If you, like me, read way too many food magazines and web sites, there are a few features you can bet your life on seeing every year. One is a roundup of the best new restaurants. Another is a look back at the year’s big food trends; and a third is a wry, Andy Rooney-style meditation on holiday weight gain. I skipped the first, jumped at the chance to do the second, and was prepared to snort at the third when I read them this week. But the existential shame and dread of fatness imposed itself on my field of vision; I have a mirror mounted above my calendar and, staring at them, I realized that, for this week at least, there is no more important food topic.
The week between Christmas and New Year’s is, of course, a draining onslaught of emotions, a kind of “stress position” only slightly less abject than a spinster’s Valentine's Day or a vegan Thanksgiving. The forced merriment is part of it. We eat because we are supposed to eat, and drink because we are supposed to drink, and do both in such profusion that we hate ourselves afterwards. This nihilistic remorse often has the effect of making us want to jump back into our miserable routines, the very thing that we were trying to escape from. So powerful, and so reliable, was this effect that slave owners used it to help perpetuate slavery. Frederick Douglass, in his autobiography, remembered how his captors would encourage every excess in the last week of the year, so that, “when the holidays ended, we staggered up from the filth of our wallowing, took a long breath, and marched to the field — feeling, upon the whole, rather glad to go, from what our master had deceived us into a belief was freedom, back to the arms of slavery.”
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It would be beyond obscene, obviously, to compare our condition to what Frederick Douglass experienced; but I’m always moved by that passage, because I feel like I understand it so well. None of us can ever begin to know what it was like to be a slave; but a person is lucky indeed who hasn’t been gone from a state of gross self-indulgence into a state of equally twisted self-denial, without a hint of humor or sanity in between. It screws you up and makes you look at the world differently. It’s disgusting and self-destructive. And yet we come back to it again and again.
I’ve written before that when I go on any kind of harsh diet, either in the form of a juice fast or my typical pepperoni-and-adderall regimes, that I begin to fantasize about Chinese takeout food. Not handmade pasta. Not butter-poached lobster. Not steak. No, my thoughts gravitate toward a form of self-indulgence that is a mirror image of my diet – a feeding frenzy of rib tips, greasy noodles, and deep-fried pork omelettes served over fried rice, and covered with a sweet sauce as thick as stew. And in the next week, as I waddle from party to party, absent-mindedly munching on Doritos and shiny, grabbable M&Ms, I will feel a little less human. I’ll also be eating oversize bags of Combos and Auntie Anne pretzel dogs, because that’s how you pass the time at airports, especially on stopover flights. And it goes without saying that, as I will be traveling, I’ll be going in big groups to steakhouses and taquerias, downing massive portions of meat and liquor in spurious name of good fellowship and family “celebrations.”
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It’s a dark vision, for me; and I’m not alone. Go listen in at an Overeaters Anonymous meeting or at a gym weight room or, for that matter, at the K-Cup coffee machine in your office, where your co-workers are tearing open little packets of Equal and talking about how disgusting they are. Or maybe you know healthier people who really can laugh off a little weight gain, and take both gluttony and privation in perspective. I wish I knew more people like that. I wish I was one of them.
There’s no use complaining about holiday weight gain, though. And, really, there’s no way to give or take useful advice of the “only eat when you’re hungry” variety. We’re Americans. Eating equals good times. And fatness equals bad times. So we naturally live inside the contradiction, and never more so than in the last few days of the year.