Painters and sculptors have long recognized this truth, and they never portray subjects who, through choice or duty, practice abstinence, such as anchorites or misers, without giving them the pallor of illness, the wasted scrawniness of poverty, and the deep wrinkles of enfeebled senility.
--Jean Anthelme Brillat-Savarin
When I FIrst stumbled across Brillat-Savarin's loving descriptions of women eating and enjoying good food, I attributed this fetish as another example of Frenchmen's talent for compliments that will grant access to other appetites. Who could resist a man who writes, "Nothing is more agreeable to look at than a pretty gormande in full battle-dress: her napkin tucked in most sensibly; [her hand] carries elegantly carved morsels to her mouth, or perhaps a partridge wing on which she nibbles; her eyes shine; her lips are soft and moist... the ladies who know how to eat are comparatively ten years younger than those to whom this science is a stranger." Sigh.
Having blithely eaten my way through a lifetime of public meals, clearing my plate (otherwise known as "feedbag" eating, a style of feminine consumption I introduced to Seattle recently) without noticing the raised eyebrows and disapproving flared nostrils, I had no idea of the history behind a people who have slipped so far from subsistence that we must create diets and impose other formal constraints on how we nourish our bodies. Writing about women gourmands in The Physiology of Taste; Or, Meditations on Transcendental Gastronomy, dear Brillat-Savarin was going out on a limb in 1825. His contemporary Benjamin Disraeli, a British statesman and novelist, wrote, "If a woman eats, she destroys her spell, and if she will not eat, she destroys our meal." Byron, Mr. Romantic Poet himself, loathed seeing women eat. Women were banned from the table as fickle diversions by Grimod de la Reyniére, author of The Gourmands' Almanac. In spite of the Romantic push toward the "natural," women who ate in public were regarded with suspicion. The display of appetite and engagement in such necessary bodily functions distressed the easily embarrassed Victorians.
In fact, Western women did not eat in public dining rooms until the invention of the restaurant in pre-Revolutionary France. They sipped from dainty china privately, or they were regaled to the domestic sphere out of economic necessity. Restaurants were born to serve the new "weak-chested" urbanite (read: middle class) delicate consommés at private tables, at any hour. The menu evolved from restorative bouillon for those too frail (refined) to consume a full evening meal to all sorts of healthful tidbits from which to choose. Restaurateurs distinguished their function as providing spaces and services "well arranged for those who would scarcely want to eat in public" and "providing the comforts of home," according to restaurateurs' advertisements in the late 1700s. This private/public dining was exactly the kind of veiling women needed. British and American tourists visited Paris to gawk at the fashionable ladies dining brazenly in public. They observed women not only seated at a table in a public place, but "drinking champagne, eating their vegetables in white sauce, even glancing in mirrors," according to Rebecca L. Spang in her book The Invention of the Restaurant. Not only did women have the audacity to eat, but they appeared to be enjoying themselves.
Throughout the spring and summer of 1794, patriotic banquets were mandated in the streets of Paris, where all citizens--aristocrats and sans-culottes, women and children--shared food with their neighbors. The Committee of Public Safety soon declared these picnics unsafe. Songs written at such fraternal suppers, set to the tune of old bawdy drinking numbers, illustrated the moralists' fears: "Let each man here besiege his love/And with her sweetly altercate/That each might make this very night/Another citizen for the state!" Deliciously prepared food was counterrevolutionary, because it appealed to individual, physical wants, which "corrupts patriots"; the presence of women and wine led to "immoderate joy," a distraction from the Revolution.
Politicians, social theorists, and sensualists alike understand the potency of the table and women's position at it. In the 1930s, Leon Trotsky, bless his soul, pointed out that socialized food preparation would bring about an improved status for women. "Family supper, family laundry--that is the household slavery of women!" In First-World industrialized countries, women seem to have secured a place for themselves at the table, literally and figuratively. Antithetical to Trotsky's predictions, middle-class American women are liberated through consumption. We have thrown off many domestic shackles by purchasing machines to do laundry and dishes for us. Or we hire women to do them for us. Or we hire women to use the machines. While few people would argue that women have no business dining in public, and no one talks about respectable women anymore, women and men confess to some carryover of issues around public eating.
The proliferation of PowerBars and 32-ounce mondo espresso drinks with powdered vitamin and mineral supplements spun into their week's worth of foamed milk speaks volumes about views on the act of food consumption. While Slim-Fast and other liquid diets are obvious substitutes for eating, the more insidious bar and beverage forms of food hide under the guise of convenience and the hyper-Puritanical efficiency required of most American workers today. Giant "power" lattes and $5 juices require no mastication whatsoever, relieving the delicate individual of the potentially embarrassing spinach between the teeth, indicating digestion. The various breeds of purse-size food marketed to women cannot be dismissed as unimportant. Those dainty pipes of yogurt packaged in the same fun plastic tube as the blue raspberry ices of our youth are bandied about by television commercial actresses as the next best thing to tampons. Discreet, tampon-size nourishment is the new prescribed ladylike, appetite-thwarting true progress in the march toward culinary equality. Tucking away a one-and-a-half-by-three-inch chewy vitamin and mineral supplement is not eating. It is a formal act of consumption, and a temporary measure to keep one from fainting.
I performed an accidental experiment with a Costco box of Clif Bars on an island. Visiting Hawaii on the cheap, I camped for free on the beach in Kauai, eating only the food I packed, which, due to a mishap with baggage, turned out to be solely one crate o' bars. It is difficult to satisfy any type of craving with the numbingly sweet, stale yet mushy food of star athletes. According to my calculations from the nutritional analysis on the bars' packaging, I was receiving all the necessary nutrients to live. Perhaps I was living, but I certainly was not functioning. I constantly fluctuated between low and coked-out high blood-sugar levels, either extreme rendering me stupid and generally unable to enjoy myself or do anything, except read my in-flight magazine for the 278th time. Seeing as I was already in a bikini, I seized upon the opportunity to fixate on my body, refining an already semi-developed compulsive self-deprecation.
Yes, we have reached the point of internalizing an observer's perspective, real or imagined, on our own bodies, nattily entitled "self-objectification" by University of Michigan psychology professor Barbara L. Fredrickson. Dr. Fredrickson has conducted some studies revealing how self-objectification leads to an unhealthy preoccupation with physical appearance and "increased shame, which in turn promotes restrained eating. It also reduces cognitive capacity, which in turn diminishes task performance as well as enjoyment." Since we are no longer saddled with the reputation of Eve, that fleshy temptress and apple-monger, we turn to self-imposed restrained eating. By the outward manifestation of appetite control via "health" food, we uphold a rather Victorian sensibility of women's appetites.
I conducted some field work in food courts both in the urban retail core of the city and in suburban shopping malls, including certain eateries, like Red Robin, which are well known for their "bottomless" offerings of French fries and soft drinks. Apparently many working- and middle-class American males have reached conclusions similar to Brillat-Savarin's. The men and boys I raked over the coals confessed to being "stoked" to see a woman enjoy good food, such as a big juicy steak. One fellow volunteered, "I don't care if it's a rack of lamb or a big salad, just as long as the lady is eating and liking it, not wasting it." Both men and women detailed altered behavior around people they were trying to impress, such as increased awareness to the point of obsession of stray bits of food around the mouth and subsequent increased napkin daubing throughout such nerve-wracking meals. One woman told me about how a date leaned over, halfway through a spaghetti dinner fraught with obsessive napkin use, and drawled, dead serious, "I think it's sexy when a woman has food hanging off her lip."
Whiling away the hours in the type of eating establishment people access in real distress--low blood sugar, mall-mouth dryness--I noticed that some women, who were obviously in great need of nourishment (obvious because of the quantity of food they ordered), demonstrated a maddening and wasteful dissection of their public meals. For instance, one woman slid her sandwich all over her plate before eventually cutting it in half, then methodically picked apart the elements comprising the sandwich until the eviscerated food item had been abstracted into an acceptable form, which spanned the plate and two napkin annexes. I watched her cut up the meat with a plastic knife and fork, emanating complete calm and vision, while her children hurled fries at each other. While anecdotal at best, I have observed similar behavior in numerous women, friends and strang-ers, who profess to being hungry, but must complete complex surgical procedures before bringing fork to mouth. An acquaintance once explained her practice of leaving some kibble on her plate when finished eating: "A princess always leaves a bite for the servants." Wasting food declares the economic ability to do so. A lady possesses both manners and money. (Kim Gordon of Sonic Youth once said, "When anybody calls me a lady, I feel the same way that John Waters does when a dog's lips touch his flesh. It's a cold feeling.") No one is opposed to women eating in public--we have made that advance--but there is a self-imposed censoring of what or how a woman may eat.
Sylvia Plath's appetite aroused amazement and disgust in her acquaintances--from Dido Merwin bitching about Plath devouring foie gras "as though it were Aunt Dot's meatloaf" to Anne Stevenson noting that Plath ate "her steak with enormous relish. However distraught she was at other times, she always appeared dressed for meals, ate extremely well and was warmly appreciative of the food." Apparently, enjoying meals was characteristic of her egotism. (Heaven forbid, an egotistical woman!) From Plath's journals, ZoË Heller concludes the opposite: "Preparing and eating food, along with other banal rituals of domestic life, represent rare and valuable moments of escape from herself... brief connections with a material reality outside her fevered head." Heller implodes the victorious feminist parable that Plath herself tried to uphold by polarizing the muse-poet and mother-housewife. The physical world, and the mundane activities we perform in it, anchored Plath and provided a distraction from her inner demons. Whatever salvation domesticity and/or art offered, Plath ended her life by sticking her head in a gas oven.
Employing what friends term the "Frau mode," I have found refuge at the table, tempering my own and others' imminent anger, sorrow, and foul moods with toothsome diversions. It is hard to remain furious with someone who cooks up homemade sauerkraut and sausages, and more difficult still to purposefully spoil the taste of good food by filling the air with vileness. Our senses can help diffuse the intellectual snarls and biochemical panties-in-a-wad that occur. Pleasurable flavors induce a greater flow of saliva and gastric and pancreatic juices, which aides digestion. Not only does taste encourage us to eat and therefore live, Harold McGee surmises that "it is possible that we may actually get more out of good-tasting food" in his book On Food and Cooking. It behooves us to eat well and to share meals with one another.