FOOD ON OUR MINDS

By Bob Schwabach

Originally published in the Chicago Tribune, October 16, 1978

“Sugar,” she said.

“Honey,” he said.

“Sweetheart,” she said.

“Cupcake,” he said.

He thought she was a real tomato — a dish. She thought he was sweet– he made her mouth water. The feeling welled up inside. Finally it burst out in an almost unbidden rush of affection: “I could just eat you up,” he said.

Cheesecake, beefcake, chick, pumpkin, cookie (It was poet John Ciardi who once remarked about the Girl Scouts: “Remember, today’s Brownie is tomorrow’s cookie.”). Something seems to be going on here.

A lot of people along the turnpike to oblivion have observed at pit stops now and then that there seems to be some connection between what we eat and the way we deal with other important aspects of our lives. It prompted Frederick Perls, one of , one of the founders of Gestalt psychology, to base a whole philosophy of psychoanalysis on eating. Perls thought it was no accident that we use the metaphors of eating to describe some of our most important feelings, particularly ones centering on love and sex.

…He sticks in my craw, I can’t swallow that, it makes me sick to my stomach. Now there is something you can sink your teeth into. It’s a piece of cake. Gullible. Disgusting (literally, not good for eating). Participation (literally, to take a bite out of). She has such good taste.

Is something being said beyond what is being spoken? Or, to put it another way, just what is going on here?

THERE ARE TWO schools of thought on this–-at least. One, the majority view in psychology, says that we are mereley making a userful metaphor drawn from common experience. The other, exemplified by Perls, says the choice of such expressions indicates an identification being made between eating foodstuffs and consuming food of other kinds– mental, emotional, sexual, etc. Perls also said that what we eat and the way we eat it is reflected in how we deal with the world. In the catchily titled “Ego, Hunger and Aggression,” Perls says:”Hunger for mental and emotional food behaves like physical hunger; K. Horney observes correctly that the neurotic is permanently (emphasis his) greedy for affection, but that his greed is never satisfied.

“One decisive factor in this behavior of the neurotic is that he does not assimilate the affection offered to him. He either refuses to accept it, or he deprecates it, so that it becomes distasteful or valueless to him as soon as he has obtained it.” (The use of terms relating to eating is deliberate on Perls’ part.)

Dr. Benjamin Belden, who studied with Perls and is head of the Gestalt Institute of the Chicago Center for Behavior Modification, says Perls was basically an intellectual wildman but there is something in this. “A lot of eating behavior is attributable to social and ethnic factors,” Belden says, “and has little direct relation to psychological abnormalities or personality characteristics. Beyond that there seems to be something going on between eating and the whole personality.

“There are people who have to eat chocolates and things like ice cream. They’re usually fat. I find these are people who want love or need love. Food is the first transaction people have between one another and there is often an association made between the eating of sweet things and receiving love. The fact of the matter is if you feel bad or are depressed you’re probably not going to go into a restaurant and order a salad.

“SOME FOODS are mushy. It appears that obese people prefer mushy foods. Eating a lot can also be a substitute for aggression: You take another bite of food instead of turning and biting what’s bothering you. When someone gets fat they are saying something, they are delevering a message to the world. What that message is is sometimes complex, but often it’s a way of saying that they are big, that no matter what other people may have done or said to them they are someone to reckon with. Sometimes fat is a kind of revenge — like on a spouse.”

As a kind of aside here –since this isn’t really about fat– research by Dr. Stanley indicates that fat people are responsive to outside cues and thin or normal weight people respond to inner cues. That is to say, they respond to the sight of food or appeals to eat instead of paying attention to the inner information on whether they are hungry. On the widely held psychoanalytic view that people do not often act out of pattern for long periods –that is, if you respond to outer cues in other areas of your life –a student of Schachter’s found in a follow-up study that fat people are more likely to respond to suggestion and act less independently than people who are thin or of normal weight. The number of people who take exception to this view is slightly greater than the number of woolly sheep roaming the plains of Afghanistan.

HOWEVER, A FEW years ago the Department of Defense studied the food preferences of enlisted men to see if there was a relationship between diet and personality traits. (The DOD is more or less continuously interested in this kind of thing because they like to be able to figure out just who will do what when they are sitting in command of some hill that controls the only road in some battle, etc.)

A test group of soldiers was encouraged to select whatever they wished from a group of 150 different foods for a month. The following associations were noted:

  • If you are fond of starchy foods (mashed potatoes, spaghetti, rice, etc.) you have a tendency to be on the complacent side and avoid making judgments or hard decisions.
  • The salad-eating crowd is generally sympathetic and willing to listen to other people’s problems. They speak slightly faster, move faster, and work faster.
  • People who prefer fish, fruits, and vegetables for their meal tend to prefer books, art and music for their recreation, are somewhat shy in social situations, and are not highly competitive.
  • Meat eathers are enthusiastic, like to sell themselves, ideas, and things and like action. They’re officer types.
  • The kind who like desserts is an even better officer type, the DOD found.They like to be dominant in any situation.
  • But if you are extremely fond of milk and ice cream it seems to indicate a basic insecurity, a desire to return to mother and childhood.

DR. ISRAEL GOLDIAMOND, a behavioral psychologist at the University of Chicago, thinks this is basically nonsense. Dr. Goldiamond says this smacks of the classical definitions of national character.

Hence the Italians with their salads and antipastos are spritely and light-hearted; the French witha diet of snails, frog’s legs, and rich buttery foods are supposed to be oily and slippery to deal with; the Germans with meat and potatoes, stolid and doggedly aggressive. Such observations have been made for centuries. On a more intimate level, history and literature are replete with references linking specific diet or food preferences toparticular personality traits. “Yon Cassius has a lean and hungry look. He thinks too much — such men are dangerous,” Shakespeare wrote. “Asparagus,” said Charles Lamb,”inspires gentle thoughts.”

Dr. Helen Beiser of the Institute for Psychoanalysis points out that we deal with food as both a pleasure and punishment.In this line some of the most interesting research has been done by advertising agencies.

WILLIAM BELL, research director for the J. Walter Thompson advertising agency, has tried to find out what’s going on when women choose between national brands or products believed to be of generally higher quality. “If you take the question of price differences aside many, many people make the decision based on how they feel about themselves.

“There are people who are afraid their meals will be rejected by the family. They tend to be loyal to national brands. They want reassurance that things will turn out all right.

“Then there is the housewife rejector group. They reject the role they see. They pay little attention to what they buy or set before the family because they want to punish them for being housewives.

“There are people who are ego involved in preparing meals. They get acceptance from having their meals well received. They tend to be more confident about what they select and may or may not buy national brands but will generally steer toward the best.

“Then there is what I call the Volvo crowd. You sometimes have the feeling they will do almost anything to avoid buying a national brand. They are better educated and more ¬†affluent generaly, and they intellectualize the buying process. For them it is almost a political decision to buy something and they try to avoid giving any support to large corporations. This is a sizable group, by the way, in some markets ans high as 20 per cent of the population.

“This group seems to pay the highest attention to the nutritional value of the food they buy. It is interesting that the people who worry about the nutritional value of their foods are almost never the poor.”

DR. CHARLOOTTE ROSNER, from the Gestalt Institute of Chicago, says she thinks the increasing interest in good food and gourmet cooking is one of the healthiest signs she has seen about America. “The way we deal with food has a direct relation to the way we deal with life,” Dr. Rosner says.

“This whole resurgence of interest in food is because of a greater consciousness about ourselves that we have today. A well-prepared dinner gives a feeling of joy and a poorly prepared one of poorly selected foods carries its own poor digestive qualties, and you do not come out of it with a feeling of well-being.

“There is no question in my own mind that the way we take in relationships is related to the way we take in food. You should eat only when you’re hungry and the person who eats large quantities or eats hurriedly is going to deal with people in a similar way.

“Often we let the stomach do the work of the teeth. People don’t use their teeth properly. Perls said a person who doesn’t assimilate ideas well –easily swallows what someone tells them — will tend not to chew their food. They swallow it in lumps. Literally, they are gullible.”

Dr. Robert Nunn from the Institute for Psychonalysis agrees.

“For a whole generation we were fed foods that had been highly processed. The revolt we see by a small but still sizable portion of the population is partly a fad — like the total health food people –but has a great kernel of good sense and self awareness. It has occurred to me before that mushy, processed food reflects a processed life. If people will accept artificiality in their food, they will accept artificiality in other things. It is not going to hold all the time– that’s too simplistic — but I think there will be a connection with how they deal with other people, and how they eat might often match how they go through relationships.”

“SUGAR,” SHE SAID.

“Honey,” he said.

He thought she looked good enough to eat. She thought he was a real hunk.

Her last relationship had gone sour. She thought it was going somewhere but finally she got fed up. There had been a bad time; she had eaten a lot of sweets and gained weight.

His last relationship had left a bad taste in his mouth. He was depressed afterwards and had no appetite; he just ate his heart out.

But this one was different. They went together like peas in a pod, and after all, variety is the spice of life.

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