Ever since I can remember, I have had an unhappy relationship with food. No, I have never suffered from anorexia or bulimia, thank goodness. But food has always been my enemy, and wanting food has always been (to my mind, at least) my greatest failing. In an ideal world, or so I have sometimes imagined, I would not even need to eat food. If only I were strong enough, I would never be hungry, never want another helping, never “lose control” or “give into temptation” by eating chocolate or dessert. Food, or so I have long believed, is something I do not deserve to have. Other people are allowed to have food, particularly those who are thin, but I, being ever at odds with my weight, am (or have believed I should be) embarrassed to eat.

A number of books that I have read this past year have helped me start to adjust this misconception, above all, Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto (2008) and Vikki Hansen and Shawn Goodman’s The Seven Secrets of Slim People (1997). But it was in Belgium that I finally learned how skewed my relationship to food really is. Not to put too fine a point on it, Belgians love food. Chocolate, waffles, frijtes, mussels, cheese, beer: it is telling how many of the things distinctive to Belgium are foodstuffs. It is possible, to be sure, to eat in Belgium as Americans do, quickly, without really paying very much attention to the food, but not if you happen to be eating with Belgians or sitting down at a Belgian café or restaurant. Take a seat at one of the many outdoor cafés in the city centers of Belgium and whether for lunch or dinner, you are in for an extended meal. There is a good reason, or so my son and I found when we stopped for lunch at a café just under the cathedral in Mechelen, that Belgian shops and museums close for two hours in the middle of the day: unless you content yourself with a paper of frijtes, it takes two hours to eat.

Perhaps best of all, however, is the phrase with which the waiters and waitresses bring your food: “Smakelijk!” Roughly translated, this means something like, “May it taste good!” It is telling, I think, that we have no strictly equivalent expression in English. And yet, in a way, we do, as the Belgians who realized that my son and I spoke English proved. “Enjoy your food!,” they would say to us. “Enjoy!” I wonder how many times in my life I have simply enjoyed my food. Without counting calories, without judging myself for wanting to eat, without thinking ahead to whether I could justify “rewarding” myself with dessert—as if to enjoy eating something that tastes good I should first have to prove myself worthy. And when has taste ever been the primary criterion for the way in which I interact with food? “Having a sweet tooth”—i.e. enjoying sweets—has, for me at least, always been something to be ashamed of, while food itself has usually seemed more a matter of nutrients—fats, proteins, carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals—than something one should (gasp!) enjoy.

I am not, I realize, alone. Michael Pollan has done an excellent job charting the degree to which Americans have failed themselves in their relationship with food, and Hansen and Goodman’s book is only one of a number (albeit one of the best I have found) of non-diet diet books seeking to break the cycle of guilt and self-deprivation that Americans have somehow bound themselves in. But it was a revelation to me to be in a place where food was regularly presented as an uncomplicated good. Not that Belgians do not have their own issues, but as far as I could see, they are less bound up than they are in America with food. For Belgians, to judge, at least, from their tradition of painting, food is something of beauty as well as an occasion for good fellowship. Belgians eat food (if I have understood “Smakelijk” correctly) because it tastes good, not because it contains so many grams of protein or lacks so many grams of fat.

I can hear the whispers and doubts already: “Doesn’t this mean that they all get terribly fat?” Well, based on my own observations, no, certainly not the way in which Americans do. Not even in Antwerp, where, yes, Rubens—and, presumably, all of his voluptuous models--lived. A paradox—or a deep psychological truism? Q. When, after all, are we most likely to eat more of something than we need to satisfy hunger? A. When we are convinced that we will never be able to eat any more of it ever again, e.g. because “Tomorrow, I am going on a diet.” This is Hansen and Goodman’s Secret #5: “Eat what you want most”. The point is to listen to your body and what it is telling you it wants to eat and then eat what gives you the greatest pleasure. Strangely enough (or perhaps not so strangely) vast quantities of sugary foods (e.g. cake, always my greatest bugbear when I was younger, especially birthday cakes) are not that satisfying if you know you can eat as much of them as you want, whereas “healthy” foods are, well, extremely tasty. It is only when we get caught in the cycle of using food both as a reward and a punishment, rather than simply a pleasure to enjoy, that we forget how to eat and, lo and behold, get too thin or too fat.

If Belgium were still an actively Catholic country, I might be tempted to say something here about the apparently contradictory effects of keeping religious fast days and feast days and how curious it is that Protestant cultures like my own who rejected these observances have ended in pathologizing rather than celebrating the everyday pleasures of food. But for the moment I just want to hold onto the joy that I felt in looking at food, for more or less the first time in my life, as something that I might welcome, not dread. Smakelijk!

*Picture credit: Jan Davidsz de Heem, Stilleven mit Vruchten en Vis (1660), Brussels Museum of Ancient Art


  1. "There is perhaps no article of our usual diet, however Insignificant or however Important, which has not been at one time highly extolled, and at another extremely abused, by those who who have published Books on Diet, who, wedded to their own whimsies, and estimating the Strength of other Men's Stomachs by the weakness of their Own, have, as the fit took 'em, attributed 'all the Evils flesh is heir to,' to eating either too much or too little - Salt - Sugar - Spice - Bread - Butter - Pastry - Poultry - Pork - Veal - Beef - Lamb, and indeed all Meats, excepting Mutton, have alternately been prescribed and proscribed." W Kitchener, The Traveller's Oracle, 2 vols, London, 1927, vol. 1, p.43. Quoted in V Murray, An Elegant Madness: High Society in Regency England, 1999, p. 178

  2. Gaaah! The citation should have been W Kitchener,...1827, vol. 1, p.43... (Nice to know that, even two hundred years ago, people had already reached saturation with diet books.)


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