Last time I was out west, my nephew Jackson cracked me up by telling me about the Solano Stroll, an annual event that consists, as the name suggests, of locals and visitors strolling up and down Solano Avenue, an upmarket (i.e., few if any visible drug dealers or beggars) shopping street in North Berkeley.
This year somebody had the bright idea of setting up a “Slow Food” booth, and people dutifully lined up to sample this trendy cuisine. And lined up and lined up, until the queue snaked around the block, turning the Solano Stroll into the Solano Shoving Your Way Through Packs Of Bozos.
The trouble, as you might have guessed, was that the line wasn’t moving very fast. In fact, it effectively wasn’t moving at all, because, as advertised, this was indeed slow food. It took about 45 minutes to get served, which, given the stoned-out state of many Berkeley denizens, isn’t remarkable, but just isn’t practical for crowded street fairs.
I’d better stop here and admit that the very notion of “slow food” fills me with a violent and irrational hatred. Would you travel on a railroad that promised “slow trains?” Shop at a store known for its slow service? When you go to the bank, do you ask, “Which of these lines do think will be the slowest?”
Another Jackson story: a new teacher took over one of his classes, the kind that Jackson eye-rollingly describes as “one of those young, enthusiastic types.” Picture a cross between Beavis and Butthead’s guitar-strumming naif and Matthew Morrison’s character on Glee.
Hoping to fill the kids with loathing for the machinations of McDonald’s and KFC, he asked them to name something that was good about fast food, the plan being that he would come back at them with a host of facts and figures demonstrating its true awfulness. Jackson, who, thanks to being raised by a foodie mama, has never set foot, let alone eaten in a McDonald’s, was having trouble answering the question. I racked my brain for a second and came up with, “The good thing about fast food is that it is fast. Let’s see him deny that.”
That being said, I’m no fan of mass produced hamburgers either. I could probably count on the fingers of both hands the number of times I’ve eaten at McDonald’s as an adult. But – especially here in New York City – there are plenty of good, healthy foods that you can order and have in your hands – or your belly – in a matter of minutes, and you will have a hard time convincing me why this is not a good thing, nay, a wonderful thing. I see no need to go through 10,000 years of civilization only to wind up sitting around the campfire all night like half-starved cavemen waiting for our pickled loin of mastodon to acquire the proper patina.
I had a friend in Australia who would dismiss any trendy new restaurant or cuisine as “an elaborate and expensive eating disorder.” While he might have been a bit overboard in his nay-saying, my own sentiments tilt in that direction. There are a couple hundred restaurants within walking distance of my apartment and I’ve eaten in about ten of them, fewer than that if we’re not counting pizzerias.
It’s not just that I rebel at paying more than 10 or 15 bucks for a meal (though I do); it’s the attendant rigmarole that repels me. I don’t like sitting in crowded rooms of strangers, don’t like having some overworked and overstressed server hovering over me, don’t like not knowing how long I’m going to be sitting there waiting for my food, and above all don’t want to engage in conversation about what I or anyone else is eating, what it looks, tastes or smells like, or how it was prepared. It’s food, people; either eat it or don’t, but SHUT UP ABOUT IT.
I know this attitude marks me out as a barbarian in many quarters, if not an outright savage. I read somewhere that “A man who eats alone is worse than a beast,” but alone is in fact my preferred way of eating. I have friends and family members I enjoy dining with, but they are few and far between. If you find me sitting across the table from you in a restaurant, you can assume one of two things: a) I am rather fond of you; or b) I am being held there against my will.
I won’t pretend that some of my attitudes toward food aren’t a bit, shall we say, funny, and by that I mean more strange than ha-ha. But I find most people’s relationships with food unsettling at best, and in some cases, downright scary. It’s my theory that people begin developing affectations and fetishes about food as an substitute for sex as soon as that activity starts to appear burdensome or onerous, i.e., in early to mid-adulthood or immediately following marriage.
But as long as it’s kept within reasonable bounds, what’s the problem? After all, not everyone can afford litigation, Gore Vidal’s preferred post-sexual preoccupation for people of a certain age. The tricky bit is “reasonable.” Reasonable is thinking about and enjoying your food a little more than necessary. Unreasonable is when it starts to do harm. In case you haven’t noticed, Americans, by any objective measure, and most subjective ones as well, are fat. Really fat. And getting fatter.
This is not my imagination. The average American is now 25 pounds heavier than when I was a teenager, and trust me, we weren’t a nation of skinny-bones even then. Actually, I’m at least 25 pounds heavier than when I was a teenager, too, and none too happy about it.
I’m still on the low end of average, and many people who are slightly (or a lot) chubbier get annoyed with me when I say I’d like to lose some of my excess flesh, but to be fair, I get annoyed with them telling me that I’m “skinny” and that, unlike them, I don’t have to worry about what I eat.
Personally, I try to avoid telling anyone that they’re too fat, even if they ask me, because I figure only that person can judge for him or herself. Similarly, I feel I’m the only one qualified to judge my own weight. I don’t need BMI tables or a medical degree to know when I can’t walk or run or jump or climb as easily as I used to, nor does “You look fine” make me able to overlook the fact that my favorite shirt is no longer flattering my figure but instead highlighting an unsightly bulge where my flat stomach used to be.
Some of this, you’re bound to say, is due to age, but most of it is traceable to the exact same reason that anybody else gets chubby, fat, or just plain obese: I eat too damn much. I’ve heard the stories about glandular conditions, heredity, big bones, etc., but it none of these factors transcends the law of conservation of mass: your body can not produce fat out of thin air. Certain people are naturally bigger or smaller, but as I understand it, we’ve reached our ideal weight by our mid-20s: anything on top of that is a result of consuming more calories than our bodies need or can use.
If I know this, why do I keep eating when I’ve already eaten more than enough? I believe it’s an addiction, a compulsion, similar if not identical to the cravings that cause us to drink or take drugs to excess. I can’t speak for others, but there’ve been times that I’ve come home at night in an angry or unhappy mood, and dealt it with by scarfing down half a dozen donuts and a quart of ice cream. The sensation was nearly identical to drowning my sorrows in a bottle of whiskey, right down to the queasy stomach and sugar headache that greeted me the following morning.
What’s the big deal, you scoff? Everybody deserves a treat once in a while. But taking in a day or two’s worth of calories in sugar and starch form is no “treat” in the sense of doing something nice or good for one’s body or soul. The same is true when the treat involves a healthier food, a pork roast, for example, or a baked lasagna, if I end up eating the whole thing in one sitting. Which I have done.
I got away with this kind of crap when I was younger because my metabolism allowed me to; nowadays, the results aren’t so pretty. Other people weren’t so fortunate, if fortunate is the right word, because they started piling on pounds the minute they started eating to excess. But in at least one way, they had the advantage of knowing right away what would happen if they ate too much, whereas I had several decades to acquire bad habits before it started becoming obvious what was so bad about them.
If someone has a drug or alcohol problem, the answer is simple: stop using drugs or alcohol. It’s what I had to do, and apart from being dismissed as a bit of a weirdo by my boozing and drug-taking buddies, the results have been unilaterally stupendous. Compulsive overeating is, for obvious reasons, not so easily dealt with. It’s not just that you can’t cut out food altogether, but also that the damage done by habitual overeating isn’t immediately visible. You can eat a lot of donuts before Type II diabetes kicks in, and while your stomach may slowly balloon out to voluminous proportions, it’s never clear which particular lamb chop or baked alaska did the actual damage.
Taken individually, each item of food can seem reasonable, benign, even, in the context of a happy occasion like Thanksgiving or Christmas or a wedding feast, to represent the very embodiment of love and contentment. Taken cumulatively, they are killing you in the long run, and diminishing the quality of your life in the here and now.
I swore I’d try to keep this focused on myself and not sound like I’m lecturing others, so here’s what I do: after a couple experiments, I found that I had to cut out processed/refined sugar altogether. Yes, that means no cookies, donuts, ice cream, muffins, cakes, pies, basically no desserts at all except fresh fruit. Sound excessive? Maybe, but when, after a year of no sugar, I decided it would be all right to have a small piece of a friend’s birthday cake, it was only a matter of weeks before I was back haunting the late-night donut shops and eating myself sick. As an alcoholic will tell you, if you don’t take the first drink, you can’t get drunk. Apparently the same principle applies to red velvet cupcakes.
I have a friend who lost 75 pounds in a year by cutting out sugar. I myself lost 25, just about what I wanted to lose, before I started bingeing again and gained it all back. I went back off sugar at the beginning of this year, but the weight’s not sliding off so easily this time, maybe because the long, hard winter has kept me indoors and not exercising as much, maybe because my metabolism is slowing down even further, maybe because I’m still stuffing my face – and my feelings – with other, supposedly healthy foods.
“The one way to get thin is to re-establish a purpose in life,” said Cyril Connolly, and while I don’t claim to understand the full implications of that opinion, it sounds about right. All things being equal, I’d rather be overeating than doing some of the other self-destructive things I used to do, but at the same time I don’t want to replace one addiction with another, and I definitely don’t want to spend the rest of my life dragging around the equivalent of a couple bowling balls of extra weight.
You can do anything you want, I was once told, as long as you’re prepared to accept the consequences. In that sense overeating or getting fat are not moral issues, though you wouldn’t know it from all the back-and-forth and hullabaloo over sex columnist Dan Savage’s fairly blunt take on the subject. In other words, you or I or anyone else can eat as much as they want, with full knowledge that there are trade-offs: you’ll have to buy new, baggier clothes, you’re likely to feel less sexy and get treated as such, you’ll probably have a harder time finding a job, and if you do, a harder time getting promoted. These are well-documented facts: I’m not pulling them out of my ass or trying to create prejudices.
Put that way, it seems absolutely insane that people willingly pay such a price for the dubious pleasure of eating too much (and by dubious, I mean: how much do you really enjoy food once you’re no longer hungry but still compulsively devouring it?). I know I don’t enjoy it much at all. It may be vaguely comforting or distracting, the way a cigarette used to be back in those bad old days, but it doesn’t make me happy, doesn’t make me strong, and never, never comes close to filling up the emptiness inside.