Eating Pretty

On the subway from Brooklyn to Manhattan I consider my lunch options. I could have a hot dog, but I had sausage for dinner last night. I could get pasta, but isn't it likely that I'll make pasta tonight? Maybe a Cuban sandwich, but that's too much meat. I know—I'll have a Caesar salad.

"But what about protein?"

That's my grandmother's voice in my head. My grandmother works for the National Protein Association of America, which proselytizes that for any meal to be a meal there must be protein.

And by protein, of course, she means meat.

"Grandma," I tell her psychically, "Didn't you read Michael Pollan's recent article in the New York Times about nutritionism ? He says eat less meat. More greens. Caesar salad is green."

"That's true," Michael Pollan says from the other corner of my brain.

"Oh, what does he know?" Grandma interjects. "You're a growing boy. You need more protein."

But I silence Grandma and go to Pearl Oyster Bar, where the Caesar salad is a work of art, each component separated to showcase its individuality. Pieces of anchovy, garlic, and Parmesan convene in clusters that are quickly sopped up with a crouton or a piece of lettuce. Because it's so cold out, I also order a bowl of clam chowder.

"Oh, Adam," says my mother's voice in my head. "That's like drinking a giant bowl of cream."

"He's hopeless," my grandmother confirms.

Perhaps I should order a therapist, too, to get these voices out of my head. Why can't I eat guiltlessly? why must I constantly go to battle when I'm eating a meal? Several theories abound.

  1. I'm a Jew and as a Jew I'm particularly susceptible to the influence of my mother and grandmother
  2. I'm gay and as a gay man I'm particularly susceptible to the influence of my mother and grandmother
  3. Because of the above I'm also particularly susceptible to guilt

The real reason, though, is much more universal, a result not of my upbringing but of my environment: the cultural landscape I inhabit here in America.

In his article, Pollan talks about how confused Americans are when it comes to nutrition. He says journalists, scientists, and politicians all benefit from us not knowing what's going on. The more confused we are about what we should eat, the more likely we are to buy another magazine with a health-related headline or to support a politician who claims to have our best interests at heart. And this is partly why we're neurotic—we're never quite sure what we should eat because every time we make a choice another option presents itself as a healthier one.

I suspect, however, that when it comes to making these choices what worries us has nothing to do with health or longevity and everything to do with a subject that's much more complex and much more powerful, a subject that makes even the most stable people neurotic (and neurotic people stable once they make peace with it) and that's the subject of beauty.

We are a nation that loves beautiful people. We celebrate them on every newsstand, we launch them to stardom without requiring talent or underwear. All that we require is a solemn pact that the beautiful will remain beautiful for us to ogle and admire. When the beautiful slip and fall, we descend on them like vicious demons, eager to dissect what they did wrong. And there's nothing we love more than a celebrity who gets fat. Magazines fly off shelves when a celebrity gains weight, and there isn't a female celebrity alive who hasn't suffered the scrutiny of the media this way.

We accept weight mockery in this country in a way that we'd never accept race mockery or religious mockery. Look at the posters for Norbit. Look at the cartoons of Rosie O'Donnell that circulated after the Donald Trump fiasco. Fat people are fair game in America, and this affects how we eat much more than any study about which nutrient is most beneficial. We dread the mockery that we, ourselves, endorse with our remote control and box office dollars. Making our day-to-day meal decisions is a biblical struggle between that which we crave and that which we know we must eat so as not to invite scorn and ridicule.

You know those commercials where the women are talking about what they had for dinner? "I had yogurt." "I had a piece of fruit." And then the last woman says, "I had sautéed chicken in a creamy lemon sauce with fettuccine and Brussels sprouts," and her friends look extremely shocked, disgusted, and jealous? And then you find out it's a commercial for Lean Cuisine? That's the sort of judgment we experience every day from the jury in our heads when we decide what to eat. And that jury isn't populated by nutritionists, it's populated by the cast of Mean Girls.

If gluttony were healthy, it still wouldn't be acceptable because there's nothing beautiful about the gluttonous. Imagine Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast at Tiffany's stuffing her face with a bacon, egg, and tomato sandwich, the yolk squirting on her pearls. Or Marilyn Monroe gorging on a bacon cheeseburger: "Hey some like it hot, but I like it medium-rare." The trick with beauty is that we think of it as something to attain—that there must be sacrifice to be beautiful. Self-discipline makes us attractive, and food provides the perfect arena in which to demonstrate our willingness to make ourselves suffer for others. And those of us who can't suffer the normal way (salad, no dressing, everything on the side) make ourselves suffer in other ways: Cue the parade of eating disorders. Being beautiful takes work.

Hence the boxes with "zero calories" and "zero fat," boldly announced as if this were the pathway to salvation we require. Health is our church and hotness is our hereafter. We castigate ourselves for cheating on a diet the way Catholics castigate themselves for lust, sloth, and all the other deadly sins. And that's precisely why so many hedonists (and I include myself in their number) rally against the madness of modern day nutritionism. A world without fat and carbs is a world without sex and drinking, it's a dry, colorless world of blind devotion without thought to pleasure in the here and now. Call me crazy, but I don't want to live in a world where I can't have a bowl of steaming clam chowder on a cold winter's day.

The voices of my mother and grandmother merely echo the popular sentiment: Do without, and you'll be rewarded later. Except for all the rewards you give up in the process. Michael Pollan gives us an outline for how to eat well without giving up that which makes eating pleasurable. He points us to the French, the Italians, and the Greeks for models: They live longer and eat better.

But living longer won't motivate most Americans. My hunch is that more Americans would rather do as Blondie sings: "Die young, stay pretty."

Health is a nice excuse, but here in America, beauty's what matters. Our dilemma isn't an omnivore's dilemma; it's a spinster's dilemma. How do we eat the food we want to eat and still find a mate? Once we answer that question, the country will be a healthier place.