I was standing in line for my obligatory take out salad recently when I saw something remarkable.
A girl came into the restaurant by herself. She was holding a book. She took a seat at a table and after a glance at the menu placed her order. Then, with a contented sigh, she opened her book and began to read. She was completely immersed and didn’t look up until her order came. There it was, a thick waffle with whipped cream and fruit. She sighed and looked pleased. She then put down her book , picked up her knife and fork and gave lunch her full attention. She ate slowly and deliberately and I am assuming very happily.
It occurred to me, as I scurried out the door with my foil-wrapped salad (which I planned to eat in my car with a plastic fork, while simultaneously scrolling through emails) one of us was on the right track and it didn’t seem to be me.
I have eaten literally thousands of salads in my lifetime. And don’t get me wrong, salads are a great thing to eat, nice, crunchy, healthy whatever. Which is fine. That is, if what one truly craves is in fact a salad.
When had I last given a menu an actual reading with the thought of what I might actually like—or need—to eat? When had I last made a date with a book to sit alone and unfettered, to be catered to and fed whatever lovely food I craved? And when was it that I ate what I wanted to eat, rather that what I thought I would look good eating?
I’m not sure I can answer that. I am not sure I want to answer that. But I should.
Over the years I’ve been to my fair share of events and luncheons, snake pit like affairs rife with remarkably toned and impossibly lithe women. Events where mammoth trays of wrap sandwiches and “litely” dressed pasta salads remained untouched as everyone elbowed their way to the fruit tray.
The hardest of events to bear were the teacher recognition lunches at my childrens’ schools. The teachers, who ostensibly were being feted by the way, had to eat because they wouldn’t survive the working afternoon without sustenance. But eating a plate of food was humiliating for them because the moms sitting with them at table ate virtually nothing. How could they? People were watching. I used to think it might have been kinder, made more sense if we’d just skipped the formal lunch and gave everyone take out bags to grab and eat in the privacy of their own kitchens. Or for the teachers, in the privacy of their empty classrooms. But as far as I know that never happened.
But that kind of eating alone, furtively, guiltily, and shrouded in privacy, is the antithesis of the solitary lunch the girl in the restaurant was reveling in. There is no real joy in self-righteously mashing through sprouts in public when in the back of your mind you just know you’re going to dive head first into a half gallon of mint chip at 2 am in your dark and otherwise empty kitchen.
There are far weightier issues in the world than personal weight, but for most of us, weight is a load for us all to carry, no matter what number is on the scale. How could it not be? For most of us our self-image is inextricably bound to how thin, or how fat, we feel on any given day.
Most people will say when they’ve lost weight, “I’ve won the battle.” Which is a wonderful thing, I’ve been there too. But if anyone else is like me that sense of pride and power is shadowed by the fears of it all insidiously creeping back. I’ve been literally terrified by eating, post diet, afraid to add anything to my own “self-approved list of diet-friendly foods” (you may insert “salad” in this spot).
And I grimly munch away, not tasting anything that I am eating. Not really appreciating anything that I am eating. In thinking about that salad in my bag, full of things like mango and pumpkin seeds and kale, that I don’t really like any of it. It’s not what I need right now. It’s one of the reasons I am looking longingly at the girl with her hot, crisp waffle, covered in whipped cream.
“Tell me what you eat and I’ll tell you what you are.” Long before Iron Chef rattled that brilliant aphorism to roof of the absurd “Kitchen Stadium”, Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin was focusing not simply on the pleasures of food, but on proclaiming the power of what we eat as the essence of self. Or in my case, perhaps the transformation of self.
The girl in the restaurant knew this instinctively. She sat calmly, almost regally at her table, savoring the meal she craved most at that moment . She took her time, appreciating and really tasting everything in front of her. She was enjoying the best company of all. Her own. She was, in essence, being supremely kind to herself.
And so, it is clear. It is time to make a luncheon date with myself.
The title, by the way is an expansion the title of MFK Fisher’s unparalleled compedium THE ART OF EATING, which contains some of her finest work, including
Serve It Forth, Consider the Oyster, How to Cook a Wolf, The Gastronomical Me, and An Alphabet of Gourmets
The most sublime and miraculous of food writers, Fisher’s career began with her excellent English translation of Brillat-Savarins’s The Physiology of Taste.