There has been a lot of talk lately about the way we waste so much food, as in Jonathan Bloom’s book American Wasteland. And the need to stop wasting food has just been made official by Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack. The urgency of this problem is usually couched in terms of an expected increase in population.
There are those of us, of course, who figure this is more of a demand problem than a supply problem. Fewer babies would not only solve any problems we have with our struggle to produce more food, but would go a long way toward solving a lot of other problems as well, such as climate change, resource depletion, and pollution. And it would take away Monsanto’s justification for its GMOs and associated poisons. If the world’s population could be reduced to, say, a billion, that would make things a whole lot better. Half a billion would be better still. But that is utopian. The only way the population of this planet will ever be reduced to those numbers will be when a comet slams into it.
As far as the demand problem is concerned, I have done my part. I have spent my life as a bachelor and have never had any children. This meant forgoing all the rewards of a domestic life, the pleasures of hearth and home, but it was the least I could do.
Of course, virtuous sacrifice is always easier when it conforms to one’s inclinations. Just as I never wanted to have any children in the first place, neither have I ever cared much about eating food. My mother said that when I was a baby, I never put anything into my mouth that wasn’t food, and I wasn’t too dang sure about that. Naturally, I get hungry and have to eat, same as everyone else. And I cannot say that I have never experienced the pleasures of the palate. But if I could meet all my nutritional needs and never experience hunger simply by taking a pill, I would never eat anything again.
I suppose it was for that reason that I was able to give up junk food over forty years ago. No cakes, pies, cookies, candy, ice cream, or soda pop. Well, there was that one exception for a brief period about twenty-five years ago. A woman was involved. You have heard the saying that the way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. With me, it’s the other way around. The way to my stomach is through my heart. When I love a woman, I will eat whatever she puts in front of me. And so, when she would bake something special, I would eat it. The things we do for love. I’m just lucky she never wanted to have any children.
Needless to say, I am a flop when it comes to Thanksgiving. Try as I might, I just cannot feast and gorge with the same gustatory delight as everyone else seems to. I have my small portions. They fill me up. And then I spend the rest of the meal apologizing for not having any more of this or another portion of that. At a place where I used to work, the week before Thanksgiving the women would talk about all the food they were going to prepare. Then we would have the day off, after which they would spend the following week talking about all the food that was eaten.
When I was in my thirties, my parents moved to Florida. That meant that Thanksgiving was a holiday more like Labor Day, one involving no obligatory eating or drinking. Whew! What a relief. A woman I worked with who was old enough to be my mother knew that my parents lived in another city, and this aroused her maternal instincts. “John,” she said with much concern and solicitude, “you’re not going to eat Thanksgiving dinner alone, are you?” to which I replied, “I’m not going to eat it at all.”
Some people just love to eat. I worked with a guy who would tell me about what he was going to eat for dinner that night while he ravenously devoured all the food he was having for lunch. For such people, socializing must always be accompanied by food and drink. For me, on the other hand, socializing is something I want to do after I have gotten all the necessary eating out of the way. As a result, I have never really cared much for the custom of having dinner as part of a date. The fact that I am a cheapskate, who never wanted to spend much money on women in the first place, reinforced this disinclination, which meant that only rarely did I take a woman to dinner. But on a couple of occasions when I did, a different kind of problem presented itself.
One Saturday afternoon, a woman who was taking the same group lessons that I was agreed to go dancing with me later that evening. As a result, we ended up with a couple of hours to kill, and so we decided to get something to eat. We found a fast food joint, and soon we each had a meal before us. I admit I was hungry and would have finished it off with dispatch, but a gentleman must never get through eating before the lady does. As a result, I had to slow myself way down. I watched her plate and made sure not to make any more progress than she did. But she was a slow eater, and things plodded along. I never chewed my food as thoroughly as I did that day.
Then she started telling a story. And as she told the story, she played with her food, only half of which she had eaten. The story had something to do with a guy named George, and as she went into detail about whatever it was, she used her fork to push a morsel around on the plate. I couldn’t really pay much attention to this story about George, because I was thinking, “Would you eat your damn food!” I was exhausted from the need to exercise so much self-restraint, because what I really wanted to do was just scarf it down. Instead, I was forced to play with my food too, so as not to finish eating before she did. Suddenly, she said, “Well, I’ve had enough. How about you?”
Ruefully, I looked at my plate. Half the food was still there. But what could I do? I couldn’t say, “Just a minute,” while I shoveled it in, for that would have been crude. Instead, I did the proper thing. I said I was finished eating as well, and we left. It was one of the few times in my life when I wasted some food.
Some years later, I had the occasion to have dinner with another woman. I ordered what appeared to be a simple meal, and the amount of food piled on my plate would have fed both of us with enough left over to take home to her dog. But I was ever so grateful. I was able to eat at my own natural pace without any fear of finishing my meal before she did. Once I became fairly full, it was easy to slow down, engage in conversation, eat a bite every now and then, and pay full attention to what she was saying. When she finally said she had had enough, I was able to truthfully say the same.
As long as it remains the custom for men to take women to dinner, there will be a need for portions so large that the man will have no fear of finishing his meal before she does. Therefore, if we are really serious about not wasting so much food, we should consider eliminating this archaic ritual in which the man symbolically demonstrates his ability to provide for the woman in which he has a romantic interest.
And doing so may help with the demand side of the problem as well. Fewer steak dinners, fewer babies.