Photo courtesy Authors Unlimited
I ate one piece of chicken, on the bone but with the skin peeled away, not fried but braised. I had a salad with spinach, baby greens, a few tiny pieces of kale, grated beets, grated carrots, cucumber slices, cherry tomatoes, a few pine nuts and two black olives. I splashed a little balsamic vinegar on it, and I know I used a lot more than a teaspoon of olive oil — it may have been a whole tablespoon, or even two. I ate five large, ripe strawberries. That was my lunch.
Not bad, huh? Except for the olive oil deluge (still though, it's monounsaturated fat) and the fact that the piece of chicken was actually a thigh, not less fatty white meat, that's a pretty healthy lunch. I also sound like I stepped out of a story by Elizabeth Berg (author of The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted: And Other Small Acts of Liberation and Open House, among others). Actually, much of the time, the ongoing monologue inside my head sounds like an Elizabeth Berg story.
Berg came to Richmond to speak at the Tuckahoe Woman's Club in May about the complicated relationship women have with food. Now, this relationship is hardly a news flash (I found 28,600,000 entries listed when I Googled that combination of words). Instead, she talked about her own feelings about food and how it operates in her fictional universe.
"I was a fat kid," she said. "I struggled with my weight all my life and still do." The title story of her collection of short stories, "The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted," is about a woman who goes to her weekly Weight Watchers meeting and, when she sees a blind woman and an old woman with a walker, neither of whom have any discernible fat, she rebels and decides to eat whatever she wants for the entire day:
Here is my question: When that blind woman looks in the mirror, what does she see? … I said to myself, No. On account of those two women, on behalf of those two women, I am going to eat anything I want from now until midnight. And I drove right over to Dunkin' Donuts.
If you poke around Berg's website a little bit, you'll find a recipe section. She has recipes for things like Good Old Ghoulash and Marshmallow Krispie Brownies, but also others, like 5-point Chicken Picatta and Low-Guilt Mac n' Cheese. She's no stranger to Weight Watchers, that's clear. Emotionally, she's right there with her characters.
"When do you become aware of your body?" Berg said in her talk. "When do you realize you're overweight? Or, when do realize you're overweight when you're not?" These are the central questions to her; as a woman, that dawning awareness is infused with self-loathing. At the moment of realization, you begin a lifetime project to change your body.
In "The Day I Ate Whatever I Wanted," the story's main character details the apologetic monologue that runs through an overweight person's mind when they encounter thin people: "Sorry, sorry, sorry I'm taking up so much room. Sorry I'm offending your idea of bodily aesthetics, Sorry I'm clogging my arteries and giving the thumbs-up to diabetes."
One of the pleasures of reading Berg is recognizing her characters' frustration with the seemingly futile effort to lose weight — most of us have been there — and the equally frustrating idea that not only do we need to hit that ideal size to be happy, but that we also need to be a particular size to make everyone around us happy, too. It seems like a lot to put on our plates, along with lunch, doesn't it?
Berg plays a literary sleight of hand, however. Although readers may identify with her characters' frustration, throughout her stories she systematically links eating with abundance and life, and dieting with death and decay.
In the title story, the women who inspire the protagonist's rebellion are infirm, dying or handicapped. Those who allow themselves to eat are happy and thriving:
Once when I was on a road trip I stopped at this great country kitchen place and every single person who worked there was really fat, I mean really fat. With good skin. And it was a happy place; everybody seemed to get along really well, they were just happy.
In another story, "Rain," Berg makes the connection even more explicit. A dying man, Michael, who left advertising to work on the land, once had a refrigerator filled with "butter, cinnamon bread that appeared homemade, fancy cheese, speckled brown eggs in a pottery bowl." Nothing low-fat, nothing "healthy." When his friend arrives to take him to the hospital to die, she opens that refrigerator and finds that it's full of rot, full of decayed, uneaten food.
"Food serves as a metaphor for every emotion we can have, really," Berg said in her talk. In her fiction, it's wrapped tightly around the very notion of life. Food for Berg is a celebration; the things we love — the fancy cheese, the butter — that the doctors say will kill us, are what give us joy, deepen our experiences and keep us alive, in a very real sense. Lack, denial and withholding food sends us teetering on the edge of a grave. "Every time I fly," her protagonist in the title story says, "I buy a bag of Cheetos [not the puffy kind, eww] because you never know, and if I go down, I'm going to at least have had a bag of Cheetos."