Toward the end of a dinner party this week a fellow guest tried to shame me into eating cheesecake. I politely refused. She insisted. I refused again. She told me it was “rude” of me not to eat the cheesecake. The host stood at the ready, waiting to serve me. Everyone else watched. Then the guest pushed her dish across the table toward me so that we could share her piece. As if on cue, the person next to me offered a spoon, and so, being outflanked, I relented and ate two spoonfuls of cheesecake. With the crisis averted, the dinner went on, ending in parlor games.
Don’t get me wrong. I like cheesecake. I said as much when the same guest asked if I made it at home. I knew she was searching for some reasonable explanation for my “rude” behavior. I told her I didn’t but that my father did. I immediately flashed back to “Arthur’s Cheesecake Shop on Arthur Avenue” (see Nine Lives). That seemed to satisfy her and she went on to other topics. By the way, as a note of interest to the reader, the older you get, the less interest you’ll find among other people in your relatives or childhood unless the people you’re talking to are four years old or under.
I can think of three explanations for my fellow guest’s behavior. One, she was a friend of the host as were the others at the table. I was the newcomer to the group. So, she may have felt duty-bound to side with the host. Second, she really didn’t want the cheesecake either but felt compelled to eat it out of a sense of obligation. I had no such sense and said so. That provided cover for her not to eat the entire piece and coerce me into helping her finish hers. Third, she was irresistibly attracted to me and wanted to eat out of the same dish. This option is least plausible but I include it here because it appeals to my male ego.
If all of this sounds complicated, that’s because it is. But then food is complicated even before you get into the power dynamics of eating. To wit, I still don’t know what to eat, how to prepare it, or when to eat it. The truth is that I find all of that exhausting. I wish I had access to just a few staples that I could rely on and not have to worry about where they appear on the food pyramid. Actually, I’ve watched enough nutrition videos on YouTube to know that the pyramid is passé (see Loose Lips Sink Ships). But I still don’t know and may never know about bananas.
And what of the power dynamics? Food doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Some people weaponize it as in the guest and her insistence that I eat even after I said no. And it is weaponization. What else would you call it when I really wanted to shout out, “I don’t want any fucking cheesecake!” I didn’t because I didn’t want to offend the woman or our host, who had been very gracious. And, believe me, it had nothing to do with the fact that it was a store-bought cake with a slathering of sugary, cherry compote on top. Had I wanted it, I would have gladly asked for my own slice. But–and here’s the key–I was full already. That’s why I said no. When I’m done, I’m done, which reminds me of the parting words of a certain ex-wife, but I’ll leave that for another post.
What is it with people who make you eat things you don’t want, who take offense at your not stuffing yourself? Certainly, there is a class dimension. I grew up with an expectation that you ate everything on your plate and that if you refused seconds there was something wrong with you. Culture also plays a role. There’s no such thing as dieting your way through Italy, for instance, although I am reminded of the high school teacher who taught us about China and liked to say, “Some people eat to live while others live to eat.” I also remember the reed of a pediatrician who told my mother “too much pizza” when she asked why her kids kept getting sick with ear infections. I’ll leave the medical veracity of that to others more qualified.
Here’s the thing. I truly believe these are good, well-intentioned people. We just have to keep their fingers off the nuclear button.