Two bananas, three times a day, with milk in a small bottle, the size once delivered to schools. That was the first one, to keep a classmate company. We were war babies, with heavy bones from our mothers’ extra rations and disgusting dollops of cod liver oil – but we wanted to be sylph-like and tread lightly in the world. Still can’t bear bananas.
Single in the city, I shared a flat with a girl who went to Weightwatchers and measured out her allowance of peas in a spoon, then another who lived on eggs for a week, then fish. A sweet-toothed friend spent a fortune on the Cabbage Diet and mysterious injections in Harley Street. My: Why don’t you eat a bit less? didn’t go down too well.
I was never seriously upholstered,but didn’t like being pear-shaped or taking up too much space and collected pictures of Wallis Simpson, all string-bean style.
We didn’t cook much – too busy counting calories – but men found us interesting. One was a practising macrobiotic. We sat on the floor and chewed each grain of rice a hundred times. It was exhausting. When he went to India to find himself, my usual pattern resumed at once: eating too much or too little. Sipped a slimshake one day, fed a cheese habit the next….A broken heart once killed my appetite for weeks. I left unfinished plates of food all over Europe, but the fridge was never empty, the cupboard never bare. I didn’t know what true love – or hunger – really were.
In the 1930s, in a life before the big shop and a cafe on every corner, the Durham miners on my family tree just ate on instinct, to stay alive and strong enough to work. Food was fuel.
Decades down the line, that vital equation seemed to lose its logic. Modern food was faster and easier all right, but there were hidden dangers. Now the mother of two boys – or eating machines – books about the South Beach, Atkins, Fibre and Blood-Type diets stayed on the shelf. I worried instead about vitamins, flavour-enhancers and pesticides. There were bugs in eggs; carrots could turn you orange! Sugar was a devil in disguise. Eat a burger, become a mad cow in twenty years…
Now, living and eating alone in another century brings other disaster scenarios. A biscuit-related injury could happen anywhere – but if I choke on a chicken bone, no one around to thump my back. I’ll lie there undiscovered, getting even thinner and emptier than Wallis…A natural squirrel, I’m fond of nuts, but they pose a serious risk to veneered teeth, so safer to stick to soup and try to like sardines.
Then again, shopping for one’s so simple, cooking an as-and-when affair, washing up a one-minute wonder. I’m free to fast a few days a month, to help me hang on to any remaining marbles and live as long as the Queen. It’s the 5-2 diet. As seductive as only a set of rules and numbers can be, with a dash of science. If it works for genetically engineered mice…
Food – and the fat – are all around us, everywhere we go, while tins and packets pile up in a food bank basket. In the midst of too much or too little, a simple meal shared at a table remains a reminder that nothing tastes as good as friendship and conversation. Life is still too short to stuff a mushroom or the cavity of a bird. And far far too short not to see the crumb-free beauty in a bagel.