I was a fat adolescent. I have obsessed about the amount I eat since the moment I realised, at about sixteen, I didn’t have to be fat. Analysing myself in hindsight, it’s easy to see how I connected limiting the amount I ate with escaping – tentatively, desperately, clumsily – a self-imposed sexlessness, still do. And then in turn, it’s easy to see how not-eating became a false cure for my neuroses: the more I limit what I eat the more I become a successfully libidinous adult!
The line between these queer drives, and the more simple question of how much to eat and drink is still not definite.
On the one hand eating is a basically satisfying experience, apparently the surest affection our senses can achieve. It produces this sensation where something physical is transformed into something mental. It produces this complex state where something is in fact at once physical and mental, both outside and inside mind and body. We can then recall this sensation in our minds at will, or we can actually recall it physically by tasting the same thing again. Memories, through taste, become present, controllable and external.
For me, the first taste of pink-fleshed discovery apples at the end of summer is my annual madeleine. It brings back without fail the repeated tastes of those apples in the orchards where I grew up, and with it, all the experiences I associate with the time come back in an instant. And it’s in this way, rightly or wrongly, that eating becomes in a way existential, a nice practical way to snub solipsistic depressions, solidify memories. The taste of that apple is not just in my mind, but also in the apple! I am, it seems, because I taste.
With wine, something I discovered later, this is perfectly commodified: bottled tastes and memories with labels on saying where they come from and how long ago. With wine certain tastes come from certain places; we drink certain things at certain times; the potential subtlety and nuance of the stuff is infinite, but remains particular to those bottles we buy and drink. And then, we can, if we like, go and buy another bottle of it.
An unromantic example: Sainsbury’s house Muscadet for me recalls one May two years ago so strongly I don’t buy it unless I want to think about that time. It was the wine I bought cheaply and mindlessly to accompany the herb omelettes I’d prepare automatically at about ten at night, after long hours in the library revising for my finals. The taste of this simple, sour, mineral wine is now indelibly connected to that time and experience.
And then perhaps we conflate this experience of tasting with a process of meaning. Apples, wines and words have associations for one person they don’t to another, but they also seem to have something peculiar to them we, as speakers and tasters, can identify. Sense and taste, language and food, seem, if only as analogies, intertwined in this way. When we write about wine and food, we’re not just talking about this stuff we eat and drink and why it’s so great or so awful. The stuff we eat and drink matters because the process of eating and drinking is involved partly, if not essentially, in the same process in which words come to mean something concrete to us.
So, let me talk about my particular difficulty with quantity. How much do I eat? How much do I drink? One drive says: eat and drink because you’ll feel real. Taste things because then you’ll know what you’re on about. Have a tipple, because you’ll stop worrying so much. And yet, still, there’s another drive in my subconscious, remembering adolescent struggles, that says: eat nothing, drink nothing because you’ll ruin the psyche/personality/sexuality you bodged up for yourself just in time. Or now, more sanely: don’t eat too much food, don’t drink too much wine. It’s bad for your health, mentally and physically.
Too often, the drive to drink, to revel in the taste of wine, has felt like a way to avoid eating, a shortcut to good, specific tastes. But then I miss food, I want food and wine. But how to limit it? One way to resolve all this this seems to be quality. If I am above all discerning about what I eat, I will not have to eat too much, but I can still satisfy that most delightful of my senses, my taste. In the case of wine, this is slightly different, because besides the taste of it I also enjoy, up to a point, the feeling of inebriation. But then, it’s only wine I want, not any old booze. If I can’t have wine I don’t want vodka instead. I want wine, and I want it because of its very special tastes and sensations.
But even if the foods and wines I eat and drink are the best I can procure with the small amount of cash I earn, still it’s hard to stop, and easy to let myself go, to feel I’ll grasp more if I eat more or drink more. I want more of these excellent tastes! In order to keep letting-go under some control, allowing ourselves excess feels necessary, a practical, carnivalesque concession. Overeating and occasional drunkenness are inevitable, because they’re the only path to predominant moderation.
“…Shallow draughts intoxicate the brain, / And drinking largely sobers us again…”