It's the buildup to Thanksgiving, the opening round of the holiday eating season, and my in-box is already filling up with suggestions on how to work off all the food and drink we'll consume. One even suggests that Thanksgiving become America's National Cheat Day. Really? This is worse than having to watch ads for holiday gifts before Halloween was even over. People, can't we embrace the gluttony just for a couple of days without judgment?
Yes, gluttony. I said the word, although pinning down what it means might be more of a challenge — I'll just say that I know it when I see it, or maybe feel it. That joyful urge to fork up another bite or down another glass of wine that happens when we're in the thick of celebrating is what feasting has been about since early humans brought down their first standing rib roast. Some believe that cooking is what civilized us. I believe that overindulgence is what makes us human.
Let's face it. We're a collection of oddball traits held together with a psyche that occasionally needs to let loose and fall into a vat of marshmallow-topped sweet potatoes or a sea of mahogany gravy poured over an island of mashed potatoes.
Perhaps at some time in your childhood you heard someone at the table say, "Just shut up and eat." Maybe there's something to that idea. Loretta Oden, food editor for Native Peoples Magazine, said recently: "The best way to get people to listen is to fill their belly with so much delicious food that they can't talk ... all they can do is enjoy and listen."
I know that here in Southern California, we like to think of ourselves as a fit ideal of humanity, but I take comfort looking at the sweaty, pink faces on display in the Getty exhibition "Eat, Drink, and Be Merry: Food in the Middle Ages and Renaissance." It makes me feel like part of a continuum of folks who can embrace pleasure. And those images make me feel less alone. How did we get to a place where the chorus is on pleasure lockdown and the individual voice of "Yay pie and ice cream!" is shouted down with smug know-it-all-ism?
A few days ago I moderated a Zócalo Public Square panel discussion on the topic "Can Gluttony Be a Virtue?" To prepare for it, I read panelist Francine Prose's book "Gluttony," the sixth volume of "The Seven Deadly Sins" lecture series from the New York Public Library and Oxford University Press. It's a fantastic read. I also went to the Getty to look at two exhibitions — the aforementioned "Eat, Drink, and Be Merry" and "The Edible Monument: The Art of Food for Festivals." (It seems that gluttony is a thing right now.) And I ate, to remind myself what eating without judgment feels like. I recommend it to everyone.
As Prose, who is also a novelist, writes: "Who, exactly will suffer if, in that one tiny moment of self-forgetting, we help ourselves to the second or even third helping of pecan pie?"