I’m currently reading Jerome K. Jerome’s “Three Men in a Boat (To Say Nothing of the Dog),” the bloggiest book of the 19th century. Since it concerns the adventures of three 19th-century bachelors and a dog rowing a small skiff down the Thames and camping along the way, there is unsurprisingly a lot of emphasis on the procurement, enjoyment, storage and preparation of food. This isn’t by any means the funniest bit in the book, but I found it resonant:
How good one feels when one is full — how satisfied with ourselves and with the world! People who have tried it, tell me that a clear conscience makes you very happy and contented; but a full stomach does the business quite as well, and is cheaper, and more easily obtained. One feels so forgiving and generous after a substantial and well-digested meal — so noble-minded, so kindly-hearted.
It is very strange, this domination of our intellect by our digestive organs. We cannot work, we cannot think, unless our stomach wills so. It dictates to us our emotions, our passions. After eggs and bacon, it says, “Work!” After beefsteak and porter, it says, “Sleep!” … After hot muffins, it says, “Be dull and soulless, like a beast of the field — a brainless animal, with listless eye, unlit by any ray of fancy, or of hope, or fear, or love, or life.” And after brandy, taken in sufficient quantity, it says, “Now come, fool, grin and tumble, that your fellow-men may laugh — driven in folly, and splutter in senseless sounds, and show what a helpless ninny is poor man whose wit and will are drowned, like kittens, side by side, in half an inch of alcohol.”
We are but the veriest, sorriest slaves of our stomach. Reach not after morality and righteousness, my friends; watch vigilantly your stomach, and diet it with care and judgment. Then virtue and contentment will come and reign within your heart, unsought by any effort of your own; and you will be a good citizen, a loving husband, and a tender father — a noble, pious man.
Now, as it happens I do not react to either muffins or steak in quite the way Jerome describes, nor do I have any wish to be a tender father. But of course those specifics aren’t the point. The point is that this sort of normal, attentive, joyful, purposeful eating is a real and tragic casualty of our cultural quest for thinness. It’s terrible the way mini-mania erodes the self-esteem of all sizes of women, but it’s also terrible that it makes us unable to enjoy food qua food.The idea that food of different kinds can feed your body and mind in different and necessary ways, that you can’t be functional or kind without it (Jerome goes on to describe his normally cantankerous compatriots’ changed countenances after a good meal), that eating “with care” can mean eating as well and as mindfully as possible instead of as little as possible — these concepts seem as archaic as a boating holiday on the Thames.
We — all of us, but especially women — attach moral value to hunger in modern society. It’s virtuous to go without; it’s sinful or decadent to indulge. What if we turned this idea on its head? What if the compassion and goodwill and contentment that come from a full stomach were more morally valuable than privation? What if we recognized that allowing food to be a valuable — but not paramount — part of our lives made us kinder to others and to ourselves?
One to chew on, if you’ll excuse me. Meanwhile, I think I’ll have that whiskey now.