Why we eat badly; the holiness of good food

Peggy’s parents sent us a $60 fruitcake for Christmas. It’s a heaven-in-a-bite affair for someone like myself who loves fruitcake, but it’s also a gain weight looking at it affair. A really good fruitcake is one of the few gustatory evils that still tempt me. If the one at hand was less tasty, I would give it away, but—except for the revolving head and projectile vomit—fruitcakes are to me what demons were to Linda Blair.

Peggy and I were talking about the days of childhood when we believed that anything they sold in stores was good for us, or otherwise they wouldn’t be allowed to sell it. This belief enabled us to eat all manner of horrible things with unmitigated delight. As we talked, I wondered whether the many obese adults we know are able to eat with such pleasure, or whether, even as they indulge, the voice of conscience is playing a discordant note. I thought that this must be the case, but Peggy speculated that they are able to stifle that voice so completely that it is powerless. Though she is not obese, I have watched Peggy eat compulsively, and I can but offer that I witnessed no such abandon in her. I just saw someone whose hand kept returning to the plate in a way that looked desperate instead of joyful. If such torture has been largely alien to me, it is only because I gain weight less easily.

It seems to be the human condition that we all, at times, will trade a portion of our health and our dignity for that which delights our palate—or our lower regions. Some say that a life without indulgence is not worth living. That might be true, but can’t we at least elevate our indulgences?

When I end a fast, that which is good for me tastes a thousand times better than that which is bad. A piece of salmon, a serving of collard greens, some lentils and barley, a slice of cornbread, a glass of wine; such things are a veritable symphony of taste. They are far too glorious to be consumed in front of the television. Anything more than dim lights, soft music, and quiet conversation would be irreverent. No doughnut or fruitcake could stand against them.

I have concluded from this that we eat things that are bad for us because we are sated. In food as in all things, intemperance deadens our ability to appreciate the good. I would even say the holy, because eating can be a religious observance. Maybe that’s why we—blasphemous species that we are—process our food until its nutritive content is gone, filling it with fake colors and other chemicals, and distorting it so that no can guess its origin.