The festivities have ended. The Christmas trees are gone, the decorations put away, the resolutions made and, most likely broken in secret. But more than any of these things, we have begun our collective, national dessert-diss. Those delectable things we consumed with such relish, such desire, such avarice only a few weeks ago have become the demons lurking at the edge of our habits and tastes. They’ve expanded our waists and thickened our behinds and bulged our tummies. But for a month there, in December, their consumption was an act of sublime pleasure.
Our mad love for desserts and our heartless shunning of them spring from the same source, the same table where we consume too much–in quantity and kind–and do so with unimaginable speed and lack of attention, which is another way of saying lack of gratitude. Ok,ok, you’ve heard all this before, so what’s new?
Like so much else in our lives, those activities which were once the heart of our domestic, interior life have been re-choreographed according to objective, commercially driven dictates. So that our tables at home, our conduct around food are increasingly similar to the way things are in a restaurant. (A friend goes further and suggests that we spend so much time at restaurants because we secretly want to be served; we want to be one of the royals, we who live in New England!) And all this is happening at a time when our kitchens look fancier and better equipped as we eat less and less at home. Even our language has changed. We don’t cook food anymore, we prepare it!
Back to desserts: We’ve started our campaign against them, that’s for sure. But, really, the American consumption of desserts is a unique phenomenon. There’s no equal to it in other places I have been in Europe and the Middle East. When I first landed in the US some three decades ago, one of the most shocking things had to do with desserts. Apple pie, to be exact. Immediately, after a group of us graduate students had finished eating our dinner, the waitress came back, asking us if we wanted desserts. Everyone said yes, yes, as did I. I was a foreign student (that’s what we were called in those days), and before I could bat an eyelash, a huge piece of apple pie was installed in front of me. But I was full, satiated. What was I to do with this large, viscous thing staring at me?
It’s not only that we eat too much in this country; it’s that our consumption is programmed, in sequence, with no breathing space between the various phases. And we do this at our homes, as well as the restaurants we frequent. One thing after another, and usually when the sun has set. And desserts are the last phase of a good meal, the last big thing before our collective slide into inertia, followed by acid reflux.
But desserts are more like modest companions, transitional delights. They are intimate things. They are intervals and invitations consumed best in mid-afternoon, with a cup of coffee or tea, and in small portions, if you can. Well, then, if not desserts after a meal, then what? Fruit, of course, fruit and only fruit to clean the palette, and bring lightness to the entire experience (yes, that’s the word for all sorts of activities nowadays–from shopping, to traveling, to eating.)
If so, then what about desserts–if, of course, you think that these big pies and cakes are really dessert? Be that as it may, give the desserts some respect. Most of all, take that big, flatulent category of desserts and create a sub-division of pastry. Pastry demands its own context–at home or at a small coffee shop where you can while away the afternoon over a cup of coffee and a small, sweet something. Find the best café in town, meet a friend there or go alone, order coffee and a small, very delectable macaroon or napoleon, and let time slow down. An hour or two later, the aftertaste of the macaroon and coffee in your mouth, say goodbye to a lovely interlude. Until we meet again, dear one.
And the expanding waistline and bulging stomach? It’s simple, really. We get fat because we eat more than we need to, because we sit more than we walk. So, out of the café, onto the street, on your two little feet, even when it is snowing and cold, when the wind is blowing and the sky is grey. I am beginning to sound like a sentimental song from some musical. Walk on, walk on–till the end of the rainbow... so positive, so upbeat. I had better stop. Or start.