Thursday, 5 January 2012

E is for Eating - Friko's Personal and Private Alphabet Game

Dionysos Mosaic

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.


  1. Over here the amount of fat people is just astounding. When I was in grade school and high school, a fat person was rare and the target of all that school age meanness. Now, the average person is the size of what we, then, considered fat and no one looks askance. You have to be really fat to get notice now. Some of it isn't over eating but poverty. The only foods they can afford are laden with fat. And of course, no one gets any exercise anymore with all the labor saving devices. What get my fat ass out of the chair to change the station on the TV? And no physical education in school either, maybe once a week. When I was in school, they made us exercise for an hour a day whether we wanted to or not.

  2. The pleasure principle: I love a restaurant or home with beautiful ambience, a pretty table setting, and gorgeous food, which not only tastes good but is nicely presented. I love it!

  3. Mastication, humectation, deglutition -- it all sounds rather disgusting, doesn't it? Not to mention what happens after that! It's a wonder we do so much of it.

  4. wow those are big words...smiles...i did too much of that over the holiday...i rarely overeat the holidays being an exception...i have been hungry before from lack and its def not fun...not where i want to go back to ever...

  5. Isn't it interesting, as you so deftly portray in this post, that a lifetime's history of eating can also be a window into larger histories and life itself? Aging and its effect on what we can and can't eat is an endless frustration, but I suppose, in light of the more terrible deprivations people can suffer, we musn't grumble (or anyway not too much).

    I remember my first Christmas pudding. Didn't understand it one whit. Subsequently I had something called Christmas pudding that was truly ambrosial, but I doubt it could have been the "real thing."

  6. I'm enjoying your wander through the alphabet - thank you.

  7. The U.S. certainly does have a lot of overweight people and the folks in my area are really having a hard time. It's like Ellen said, most are poor and thus, eat lots of pasta, beans, breads, gravy, and commodities.

  8. I love the Christmas pudding story. It reminded me of the time a relative of ours brought a Christmas pudding with her when she came for Christmas dinner. It was seriously the worst thing we'd ever tasted, but no one could say, and we just had to grin and bear it. Even the brandy sauce didn't mask the taste. Ugh, the memory.

  9. What a lot of food for thought!!:-) I've been in the UK for over 30 years now and though I love it here for Christmas I am not fond of Christmas pudding or Christmas cake -- the best thing is how they are decorated -- and do not serve them. This year I had such a bad cold that I couldn't taste anything and consequently my appetite waned and the quantity of food I 'masticated', 'humectated' and 'deglutiated' was greatly curtailed. ;-)And as I have grown older and acquired more and more maladies so the kinds of food I can indulge in have greatly narrowed in scope and thankfully so has my appetite! Very enjoyable post, Friko!

  10. I remember the first time I read the Christmas Carol, I read the description of the Christmas pudding and I wanted SO much to have one. My aunt made it and I have never looked at British descriptions of their food the same since. Suet? Really? And plum pudding just eludes me. And Yorkshire pudding with my roast beef?

    Porridge. Sigh... It's a hard life with such illusions shattered.

    It is hard to read about "fat people." I am one. When you suddenly become incapacitated, your appetite does not leave. And the more vigorous you USED to be, the worse the repercussions on the body. Throw the poverty in there and yes, it can be tough to stay within the "normal" range.

    On the other hand, I will absolutely accept responsibility for about 25% of the excess! I love delicious food. Crave, savor, go into ecstatic raptures.

    But now? Now I am trying simply to masticate, humectate, and deglutiate according to NEED, not want. PHOOEY.
    This was FUN, Friko.

  11. What an enjoyable post! I'm one of those who put a lot of weight on when I moved from an active job to a sedentary one and recently managed to shed about 12kg. I love my food and still have an iron digestion, so it wasn't easy.

    I blame a lot of overweight among younger people on the enormous portions served by so many fast food restaurants, enormous in amount and also in calories. Supersize portions lead to supersize people.

  12. thanks to successful medication for hyper-thyroidism and a knee operation, i am now 10kg heavier than i was a year and 1/2 ago and am pear-shaped. it could also be due to post-menopausal hormonal thingies who knows. i feel very tragic about it, though i am still [only] a size 12.

    the day i stop being able to eat double cream cakes, passionfruit tarts, sour cream chocolate cake and [dark] chocolate with sea salt, i will crawl into a coner and die.

    p.s. in case you never go back to check responses being a busybee - NO i don't hate you! i don't like beaches or water myself. that's why it was such an unusual day.

    it was a torrent?!!!

  13. OMG on the unsteamed pudding. But you know, I'll bet it was perfect for the birds. Some holiday foods look grotesque & unrecognizable even when prepared properly.

  14. Me, I'm trying to detox. No, not alcohol, or nicotine, or street drugs. Sugar, in every one of its forms is my delight. If you happen to stir in a bit of fat - as in the best Christmas cookies - there's no stopping me. At least, not for a while.

    And don't forget the medicinal qualities of ice cream. During my mother's last two years of life, I can't tell you the number of times I showed up at the pharmacy with a half-gallon of ice cream to be rung up with her prescriptions. What can I say? It made me feel better - especially mint chocolate chip.

    So now it's time to reform. I'm lucky twenty pounds is all I have to take off!

  15. '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.'


  16. Friko, this is yet another of your posts that tells me just how long we might chat together when we do eventually meet.

    The regional recipes on which I was raised, by parents who were children of the the State's Great Depression, are very different from the meals I now prepare for myself.

    And yet, they are somewhat similar. I try to cook "from scratch" and keep away from processed food. I am that rare New Yorker who does not exist on take-out delivered orders from neighborhood eateries. No matter how late I get home from work, I always take the time to make a meal, that involves lots of veg, and some other those other food groups, too.

    My work day involves lots and lots of exercise, so my metabolism keeps chugging along.

    Let me stop now before I take up too much space and bore your other visitors.


  17. Shortly before Christmas I saw a program on educational television in the US - probably Burt Wolf or some other travel/cook guru - who did a piece on the traditional Christmas pudding. It had me believing that it was delicious when made by a skilled cook. Now that I've read your piece, Friko, and all the comments, I've again lost my belief that I too might enjoy a Christmas pudding as much as Tiny Tim.

  18. A terrific post and such thoughtful comments. And I actually like the Christmas pudding that comes in a can from (I think) Crosse and Blackwell. You steam it to heat and serve it in small portions with a big glop of homemade hard sauce (butter, sugar, and brandy.)

  19. So interesting. The Great Dane and I, just this evening, were talking about the complete absence of overweight people in photos from before 1950. Now, a slim person in a group photo would stand out.

  20. Sometimes there is a good side.
    When we bought this house, the kitchen needed remodeling. My husband said it looked fine to him.
    Ten years later, I said the kitchen needs remodeling, and he said "Let's talk to some cabinetmakers."
    The difference? I am on a bland diet, which interests him not a whit. So he has to fend for himself. Now that he's been working in the kitchen for a while, he has decided it is no fun at all.
    So I will have a lovely kitchen in which to make my pasta alfredo, my rice pudding, and my vegetable juice.. But oh, how I'll love looking at my kitchen.
    It's also lots of fun researching online, visiting with cabinetmakers, etc. I'm loving it.

  21. My grandfather used to maintain that when a person desires a second helping, invariably they've already eaten enough.

  22. Another interesting post, Friko. Food seems to be a tool and a friend and a foe. The obesity in America is astonishing and causing all of us far more expense in health care. I think it has to do with processed foods interfering with our metabolism. We have corn syrup in everything, and while the corn industry advertises that our body uses it just like sugar, a little research belies that. I am lucky in that I can still eat everything, except that third cup of coffee in the morning causing me a little acid flare-up. I can eat everything...but I certainly should not eat everything.

  23. Dear Friko,
    I've so missed your dry wit and your observations about life and the foibles of humankind. The reason I've missed all this is because I've been under the weather with an infection. I'm on my third round of 7-day antibiotics now and hope that my body is mending itself.

    As to eating--I've been a vegetarian for 31 years now and so soy is basic. I'm blessed because I love fruits and veggies. I do think that those who cannot afford the produce department and must buy only pasta and other high calorie food are prone to weight problems.

    And yet, what is my reason for being overweight? I can afford to buy nutritious foods and still I need to lose twenty pounds. Too much comfort food in the last three years, which have been filled with health problems.

    I'd be interested in your take on losing weight, Friko.
    Any stories? Any tips?

    Finally, I so hope you are continuing the writing of your memoir. All of us are eager for it to be published.


  24. When I was 24 , I became diabetic so stopped eating anything sweet . When I was 34 , I was told to stop drinking coffee or wine . By the time I was 44 , it was salt , then I was 54 and cholesterol was added to the list . Now I'm 64 they've decided that porridge causes rickets .
    I'd have blown away in a strong wind if I'd listened to all of it , though I do only rarely eat anything sweet ( I love Christmas pudding )

  25. I love the Christmas pudding story. Too funny. :)

    My eating habits go to the wall around Christmas. I eat nothing that's good for me but exist for about a fortnight on chocolates, cake, trifle and alcohol. Yum.

    It's awful to look round and see so many overweight people though. There weren't many fat people around when I was growing up and certainly no overweight children.

  26. It's sad that when we get old the pleasures of the flesh become problematic. Like you, I find that all sorts of things I used to like to eat don't agree with me now that I am truly an old woman. Besides the fact that they don't agree with me, they don't even taste so good these days. I think the ability to distinguish flavors diminishes with age. Sad.

  27. Another brilliant post, Friko. It's a short history of human life from the perspective of digestion.

    I love to eat. And I love to cook. But I've discovered that the best tastes come from the first few bites. After that, it's just mastication et al.

    I was always the skinniest girl in my class and I hated it. Now, I'm no longer skinny, but I do watch what I eat. My German heritage must affect my taste buds because like you, I'm not fond of fruitcake, Christmas pudding and anything too sweet.

  28. Despite my English roots I don't like christmas pussing, mince meat tarts and the like. Blech.

    I feel best when eating sparingly enough to experience hunger between meals. I can no longer tolerate cheese and am supposed to eschew dairy altogether. Wheat is a suspected problem too....and with diabetes in the family sugar is becoming a no-no. What's left? Good, wholesome home cooked meals where I control the ingredients. Lots of veggies. Game meat when possible, to avoid hormones and antibiotics. It's hard, but I'm working on it. I was a skinny child, but am now an overweight adult. Thanks for the food topic - it's timely.

  29. Oops, that was meant to read pudding, not pussing. Freudian slip! Blech again!

  30. I sure know what you mean! I have to be careful too! sigh!!
    Now I miss foods I used to be able to eat!!

  31. Very interesting dietary ramble. I can identify with much of what you write in terms of having some want in the early years and then becoming indifferent to good food in later life. I too have dietary restrictions, and was not among those who consumed 4,000 calories on Christmas day, or the day after for that matter.

    I never eat very much and yet like Jack Sprat's wife I am overweight while my Jack is lean and fit. I think genes are at work here. Or, maybe I don't work hard enough anymore.

  32. Loved your pudding story. I have got a sweet tooth, so Christmas pudding gets my vote with brandy sauce. In fact i have been known to cook and eat a Xmas pudding in June.!
    Unfortunately I only have to look at food for it to increase my hips!
    'A moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips'

  33. It really is amazing how many people, especially young people, are obese these days. I do agree that meals out, big portions, fast food and the practice of recreational eating has contributed a lot to this change. I was always thin as a child and very conscientious about my weight as a young adult. I began to gain in my forties when I stopped caring for a time -- and then weight takes on a life of its own. I had never appreciated how hard it was for obese people to lose that excess weight until I was in that position. I'm going slowly down the scale and just hope to get to a healthy weight. Thanks so much for your insights about food and eating, Friko -- and for the historical perspective!

  34. My German mom defiantly declared that without her bread, butter and sausage life would not be worth living.

    Once I left home and my mom's bland German cooking I was relieved to give up meat in favor of - chocolate and spaghetti, lol.

    I still remember getting introduced to Tofu, a tiny Tamara soaked square bite, then a rare delicacy, in a vegetarian restaurant in Amsterdam.

    Food is a very convenient (meaning easily available for most of us in modern society)
    means of managing, or avoiding, feelings.

    While the poor and toxic quality of food may add to levels of food addictions, I believe that primal emotion plays a more important role.

    Finally, I lost significant weight when I switched New York Chesse cake to Tofu pie!

  35. Food, glorious food! I'm not overweight, but I do love food! I will slave in the gym for as long as necessary to be free to enjoy the fruits of the earth.

  36. There is a huge big butt problem across the pond as well. And we also have an inedible Christmas treat called a fruit cake. I believe we claim its origins are English, but maybe German. Anyway, you can steam those babies all you like without as much as a hint of decomposition. The birds won't eat them either. But the racoons will. (Don't tell my sister-in-law!)

  37. We are covering all the angles on this topic, aren't we two, in our recent posts?

    No dairy sounds as bad as a gluten intolerance to me. I'd wager, though, that time will yield new ideas and favorites from the non-dairy world. Can you have coconut milk? If so, Thai curry? Maybe no curry, though?

    I feel for you, of course. At the risk of further uncoolness, I have to say "this sucks." So long as you are able to have brussels sprouts sauteed in soy and sesame, however, there is goodness out there. If not the brussels sprouts, how about homemade cracked pepper crackers? Sesame noodles with broccoli? A slow-cooked pulled-pork sandwich? Foccacia with turkey and alfalfa sprouts?

    Just tryin'.

  38. For two weeks last year I turned my back to (cow)dairy, gluten, sugar, nightshade vegetables and somthing else, can't remember what, curious to see if removing those potentially problem-causing foods from my diet would make me feel any different. Nope. Well, yes, actually. I was hungry, or thought I was, and ended up overdosing on sheep milk cheeses and rice cakes. Of all, I missed good cheese the most, but the most difficult to avoid was gluten. You and I share a dislike to really sweet stuff, which people seem unable to understand, I find.
    And I think it's the height of unfairness that your stomach gets more sensitive with age.

  39. Whose silly idea was this '3 meals a day' thing anyway??!! Apparently, our evolution into a more sedentary race hasn't caught up with our digestive habits!!!

    AND ... there are those who think that the Xmas pudding is an abomination, even when steamed or boiled for 3 hours!!

    Happy New Year!

  40. Oh the damage I did over the holidays...have realized the body can no longer absorb food as it did when younger.

    I make my husband a Plum Pudding every year in early November - he is of Australian heritage and the recipe is from my M-I-L. I do not partake of this myself, but he enjoys a little slice after dinner with homemade hard sauce. (I do like the taste of that! But it is a no-no)It has been steamed for hours, wrapped in brandy soaked linen and is not opened until Christmas night.

  41. In Belgium Christmas and New Year is not food but all delicatessen which are mostly eaten only at these occasions ! It's a whole eating culture with oisters, "foie gras" saddle of venisons, or other wild animals and the traditional "buche de Noël" which is very very "fat".
    Usually you start eating at 8 and if all goes well with several starters the main course etc maybe you are lucky to finish just before midnight. It's completely different then celebrating in England or in Germany !! Food should be "Art" and not munched down. I had to learn that ! Sitting at table for hours I wasn't used too ! In Italy it's the same. So when I hear food, I run away, lol !
    BTW Mr. G adores Christmas Pudding, but already prepared which I find now in Waterloo too. Before my friend always send one over for him.

  42. Obesity is a scourge in the US, although like you I don't remember it being a problem as a child. And yet we have many who go hungry. This seems like a problem that could be remedied, but it is a real bugger.

    Tonight I'm going to make a simple pot of chicken soup.

  43. A fascinating post -- I've thought often, weighing in on the plus side of average (!) that this is a fascinating topic. I have never known the financial or social challenges that required rationing and I do come from some genetically big people. I can remember my first self-imposed diet was at 8, when I rationed my own Halloween candy, doing weight Watchers in high school and eating only lettuce at my senior prom dinner and many more such experiences. Now, I need to lose a good deal. Need, probably. Want, yes. Too many snacks, too much not-eating mindfully. So, I'm working on my new plan. New year, new plan. And coming to terms with the fact that I just need to move more. And then, the rest would work itself out!

  44. Hi Friko .. I feel for you - and would hate that happen to me .. but perhaps I'd better start moderating now ... and I need to exercise - but not today - foul and damp! Cheers Hilary


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