I have been struggling to get myself in front of a plate of fish and chips for a few weeks now. I keep being assailed by the small as I go about my business, and it is such an enticing thing. I have a feeling that tonight might be the night, and that we will get down to our local fish and chip restaurant for a feast. The thing is, I always eat my fish and chips precisely the same way: that’s quite odd, isn’t it?
I like to eat it with my hands for a start. Regardless of whether I am eating fish and chips – always with curry sauce – in a restaurant or at home (never in a pub) I always eat it with my hands: I dip the batter and individual chips in the sauce and eat them with gusto. As I work my way through these, my favourite bits, I also eat the fish. Also dipped in the sauce. Everything is a vehicle for curry sauce.
Over the years I have noticed my tendency to eat other foods in a ritualised way too. It always used to be Jaffa Cakes: I would eat the flat cake rim before nibbling the cake off the back of the jelly layer, and then eat the jelly. Now I take a big bite out of the cake, leaving a big beautiful crescent, before biting half of that at the thickest point. Three bites in total. I always find myself doing that now.
The problem arises when people tell you in all certainty that their way of eating a certain foodstuff is the only way of doing it. I think we all know that that’s bollocks, but it seems to come up a lot. I like the way in which I eat fish and chips, but there are a million and one ways to shovel it down you. To think that my way of eating it was anything other than my current preference would be absurd.
Another highly ritualised food is the Bakewell Tart. I would first nibble the hard pastry from the outside, before eating the cherry from the top. Then the deliciously gooey centre could be devoured in two hearty bites. Nowadays I favour the same principle as the Jaffa Cake: one big bite, then split the crescent. I started doing it to escape my old ritual, but it is simply one ritual replacing another.
I don’t, for instance, have any rituals over eating a bag of crisps or a bowl of pasta. I do seem to have a ritual with a Chinese takeaway / restaurant food where I eat all of the vegetables from the dish, before ploughing in to the meat, the sauce and the rice. I do not, however, have any such rituals with Indian or Japanese food, even though they hold equal place in my gastronomic affections.
I worry that the ritual will overtake the eating, and that my enjoyment of the food itself may go unnoticed, while I’m concentrating too hard on the food that I am eating. I do not want the process of eating to become mechanised, and only done for the sake of the form of the task: I want to eat fun things which I enjoy, and I want to maximise my enjoyment of eating all of those things.
I worry that such controlled eating is merely the first step on a slippery slope to an eating disorder. That would truly rob me of the enjoyment of eating a Jaffa Cake, now. Then again, eating without consideration doesn’t feel like the right way to go about anything either: I want to be aware of the process of putting food in to my body; food is a wonderful and important thing to me after all.
I worry that my ritualised eating of certain things will stop me from eating particular things in time: I cannot have that yoghurt because I don’t have my favourite spoon, for instance. I don’t have a favourite yoghurt spoon anymore; I have enough of a sensation of control over my life to happily sidestep that one. It’s a silly example, but illustrative of what could be lying ahead of me.
I want to have a strongly positive relationship with food, but I do have a tendency to obsess over it somewhat. I think too much about what I am going to cook and to eat next. If it were alcohol, I’d be on my way to see the doctor for a referral to AA. Does forming an odd relationship with food require a similar approach? Is my mental health at risk because of how I eat a Jaffa Cake? I do hope not.
However, whenever I add a new food to my repertoire it seems to bring with it the opportunity for a new ritual: For instance, we have recently started buying and eating little pots of lemon cheesecake from our local supermarket. I take big spoonsful from around the rim, exposing a sort of leaf pattern in the middle, which I dig my spoon excitedly right in to. Every. Single. Time. It’s startling to me.
It’s the same pattern that I find myself putting in to a stroopwafel, the delectable sweet treat from the Netherlands. I eat around the edges in order to give me maximal access to the gooey centre. In realising that I can trace the ritual back to its childhood origins of eating sandwiches; I would eat the crusts first in order to derive maximum pleasure from the core of the sandwich and its gooeyness.
And then I see my eldest daughter, and she has none of my hang-ups. She eats a sandwich from the middle, and completely ignores the crusts. This is probably where I started, before being told that I had to eat the crusts. I developed a way of getting it done quickly and it stuck. She has no intention of eating her crusts, no matter how often we implore her to do so. It is ingrained behaviour now.
Watching a child learning to eat sheds a great deal of light on how such ritualised eating comes about. I’m not just talking about the childish silliness of only eating the part of the meal which holds the greatest interest and then declaring themselves full. I’m talking about the decisions they make while they eat. My eldest daughter will not yet eat food with “bits” in. Her sister only drinks milk.
I look to them and hope that their attitudes to food will develop. The youngest can’t have any solid food for another five months, so she’s a long way off developing her rituals yet. Her big sister comes and goes on the foods she likes so much that preparing a meal for her is a minefield; what I do know is that she will always try to use her hands to eat first, and that is a no-no, unless it’s fish and chips.