All of us, especially chefs, have such complicated relationships with food. I shared a meal recently with someone I love, a close friend. She purchased the meal, picked things that she thought I would like, things she liked and things for both of us. There was generous bounty of food. She anticipated the meal and went to some trouble to make sure that it would be pleasurable for both of us. We ate and talked and laughed.
It was good meal and as always I finished before her. Those of you in the business probably understand that eating slowly is not an easy thing to do. Eating quickly becomes an unconscious habit that is very hard to break. Anyway, I was content to relax and chat while she finished her meal. When she realized that I was no longer eating, she looked over at me and said "Is that all you're going to eat?" Now I had eaten well by anyone's standards, a couple of fried soft shell crabs, a good sized potato croquette, a generous helping of sauteed spinach, a small taste of shrimp salad, a few olives and a rather large roll. I don't think she intended to make me feel bad. Under her words was threaded the clear implication that I had not eaten enough. I had not appreciated enough. The guilt broke over me like wave. The people-pleaser in my head forced me to eat more until I felt sick and stuffed and suddenly angry at the manipulation. I had been full and now I was slightly nauseous. I eat more often than she does and less at each sitting. There's nothing wrong with that. The fact that she had engineered dinner did not mean that I had to force myself to eat as much as she did.
So afterwards, as nicely as I could which was probably not nicely enough, I asked that she not do that anymore. That she let me enjoy my meal without implying that I need to eat more. It happens periodically, the comments about my consumption or lack thereof. I wanted it to stop so that I could enjoy meals with her comfortably and without guilt. She apparently did not even realize what she had said and became upset at the idea that I felt pressured to eat. Her response was to eat more herself. It filled me with incredible sadness. Once again I felt bad because she didn't need to eat those cookies. I doubt she even tasted them. She ate them out of some sort of grief that I could not fathom or ease. The only evidence of it was there in the crumbs on the table.
Here in America eating can be such a complicated thing. It's not just about the enjoyment of a meal. Somehow dining became part of the definition of who we are and our stature in society. The restaurants we go to and our ability to get reservations differentiate us from the crowd. We are judged by our appearances in different situations each day and our weight is a huge part of that. Our attitudes toward food are hardly ever lax, we're either eaters or diners. We're home cooks and gourmands. We're health food addicts and junk food lovers. We're carnivores and vegetarians. We define ourselves by the way we eat.
I suppose my wish for today is that people could relax a bit and enjoy their food. Because I eat quickly I always stop before I'm done so that my brain can catch up with my stomach and figure out that I'm full. When I don't remember to do that I pay the price in discomfort. I remember the days when I had more time and ate more slowly. Whenever possible I still savor the pleasure of a relaxed meal with equal parts food, drink and conversation. It can be such a wonderful indulgence regardless of what kind of food is being served. And yet, there's always someone with their plate half-hidden by a napkin, quietly eating their food in relative silence and unhappiness. They may be the life of the party at various moments and they may claim to foodies or gourmands. Yet somehow when food is in front of them there is a shadow that won't go away.
One of the things we've changed over the years is the way that we cook. Back in the day and even now, we often hear the phrase "fat is flavor". That's baloney. Flavor is flavor and fat is fat. In some cases I've actually found that fat can mask flavors and keep them from being clear and true. I think that we can create great meals that have people pushing back from the table feeling satisfied and comfortable instead of bloated and overwhelmed. It's an evolving process and one that I regard very seriously. It's taken years to get Alex to work with me on this, he just looked at food differently. We're working together now. I want people who come to my table to feel good about eating. I want them to have an amazing meal that makes them happy. I can't solve other people's problems with food. I can't edit the baggage they bring to the table. What I can try to do is make things a little bit easier and a lot more delicious, for all of us.