Down goes the plate steaming with spaghetti. Grace. Someone say grace. We hold hands. We close our eyes. I eye my spaghetti. Amen. My fellow diners gracefully pluck their forks and knives in between thumb and pointer finger. “How was your day, honey?” she asks. Not to me, because this isn’t my house. “School was all right…” my friend begins. This is my chance. I plunge fork into noodle. Four minutes in I’m done. I look up. My friend is looking over at me, slightly horrified. That fork is still daintily pressed between her fingers and a single, sinewy spaghetti strand is curled in it, the same piece of spaghetti, I think, she had four minutes ago.
My relationship with what I eat is at a complicated impasse. I have never known what it’s like to sit down at a dinner table at 6 p.m. Whenever I sit down to eat at a friend’s house I feel like a bear sitting at a table of humans, unsure of the etiquette in this neck of the woods. Don’t get me wrong. It’s a lovely experience, but one I came to appreciate a little too late. By now my concept of restraint has already been molded into the tiniest of Pillsbury dough balls.
My parents divorced young enough that my only memory of a meal shared between us was at a gloomy, poorly lit restaurant. The mood had already been set: we had just driven three hours through Northern Connecticut to get to Six Flags, and it was closed. Closed. Something about thunderstorms. This, and my parents already resented each other. Forget conversation. The best you could ask for was a word or two muttered bitterly over a lukewarm burger.
For my dad and I, eating was like island-hopping. We were more like a pair of tourists than a couple of diners. You know that lonely pair you see through the window at a Thai restaurant on Tuesday night at 10? Yeah, that was us, hunched over soft-shell crab, speaking in spurts of soft-spoken conversation. For some reason we could hold a real conversation here. At home, it was a different story. We failed at making conversation. “How was your day?” “It was okay.” We gave the routine our best shot, but our eyes were already preparing for the impending migration. Down our gazes went, back to our plates and then the copy of Time. My dad always felt guilty about not making dinner more often, but I really didn’t mind. Eating for us was a solitary pleasure, one spent hunched over a magazine instead of words that to us felt empty.
I love food madly. I love and hate it. You know the drill. For girls my age, Venus is a lanky fourteen-year-old Teen Vogue model. It doesn’t matter how ideologically I abhor beauty ideals; I see this girl everywhere, and in every smoky-eyed perfume ad she is equated with beauty, romance and happiness. The road to real self-acceptance is such a daunting journey; zero percent body fat is quicker. Last year I would go on these stupid yo-yo diets. I would eliminate carbsbread, sugar, fruitand then ravished, I would eat everything in the kitchen I’d been salivating over for the last week and boom, it’s all back. I’m back to square one and utterly contemptuous of my measly willpower. A day later I realize how unwise it was to do such a thing to my body, until I get to feeling my curves and dreams of thin limbs haunt me once again.
I read about food like a fanboy. There’s an interesting article in The New York Times about the diet company Jenny Craig. They were trying to export the brand to France and having a hard time. Valérie Bignon is a French woman and a director at Nestlé France, which is overseeing the Gallicization of Jenny Craig. “If I were the minister of health in America and I was in charge of the battle against obesity,” she says in the article, “the most powerful, brilliant thing I could do would be to communicate this message: let’s not worry too much about what’s on the table. I’d say let’s concern ourselves with sitting at the table together and preparing a meal.” Her point is this: America’s approach to food is individualistic as opposed to social. In France, the notion of to-go food or even self-serve is anathema. On the other hand, when you sit down at the table and have a well-rounded, quality meal, there’s little impetus to snack throughout the day. Plus, she says, the presence of others reinforces healthy eating habits like “helping yourself to only so much” and “the habit of discipline and moderation,” lessons that were largely absent in my single-parent adolescence.
A second article I recently read at first sounded too good to be true. This also came from The New York Times, and it was about Ikaria, a sleepy Greek isle whose inhabitants live remarkably long, many of them past a hundred. Not only that, but the quality of their lives is enviable; it’s not unusual to see a centenarian gossiping over a glass of wine with old friends come evening. As in France, part of the secret is what they eat: vegetables, bread, goat’s milk, honey, wine, herbal tea. All of it is grown and produced on the island. Experts also point out that the typical Mediterranean diet is high in antioxidants and low in saturated fats, among other plusses.
The other part of the equation, as in France as well, is the social culture around food. In Ikaria, the most available foods are also the healthiest. When your neighbors come over, they’ll bring over vegetables from their garden, tea, or wine, not a casserole. It is not uncommon to spend an evening with friends, chatting for hours over a couple glasses of wine. Your closest friends, family, neighborsessentially, every single person around youreinforces this healthy eating style. Consider this excerpt from the article about Seventh-day Adventists, who eat a plant-based diet: “Adventists hang out with other Adventists. When you go to an Adventist picnic, there’s no steak grilling on the barbecue; it’s a vegetarian potluck. No one is drinking alcohol or smoking.” Furthermore, “As Nicholas Christakis, a physician and social scientist at Harvard, found when examining data from a long-term study of the residents of Framingham, Mass., health habits can be as contagious as a cold virus. By his calculation, a Framingham individual’s chances of becoming obese shot up by 57 percent if a friend became obese. Among the Adventists we looked at, it was mostly positive social contagions that were in circulation.”
On the other hand, in mainstream America, we’re tantalized by junk food on a regular basis. You can’t buy a bottle of shampoo at CVS without passing a display box full of candy placed ingeniously next to the register. The great thing about living in a co-op like Columbae is that the kitchen is full of fresh produce. We sit down and eat dinner together. But as soon as I leave the premises, it’s back to the status quo. I can’t get a cup of coffee without staring down a tray of cake pops.
In the U.S., there’s a multi-billion dollar industry devoted to dieting. Companies like Weight Watchers and Jenny Craig tend to focus exclusively on what we eat or how much of it. Obediently, we compartmentalize an hour of exercise into our schedules. For a typical America, weight management is nothing if it’s not a science. It is an equation, and its units are calories; a deficit of calories results in less fat, and if perfume ads are to be believed, that damned elusive contentment.
Sooner or later, having quietly pined over a hundred bags of Rolos, I’m going to cave. It’ll be back to the drawing board of self-loathing, and then one more stab at it. Fighting the American culinary status quo is a difficult mission because we are by nature influenced by the culture that surrounds us. I swore off fries and fast food long ago, but I still struggle with moderation. Quinoa and lentils are tasty, but that pack of Sour Punch Straws at the concession stand looks mighty delicious. If I have five minutes to get to class thanks to my self-torturous twenty units, am I more likely to make an egg scramble or grab a to-go bar? What’s in our food is an important question, one I’m glad we’re asking. But how we eat may be just as crucial, if not more so.
Tell Alex your food story at firstname.lastname@example.org.