I first began to understand my true calling as I spread myself out on a friend’s couch, trying to figure which of the seven deadly sins I best personified. We had just gotten back from an enormous Tibetan meal, all momos (savory dumplings) and chai tea, and were having one of those desultory conversations that late nights and too much food often inspire. All the eating had clogged up my mental pro-cesses, so it took me longer than usual to state the obvious. ”
Gluttony! Of course! I just ate all those damn momos!” With this, I discreetly let my belly out.
I was quite happy to think of myself as a poster child for gluttony. In the years since, it’s an identity I’ve come to embrace–no easy feat, considering the many obstacles that lie in the path of a woman searching for her inner pig.
One obstacle is the old adage that a woman should never be seen eating in public. She can peck, she can nibble, she can disinterestedly and elegantly nudge her food around her plate, but she should never masti-cate, ingest, consume. Take Scarlett O’Hara. Despite a radish-gnawing determination to survive, and steely pronouncements that tomorrow is another day, when her long-suffering Mammy encourages her to eat before a party so she won’t scandalize the guests by gobbling like a hog, the mighty Scarlett pouts but eventually capitulates to better her chances of getting a man.
And the “don’t eat in front of boys” trick is still going strong. Witness the lovely woman next to you, delicately rearranging her Caesar salad while her male dining companion scarfs a plate of ribs. I have often thought, when I see a salad fiddler, that I would like to order a steak, fall into it face first, and gnaw it like a dog just to rile someone.
Chocolate: A Woman Thing
Chocolate is the exception to the rule. Women are supposed to have an irrational, uncontrollable craving for chocolate. It’s a woman thing, right? I’ve heard women talk about chocolate in hushed, reverent tones, in whispers barely concealing the dripping lust chocolate inspires, in the strung-out voice of the junkie. With archly raised eyebrows, chocolate lovers have in-formed me, “You know, chocolate stimulates the same part of the brain that sex is supposed to.” This is all well and good, but these sexual overtones lead me to think that loving chocolate is not such a revolutionary action. Chocolate has become the cultural pacifier for a woman’s libido. Horny? Have a Hershey. Because a woman’s sexual desire is even more threatening than her gluttony.
Geopolitics Enters the Kitchen
The pursuit of gluttony is even harder for a woman of color. Just as much as our supposed sexual prowess has been the source of endless speculation and exotification, so has our culinary ability. Observe Like Water for Chocolate–with all its magical realism and crushed roses about one Latina woman’s repressed feelings manifesting themselves in her food. The late ’90s brought us the re-geisha-fication of all things Asian, so it is only apt that one of the most eye-catching Asian American works of that decade was called Eating Chinese Food Naked
–a title that nicely combines the Asian food obsession with the Asian hottie obsession. But sometimes a woman doesn’t want to dispense culinary Viagra with the food she makes, nor does she want to make the best damn dumplings in the mah-jongg club à la The Joy Luck Club. Sometimes a gal just wants to eat, and none of these movies revel in that. They glorify the woman cook as homey provider, nurturer, lover-by-way-of-food; but she needs no physical, spiritual, mental, or emotional sustenance of her own. It is wonderful to see the “women’s work” of cooking elevated to such heights–but wouldn’t you also want to see the cook lay aside her cutting board and be fed, herself?
Despite the cool ethnic food factor these movies and books draw on, any ethnic person raised in the United States knows that growing up with weird food might not be as fun as white people make it out to be. Did I want to come home to my mother gutting squid on the floor, to my dad frying up some fish so stank he would wear a showercap on his head to avoid some of the funk? No! I dreamed of peanut butter and grape jelly on Wonder bread, of tuna casserole with potato chips crushed on top, of green bean casserole made with cream of mushroom soup and Durkee French Fried Onions–food that I still yearn for to this day. (You can take the girl out of the Midwest, but . . . ) No one likes being a freak as a kid, when conformity is key. It was no coincidence that my fondness for Thai food only increased around the Asian Power period in my life, when I started collecting Nuprin notepads from my physician parents that said “Little, Yellow. Different, Better.”
Sin or Hobby?
Increasingly, I’m adjusting my Grand Unification Theory (or GUT) of eating as a political and radical pursuit to reflect a more enlightened way of pursuing gluttony. I used to ascribe to the Golden Corral methodology of practicing gluttony (the Golden Corral was an enormous all-you-can-eat buffet I went to as a child in Iowa). But after leaving my teenage years behind, I find that my body does not enjoy heaps of fried chicken and onion rings as much as it used to. Instead, it wants to tell me all about the hard work it’s doing. And after returning from Japan, Land of the Tiny Food, and visiting Las Vegas shortly afterwards, I came to a sort of epiphany about the American way of eating. Surrounded by quarter-mile-long buffets and three-foot-tall margaritas, I felt a wave of bloat brought on by the overwhelming excess. In our quest for the Better Value, we sometimes forget that bigger is not necessarily better, that more is not always more.
So I’m trying to hone my gluttony to a high level by walking more along the Buddhist Middle Way of moderation. This may seem to be an oxymoron, but really, how can you relish the fish that sings of the sea, its own clean soul, its suchness, as the Buddhists would say, when you’ve eaten too many of the dinner rolls? Gluttony can be revealed as a sort of meditation–a way to contemplate the essence of a food, to cultivate bare awareness through chewing, to realize the interconnectedness of the food, the preparer, the eater.
But because I’m still a novice at all of this, a piglet, just now learning about discipline, it’s still mostly about good eatin’. When my friend and I revisited the “What deadly sin are you?” conversation, he said, “Ah, but it hasn’t gotten to the point of being a true sin yet. For you, it’s more like a hobby.” This made sense to me–maybe only when I’m having my fourth angioplasty will I consider gluttony a sin with dire consequences. For now all I’ve had to deal with, through a combination of gluttony and deeply lamented sloth, is being slightly more rounded than the sleek-as-Calvin-Klein-lines we Asian females are supposed to have. This, I can deal with.
That said, I’m hungry. It’s lunchtime.
Adapted from Sojourner: The Women’s Forum (May 2001). Subscriptions: $26/yr. (6 issues) from Box 3000, Denville, NJ 07834.