I sometimes hate telling people how and what I eat. Their faces usually tell the story before they even open their mouths to comment on my diet; their eyes slide into disbelieving slits, sometimes their mouths purse a little, their heads turn slightly away from me, and if their eyes wander, it’s to check and see what the rest of me looks like while I finish telling them that tofu is not the food of the devil. And at least half of the people I speak to follow up by asking, “Don’t you like to eat?” or “Don’t you have a vice?”
And the truth is, I do – peanut butter. I love it. I sometimes dream of it. I buy the natural, no preservative, no sugar added, no salt added, no oil added stuff – ingredient: peanuts. Literally. And if I could, I would eat it from the jar every day, with a long-handled dessert spoon, so I could get every last little bit of thick yumminess, every last little bit of crunchy peanut embedded within. I’d eat half the jar in one sitting, giant globs of it dripping from my elegant long spoon. Who’d care if my mouth was so dry from peanutty stickiness that I couldn’t speak? Peanut butter’s worth that kind of sacrifice, right?
But here’s how I really eat it: half a tablespoon, in my oatmeal, with some cinnamon. Simple. No elegant long-handled spoon, no dry peanut mouth. And the difference between what I can envision myself doing and what I actually do, I think, speaks to my relationship with food pretty well. I love food. I love to eat. I love to cook. I buy cookbooks more often than novels. I read food blogs and nutrition websites more often than political newsfeeds. I watch cooking shows despite my vegetarianism and Food Network’s carnivorism. I finish one meal and, shortly thereafter, start pondering my next one. I like planning menus for parties, or dinners, or Saturday night snacks. I wander the grocery store with a cup of coffee; groceries are an event in my world. I linger in the bakery aisle. And I am always looking for a new spot, a new restaurant, to feed the obsession.
But what most defines my relationship with food is just what it seems like I might lack – control. I don’t over-anything when it comes to food: overstuff, overindulge, overcook, nothing. I eat what I should, I eat what is appropriate, I eat what fills me, and I enjoy every last bit. We assume, in our culture, that loving and appreciating food means that we must lack self-control, we must repeatedly show our love by overeating, or we must find emotional comfort in food. I do these things sometimes, too. (Tonight, for example, I am going out for a rather large, uncharacteristic meal full of pizza, bread and dessert. Said dessert shall involve peanut butter, I’m sure.) But maybe the exact opposite is what we should strive for – maybe loving and appreciating food doesn’t mean having to attach an emotional value to it. Maybe it doesn’t mean stuffing ourselves until our bodies punish us with heartburn and indigestion and our brains punish us with guilt and resolutions to try harder to resist. Maybe loving food is about treating it as we would our human loved ones – with respect and honor, not smothering and suffocation. Maybe loving food is about loving it for what it is – sustenance, nourishment, necessity, fun and art. Or maybe loving food is about loving our bodies and ourselves – about being committed to loving ourselves by being committed to healthful, pure foods. Even peanut butter can be healthful and pure when it’s not eaten in giant dripping globs from a long-handled dessert spoon.