Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Eager Dread

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.

8 comments :

  1. Best. Post. Ever. You've described my life.

    I remember when treats - like cakes, slices, cookies, muffins - were small enough to be just that, a treat. When large muffins started arriving in NZ (muffins were never a big thing before the 80s), they were described as Texas Muffins, to distinguish them from "normal" muffins. Now, the Texas size is just normal.

    I go to a local coffee shop to pick up my latte. They have a to-die-for chocolate caramel macadamia slice. But it's too big. It's enough for two, maybe three people. (And the scary thing is, that it is no bigger - and possibly smaller - than most on offer in this city). So if I get it, I feel guilty, and so I regularly have to use my willpower. And that's a no-win situation! (Though I am pleased to report that this morning I resisted temptation.)

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  2. I do think that all this resisting food is a waste of willpower, of which I for one do not have an unlimited supply. It would be so much better if we could reserve it for saving the earth, helping the poor, and striving for peace.

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  3. There seem to be some people who overeat without penalty, others who eat so slowly they can't overeat, and a third group who just aren't as interested in food as the rest of us. I'm none of these. I tend to eat what is on the plate and go for seconds. My trick, to avoid weight gain, is to be active (avoid being a couch potato), keep most junk food out of the house, and have a narrowed range of foods that I eat. Still, all of the situations and foods you talk about are on the menu or on the shelf, calling my name.

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    1. John, you and Irene (see her comment below) are two of a kind--you use your bikes as real means of transportation and avoid a host of problems as a result. Bikes are magical machines, in many ways.

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  4. "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."

    Fantastic.

    I am obsessed with food and weight issues. Like most most American women. I find them utterly fascinating.

    Every time I go into a drugstore, particularly if a prescription or remedy is in order, I walk by "the problem" in order to reach "the solution." I have often thought of blogging about this, but I don't think I have much more to say than what I just have.

    Brava! (And oh, your willpower. And oh, what a waste/waist of it!)

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    1. Dear Indigo, you look like willpower personified to me! I think that John and Irene have the solution: they use their bikes as part of their daily lives, as real transportation to wherever they need to go. Too bad that's not practical in the W.P.

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  5. I eat until I'm full, which is very quickly depending on what I eat. Still, 2 hours later I can eat again. I don't have a problem with gaining weight in that I never eat anything that's not good for me. No junk food and no snacks. Just basic meals. I do walk the dog 3 times a day and ride my bike everywhere I have to go.

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  6. Irene, I am convinced that it's the daily dog/bike combination that keeps you fit. You are lucky to live in a place where a bike is real transportation. Here the distances are too great, and the highways too dangerous.

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