All of the men in my immediate social circle are on diets. Some of the women are too. They’re ramping up their exercise routines, and going for longer walks and bike rides. They’re encircling their biceps, waists, and thighs with measuring tapes. Shared mealtimes have generated extended discussions about the evolutionary differences between the male and female anatomy. The men concede that they are, as a gender, luckier than women, who, as a gender, find it more difficult to lose those last few pounds because of the dictates of our respective genes. It’s a little squirrelly to overhear the guys swapping calorie facts, but overall I respect my friends’ resolve.
I’m pondering their diets as I sit down to a dinner of habanero-deviled eggs, a few slices of Irish cheddar and pear, and a glass of red wine. I do not diet. The very word makes me ravenous. I run when I can, and I try to stand up and move around every hour or so, because I’ve read that this will prolong longevity. My weight remains constant, and I’m okay with a little extra curve. Heaven help the unwitting soul who makes the mistake of trying to recruit me to a stricter diet and workout routine. Food is the only variable in life that I can completely control. I eat what and when I want.
MFK Fisher, my idol and muse, writes: “One of the stupidest things in an earnest but stupid school of culinary thought is that each of the three daily meals should be ‘balanced.’” Fisher, an outspoken opponent of the “sad rigmarole” of “three daily feedings” based on static, uniform “conditioned appetites,” suggests an alternative approach to eating. “Balance the day,” she writes, “not each meal in the day.” Moreover, she proposes the radical notion of enjoying the food we eat: savoring each bite; lingering over textures, tastes, and smells with sensual appreciation. I wholly ascribe to her philosophy. Sometimes dinner is a briny salad of butter lettuce heaped with sliced olives, red onion, tomato, feta, and Dijon vinaigrette. Sometimes dinner is the cheese course; sometimes a hunk of boule, ripped from the still-warm loaf. Though I’m trying to eat less meat, I readily partake of the power player known as bacon and indulge in the luxury of a great rib eye. Since I have yet to contract pellagra or rickets, I believe my diet is reasonably sound.
Is it better to eat three nutritionally-composed meals a day, or to experience the high from eating a terrific plate of what you love the most and filling in the rest of the day with foods that balance it all out? Sensible is sensible. But no one receives an award for sensibility. St. Peter doesn’t slap a golden certificate in your palm when he meets you at the Pearly Gates. When I die, I would rather my friends remember me for my marathon cookie sessions or my spicy guacamole. I’d like them to think of all the dinner parties, wine, laughter, and Dance Central battles.
I am baffled by the masochism of ignoring cravings, a twisted agony of will that has caused many a person’s dietary downfall. I succumb to cravings because I have a relentless single-mindedness about food, and if I do not cede to my cravings, they consume my senses until I do. I lose touch with reality. I obsess. If every cell in my body is screaming for a piece of fried chicken, then my body must be in need of this coveted protein. My cells sing for all kinds of foods: artichokes, Gouda mashed potatoes, mountains of fat blueberries resting on mounds of tart Greek yogurt. I give in, and it frees me of my obsession. Peaceful accord restores my glow.
Fisher lived through war, food rationing, and times of widespread hunger. She makes a strong case for mindful eating from the standpoint of multiple economies: financial, domestic, and emotional. “Breakfast, then, can be toast,” she writes, offering one example among several other hypothetical meal suggestions for the day. “It can be piles of toast, generously buttered, and a bowl of honey or jam, and milk for Mortimer and coffee for you. You can be lavish because the meal is so inexpensive. You can have fun, because there is no trotting around with fried eggs and mussy dishes and grease in the pan and a lingeringly unpleasant smell in the air.” I don’t particularly mind frying eggs and dealing with dishes, but I agree with her underlying point. Simplified, unstructured meals cost less money and demand less clean up. This, in turn, encourages overall emotional wellbeing and heightened satisfaction from the foods we eat.
If, one summer night, I eat a bowl full of sweet, ripe tomatoes and wash it down with a bottle of my friend’s homemade apple cider, my meal might cost me $2, as opposed to $1.50 for a chicken breast, $3.48 for salad fixings, and $1.69 for a package of dinner rolls. (Adding the family to the equation complicates the meal plan further, driving up costs and time spent catering to their preferences, but you get the gist.) Cheese is my costliest indulgence. It is worth every cent. You can’t put a price on cheese-related euphoria.
I started writing this essay in response to one particular male, who, in addition to adopting a(n enormously boring) diet, is also fasting twice a week and smells faintly of peanuts. His approach strikes me as full-fledged lunacy, but it works for him. (Since he also happens to live in the same house as me, I cringe and bear it.) I prefer to follow the approach of a gracious grand dame who lived a long, sensual life, eating as she pleased and writing some of the most rapturous, compelling food literature in existence. I think of Mary Frances every time I raise my glass. “Try it,” writes Fisher of her philosophy. “It is easy, and simple, and fun, and – perhaps most important – people like it.”