One of the podcasts I get is Science Friday. I don’t always get around to listening but last night I really enjoyed this one, an interview with Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto:
“The sheer novelty and glamour of the Western diet, with its 17,000 new food products introduced every year, and the marketing muscle used to sell these products, has overwhelmed the force of tradition and left us where we now find ourselves: relying on science and journalism and marketing to help us decide questions about what to eat. Nutritionism, which arose to help us better deal with the problems of the Western diet, has largely been co-opted by it, used by the industry to sell more food and to undermine the authority of traditional ways of eating.” (From his article in the New York Times Magazine, Unhappy Meals)
For me, this resonates with what I was reading in my beloved Supper of the Lamb. Capon was writing before the nutrient-izing of food marketing, so what he rails against is the rule of food-as-calories whereas Pollan rails against the “nutritionism” of seeing food as a collection of nutrients.
First Capon imagines a Wormwood-like junior devil proposing a plan to deprive humanity of things:
“Things, the tempter declared, by their provision of unique delights and individual astonishments, constituted a continual refreshment of the very capacities Hell was at pains to abolish. As long as man dealt with real substances, he would himself tend to remain substantial. What was needed, therefore, was a program to deprive man of things.”
But, he goes on,
“I do not mean to take anything from him physically. Instead we shall encourage him mentally to alienate himself from reality. I propose we contrive a systematic substitution of abstractions, diagrams and spiritualizations for actual beings. Man must taught to see things as symbols–must be trained to use them for effect and never for themselves. Above all, the door of delight must remain firmly closed. “
Back to the dinner party scene Capon started the chapter with. The guest, Harry, has told the hostess to hold back his portion of homemade noodes, because he is counting calories. But Capon chides,
“A calorie is not a thing; it is a measurement. In itself, it does not exist…..How sad then to see real beings–Harry and all his fellow calorie counters–living their lives in abject terror of things that do not even go bump in the night. What a crime, not only against hospitality, but against being to hear him turn down homemade noodles in favor of idols and abstractions–to watch him prefer nothing to something. And what a disaster to himself! To have capitulated so starchlessly before the devil’s policy of desubstantialization! His body may or may not lose weight; his soul, however, is sure to wither.”
Acknowledging that there does come a time when a balance must be struck, Capon decides for him, the solution would be to fast occasionally.
“I have never regretted it. To eat nothing at all is more human than to take a little of what cries out for the appetite of a giant. One servingspoonful of spaetzle is like the opening measures of Vivaldi’s Four Seasons: Any man who walks out early on either proves he doesn’t understand the genre–and misses the repose of the end. To eat without eating greatly is only to eat by halves. While God gives me meat in due season and the sensibilities with which to relish the gift, I refuse to sit down to eat and rise up only to have picked and fussed my way through the goodness of the earth. My vow, therefore, was beautifully simple: If I ate, I would eat without stint; and if I stinted, I would not eat at all.
“I offer it as my prescription for Harry. Let him fast until he is free to eat like a true son of Adam. Let him take but one meal a day (or even one every other day, if he is one of the chosen ones whose metabolism marks him for a special vocation); let him fast in good earnest; nothing but liquids–no nibbles, no snacks. But then let him take meals worthy of the name. (If he needs exercise, let him walk five miles a day–or go in for sit-ups, push-ups, and four-wall handball, if it comes to that; but let him not try to skimp his way to greatness.) It is bread that strengthens a man’s heart; it is the valleys thick with grain that laugh and sing. It is only when Harry, by feast and fast, lays a firm grip on the fatness of the earth, that he himself will return to sanity and substance.”
Having said that, I have sworn off carby foods for Lent, but come Easter I will feast again, I expect. And in the meantime, I am enjoying delectabilities like sauteed chard and roast chicken (tonight’s dinner); last night was steak and sauteed red bellpepper and mushrooms and salad.