THE LOVE IN FOOD

Only a spoilt fop like the Duke of Orsino in Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night could imagine music is ‘the food of love’. Had he ever turned a spit, or sung for his supper, he would have realised that music may nourish romance, and possibly aid digestion, but without grub there is no love.

If food and love aren’t identical, they’re near as fraternal twins. As Cervantes remarked, ‘All sorrows are less with bread’. Food and love are bare necessities, but also have potential to be as troublesome as Adam and Eve’s apple, since both mediate pleasure and power in relationships. Spoon-feed a toddler and you’ll soon grasp that without love’s seasoning providing food can be hell.

It’s amazing how efficiently cooks’ feelings translate to the tastebuds. Eating in motorway service stations, who can ignore the whiff of a chef’s minimum wage-indifference? Similarly, I knew where I stood with a boyfriend’s mother after she fed me a black roast spud that had sat a week in her oven before its second Sunday lunch. Not coincidentally, the shelf was her preferred destination for me.

Whether you fancy oysters or asparagus, the aphrodisiac quality is about texture, form, as much as any chemical. But even culinary erotica has a childish core, because food’s love-purveying dimension derives ultimately from the cradle, and parents’ devotion to the egotists Colette called ‘happy, unconscious little vampires who drain the maternal heart’.  The solace babies find in milk is the nourishment we seek in comfort foods. Just read Nigel Slater, our foremost lyricist of the sideboard, on ‘creamy clouds of blissful mash’ – ‘the sort you want to bury your face in’.

Breaking bread was once the essence of companionship (‘com’ meant with, ‘pan’, bread). Now many dine alone, serenaded by a microwave’s ping. Our emotional contract with food is different if it’s made by machines.

Cheap, fat-laden foods are marketed as convenient little luxuries – a form of self-love epitomised in the ad with the woman gobbling chocolate in the bath. Go on, have another love, says the supermarket; this week it’s buy one, get one free. But eating disorders seem a logical response to spoil-yourself consumerism. To food available 24/7, that doesn’t tire in its preparation and makes blood sugar soar then plummet – making us fat, yet leaving us hungry. Without love, such food is antisocial, and very inconvenient.

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THE USES AND ABUSES OF WORRY

Ever lain awake, worries circling like vultures, plucking your nerves?  Then you’ll  know that night terrors rarely precipitate firm decisions or plans of action, but more often quaking bones, exhaustion and a sense of helplessness.  Never is worry so useless.

‘Feasting on maggots’, the Chinese phrase for nocturnal fretting, perfectly captures its futility and the nausea that results.  Interestingly, the earliest meaning of worry in old English was ‘to kill by compressing the throat’ (as dogs ‘worry’ sheep).  And it’s because worry can paralyse that hawks like Roosevelt and Francis Bacon warned that our greatest fear ought to be fear itself.  Even placid American poet-philosopher Ralph Waldo Emerson held, ‘Fear defeats more people than any other one thing in the world.’  Still, it’s unwise to dismiss worry altogether.   

Winston Churchill dubbed his depressions the black dog, an apt metaphor for a mental state so clotted with dread.  But rather than dog us, worry can help to lead us where we need to go.  After all, our cares are our priorities, full of information, so contemplating them may further our goals.  Why not ask what lies behind your dread.  Is it fear of change or taking responsibility, of being abandoned or judged?  The next question is, does this fear keep you safe, as it may have once, when you were young?  Or does it stand between you and what you want?  

While deconstructing your fears, in meantime you could learn to care less with the Blyth just-in-time worrying system, which was inspired by contemporary retail.  Shops reduce their storage costs and prevent overstocking by having goods delivered at the last possible moment.  Likewise, you can economise on worry.  Just list problems as they occur to you, setting aside a regular slot (once or twice a week) to consider them, refusing to give angst free rein until you’re in a position to master it.  

Remember that fear is simply imagination.  It can be creative, and practical, if you let it.  Allow worry to stir up your synapses, walk you through your options, foreseeing their consequences, and you build an informed basis for action.  Worry about someone else – better still, imagine their predicament from their point of view – and you exercise the priceless skill of mind-reading, which made Homo sapiens the king of the jungle, and laid the foundations of society.

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BAD HABITS, DIRTY SECRETS — AND HOW TO CHANGE

So what’s yours?  Pocket billiards?  Nail-biting like British Prime Minister Gordon Brown, or the odd sly pick of the nose?  But perhaps you prefer to keep these matters private.  Perhaps you’d slap an ASBO on anyone you saw indulge in your pet vice.  Even if, from time to time, in a traffic jam, you indulge in public too.

Hypocrisy is the usual stance towards bad habits, and denial what differentiates the bad from the benign.  I’m talking about those traits that advance our cause not a jot, yet which we cling to, either as tokens of our personality (‘I smoke; I break rules; ergo, I’m interesting’ was once my mantra) or because they scratch an itch nothing else can reach (e.g. annoying your wife).  In other words, it’s not just filthy nitpicking, or inconvenient foibles, like an addiction to artisan choc, that fall into the category of bad habits, but also more general character failings, such as always being late or never doing your share of chores.

But let’s suppose it’s possible – if only in private – to accept a habit is bad.  How might you get rid of it?  First, you’d need to accept that the less thought you gave it, the more it mattered to you.  As Malcolm Gladwell wrote in The Tipping Point, character is less a fixed set of traits than a bundle of ‘tendencies’ dependent ‘on circumstance’.  Hence if most people ‘seem to have a consistent character’, it’s only because ‘most of us are really good at controlling our environment’.  So habits are customs, described by Elizabethan philosopher Francis Bacon as ‘the principal magistrate of man’s life’.  A form of personal habitat, they help to keep life predictable, keeping at bay the chaos outside ourselves.  As a result, habits that reassure us can become problematic when they invade others’ territory (e.g. annoy a wife).  

You might find it easier mend your ways if you accepted your guilty pleasure is fun only for one, and a poor spectator sport.  Particularly if the boyfriend who hates you scratching then begins – to your mutual irritation – scratching himself.  (Did I mention that habits are contagious, since primates mirror each other’s behaviour?)  But to quit a vice outright creates a dangerous vacancy.  Which is why I commend the Renaissance monk Erasmus’s solution: ‘A nail is driven out by another nail.  Habit is overcome by habit.’  So stop nibbling, Gordon, and start painting those nails instead.  Soon you may have time enough on your hands.

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WHO BELONGS IN YOUR FAMILY?

Who are your family?  If you think the answer’s obvious, you may groan at reports that Pete Docter, director of Up, dedicated his Oscar to ‘the Pixar family’ and his wife and kids.  I groaned, then checked my fattest dictionary, and found this cheesy phrase couldn’t be more accurate.  The word hails from Latin’s ‘familia’, meaning ‘household’ and all in it (‘famulus’ was a ‘servant’).  Thus childless Samuel Pepys’s ‘family’ included his maids, but if his hands roamed as they dressed him, he was the right side of incest.  Just.

The idea that family can be custom-fit from any old bits may not be modern, but has gained urgency with rising divorce, and animates Pixar’s greatest films, especially Up.  This tale of a grouch restored to life by a boyscout, bird and dog salted my popcorn with tears because I’ve always believed that family bonds are inked in empathy first, blood second. Empathy led my parents to adopt a third daughter, and empathy held us fast when she unveiled the temper of a Tasmanian devil.  Today this once-damaged tot is an adoring mother whose sons have undammed unsuspected reserves of love in us all.

To make a family, via chromosomes, adoption, or ready-made people in your world, is always creative.  But how to tell who belongs?  Those friends whom I rebuke, not cold-shoulder, when they offend me, I consider sisters.   By contrast, my pal says he’d happily donate a kidney to a sister who didn’t invite him to her 30th birthday (in the next-door street) but he’d never ask her to dinner.  Yet if my friend-sisters required a kidney, what would I say? What if my sisters need it?

One thing is clear: family is the forcing house of identity, and at Christmas, as they goad us into acting as we did in our teens, we remember why we left. Yet if the lessons that family teach about our character can be painful, they’re worth mastering and applying elsewhere, preferably with the empathy afforded to nearest and dearest.  Intriguing research has found the happiest people don’t take home the principles they’ve learnt at work, but vice versa.  Treating your baby as a project is a pattern for woe, whereas managing a boss as you do your tantrumella toddler/husband is highly effective.  So whoever tends your hearth, root your heart at home and everything is easier.

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A QUESTION OF STYLE

In my teens I believed fashion was about following herds, and style about rising above them.   As that superannuated teenager, Quentin Crisp, put it, ‘Fashion is what you adopt when you don’t know who you are.’   My ‘look’ was lots of black, the odd army surplus shirt, and eye make-up like  Zorro’s mask.  I thought it individual, until I went to the Glastonbury Music Festival and met an army of identikit indie snobs.  

Few dress with huge originality, and it would be exhausting if we did.  Clothes are visual autobiographies, their job not only to keep us warm but to tell the world how to handle us.  Hence many societies had sumptuary laws, restricting certain clothes to certain persons, ensuring everybody knew their place.  But fashion’s haters shouldn’t imagine that Vogue took over where laws left off.  Fashion is not style’s enemy or arbiter, but a resource.  Style is what we do with it.  

Coco Chanel said, ‘Fashion fades, only style remains the same.’  Certainly, many women stick to the same hairstyle – often from their happiest period – as if by Elnett alone, they can halt time.  Take Pauline Prescott’s crash-helmet (circa 1986 or whenever John began his rise to power).  But style must evolve, with our needs and ageing bodies.  The one transcendent element in all successful styles is they suit their creator’s purpose.  

What does style look like?  Nobody would hesitate to call Anna Wintour, editor of US Vogue, chic, but her chief stylist, frizzy Grace Coddington, could be taken for a cleaner.  Yet Wintour admits she has none of Coddington’s style ‘genius’.  Yes, her baggy black attire is light years from her stunning images, but it’s as effective as a cloak of invisibility, freeing her to feast her eyes on the world and decide how it could look prettier, and sparing long hours that Wintour spends under hairdryers.  So both women’s style works for them.  Both are stylish.  

To find your style, look not to Vogue but yourself.  An eye for image helps, and a feel for the signals that clothes send.  For a distinctive style, the message should seem consistent – the quality that makes a novelist’s voice or Van Gogh’s convulsive colours so recognisable.  But your look can change daily and be stylish.  However hard you work it, the key is to be happy in it.  As Epictetus advised , ‘Know, first, who you are; and then adorn yourself accordingly.’

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Baby talk

This from Libby:

I enjoyed the following conversation with my 2 or 3 (?) year old son while driving in the car. As the driver – and therefore unable to keep eye contact and body language – I was speaking with him relying only on words, like a telephone call.

My clever boy was engrossed in an activity that required a lot of his attention. I was doing my best to verbally guide his activity as we drove along the road.

“Keep trying” I encouraged. “Concentrate,” I said.

“I am, Mum” he replied. “I’m conc-ing and trate-ing”.

Bless his Heart

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OUT NOW IN PAPERBACK

Greetings from chatty India, where conversation even transpires between the klaxons of cars.  Friends in America, you can now lay your mitts on a copy of THE ART OF CONVERSATION in a dinky blue paperback, courtesy of Penguin Gotham.

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