Open Book

Glorious Food

Ambivalence and Guilt Take Up a Lot of Space at Today's Dinner Tables

Magazine Issue
March/April 2010
Glorious Food

The Religion of Thinness
Michelle M. Lelwica
Gurze Books. 313 pp. ISBN: 9780936077550

Born Round
Frank Bruni
Penguin Press. 354 pp. ISBN: 9781594202315

Eating Animals
Jonathan Safran Foer
Little, Brown. 341 pp. ISBN: 9780316069908

Tell me what you dream about when you dream about food, and I’ll bet it won’t be my dream—and not only because, as the French say, one person’s poisson (fish) is another’s poison. (In French and English, the spellings and literal meanings of the word poison are the same.) In what we eat, why we eat, and how we eat, contemporary culture has added any number of new ways to define what’s toxic versus what’s tonic.

How did serving dinner become so complicated? Three new books, each taking a unique approach, address the increasingly fraught meaning of our menu choices, posing perplexing questions for everyone’s inner (and actual) household chef: if we are what we eat, can we judge our ethics by the food we don’t or won’t eat? Can we weigh our values (and ourselves) according to what we consume? Is it conscious eating, or obsessive thinking, when you can’t sit down to dinner without evaluating the toll on your cholesterol, the impact on the environment, and the effect on your body-image, of each fruit, veggie, carb, and protein? And why, when I go to the gym, do I feel almost hypnotically drawn to the elliptical machine directly in front of the TV tuned to a cooking show?

Perhaps we’re no less obsessed with food than our survival-oriented hunter-gatherer predecessors were. We save tons of time grocery-shopping instead of going into the wild to spear a mammoth, but given the ever-growing market for food-oriented books and TV shows, I wonder whether we aren’t spending that extra time obsessing, not always productively, about food in other ways.

Theologian and therapist Michelle Lelwica bolsters this perception with a provocative book, The Religion of Thinness: Satisfying the Spiritual Hungers behind Women’s Obsession with Food and Weight. She believes that our culture has deified thinness, with dieting, calorie-counting, and aerobic exercise our chief rituals of worship. Like any religion, she says, this one provides adherents with an ultimate purpose (thinness), a mythical promise and belief (a perfect body brings a perfect life), moral rules (primarily about “good” versus “bad” foods), and community and sense of oneness with large numbers of like-minded dieters. And it’s insidious, she believes, functioning as a modern-day equivalent to the traditional religions that Marx termed the opium of the people. “Faith in thinness does direct our attention away from what’s really happening in our lives and the world around us, and fixates our energies on some hoped-for salvation in the future—when we are thinner,” she writes. “What’s more, this particular way of evading our problems is both socially acceptable and rewarded.”

In fact, weekend mornings are prime times for Weight Watchers gatherings and exercise classes at gyms. In many communities, you’ll find more congregants engaged in those activities than at church or synagogue. Lelwica devotes half the book to criticizing—justly, though repetitiously—the synthetic, all-pervasive influence of media images and advertising slogans that sell thinness 24/7, and she takes care to detail self-help strategies to break away from food obsessions.

She effectively makes the health case that, yes, you can be too thin, endangering your life. However, with our overly sedentary population in the midst of an obesity epidemic, I wish she’d spent time on the ever-lengthening list of health benefits that medical research reveals can come from maintaining a reasonable weight and from engaging in physical activity.

Perhaps she feels that it’s more important for readers to focus on rechanneling old obsessions, rather than discovering new goals to obsess about. She urges readers to replace brittle materialistic values with a different, more mindful, more “spiritual” ethic, which may make nonbelievers balk. A more important point she makes is that we need to learn to have faith in ourselves, not an artificial ideal.

As the title suggests, Lelwica addresses her book primarily to women, but men, too, fall prey to eating obsessions, and in journalist Frank Bruni’s food memoir, Born Round: The Secret History of a Full-Time Eater, readers will find multiple examples of the ritualistic dieting behavior described by Lelwica. Bruni’s book serves up an aspect of food-as-religious-experience that Lelwica overlooks: the bliss of tucking into a well-prepared meal.

The popular term today for an acolyte of the joy of eating is “foodie,” and Bruni surely is that. His luscious descriptions of mouth-watering treats make the agonies he endures as an obsessive binger and serial dieter all that much more disturbing. His dramatic highs and lows, of weight and mood, make us savor and despair, cringe with him and root for him, even as we recognize aspects of our own behavior in his.

With candor and humor, Bruni chronicles his taste for and relationship to food, describing a life in which the gustatory rewards of dining constantly wage battle against the corporeal sorrows of a growing waistline. What makes his struggle with his food demons—which includes bouts with bulimia, bingeing, and sleep-eating—particularly high profile is that he’s best known for his five-year stint as the chief restaurant critic for The New York Times—a position that made him one of America’s elite eaters-in-chief. All too often, and for too many years before that, he confesses, his appetite was less picky than propelled—by an insatiable, uncontrollable hunger.

Where did that hunger come from? “I was a baby bulimic,” Bruni declares. Already, at 18 months old, he could pack away three hamburgers—and when denied a fourth, he’d throw up to make room to start all over again. This behavior became so routine that “Mom had a sponge or paper towel at hand whenever she was about to disappoint me.” The pattern faded as he grew old enough to raid the refrigerator on his own, but his enthrallment with food remained. “I remember almost everything about my childhood in terms of food,” he writes, and the regular family feasts presided over by his grandmother, mother, and aunts—gifted cooks who competed with each other in taste and quantity—provided lessons in the emotional language of food as an expression of love, caring, comfort, and reward. And one more lesson, discovered in the aftermath of the family’s habitual revels in eating: the self-consciousness of steady weight-gain. Call it Bruni’s initiation into his own worship of thinness.

Marked by the age of eight as the chubby sibling among two brothers and one sister, Bruni soon joined his mother in an unending series of start-and-stop attempts at dieting, yet meal portions and choices became even more problematic, because to reject any of the high-calorie delicacies so painstakingly prepared by his female relatives was invariably interpreted as personal rejection. The choice he internalized was to eat (and feel guilty for not controlling his appetite), or not to eat (and feel guilty for insulting the family ethos). Food wasn’t just a religion: it was sin and salvation all in one.

One way out of the bind, Bruni hoped, was exercise. He was a champion swimmer, from elementary through high school. But however much he exercised, his ideal of thinness seemed elusive. Not exercising at all led to ever more self-blame with each additional pound he gained.

In this tortuous cycle, the only solace Bruni could count on was to binge, in solitude, on every edible morsel within reach. As a gay male in a gay culture that emphasizes appearance, he suggests, he was perhaps especially susceptible to messages equating thinness with acceptance, svelteness with sex appeal. Even while he fantasized that attaining the perfect weight would magically bring him the mate of his dreams, he used his self-consciousness about his heft as an excuse to shy away from physical or emotional intimacy.

This pattern continued for decades, punctuated by a relapse of bulimia in college (friends successfully intervened to get him to stop), massive doses of laxatives, and a brief dependence on speed diet pills. In perhaps the saddest (and grossest) visual equivalent of his predicament, he amassed a mountain of discarded chicken bones in the front passenger side of his car, rotting remains from months of eating while driving.

When, at last, he did allow himself to enter into a long-term relationship with another man, he found a way to use food to break that off, too, blaming his lover for his own excessive weight gain. If his partner had really loved him, Bruni rationalized, he’d never have allowed him to eat his way into extralarge sizes.

Then he gets a wake-up call—or rather, he’s finally able to hear the wake-up call—when his brother says he’s fat in front of the whole family. Lelwica’s religion analogy would make this akin to a revelation, and the public insight does indeed hit Bruni with the force of a thunderbolt. Maybe that’s why, without benefit of therapist or support group, he could wean himself from his habit of mindless, automatic overeating. Then again, from Lelwica’s perspective, he might be seen as submitting to a new and different discipline.

He begins devoting hours each week to exercising with a personal trainer. He trains himself to control portion sizes and refrain from stocking snack-food at home. The more weight he loses, the better he feels, physically and emotionally. Stabilizing his relationship to food, he discovers, gives him the confidence to enter into stable, longer-term relationships. His already successful career at The New York Times takes another jump forward when he’s offered the job as the newspaper’s chief restaurant critic.

This is where eating as religious bliss takes over, and Bruni’s account of New York culinary life is a romp; however, he believes his greatest triumph is that, in one of the most visible eating positions in the United States, he doesn’t gain weight. He’s learned to discipline his impulses, to control and even satisfy his hunger, and remains warily hopeful that he’ll continue to stay on track. Thus, he ends his narrative as a reformed food obsessive, someone who’s broken free from the religion of thinness but will always bear its legacy, even as he enjoys his hard-earned bliss as an emotionally healthy eater.

But is he an ethically healthy eater? That’s the quasi-religious question that novelist Jonathan Safran Foer implicitly asks every reader of his nonfiction book Eating Animals. Foer is no adherent of Lelwica’s religion of thinness, but he’s acutely aware of the connection between food and religion. At the start of Eating Animals, for instance, he describes how the birth of his son acted as a wake-up call to stop eating animals.

He reminds us that every religion and culture decrees certain foods unacceptable, but the particular animals (and they’re usually animals) deemed off limits by one society are on the menu in others. What makes cows sacred in one culture and a prime delicacy in others? Why do Americans grimace at the thought of poaching a pet pooch, he asks provocatively, when in some parts of the world, dog is deemed a delicacy?

Employing techniques akin to collagists and documentary filmmakers, Foer presents monologue-like transcripts of interviews of such diverse figures as an activist with People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, a retired slaughterhouse factory worker, and independent family farmers whose treatment of animals is superior and admirable, but who produce only about one percent of all meat consumed in the United States, and whose operations are constantly in danger of being put out of business by giant conglomerates.

They all bear witness, in different ways, to the dilemmas faced by ethical eaters, not to mention taste- and health-conscious ones. Coming one after another, these successive testimonies reminded me of the rungs of an ethical ladder extending heavenward. Chapter by chapter, they ask us to consider the intrinsic unfairness of killing live animals for our benefit; to regard the brutality and cruelty toward animals employed at supersized industrial slaughterhouses; to weigh the ethics of supporting a food industry whose waste products cause severe ecological damage and put planetary sustainability in question; to think carefully about the consequences of the dietary example we set for our children, and for their children in turn.

Food writer and ethicist Michael Pollan has covered much of this material in his books, but as a conscious eater and compassionate occasional carnivore, he’s more flexible; Foer, who favors a vegan diet, is more orthodox. To wit: “Just how destructive does a culinary preference have to be before we decide to eat something else?” he demands, in a prophetic-sounding tone, which echoes the rabbinic scholar Hillel. “If contributing to the suffering of billions of animals that live miserable lives and (quite often) die in horrific ways isn’t motivating, what would be? If being the number-one contributor to the most serious threat facing the planet (global warming), isn’t enough, what is? And if you are tempted to put off these questions of conscience, to say not now, then when?”

Good questions, all. I experienced visceral nightmares as a result of Foer’s revelations of what goes on inside industrial slaughterhouses. Will I rethink my holiday dinner menus as a result? Beyond considering taste, obsession, and religion, I’ll consult my conscience and let you know.


Diane Cole

Diane Cole is the author of the memoir After Great Pain: A New Life Emerges and writes for The Wall Street Journal and many other publications.