Thursday, May 22, 2014

In Defense of Gluttony

by Charity Erickson

For anyone who follows along with my regular tweeting about cheese, this shouldn’t come as a shock, but for those who are unfamiliar I will begin with this proclamation: I love food.

I always did love food, though my first food experiences were decidedly ungourmet. My non-fancy Minnesotan family enjoyed dinners of frozen fish sticks and macaroni from a box, and tater-tot hotdish, a lovely meal consisting of all the Minnesotan food groups: cream of mushroom soup, hamburger, Velveeta, and tater-tots--LOTS of tots, which we would garnish with a healthy squeeze of ketchup (or as my Minnesotan ancestors would say, cat-sup). The most exotic dish we regularly ate was chow mein from a can--mushy vegetables in a sweet, grey goo, served over a heaping helping of minute-rice.

And I still have a certain fondness for all these things, because I LOVE FOOD. The food I grew up eating was all about convenience and comfort, necessary evils for a busy family just trying to make it through the day. I try not to begrudge that fact. But I was always hungry for more, which confused and embarrassed me as I was certainly not suffering for want of calories. (And girls aren’t supposed to really like food, anyway, you know?)

In my early twenties I started to meet people who introduced me to new food cultures and I was done, gone, wide-eyed and tripping along on a mission of discovery in new worlds of pleasure, chasing the high I discovered in that first bowl of tom kha gai, rich chicken broth and hot peppers and creamy coconut; and the dissolve into bliss I felt with my first spoonful of Yukon Gold potatoes mashed with real cream, roasted garlic and butter. (The moans I emitted whilst consuming those potatoes made the cook, my friend’s grandmother, visibly uncomfortable.)

As the years passed and my financial situation began to allow, I started teaching myself how to cook. I watched hundreds of hours of the Food Network, read chef memoirs, and collected cookbooks. I developed a body-and-soul connection with gourmand personalities like Anthony Bourdain, sustaining burns and slicing fingertips as I attempted to recreate the various sweets and savories I saw on TV. Cupcakes and custards, steaks with compound butter, goat cheese and mixed greens, meaty stews--I had victories and flops, and I ate far more than I needed. And I loved it.

There are times I feel like I should be more ashamed of treating food as a hobby. For pete’s sake, there are starving people in the world. And I was raised Lutheran! Nevermind that, if I were a real ordinary radical, I would be eating nothing but kale and chickpeas I grew myself! These feelings are inevitably followed by about five days of sustainably produced, locally harvested, meticulously ethical plant-based eating. But then my husband utters a word of dark magic--”cheeseburger”--and it’s all downhill from there, down into into a meaty, cheesy bacchanal. Fast-forward six months, rinse off the grease, repeat.

The cycle is confusing. Honestly? I am not ashamed of how I eat. It is when I think other Christians might be ashamed on my behalf that I wonder if there is something deviant about my enjoyment of good food. I have blessed people with my cooking, but I have also blessed my own figure with extra pounds of flesh in the process. And Christians especially, seem to resent this.

An obvious example would be Christian patriarchy advocates, who equate the pleasing-to-the-male-gaze-ness of a female body--i.e. her thinness--with her spiritual health. Though women are the usual target of the Christian diet industry, the Rick Warren-endorsed Daniel Plan and Don Colbert’s What Would Jesus Eat are both wildly popular diet resources marketed to the church-at-large, that also preach that healthfulness is next to godliness.

But post-evangelicals and progressives do their part to stigmatize fatness, too. I’ve seen it framed as a justice issue: people who consume more than they need are hoarding resources for themselves. More subtly, post-evangelicals use gluttony as an example of hypocrisy: it’s a kind of sin that those Christians conveniently refuse to pass judgment on the way they do with other sins. The goal of these post-evangelicals is, presumably, to expose the delusions of biblical literalists, who claim to live by strict adherence to all “biblical” standards.

Yet for me, this rhetoric misses its mark (heh). As I mentioned, many fundamentalists do enforce diet standards, and it isn’t uncommon for these to be quite restrictive. And when we admit that we almost exclusively use the word gluttony--the inordinate enjoyment of food--synonymously with the carriage of extra pounds, it betrays a socially conditioned attitude of distaste towards fat in general: “You fundamentalists should feel shame for your gluttony, you fat frauds! But you don’t. Hypocrites!”

It’s sometimes a subtle distaste, but distaste nonetheless. A recent episode of the FX show Louie, “So Did the Fat Lady,” put on display a similar unstated repugnance toward fat-ness. The title character, always on the lookout for romance, finds himself enjoying the company of a chubby woman--despite his best efforts. But when his date refers to herself as a “fat girl,” he rushes to defend her from such slander--”You’re not fat!”--because if she were, it would surely be shame too embarrassing for a woman to handle. *sarcasm*

“What is it about the basics of human happiness, feeling attractive, feeling loved, having guys chase after us, that's just not in the cards for us?” she responds to his disingenuous comment. She brilliantly describes the ambivalent feelings of non-thin women in their awareness of the discomfort they apparently cause other people, especially men who might have otherwise considered them to be amazing women. And while I might not identify with this character’s entire experience, her defense of “the basics of human happiness” hits home. It is intrinsic to humanity to have entirely frivolous interests--sports, art, literature--so why is an interest in food, as a non-essential source of pleasure, any different from these others?

Yet people generally--Christian or otherwise (and I’m speaking to my experience with American culture)--balk at the suggestion that our diverse and restrictive attitudes toward food and the value we place on thinness are wholly arbitrary social constructs. Those who might benefit from the system have no incentive to question it. Those who desire to benefit from the system have no incentive to question it. I don’t want to sound like an embittered outcast, but I guess I am one--so I ask, as a lady who just wants to make her cake, and eat it, with you--you, the one who enjoys the favor of the status quo: what the hell?

Systems, people, our church families--all will try to exact their pound or two of flesh, without making the effort to really understand the other’s deepest desires, loves, needs or struggles. And it’s a casual cruelty, to be embarrassed on behalf of another human being, perceiving their joy and comfort as weakness. It’s taken me a long time be less bothered by it, to not feel a twinge of shame when I admitted just how much I love good food. But I took a big step forward not too long ago: Thanksgiving, 2012.

Every year my family ate more or less the same thing, and of course, I loved it all: Aunt Marty’s cheeseball, Gramma’s wild rice casserole, turkey, gravy, pie, and pecan caramel rolls (I don’t know why, but there have always been caramel rolls). But since I had been practicing my cooking, I decided I would contribute something new: a sweet, spicy butternut squash soup with apple and curry.

It was eyed with suspicion; Uncle Doug was the first to try a taste. He slurped a spoonful. His eyes widened, his face flushed. “Flavor!” he said. I can’t tell you how satisfying that was--to create something so good, to enjoy it myself, and to share it with others. Well practiced gluttony pays off in shared joy. What could be so wrong with that? 

Charity Erickson and her husband live and work together in the north woods of Minnesota. Check out her blog for more of her writing and follow her on Twitter @CharityJill.

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