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Dining in Distraction
By By Sidney Mintz

The view of gluttony as a capital vice (or mortal sin) was — like some of the other deadly sins, though not all — aimed particularly at the privileged. After all, what we know of world history strongly suggests that until quite recently, only a tiny fraction of the human species was afforded regular opportunities to overeat. In Western history, those with such opportunities could usually be detected visually among those who lacked them.

Anthropologist Sidney Mintz, who joined the Hopkins faculty in 1975, is the author of Sweetness and Power and Tasting Food, Tasting Freedom. It was otherwise with so-called "primitive" people. Among most of them, opportunities to overeat were rare; and when such opportunities did turn up — a beached whale, a salmon run, a big bison kill — everybody overate. On my shelf there sits a monograph on a tropical forest people in South America, who liked meat but got little of it. When an American ethnographer who was a good shot joined them, rifle in hand, they demonstrated dramatically to him their ability to overeat. He describes a meal in which two of them consumed "six spider monkeys weighing from ten to fifteen pounds apiece, in a single day, and complained of being hungry that night."

Though many millions remain undernourished in the modern world (and even if many in the West are still malnourished), few among us readers of the magazine any longer know hunger. Yet even if we leave out those garish contests that determine who can eat the most hot dogs or apple pies, and though hunger is supposedly on its way out, it appears that gluttony must still be with us. Surely the invention of whole new clothing categories, such as "relaxed fit" and "comfort waist," suggests as much. A rose by any other name, it seems, can still be pretty fat.

The ubiquity of food is an important element in how much of it we eat, and we have it available now in theaters, next to supermarket checkout counters, cluttering up the lobbies of symphony halls, in laundromats, gymnasia, and in our hospitals. We Americans have always celebrated our freedom with food — at Thanksgiving, on our birthdays, on July Fourth — almost as if we remembered in our bones those among our ancestors who had had less of freedom, and surely less of food. But we're not getting fat from overeating on holidays. Why is it now that we are getting so fat? That is probably a fair question. They say that too much TV gazing is one answer, automobiles another. Probably true. True, too, that manual activity generally is down — lots of leaf blowers, dishwashers, golf carts, outboard motors, and other classy, labor-saving, energy-gobbling devices.

But the statistics on obesity are now highlighting an alarming trend. They make it look as if in this country, the layers of fat have recently been percolating downward to the young — as though the nervous energy of adolescence were being used mostly these days to open the refrigerator door.

One wonders if there is something distinctively American at work. Lots of the world is getting fatter, but we are leading the pack. I have suggested elsewhere that the inclination to make eating into a moral issue is consistent with our disposition to make so many things moral issues; but we Yanks do it in a distinctive, self-forgiving manner. I am struck, for example, by the way people can see the jogging track and Baskin Robbins as poles at opposite ends of the continuum, one marked "evil" and the other "good" — and how they underwrite morally the joys of one of them by sternly enduring the other, somewhat uneasily calculating meanwhile their moral credit balance. Providing illumination on a far more trivial scale, there are those who consume Equal with their coffee, in order to feel comfortable while eating a slab of key lime pie. (Not even to mention the names of our desserts: "death by chocolate," "chocolate sin." What, no "fudge adultery"?)

But can it be true that we're getting fat because we watch too much TV? After all, television does not put the food in our mouths! If just lying around doesn't explain it, what does? Well, maybe gluttony. And what is gluttony, after all, if not a deficiency of discipline, of control — in short, of character? Right?

In all likelihood, wrong. The conditions under which we eat are stacked heavily in favor of near-continuous snacking. The ubiquity of the food itself is an important element in how much of it we eat, and we have it available now in theaters, next to supermarket checkout counters, cluttering up the lobbies of symphony halls, in laundromats, gymnasia, and (McDonalds, no less) in our hospitals. (Shhh — not yet in our cemeteries.)

I think that we Americans, in particular, are led down the path by the much-touted insistence that sophisticated people should be able to do many things at once. How often are we told by people who want to sell us things that busy folks like us have no time, and must learn to multitask? Chronically subject to low-key distraction by the other things we're doing, we may fail to notice what (or how much) we're eating. Clever devices, like plastic cup holders in automobiles, make it convenient to consume almost uninterruptedly. Takeout and TV dinners, energy bars, and soft drinks everywhere encourage and enable us to eat continuously. Fortunately for the food producers, the eating that makes us sophisticated also makes the GDP rise. The nag factor — an American crotchet ensuring that children get to eat what they want, whenever they want it (nurturing their individuality, perhaps?) — also comes into play.

The composition of the foods we are offered is an element in how much we eat — featuring as they do sweet and fat tastes — but also, of course, in how fat we're getting. Sweeteners and fats have not only overtaken but surpassed complex carbohydrates — the carbs we briefly loved to hate — in everyday meals. That movement from carbs to fat and sweet has been going on at least since World War I.

Gluttony, to say it differently, is a circumstantial failing — as are, by the way, anorexia and bulimia, which seem not to afflict those places full of people with too little to eat. If circumstances can affect how character operates, do we wish to consider changing the circumstances? Voting the Coke out of school lunch rooms? Teaching our kids nutrition from when they're really little? Eating without the TV on? Thinking more about making table time agreeable? Getting honest serving sizes on our packaged food? Inviting the FDA to stop sucking up to food producers? Keeping track of what we eat?

But then again, maybe gluttony is just a character failing, after all.

Return to The Seven Deadly Sins ... Lust | Gluttony | Envy | Pride | Sloth | Avarice | Anger
Return to September 2005 Table of Contents

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