words nicci talbot
Do you have an eating secret that you’ve never told anyone?
It’s not something I’m going to sit down and talk about for hours in therapy, but a conversation with performance artist Caroline Smith, aka Mertle Merman, the burlesque cooking queen took a surprising turn. I found myself opening up about a few things and she probably thought I was bonkers. Or maybe she’s used to conversations with women going off on strange tangents…
Mertle is one of Caroline’s alter egos, a 1950s suburban housewife inspired by celebrity chef Elizabeth Craig. “She has her own take on burlesque cooking and tries to be sumptuous and sexy – but I wouldn’t call her a sexy creature” says Caroline. She’s a visual reminder of a time when our relationship with food was simpler and explores how choice can make our lives more complicated than they need to be.
Caroline’s aim is to play with the stiff British upper lip, to dive beneath the surface and see what she finds. The show is called ‘Eating Secret’ so she invites the audience to share a secret about food before the show, which is then incorporated (anonymously) into the performance. It’s a mixture of entertainment and therapy, using humour as a form of release.
“Mertle is a fiction – people are being entertained into a fictional space, which means you never know if people are being truthful or fanciful.
“Some of the stories are very moving. It can swing from fun to serious by secret. One woman confessed to baking cakes to mark the anniversary of her baby’s death – it keeps her in the moment. The smell of baking in the house for the rest of the day enables her to focus on the small stuff. She said she’d never eat the cakes though – that would be like eating her daughter and it would ruin the memory of her”.
Behind the humour is a desire to inform and educate, which stems from her work as a lecturer in creative writing, journalism and media writing at Greenwich University. She has performed ‘Eating Secret’ all over London and also in Serbia, which was a challenging experience. “I did a residency with Mertle in Serbia, which was interesting. There are secrets in the UK and secrets in Serbia. The men in Serbia were more aggressive and predatory and the women were shyer about revealing their secrets.”
She has also been open about her own battles with food, which have inspired Mertle’s creation. In an interview with The Guardian she talked about having bulimia at university and then losing weight again after a car accident which left her in a wheelchair. “My body jolted itself into shock and I became quite thin. I found I quite liked it – which I thought was interesting, ” she says. “Mertle has been a size 8-10 and is now size 14 so it’s been weird occupying different body shapes with the same character.”
I was diagnosed with rheumatoid arthritis last year and resisted taking meds for seven months trying out various special diets, mostly based around cutting out gluten and ‘inflammatory’ foods, as RA is thought to be linked to issues with the gut. I spent a fortune on supplements, sessions and none of it has really helped. So now I’m on the weekly meds (and pissed off about it) or else I risk longer-term damage to my joints according to the doctors.
So my ‘secret’ is that I can’t be bothered with food and cooking. I don’t want to think about it any more and I’ve lost the pleasure in shopping and cooking.
The meds have also reduced my appetite and I seem to crave sweet things most of the time so often all I fancy is coffee and cake. It can be an effort to eat and and I’m not going to force myself. I don’t want to think about my diet or what I *should* be eating or taking. It is also hard to deal with people’s judgements around my choices and so I don’t even feel like talking about it any more.
Mertle will be ‘Behind the Velvet Curtain’ for a night of adult storytelling in Hastings on Saturday 16th November.
Louche Women is a joint monthly show with Liz Bentley next up on 4th December at Poetry Place in London. “Mine and Liz’s aim is to subvert and throw the spotlight on stuff that’s lurking under the surface in a weird, William Burroughs-esque kind of way. So we chat about topical issues, there’s live music and we have special guests.”
Caroline Smith, Drawing on Experience, Tate Modern – 27 June 2009 from Oriana Fox on Vimeo.