On the Interesection of Food and Power in Dylan’s Desire and Genesis 27
By Stephen Hazan Arnoff



Like desire itself, Bob Dylan’s album of the same name carries more than it can handle.

Desire traverses climates of stifling heat as well as the cold of “pyramids all embedded in ice.” It pulses with violence and conflates lovers with siblings (“Oh, Sister“), and rivals with guides (“Isis“). This is because in the world presented in Desire, norms are reversed; outlaws are heroes – boxers, gangsters, and spies.

The passions of family, power and love that churn at Desire’s core are the same ones that shape Isaac’s camp and Jacob and Esau’s fate. And just like in the Hebrew Bible, food and drink mark the moments and rituals for these elements to meet. There are four moments in Desire during which food and drink mark the characters’ struggles especially well.

One of these, in “Black Diamond Bay,” revolves around a beer—workman-like, simple, and easy to find. The world of the song preceding this drink is a climate of desires, where cast-offs compete to the death for control of each other. But by the end, Dylan’s narrator is “sittin’ home alone one night in L.A. watchin’ old Cronkite on the seven o’clock news.”

He is not being a prophet or a rock star or even a tourist stumbling upon a wild plot of spies and rounders in a foreign land. Cronkite, the steady voice of American during the assassination of JFK and Vietnam, reports that “there was an earthquake that left nothin’ but a Panama hat and a pair of old Greek shoes.” Desire has swallowed the entire world of schemers in Black Diamond Bay, but the eyes of the narrator who had once witnessed them turn away from the screen as if it had never happened at all: “So I turned it off and went to grab another beer.”

Think of Isaac — blind according to some traditions — and his willful ignorance of sons swapping places at a mother’s behest, his sorrow or disgust or even unconsciousness at the pain and betrayal around him soothed by meat and wine. After all, at least in Black Diamond Bay, “Seems like every time you turn around there’s another hard luck story that you’re gonna hear.” So have another one and live to forget.

A cup of coffee — a staple, but an enlivening one — marks the second important food moment on Desire. “One More Cup of Coffee for the Road (Valley Below)” is a haunting song, a lament more condensed than all but one of the others on the album. Coffee is called forth as an elixir against an unknown future. Here the narrator mourns a mysterious lover escaped—like the “Scorpio Sphinx in a calico dress” of “Sara” or Isis from the album’s second track. He wants to drink with her one last time before he says goodbye, reflecting not only on her unclaimed mystery, but also the secrets of the family that made her that way.

Think of Jacob, knowing he has so corrupted his brother Esau’s future that he is likely never to see his mother, father, or brother ever again. Think of Esau, a hot red stew on his lips, realizing that he has given away his birthright for a single cup — one more cup of coffee for the road.

The third moment happens with martinis — diffident, elite, clear, and cool. This is a cocktail that actually celebrates injustice and violence explicitly:

All the criminals in their coats and their ties
Are free to drink martinis and watch the sun rise
While Rubin sits like Buddha in a ten-foot cell
An innocent man in a living hell

Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, a boxer, lives a gritty paradox of pounding other men to a pulp in order to fulfill a simple desire to live where the “trout streams flow and the air is nice.” But a much more grounded system of injustice captures him for a crime he did not commit. Glasses clink cold a world away from his suffering. Was this Jacob, the morning after his crime, safe in his trickery? Or is it his mother Rebecca, who spurred it on and held her satisfaction quiet and close?

All of the ingredients mixing power, family and love on Desire come together for a gorgeous moment on a plate of food. Here is the father of the lover of “One More Cup of Coffee,” the ultimate parallel to Isaac; a father ceaselessly hungry for his child in the fields, for food, for filling the empty space that his own father once carved out of him on an alter built for him to die for God years before. Trembling like Isaac – the blind, silent, and fearful one – Dylan’s narrator sees his lover’s father in all of his power and his fear:

Your daddy, he’s an outlaw
And a wanderer by trade
He’ll teach you how to pick and choose
And how to throw the blade

He oversees his kingdom
So no stranger does intrude
His voice, it trembles as he calls out
For another plate of food

In a world buckling under the pressures of desire, everyone is hungry, reaching out, calling out, and trying to fill an emptiness that is unforgiving, inherited, and impossible to explain.