Food and pleasure


If the mouth were a male sex organ, it would be erect all the time.

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BigMouth

Food and pleasure

(From Lionel Tiger's 'The Pursuit of Pleasure')

The Good Book Comes in Two Versions: Diet and Cook

Sexual caper even with oneself usually takes place in private. This obviously explains in part why it is a popular focus of general fascination. But much eating takes place in public. Increasingly, fast-food and similar restaurants feed many people who would previously consume food at home or dining out with people who knew them – the communal long tables of the Basque restaurants of San Francisco or the large, round family tables of any Chinatown come to mind as models of what was once the predominant way of "eating out." At home, the family dinner was ubiquitous and a focus of the day. James Fenimore Cooper described a typical Manhattan residence in the 1820s: "The eating or dining room is almost invariably one of the best in the home. The custom is certainly of English origin, and takes its rise in the habit of sitting an hour or two after the cloth is removed, picking nuts, drinking wine, chatting, yawning, and gazing about the apartment."

People normally know what, where, and with whom other people eat. But they are usually in the dark about the nature and intensity of their sexual activity. The joy of sex is concealed, the joy of eating is obvious.

Nevertheless, there is considerable inhibition about eating, too, when food is very abundant. In principle a person can have nearly unlimited sexual activity – with a spouse, one or more lovers, or through masturbation – without deleterious effects either physically or economically. There may be real risks, such as of disease or unwanted pregnancy, but these are largely preventable. So there is little incentive for people to boast about how little sex they enjoy. The contrary is much more likely.

But the pattern is quite different with food. In the wealthy countries, inhibiting the pleasures of eating has become a widespread pattern. This is mainly for obvious reasons associated with health risks from excess weight, high-fat diets, and the like. A surprisingly pervasive tension about the pleasures of eating is graphically and simply reflected in bookstores. An army of luxurious cookbooks and meal memoirs faces its enemy army across the aisle, the diet book brigade. Caught in a relentless vise between pleasure and prudence, a plurality of the economically privileged population is on a permanent diet. I've noted the effective flattery "Oh, you've lost weight" – a comment that in other historic circumstances was a mark of sympathy and dread. People among the wealthiest on the planet fly to very costly spas, where they are fed painfully austere portions of food while also enduring the exercise and trailblazing routines a Kalahari Bushman hunter-gatherer has no choice but to accept if he is to live until tomorrow. This practice is interesting not only because it may effectively reduce weight and improve health. It also secures social status. The endeavor is seen not as preposterous but as earnestly worthwhile. It is a secular replacement for going to Lourdes or Mecca. It reflects well on the campers, on their morality and sense of personal discipline. Unhappy and ravenous campers perhaps, but virtuous paragons whose morality is a shield against mortality.

In contrast, fat people are discriminated against because it is assumed they lack backbone. They are self-indulgent. They are self-destructive. They enjoy bad food and too much food too well. Clearly they don't exercise. They are vehemently lazy. Their cholesterol levels are shameful. Their fiber intake and their moral fiber are both zero. Medical statisticians and moralists alike define them as surefire quick losers in the war against mortality. They do not have the warrior leanness and hardness on which people can depend. They enjoy intake more than output. They bear the equivalent of the scarlet letter on their indecently curvaceous jellybellies. Since they probably drink as well as gorge, they add medical complications and moral peril to calories.

One caveat: we are concerned here principally with members of wealthy societies, in which excess, not scarcity, is the problem. In communities in West Africa where the commitment to leanness has not become a medical issue, a political "big man" may be a literal big one also. In the community in which Martin's Herring Store prospered, the ample bellies of uncles were actually called "corporations," as if the fat they stockpiled was a store of assets – which they in fact would be in a community facing potential starvation.

Some may legitimately protest that plump people suffer from metabolic defects or a genetic predisposition to fatness and that the austerity of a saint would still leave them with unduly curvy bodies. Such factors undoubtedly underlie the body shape of a substantial number of people, who are doubly and unfairly punished by the effects of extra weight as well as critics' disapproval of their allegedly poor moral character.

This medical explanation accounts for some people. But the issue is much broader. I've noted that human beings, as well as other mammals, appear to be genetically keen to store fat in times of surplus. University of Michigan geneticist James Neel has rather convincingly proposed that there is a "thrifty gene" that prompts the human body to retain extra food rather than dispel it as waste, in order to prepare for the "boom-and-bust" cycle that creatures dependent on nature must be able to endure.

No Stop Signs at the Table

In addition to this genetic mechanism, which does exist, there is another, which doesn't: a clear-cut cue to stop eating. Animals in the boom-and-bust world of hunting-gathering must stock up when they can. So a lion operating during a time of scarce prey will eat up to 40 percent of his body weight when he strikes lucky – his belly will even drag on the ground for a time. But he probably doesn't have a dinner engagement with his boss that evening, and in fact he may not eat again for a week. So putting on weight is a sign of health and effectiveness. It reveals that the useful and conservative system of fat retention is working just fine, as is a functionally understandable enthusiasm to make calories and hay while the sun shines.

Not only that. When the body is deprived of food, it prudently reduces its metabolism to get by on less. However, if its usual quantity of food is restored, the metabolic rate does not respond promptly – one reason why crash dieters often regain weight they have lost, and more. The body's system is biased toward sustaining life and being healthy, not losing weight and looking chic. This underscores the plight of the crash dieter.

Virtually everyone has the thrifty gene to some degree. It, rather than some more idiosyncratic genetic characteristics, underlies widespread changes in body size. For example, in 1905 some 5 percent of the US population was overweight. By 1985 this figure was 40 percent! Such an enormous increase in four generations cannot be accounted for by genetic change in the character of the population. It is far too sudden for that. The more obvious cause for the physical growth of the body social in industrial countries lies with ampler and richer diets, particularly in terms of animal fats. For example, in 1850, fat made up 18 percent of the diet in France, while in 1989 it constituted 42 percent; French consumption of red meat increased from 97 pounds in 1936 to 243 pounds in 1980. In 1989 the Greater London Council estimated that 75 percent of the city's residents suffer from diet-related disease during their lifetimes. Boyd Eaton of the Emory University Medical School ascribes three-fourths of deaths in Western industrial countries to causes related to way of life." Germans consume more than 600 milligrams of cholesterol a day, though the upper limit recommended by nutritionists is between 250 and 300 milligrams. Some 75 percent of German adults have subjected themselves to weight-loss diets. The traditionally healthy Japanese diet is changing too; some 25 percent of it is now fat, the upper limit of acceptability. Fast foods are also enormously popular in Japan, among young people in particular. Recall that when McDonald's opened its first outlet in Tokyo, so many hamburgers were sold so quickly the first day that the cash register burned out! A sociomedical problem, homanji, or fat children, has appeared for the first time. And, as I've mentioned, the most luxurious and prestigious Japanese beef is almost indescribably fatty even by comparison with prime beef in North America or Europe.

Of course, dietary change is not the only major cause of such physical change. There is also a sharply reduced need for physical exertion in order to make a living and get through the day. Hardly any physical effort is necessary to acquire food. Many restaurants now deliver prepared meals, from sushi to veal rollatini to pizza to Chinese food. People walk much less, watch television rather than square dance, depend on escalators and elevators not stairs. Weight gain can even be affected by the reduced energy needed to operate a computer rather than a manual typewriter. Homes have dozens of small motors that reduce the amount of bodily work necessary to maintain safety, cleanliness, and comfort. Modern motorcars make much personal transport almost totally physically effortless. To use their bodies vigorously, people these days have to produce a bizarre and specialized behavior called exercise. This can be a challenging activity, a chore, a social opportunity, or a pleasure. However, it is often something undertaken for its own sake – not to mow the hay or chop the firewood or stalk the gazelle or thresh the grain or scrub wet clothing on a washboard.

Many people exercise only because they think they should or must. No pain, no gain – no survival. They enjoy no fun. They are shaking their fists at epidemiological data, at the lean and mean Grim Reaper.

Holy War at Dinner: The Extermination Model of Food

The war between the cookbook army and the diet book army continues. The battlefield is the body. Reasonably enough, because the body is the principal cause of the war in the first place. The conflict is between the enormous and unremitting physical and social pleasure food and drink provide and the weight of prudent medical opinion and simple experience. The temptation is so great, so pervasive, and so inexpensive. Can there be other sins – for example, sexual ones – as easy and convenient to commit and as cheap as buying a pound of butter and spreading it deliciously on fresh sourdough or whipping it into mousse or frying one soft-shell crab per generous tablespoon?

With so much tasty food available so easily, what is remarkable is not how many affluent people are overweight, but why there are aren't millions more. Why isn't a food-driven country such as France entirely populated by people the shape and size of its Michelin man, the jolly figure of the tire company whose annual restaurant and hotel guide is a vital icon of sublimated national gluttony? It is also interesting that France has a relatively low incidence of cardiovascular disease, though its diet is similar in cholesterol and other characteristics to that of Americans, who suffer far more from this affliction. One serious explanation comes from R. Curtis Ellison, chief of the Section of Preventive Medicine and Epidemiology of the Boston University School of Medicine. The principal distinction, he suggests, is the greater consumption of wine in France. He relates the different health experience to the well-documented protective function of moderate amounts of wine, about two or three glasses per day, which reduces cardiovascular risk. Consumption of large amounts of garlic may be involved as well – it appears to reduce cholesterol.

Surrounding food is an endless battle involving pleasure, calories, vanity, the fear of early death, lust for taste, and sociability. It has come to seem ever more theological, particularly in North America. The higher the death rate from food-induced diseases goes and the more rampant becomes the information about the extermination model of food, the more pervasive is the explicit conflict between meat and morality and between pleasure and prudence. Traditional supermarket products such as pastas irrelevantly boast that they are cholesterol- and sodium-free. Advertising copy about olive oil no longer rhapsodizes about the antique terraced groves of Liguria in which the fragrant source of the golden liquid is hand-picked. Instead, there is a grim medical report about saturated fats and the inner tubes of the buyer's arteries.

If in the name of science you eavesdrop on people talking in restaurants, you may hear them calculating which food is good or not for them, rationalizing the high-calorie animal-fat food because it's a celebration or a holiday. They decide, "Let's splurge on calories" – splurge, that is, on intake, not expenditure. Whatever their decision, it is clear they are wholly aware of the medical and moral meaning of the food they will consume. One person in the restaurant business told me that females frequently consult the dessert menu first and plan the rest of their careful binge accordingly. The writer and broadcaster Martin Goldensohn has commented that married men's eating of high-cholesterol food when they are away from their considerate and careful wives is a contemporary form of male infidelity. And even when fast-food outlets do offer low-fat, nutritious food, there is clear marketing evidence that customers continue to choose their traditional favorites."

At the end of the twentieth century, the apple is widely regarded as a healthy food – vitamin-filled, fibrous, clear-cut, virtuous. But what if Adam had offered Eve an agonizingly rich apple pie, nearly hot, either with taut creme fraiche or sharp cheddar cheese? In any event, even vaguely informed consumers contemplate the dilemma: should they sin by eating the hot apple pie with cream or cheese, die earlier, and probably go to hell? Or should they reject the dessert – any dessert – and linger firmly with a glass of spring water, extend their life, and get to heaven? It is necessary to extend Bertolt Brecht's aphorism "a man is just the food he eats." Now, people's souls are the food they eat. It has gotten devilishly complicated.

Playing the China Card

If the mouth were a male sex organ, it would be erect all the time. It appears that people are in high and chronic readiness for the pleasures of food. This poses a particular problem for members of communities with ample food and no sense of oncoming scarcity. Is there a model to follow that will both yield pleasure and protect health? Or is the only plausible alternative to adopt stringent diets bursting with fiber, complex carbohydrates, just the odd morsels of meat, fish, and poultry, and microscopic traces of fat. One such diet, proposed by Dean Ornish when he was at the UCLA Medical School, restricts animal and fish protein to 10 percent of daily intake – and there is some evidence it reverses cardiovascular damage suffered by heart-attack victims.

Possibly such a draconian diet is desirable for people already victimized by a lifetime of high-fat eating and in dire need of remedy and repair. However, there is some indication that whole cultures can develop patterns of diet that provide enjoyment and endurance at once. Two come to mind, the Italian and the Chinese. The Mediterranean diet of which the Italian is an exemplar uses much fresh fruit and lots of vegetables, little butterfat, much olive oil, and carbohydrates such as pasta, polenta, and risotto, fish when available, and relatively little meat. Because of strong local culinary traditions and regional pride, international fast-food restaurants have fared relatively poorly in Italy and the result of these and other factors is a health profile unusually positive in comparison with other industrial countries.

But perhaps the most interesting and significant healthy diet is the Chinese. It confronts directly the desire for pleasure in food within the confines of economic constraint. First of all, it is an immensely successful cuisine, feeding as it does one quarter of the planet's population in Asia on a daily basis, and countless other people, too, who enjoy it virtually everywhere in the world. As well, because of historic famines and the pressure on arable land, food in China has unusual social importance. A common morning greeting is "Have you had rice yet?" or "Have you eaten?" And there is an extensive traditional lore that surrounds Chinese cooking – for example, about foods that are "hot" or "cold" – with implications for health and social solidarity. Food has an importance equaled by the traditional skill of its chefs.

During my first meal in China, a central value of Chinese cuisine was clearly if simply revealed. This was at the Fragrant Hill Hotel on the outskirts of Beijing, near the Summer Palace. The menu handed us in the dining room was long and detailed, and the English translation was the second half of the document. The first entries were predictable and understandable enough. Appetizers, soups, beef, pork, seafood, fish, vegetables, and then – Food. Food was noodles and rice, the substantial carbohydrates. This was the essence of the meal and it was named for the generic substance. In common and traditional Chinese cuisine, all the other items – apart from the appetizers – were principally used as flavorings for whatever grain was being consumed. Unlike Euro-Americans, who will usually order Chinese food with one main protein item for each diner, Chinese people will extend the pleasure value of their rice or noodles by adding to them small portions of the special dishes. And this is why these preparations are usually so clearly and highly flavored – they have a lot of aesthetic work to do, much flavor to deliver. The sharp salt or sweet or spicy or otherwise highly sauced food rewards the diner with sufficient oral pleasure to make the bland rice or noodle staple tolerable. The chefs have responded at once to the need for pleasure and the constraints of China's economy by producing a vocabulary of dishes that ensures a lively dinner.

Because the food is usually chopped into small bits, it is quick to cook, retains its fresh food value, and is frugal with scarce cooking fuel. Because the small pieces each have a large surface area relative to their bulk, they can absorb and carry much more flavor than if they were in large portions such as steaks or filets or whole chicken breasts.

Several vital social features of this cuisine also help sustain its popularity. It is crucial that the food is shared. Rather than separate dishes arriving as the individualistic property of separate people, one per person, here there is a rush of different plates offering a variety of experiences. These are shared out either informally by the diners or by the host or hostess, who will wields that "big spoon" and urges guests to sample the array.

Another aspect of the social meaning of Chinese food is that because the food is shared, diners are obligated to attend to the intake of others and adjust their own choices accordingly. As I have noted, the most desirable and honorable guest at a Chinese dinner doesn't reveal his favorite food by eating much of it. He eats least of what he likes most. He must orient to the group. Also, the ethically ideal table shape is round, so that everyone is equidistant from the food, which is usually on a lazy Susan in the center. This emphasizes the democratic nature of the meal and the interdependence of the diners.

The net impact of the balance between carbohydrates and other foods, the negligible amount of dairy fat consumed, the colorful variety of choices, and the large component of freshly cooked vegetables result in a diet that delivers a large number of calories but by comparison with, say, the American or Belgian diet, leads neither to obesity nor cardiovascular damage. It is also possible that the ambience of the Chinese meal makes what they eat particularly satisfying. People can eat less than they might on their own – no clean-plate club in China. Because the meal form is so satisfying, there is a relative lack of emphasis on desserts in Chinese cuisine. Traditionally, people would finish with soup or rice. This recalled deprivation and affirmed that during this meal they had eaten amply. The economic factor plays a role here. Nonetheless, fresh fruit is often the only dessert offered by even ambitious restaurants in China, and by overseas Chinese elsewhere who suffer no shortage of food whatsoever.

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