Thursday, November 27, 2008

Starvation: A Food Review

The best way to put it is that I needed a secular kind of Lent; a purging of toxins as well as an atonement for overindulgence. And when you write for a food website, and don’t object to the occasional 5 a.m. nightcap, Budapest is an easy place to overindulge. So, based on approximately no one's good advice or any worthwhile guidelines, I decided to go on a fast, an exercise that blurs the line between self-discipline and self-torture.

Day 1

Fasting should be all about not eating, but once you are deprived of food, it becomes all about what you are not eating. Morning is difficult, not because I need a lot of food when waking, but because my morning habits are fairly well-ingrained: coffee, food, writing, shower, writing, and chasing money for the rest of the day. But the simple act of removing food from the equation throws the whole ritual off balance. There can be no writing while fasting, and morning becomes nothing more than the after-math of sleep.

Words, however, over the course of the day, take on sublimated meaning. Brioche becomes a one-word poem, evoking something at once forbidden and essential. Saying Hungarian food words is particularly tantalizing: füstölt gomolya, körte, zsemle: scalloping out each syllable as though they might materialize from my mouth, and sate my hunger.

The city is a carnival of food smells: hot yeasty air from the bakery on Tatra, Subway Sandwiches (which you can smell from halfway down the block); and the carnal olfactory incitement of gyros meat roasting on the spit. The soap in the window of Lush makes my mouth water. Every fruit is a precious artifact: an object of desire. On the street, I split people into two classes: those who are eating, and those who are not. One thing is for sure; the world is a very unfair and cruel place without food. I would forgive anybody a crime who experienced this feeling after being overtaken by the smell of roasting meat. Hunger turns you outlaw.

The evening is spent thinking about food. You never realize just how omnipresent it is until you are deprived of it. Distraction through entertainment should provide some relief, but while characters in Victor Pelevin’s novel Clay Machine Gun feast on Soba noodles, I silently urge them on, to eat more and more, hoping their gorging on food turns into a pivotal plot point (but this being Pelevin, plot points are illusory as the noodles I was imagining). Rented films are not much help either: in Finding Forrester, canned tomato soup had never looked so good; and, of course, Diner is on TCM. Though exhausted, sleep comes slowly.

Day 2

Dreams exclusively concern food. Oddly, it is lencse fözelék that recurs during the night. Only later does the significance of the lentil occur to me. I enjoy meal after meal of it before I wake, instantly knowing I will have none on this day.

With nothing to chew over but thoughts, I acknowledge there is a sort of masochistic pleasure at work here. With that in mind, I wander over to Westend City Center and sit myself down in the middle of the food court for lunch rush. The sensory overload of the vivid colors, smells and sights, create a kind of synaesthesia, whereby the colors are full of flavor: it isn’t the food that looks edible, it is the colors. Even the orange food trays appear tasty. Smells, too, are painfully sharp in my nose. What a preposterous amount and variety of food we consume. But while food has gained meaning for me, it seems to have lost it for everybody else. It is like porn: an instrument of selfishness. People eat and eat, discarding piles of what they cannot eat, and leave. I watch for a while, then suddenly, something clicks, and the whole scene revolts me: who are all these people, with all their meals? The thought of food is disgusting. Appetite is a weakness. Eating is gluttony. I cannot watch any longer, and home I go.

The night brings nothing but loneliness and depression. As somebody who spends a lot of time by myself, loneliness is actually a fairly rare state for me. Sure, I have plenty of friends I could call: but they are all eaters. Hunger makes you isolate – hunger makes you profoundly alone.

After a fitful sleep, where my muscles ache, where I dream lucidly of food, I wake, shower, and am the first in line at the nearest étkezdé. I order lencse fözelék, and from the first spoonful, savor it patiently, gratefully, then return to the society of the living.

Matt Henderson Ellis is a freelance manuscript editor and author coach working with writers who publish in print and digitally.

1 comment:

contexted said...

I like it that you want to eat an orange tray. This is one of the most interesting shorts on fasting I've read. Indeed, it's hard to stick to it, let alone write eloquently about it. I once spent two days eating only bananas. It was months before I could stomach the sight of them again.