E is for eating . . . .
not food, not nourishment, not survival, but eating; or, as that old devil Ambrose Bierce has it:
Eat, v.i., to perform successively (and successfully) the functions of mastication, humectation and deglutition. (Chewing, moistening and swallowing)
A very suitable subject for examination after a period of almost obligatory excess. On Christmas Day many people eat three to four times more than they eat on a normal day, knocking back up to 4000 calories. I dislike - always have done - very sweet foods, so I don't eat mince pies, Christmas cake or Christmas pudding, which is just as well, because I enjoy an extra glass of wine or two and certainly do justice to my main course and some chocolates for dessert, not to mention spiced cakes and Stollen for tea.
Talking of Christmas pudding, or plum pudding, that Dickensian monstrosity full of suet, dried fruits, nuts and alcohol, reminds me of how I once sent one to my mother in Germany as a Christmas present. I hadn't lived in England for long and didn't know that delicacy myself. I was thinking that people here made such a fuss over Christmas pudding that it must be a special treat. After Christmas I received a letter saying "Thank you very much; we tried it but found it totally inedible and more than two thirds of it have gone to the birds. Do you actually eat it?" I had forgotten to tell her (mainly because I didn't know it myself) that the pudding needs boiling or, at the very least, steaming, for three hours.
In 2008, almost a quarter of adults (24% of men and 25% of women aged 16 or over) in England were classified as obese (BMI 30kg/m2 or over). Although I am not part of these statistics, like most people in the fortunate position of always knowing where their next meal is coming from, I occasionally overeat. I graze, I nibble absent-mindedly, I finish what's on my plate, I pick up a passing apple or a handful of nuts, and have a biscuit with my tea. To my great shame I must admit that I am rarely, if ever, hungry, because I eat before that desirable, pleasantly empty, feeling hits my stomach to any noticeable extent. I have three sit down meals a day, whether I need them or not.
That wasn't always so. Although I can't remember actually being hungry myself, my parents certainly could. They knew starvation, particularly my mother, who frequently gave her share of available food to me and sometimes to my father, who was working hard physically to help rebuild his shattered country. He was probably very grateful to her, if he thought about it at all - in hard times people tend to overlook anything that isn't directly related to daily survival -, but I wasn't. In fact, I was a most ungrateful brat, my mother said. She told a story which has me as the villain of the piece: in a special little saucepan, she'd cook some fresh vegetable like carrots and mash them up with the family's butter ration for the day, on the rare occasion when butter was available; she'd then follow this toddler, who ran off into the garden, sat on the path, and stuffed dirt into her mouth, and beg her to eat the carrots instead. Unsuccessfully, on many occasions, apparently.
As a teenager I had little interest in food, although it was freely available. We certainly didn't stuff ourselves as so many youngsters do today. I can't picture a single fat girl in my class at school.
I don't remember when the habit of eating as an occupation crept up on me. A working mother, my children ate lunch at school and I cooked another meal in the evening for us; we all stayed slim for many years. With increasing affluence, particularly in the last few years before the financial squeeze bit into our savings, food became a deliberate pleasure; we ate out in good restaurants, sampling the dishes famous chefs cooked and spending hours over a meal. That continued well into retirement, a visit to a restaurant became something we expected from life, not a rare treat. We became gourmets and my home-cooked meals became fancier too. We possibly ate a little less but we certainly spent more money on eating. Perhaps the explanation is that more adventurous activities decrease as one gets older but the pleasure principle remains constant.
And now we have come full circle. As a toddler I refused to eat good food, now there are a few good foods I can no longer eat. Butter is a no-no, I have become dairy-intolerant. I can only glance at all those cream cakes, rich cheeses, succulent , calorie-laden and bad cholesterol-producing dishes with regret; I must leave others to eat them. My digestive system complains if I eat too much roughage, fat or acidic food; when we go out to eat, I need to study the menu very carefully and send special instructions to the chef.
The moment when food became a problem, i.e. the danger of overeating became a distinct possibility, my system rebelled. I'd love to eat some nice, mature, crumbly, cheddar or a rich hollandaise sauce; as I can't I have to make do without. Perhaps it's better for me. But a diet of soya products and other healthy options gets awfully boring.