The smokey-sweet bacon wrapped date is like a bad boy who secretly loves to cuddle. Balsamic glazed grilled salmon, asparagus spears and a bottle of pinot noir, are the perfect threesome, no awkward silences after guaranteed. But nothing is more seductive than the sultry taste of dark chocolate, not even Rob Lowe circa 1982. As a child, I ate chicken noodle soup every day for months, refusing to try any exotic dishes. My love affair with food developed over time. It was facilitated by my parents who encouraged me to, “Try it, or you will never know what you are missing.” As my palate developed, I became more adventurous. The worst case scenario is that you don’t like it, but the best case is gastronomic euphoria.
Out of all possible addictions, there are only two that pertain to basic fundamental needs of humanity: food and sex. From the classic Freudian perspective, food is sex. The pleasure derived from eating is not just the sensory reaction of your taste buds; we are driven by repressed sexual impulses which manifest in craving food and binging. Dieting and restricting food may be seen as an attack on this unconscious drive, mediating the shame that we feel for its existence. Neuroscience research demonstrates the powerful effects various foods have on mood with the release of neurotransmitters, such as: dopamine, seratonin, norepinephrine and endorphins. These chemicals can make us feel pleasure, calmness, concentration and pain relief, respectively. Interestingly, sex also triggers the release of neurotransmitters, causing us to crave a person like we crave sugar. Although there are significant parallels between food and sex, Freudian theory lacks a socio-cultural component which I think is essential to the discourse on food.
The American figurative painter, Lee Price, created a series of evocative self portraits with food. The realism in her paintings is uncanny, and this piece, “Full,” is no exception. Price uses foods that are considered comforting or indulgent to depict compulsive behavior. The chaotic compulsion of the figure in her painting is contrasted with the eerie calm of solitude. She is demonstrating the absurdity of compulsive eating by placing herself in a bathtub or bed; places we do not typically eat. Yet, shame is the emotion depicted on her face. Why should we feel bad for indulging when we have unprecedented access to a wide variety of foods, and countless restaurants showcasing the innovation of culinary arts. Food may be sex, but it is also art. Unfortunately, our culture is saturated with diet pills, excersize fads and models with ten percent body fat. We are socialized to scrutinize our bodies with a critical eye, and punish ourselves for imperfections. Our worth is determined by how closely we can come to attaining a standard set by less than one percent of the world’s population. If something is forbidden, it becomes infinitely more desirable. Consequently, we often give in to cravings, leaving us feeling weak, vulnerable and ashamed.
Food may be beautiful, delicious and necessary for survival, but one thing it can not do is make you feel good about yourself. We infuse certain foods with qualities they don’t have. For example, eating chocolate cake will likely ellicit feelings of pleasure and comfort, but it will not erase the damage people have done to your self esteem. We pretend food can solve our problems because it may feel good to eat in the moment, but in reality we are just avoiding the underlying issues. Compulsively indulging in food will distract us from being mindful and present in the moment. At the core of this phenomenon is our fear of being still. When we are fully aware of ourselves, we risk feeling sadness, anxiety and pain. In reality, it is only when we accept these negative experiences that we can uncover our true selves. Within each individual is a spectrum of thoughts, traits and memories. If we deny parts of ourselves, we risk losing the ability to fully engage with life. Balance is an ideal we strive for. While on this journey, I see no reason to deny the erotic brilliance of molten chocolate lava cake -in fact, I insist you take one bite, maybe two.