In Girls of Slender Means, Muriel Spark says of a plump young woman that she \”spent much of her time in eager dread of the next meal, and in making resolutions what to eat of it, and what to leave.\” Doesn\’t that just about sum up the American attitude towards food?
We are surrounded by mountains of it, when we should be eating molehills.
Take an ordinary day out of my ordinary life. Better still, take just half a day. Even before I was fully awake, I had to use my willpower at breakfast. I had to decide how much yoghurt, blueberries, and almonds to put into my bowl. I adore yoghurt, and blueberries, and almonds, and could have eaten a great deal of each because it was there in the fridge, but I didn\’t. I just had a little bit. And because I\’ve been warned about caffeine I drank tea, which tastes to me like one step above plain water, instead of coffee, which is what the gods really drink.
I had an optometrist\’s appointment that morning, and my husband offered to drive. But first I had to stop by the vet\’s, and there on the counter was a bowl of candy. Going in the door, food had been the last thing on my mind, especially since I was carrying a bag with Wolfie\’s and Bisou\’s samples for their annual parasite check. But there it was, and it wasn\’t even ten a.m. Again, I flexed my willpower muscle and gave it a miss.
While we were waiting at the optometrist\’s the receptionist brought us a plate of cookies. \”My sister-in-law made these,\” she said, \”and I didn\’t want to eat them all myself.\” We hadn\’t been thinking about food when we walked in, but here it was once more. We couldn\’t refuse, so we each had a cookie.
After the appointment we went to lunch at a diner, where the menu filled three legal-size pages. When the food arrived, my husband and I looked at each other and said \”Pact!\” This means that we agree to eat only half of what is put before us, and save the other half for dinner the next day. For years I resisted \”doggie bags\” because I thought they were uncool, but that was before restaurants started serving food in platters as opposed to plates. I can now be regularly spotted exiting restaurants with a styrofoam box in my hand.
The menu was studded with photos of fabulous desserts, which we did not intend to order. But while we ate our half-rations our eyes wandered to the racks of pies and cakes that lined the walls of the diner. More willpower was expended dealing with this. On the counter where we paid our bill there sat, you guessed it, another bowl of candy.
I think that our relationship to food is more problematic and less pleasant than, say, that of a humble seamstress a hundred years ago. (I am not talking here of the starving poor, but of someone who had enough decent food to eat.) My seamstress, unlike me, could look forward to her meals with eagerness untinged with dread. She probably didn\’t have much choice in what she ate, but she was free to eat it without second thoughts. Her ice-box, unlike my fridge, was not stocked with more food than she could eat in a meal or two, so she needn\’t fuss about portion size. But then, she probably didn\’t even have an ice-box.
She also didn\’t have a TV, so after dinner she wasn\’t assaulted by pictures of platters heaped with breaded shrimp and lobster and French fries. On her way to work in the morning the streets were not lined with eating establishments, nor did huge photos of donuts decorate the sides of buildings. And her co-workers probably did not pass around baskets of cookies while they sewed.
If she went to the doctor, she wasn\’t offered food by the nurse. If she needed to buy something at the pharmacy, there was no food there. (Have you been to a Rite-Aid lately? Half the aisles are dedicated to food, every molecule of it processed.) If she needed to buy stationery for the novel she was writing, no packages of foil-wrapped chocolates distracted her at the stationer\’s. (Have you been to Staples lately?) If she went to a book shop to buy a something to read after work, she didn\’t have to walk through the cafe annex with its display of muffins and pastries.
In short, my well-nourished seamstress, except when she was eating her three squares-a-day, was mostly spared the sight of food, the need to make decisions about it, and the guilt attendant on making the wrong choice.
Whereas we, her great-grandchildren, are forced to act as our own prison guards, doling out the day\’s meager ration lest our livers, hearts, and figures deteriorate. Modern technology enables us to avoid almost all physical movement so that, surrounded by more food than humanity has ever known, we need less of it than ever. Our willpower is called upon to make efforts which it never evolved to handle, and as a result our straightforward, joyful approach to food has, like love in a postmodern novel, been replaced by eager dread.