Flashback: You Aren’t What You Eat

You aren’t what you eat

Simon Kernick

June 2004


The thing about food is that when you’re at an age that you can gobble up as much of the stuff as you like without putting on a pound in weight, you never appreciate it. Then, when you get a bit older and learn to love the taste, texture and smell of the various exotic dishes on offer to the consumers of the Western World, it’s all too damn late. You’ve got to watch your diet. It’s one of life’s great disappointments, like getting married for regular sex.


When I was younger, back in my teens and twenties, I ate crap. Burgers, potato chips, pies, pizzas- the sort of food you only have to look at to start getting heavier- occasionally adding a forlorn bit of salad to the edge of the plate, just so I didn’t feel too guilty about the quantities of junk passing through my gullet. For dessert, I used to have a bar of chocolate. Or two. A yogurt if I was feeling a bit rough from the night before. And you know what? I looked great for it. My stomach was flat, my face thin, no bags under my eyes. Nothing. Who said you are what you eat? Whoever it was, was lying. Even when I went to restaurants with my family, or with a new girlfriend I was trying to impress, I never took any notice of the food I was eating. All I was interested in was the price (I was young, so it had to be cheap), and all I could think about was the fact that as soon as I’d finished what was on my plate, I could have my next cigarette. Mr Healthy I was not.


There was only one exception to all this. One food that I liked above all others, and that was actually not that bad for me: Lobster. Some food critic once likened eating lobster to having an orgasm, except she claimed the lobster was slightly better. For my part, the jury’s still out on that one, but one thing’s for sure, they might look ugly, but they sure do taste sweet. The only problem was that they cost an arm and a leg, still do, so I only ever got to taste one when someone else was paying, which meant no more than once or twice a year, and then it was back to the conveyer belt of factory-churned-out fast food.


But then everything changed. I met a girl; she was pretty; we got married. Why this should have made a difference to my weight or my diet, I’m still not sure. But it did. I was 28 years old, and on my wedding day I was thin as a rake. You can see the pictures if you want proof. Six months later and bang, everything had changed. I’d put on ten pounds and the rot, my friends, was setting in. It wasn’t anything to do with my wife’s cooking either, before you jump to conclusions. No offence to her, but the type of grub she was producing was never going to get the punters in demanding second helpings.


In the end, I think it all boiled down to something else. A Christmas gift from my brother-in-law in the shape of a homemade pizzamaker. Don’t get the idea that he was being generous though- he wasn’t. This particular pizzamaker was simply a round baking tray with a round metal cutter for slicing up the finished product. But the thing was, there were instructions with it telling you how to make the dough, and listing all these toppings you could stick on your home-made effort, and I have to admit that for some ill-defined reason it got me interested. The trouble was, I didn’t have a clue where to start. A hint of the scale of the task ahead was that I didn’t know how to peel or chop an onion (I wasn’t even aware that you had to), nor what to do with the garlic, or which part you were supposed to eat.


When in doubt, approach someone who knows. I therefore approached my wife, which some people might argue was a mistake given her own efforts in the kitchen, but at least she knew how to peel and chop an onion, and what to do with a garlic.


So I made my very first pizza and found that I enjoyed a bit of a spell in the kitchen sweating at the chopping boards, especially with a glass of wine in my hand and a cigarette hanging out of the corner of my mouth (potential diners round my house, please note: I’ve since given up smoking so no chance of any ash in your antipasti). But the whole process was fun, you know, and the finished product actually tasted good. Not beautiful, not exquisite, but good enough that I wanted to try it again.


For a while I just stuck to pizzas, learning to get the dough right, and experimenting with the toppings, but soon I began to branch out. I learned chile con carne, spaghetti bolognaise, beef in black bean sauce. I traveled the culinary world, and although I had a couple of disasters (the fire brigade were called once when one of my soufflés developed a life of its own), I was improving all the time.


But as my competence went up, so did my weight. I suppose it could have been an age thing (they say that your metabolism works in 7-year cycles, and maybe at 28 I’d hit a slow one), but I couldn’t help thinking, as I spent the day dreaming about whatever I was going to eat that night, that it had something to do with my new-found enjoyment for the kitchen. So I started going down the health food route. You know the one: plenty of fruit, veg, fish, olive oil: the old Mediterranean special. Health experts always say that it helps people live longer. That may be true but I’ll tell you this, it also makes them bigger, although this doesn’t seem to bother them in the Meditrranean countries. In fact, people of round build are largely celebrated there. There’s an old Turkish proverb that says that ‘man without belly is like house without porch’. Which is all well and good but I’ve never wanted a porch on my house.


My obsession continued. My meals became ever more elaborate. My wife started putting on weight. People who came round my house marvelled at my culinary skills. They started putting on weight. I got so obsessed that I started wondering what the characters in the books I was reading liked to eat. When I came across authors who liked to add an element of food into their plotting I became an overnight fan. An example is the late, great crime writer, Lawrence Sanders, author of the ‘Deadly Sin’ and ‘Commandment’ books. In his later years, Sanders created the character, Archy McNally, a whimsical private detective who solved murder cases amongst the rich and famous of Florida’s pampered Palm Beach community with a wit and style redolent of an amateur sleuth from the Roaring Twenties. And the thing I liked most about him was that he loved to eat and drink. Every meal that he tucked into during his investigations (and I do mean every, including breakfast and starters) was described in loving, lip-smacking detail. And the variety. From sauteed snapper in a shallot and white wine sauce to kick-ass venison chili with swamp wings (whatever they might be), he scoffed the lot. It was a wonder he wasn’t five hundred pounds plus. But then he probably would have been, except this was fiction. But, man, I loved those books, and a lot of the reason was because I was there with him, stuffing my face and getting just as drunk as he used to do with the exotic alcoholic cocktails it was his habit to consume. I even got to the point where I was imagining what the villains in the books I was reading liked to eat. I always assumed serial killers ate crap, and deservedly so since they lead such crappy lives (Mr Lecter is an exception, of course, being a true connoseur with his liver and fava beans, washed down with a nice chianti). The same with all the small-time villains and traitors who make up so much of noir fiction. And not just the bad guys either. Any boring character I read about, from the staid detective to the interfering old busybody, I picture them all eating bland, flavourless TV meals, and getting no pleasure from them at all.


So I’ve become a food fetishist. It impinges on my whole life. Even now, writing this, I’m thinking about what I’m going to have for supper (grilled swordfish in seasoned breadcrumbs, with green beans and sauteed potatoes on the side- beautiful). And it’s made me a lot fitter too because I now have to go to the gym three times a week minimum in order to keep even vaguely in shape. Vaguely, though, is the operative word. I may be fitter but I’m also a lot fatter than I was on the day I unwrapped that pizzamaker. It just shows, you aren’t what you eat.


But you know what? When I look back at the photos from the old days and wonder who the hell the wiry, lantern-jawed guy staring back at me is, do I wish for a return to them?


Nah, I feel sorry for him. The poor guy’s way too thin. He’s missing out.


By Simon Kernick. Currently 6 feet 2 inches tall and 182 pounds.