have appeared over the decades, and that has helped to create a tourist industry into Transylvania which the Romanian government has been very happy to exploit.

MOSS-COANE: Leonard Wolf will be back with us in the second half of the show to talk more about Bram Stoker's Dracula.

I'm Marty Moss-Coane, and this is FRESH AIR.

MOSS-COANE: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Marty Moss-Coane.

This year marks the 100th anniversary of the publication of Bram Stoker's classic Gothic tale Dracula. We're celebrating that event with an interview with one of the world's leading authorities on Dracula and horror, Leonard Wolf.

His latest book on the subject is called "Dracula: A Connoisseur's Guide." He's co-curator of a film retrospective at New York's Museum of Modern Art called "Cinema Dracula" which runs through May 20. He's also developing a series on Young Dracula for DC Comics.

Well, I'm thinking about Bram Stoker, and much has been made of his relationship with the actor Henry Irving -- who was one of the more popular actors at the late 19th century. Bram Stoker was actually a manager at the theater where Henry Irving performed.

How would you describe how Bram Stoker saw his relationship with this rather famous actor Henry Irving?

WOLF: Well, in my book, I've taken a terrible risk. I have outed Bram Stoker, and I say very carefully that I'm speculating, but what the speculation is based on -- the details of the lives they led together.

Bram Stoker fell in love with Henry Irving very early in his own career, and then Irving invited him to come and work for him in London, and for some 28 years, Stoker was a loyal, dutiful, even slavish servant for Henry Irving.

And what I have suggested in my book is that it's the -- the unhappy part of Stoker's life was that he never could confront the fact that he was in love with Irving, and he never did anything about what I think is the incipient homosexuality, which he betrayed in other ways.

There are a series of letters he wrote to Walt Whitman, for example, that make it very, very clear that he admired Whitman for what he imagined was Whitman's comfort with his own homosexuality. It's a heartbreaking story -- the way in which he spent -- that is, Stoker spent his life not coming to terms with his own deepest hungers.

MOSS-COANE: Well, you write about and actually pull from Bram Stoker's own either letters or diaries about seeing this actor Henry Irving perform, and he really falls into a kind of swoon as he sees him -- this very famous actor -- performing on stage. And it's almost melodramatic.

WOLF: It's a heartbreaking story because Irving recited a poem -- a really soppy poem -- and Stoker fainted dead away at the sound and the sight of it. And then later, Irving gave him a copy of a photograph of his, signed with his name, and it was a sort of moment of profound -- a high point in Stoker's life. You -- you -- the bystander -- we who read this story 80 or 90 years later, can't help feeling that he could not bring himself to acknowledge what had happened. And we think -- I think -- that that's too bad.

MOSS-COANE: And are you saying -- because, certainly when you read through Dracula, it's about many things, but what you're also saying is that it really has this kind of homo-erotic sub-text.

WOLF: I said long ago -- I've created an edition of Dracula called "The Essential Dracula" in which I have notes for every moment in the fiction which I think requires some note, there are moments when Dracula says, for example, to three women who want Jonathan Harker. And he -- Dracula -- drives them away and he says: This man is mine. And Dracula looks deep into Stoker's eyes.

Well, that's not a moment in which, you know, he's behaving like Robin Hood. What that is is a homo-erotic exchange which is never fully developed. And there have been other scholars who have gone to considerable lengths to demonstrate the degree to which Stoker either avoided confronting homosexual moments in the novel or inadvertently put them in.

MOSS-COANE: You said, and I don't know whether this was a slip on your part, but that Dracula looked into Stoker's eyes, as opposed to Jonathan Harker's eyes.

WOLF: That was a slip.

MOSS-COANE: But do you see them as -- almost as one and the same?

WOLF: Well, what I'm doing, and it's really unpardonable -- one has no right to deduce from the life of a writer a clear link to the contents of a fiction by that writer. I think that that's an exercise in facile criticism, and I've just done it, and I would like to step back a little bit from it.

What I'm willing to say is: Stoker's mind and his unconscious were in turmoil. They were in such turmoil that when he sat down to write Dracula, the turmoil itself produced the energy that resulted in the vision and the language and the plot line that produced a very great novel.

MOSS-COANE: When you review all the movies that have been made about Dracula, which one do you think comes the closest to your image, your version of Dracula?

WOLF: Well, that's another one of these wonderful questions because what you're asking me to do is to be the God of the Dracula movie business, and that would be great fun to be. I have to say, first, that I don't hold the movies responsible for interpreting Bram Stoker's novel exactly.

I think film is an art form all unto itself, and fiction is an art form unto itself. They can influence each other, but they do not need to interpret each other.

Having said that, the film that moves me most is "Dracula's Daughter" because it has a scene in it in which Gloria Holden (ph) plays Dracula's daughter who, now that Dracula is dead, hopes that the curse of vampirism will leave her life and she can become an ordinary woman.

And of course, the rest of the film demonstrates that she can't. It's a very poignant, poignant film -- beautifully, beautifully realized in the scenes of ritual, particularly when she's burying her father.

Beyond that, Coppola's film did its best to include more -- most of the scenes that Stoker has written. Stoker's novel, you know, is over-populated -- it has, from a movie point of view, it has too many characters and Coppola has managed to retain them all.

In what the James Harte (ph) -- Coppola version does, however, is that it inverts Stoker's story and turns what Stoker thought of as the good guys into the bad guys. Dr. Van Helsing and his troupe are trying to prevent Vlad Tepes from uniting with his true love, whom he has been looking for for the last 400 years. So that it -- in an important sense, it's a heretical interpretation.

But I like to think and delighted to see that the films are endlessly re-inventing Dracula, which is the right thing for a great symbol -- the right way to treat a great symbol.

MOSS-COANE: Well, I know that you're in the process of creating a Young Dracula for DC Comics. And some people have said that when you look at Dracula over the last 100 years, he's getting younger and younger. Do you agree with that?

WOLF: Well, what else he's getting is nicer and nicer.

MOSS-COANE: Yes. Right.

WOLF: And that seems to me too bad. When you have a -- that probably happened most dramatically with Frank Langella's Dracula. I've called Frank Langella's Dracula the "cuddly" Dracula, because it's hard for me to imagine any woman looking into Langella's eyes who wouldn't give up, you know, some portion of eternity to be his victim for a little while.

They are getting nicer and nicer, and there has been a reversal of moral meaning for the vampire, so that in the works of Chelsea Quinn Yarborough (ph) for example, we have a vampire who is profoundly nice.

He's decent. He's law abiding. He's rich. He wears a cross, and he -- again, he only takes as much blood from his willing victims as will nourish him. I think something will disappear from vampire literature when the vampires become nice guys.

MOSS-COANE: So, your Young Dracula -- is he a nice guy or a nasty guy?

WOLF: Well, what I've done in my Young Dracula is to give the world, for the very first time, a clear coherent and terrifying explanation for why he drinks blood. I won't tell you here and now -- obviously, come.

MOSS-COANE: Well, there is the suspense, right? Which is, of course, very important part of this story.

WOLF: That's the idea. That's the idea. Now, I treat him very sympathetically, but he sustains a terrible -- he has a dreadful experience that therefore turns him into the monster we now have. But until that experience, he's a nice guy.

MOSS-COANE: Well, I want to thank you very much, Leonard Wolf, for joining us today on FRESH AIR.

WOLF: My pleasure.

MOSS-COANE: Leonard Wolf is a leading authority on Dracula. His latest book is called "Dracula: A Connoisseur's Guide."

Dateline: Marty Moss-Coane, Philadelphia
Guest: Leonard Wolf
High: Writer Leonard Wolf. His latest book "Dracula: The Connoisseur's Guide" (Broadway Books) is about our attraction to vampires and the curiosity they have provoked over the past 100 years. Wolf is thought of as a specialist on the subject, having written such books as "The Essential Phantom of the Opera," "The Essential Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde," "The Essential Dracula," and a number of other horror related books. Wolf is also the winner of the O. Henry Fiction Award and is co-curator of MOMA's film retrospective CineDracula which will be held until May 20th.
Spec: Books; Mythology; Europe; Transylvania; England; Monsters; Horror; Movie Industry; Dracula; Vampires

Please note, this is not the final feed of record

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End-Story: Leonard Wolf
Date: APRIL 28, 1997
Time: 12:00
Tran: 042802NP.217
Head: Richard Sterling
Sect: News; Domestic and International
Time: 12:45

MARTY MOSS-COANE, HOST: Richard Sterling has said he will eat anything once. That claim has taken Sterling around the world in search of gustatory challenges, as well as a good meal. For him, eating is an adventure -- a way of exploring different cultures through their use of greens and vegetables, fish, meat, spices, sauce, and food rituals.

Sterling grew up eating that all-American diet of meat and potatoes. When he was stationed off the coast of southeast Asia while in the Navy, he experienced a different kind of cuisine -- one that opened his taste buds and whetted his appetite for travel.

He has since written several books: "Dining with Headhunters: A Guide to San Francisco Restaurants," and he's just edited a collection of essays for the Travelers Tales series called "Food: True Stories of Life on the Road."

When I spoke with Richard Sterling, I asked him if travel has a way of stimulating normally dormant taste buds.

RICHARD STERLING, EDITOR, "TRAVELERS TALES FOOD: TRUE STORIES OF LIFE ON THE ROAD": It's a way of consuming the culture. You know, I've always felt that humanity is revealed through cuisine just as surely as it is through any other art of social activity.

In the customs and traditions involved with the growing, preparation and sharing of food, we can see people -- we can see cultures revealed easier than many other art forms.

You know, you don't have to speak the language to eat the food, and oftentimes sculpture or painting requires some kind of explication. But anybody with a willing palate and a passionate curiosity can discover another culture at the table.

MOSS-COANE: So, maybe you can learn as much about a culture from eating their food as you can by looking at their art.

STERLING: Exactly. Well, not -- not just the plain consuming of calories, but the way in which people share -- break bread together. The way that they grow their food; the way that it's presented on the table. You know, if you just get yourself invited home to dinner, it's better than going to museums.

MOSS-COANE: I bet. You've said you'll eat anything once. Have you ever truly regretted saying and doing that?


STERLING: Oh, have I truly regretted that.

MOSS-COANE: Truly, truly, regretted 'cause that's -- you -- you've dedicated your life to adventurous eating.

STERLING: Yeah, well, I didn't like a sea cucumber once in Korea. That kind of grossed me out.

MOSS-COANE: How come?

STERLING: But otherwise -- well, it didn't taste like anything, and it had a slimy, nasty texture that -- I didn't even have to swallow it. It seemed to like take a life of it's own and it slithered down my throat.


So -- so that's one thing I've eaten only once. Most things I'll eat again. One of the most memorable examples of what I've eaten again, but not with quite as much gusto is a bowl of blood.


STERLING: Now, I didn't know it was a bowl of blood. It was cooked, and this was in the Philippines. Tasted like some really very delicious beef stew, cooked with red wine. And I ate it with gusto, and then I found out that it was cooked pig's blood. And that's all that was in it. It was just cooked blood.

MOSS-COANE: But you said there were little chunks and things in this soup.

STERLING: Oh, yeah -- well, there was a little -- I thought they were dumplings, or something -- little flavor buds that it turned out that the cook had prepared -- had cooked it a little bit too fast, and much of the blood had clotted.

And these clots were the most delicious part, I think. They were kind of like peanut butter, and I pressed them against the roof of my mouth, and it would release this wonderful, rich flavor. I just ate a bunch of that stuff. And then I found out what it was, and I've eaten it since, but I -- it has never tasted quite as good.

MOSS-COANE: But isn't that interesting about how if you don't know what something is, how you can have a totally sensual tasty experience with the food, but the moment you know what it is, it changes everything.

STERLING: Yes it does. If it's something like blood. But then again, it can enhance it when you find out that what you're eating is passion flower.

MOSS-COANE: Mm-hmm. Which tastes like?

STERLING: It's a unique -- it's a unique taste -- kind of like jasmine flower. How's that?

MOSS-COANE: Doesn't help at all. Sweet?

STERLING: It's a great salad.

MOSS-COANE: Sweet, though? Is it sweet-tasting?

STERLING: No, no. It's fruity, and it kind of fools you into thinking that it's sweet, because of its fruity aroma -- sort of like a dry wine can sometimes taste a bit sweet if it's a very -- if it's got a very, very flowery nose.

MOSS-COANE: My guest is Richard Sterling, and we're talking about food and travel -- something that he does a lot of.

Tell us about some of the adventures that you've had, and you've written about eating fish that was salted with ants.

STERLING: That was a trip to Borneo several years ago. It was before the interior was even fully mapped. It was in 1976, actually. My friend Mac and I were young and full of ourselves and had some time and some money to spend, so we thought we'd go and see the Wild Man of Borneo, and maybe we'd find the wild woman, too -- who knows.

So we traveled up the Rajong (ph) River past all of the known settlements. We had with us a local interpreter named David. We got somewhere way deep in the interior to where we came to a longhouse village. And we were feted by the chief of the village, and some of the women who prepared for us this fish -- a river fish.

And I watched them prepare it, because I -- even at that time, I was very interested in cookery, so I watched them prepare it because I wanted to be able to go home and prepare the same thing myself, so that I could have this -- you know, I could relive the feast.

Well, one of the women reached into a section of bamboo -- that's one of their common containers for liquids and small, small articles. She reached in there and she pulled out something that I took to be some sort of a spice, and she crumbled it up in her hand and she sprinkled it on the fish. And what she had just sprinkled the fish with were red warrior ants.

So then they were presented to us with due ceremony, and everybody was looking on to us, waiting for us to have that first bite of what they knew was going to be something real tasty -- a special dish -- great treat, just for the foreign visitors.

Well -- now, I say I'll eat anything once, but -- that's what I say now. I didn't say that in those days. I was rather taken aback by the idea that I was going to eat ants, even though they're -- the bodies were a bit broken apart, they were still distinguishable. I could still -- these are big ants, and you could -- I could still see the claws and the -- their jaws.

And Mac and I looked at each other and said, oh, you know -- maybe we can pretend they're paprika -- maybe we could just brush them off. We noticed that the people were getting impatient, waiting for us to taste this. So I said, well, gotta do what you gotta do. I broke off a chunk, stuck it in my mouth, and I bit down, and the heads and jaws crunched audibly between my teeth.

But at the same time, I got a burst of flavor that tasted like a mixture of lemon and tarragon, which are the main seasoning ingredients in bearnaise sauce.


It's just -- I -- it was like crunchy bearnaise, so I thought this is not too bad after all. I just -- I never did quite get used to the crunch, but I figured, you know, if you ground these up in a mortar and pestle, I might use them like pesto -- it might not be too bad.

MOSS-COANE: So have you ever tried to recreate this recipe for your friends or family over for dinner?

STERLING: Yes, I have.

MOSS-COANE: Have you?

STERLING: Well, I didn't use ants, actually. You gotta have just the right kind of ants. You gotta use big red warrior ants, because they have formic acid coating their bodies, and that's where that flavor comes from. Black ants that we see in our homes here have a bitter taste.

But I was able to approximate the taste of this recipe using lemon tarragon and some paprika -- bit of this, bit of that. And I put that in my first book, "Dining with Headhunters."

MOSS-COANE: Our guest is travel and food writer Richard Sterling. More about adventurous eating in just one minute. This is FRESH AIR.


MOSS-COANE: Let's get back to travel and food writer Richard Sterling. He's just edited a book of essays for the Travelers Tale series called "Food: True Stories of Life on the Road."

What country do you think has the best food -- that you enjoy the best?

STERLING: Thailand and Italy.

MOSS-COANE: Because?

STERLING: Both are very flavorful. Both are very robust. Both can be both simple and complex.

We do tend to think of Thai cookery as being, you know, heavy on chile and garlic -- and it is -- but Thai cooks are so skillful that they can make a dish roaringly hot, and yet still full of subtle undercurrents and still never hide the flavor of the basic food.

For instance, if it's a shrimp soup, you can be -- it can be positively incendiary, and yet have subtleties and undercurrents just like a glass of fine wine, and you still never lose the taste of that shrimp.

And Italian cooking is very similar. It doesn't tend to use very hot spices, but it does use a lot of seasoning, a lot of garlic -- and wonderful olive oil. And they're both cultures in which people express themselves exuberantly in the kitchen and at the dining table.

MOSS-COANE: You know, as you're...

STERLING: They are places where eating is a joyous communal experience.

MOSS-COANE: You've been talking about the sensuality of food, the sensuality of eating, the adventure of eating -- and as you're talking, I'm thinking about a part of our own culture here that is totally food-phobic, and it has to do with counting fat grams and counting calories and trying to figure out the latest way to come up with a chocolate cake that's not going to put any weight on you.

How do you understand this culture, which, of course, you can eat around the world in the United States because we have every culture represented in this country, but that's on the one side. But on the other side, we have this sort of diet mentality, that seems to really take away all the enjoyment of eating.

STERLING: Yeah, you know, we just have what is in many ways and unhealthy attitude towards food. We don't think of it as creatively, as healthily, as -- even spiritually as we might.

We think of it -- well, you know, the traditional American diet is meat and potatoes. It's bland food that gives you a big full feeling in your stomach. And, you know, we inherited this from the English. I think it was their revenge for the American Revolution.

But we tend to think of it either as fuel or as comfort or as something almost sinfully sensuous. We just don't think of it in the right ways. We don't think of it was something communal. We don't think of it as something that connects us to the natural world.

When we consume and assimilate a chunk of the natural world, we reaffirm our own connection -- our own reality -- our own physical existence in the natural world. Other people do. Other people around the world do.

Part of it, I think, is the fact that we live in an economy not of abundance, but of super-abundance. And that has always been the case, even before the Industrial Revolution. We know that because American soldiers in the revolution were an average of three or four inches taller than British soldiers. We have always had plenty to eat. We've always had too much to eat.

So, you know, we're one of the few peoples in the world who have to decide not what we shall eat, but what we shall not eat. I really think a big part of our problem is that just that we have so much, and we have it so easily.

MOSS-COANE: We don't know what to do with it.

STERLING: Exactly. People who spend -- and this is most people. Do you know what most of the people in the world spend most of their waking -- or their working hours involved in some aspect of the growing or gathering or procuring of food. And then they spend a lot of their leisure hours in the sharing of it -- in the taking of it together.

And reaffirming their bonds with each other and with their community and with their earth -- with their local geography -- their history, even, you know, there's a lot of history, culture, and tradition in food.

But we do tend to lose sight of all of those wonderful things about it, and it just becomes this huge abundance that we abuse.

MOSS-COANE: Well, Richard Sterling, I want to thank you very much for joining us today on FRESH AIR.

STERLING: Thank you, Marty. It's made me hungry.

MOSS-COANE: Richard Sterling has just edited a collection of stories about adventurous eating for the Travelers Tale series called "Food: True Stories of Life on the Road."

Dateline: Marty Moss-Coane, Philadelphia
Guest: Richard Sterling
High: Writer Richard Sterling. He is the editor of "Travelers' Tales Food: True Stories of Life on the Road" (Travelers' Tales). While in Asia serving in the Navy, Sterling developed an interest in the art of travel and food and claims he is willing to try any dish or drink at least once. He is also author of "The Eclectic Guide to San Francisco and the Bay Area" and "Dining with Headhunters" and is the travel editor for "Fiery Foods" magazine.
Spec: Books; Travel and Tourism; Richard Sterling

Please note, this is not the final feed of record
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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