Eating. Why?

Eating is bizarre.

Earlier today I couldn’t take my eyes off a guy with a Baskin Robbins sundae sitting across from me on the bus. Over and over I watched him cut his pink plastic spoon through the whipped cream into the stubborn hard-pack chocolate ice cream below, hack out a small nugget (testing the limits of the flimsy spoon) and carry it to his mouth. He’d close his lips around the spoon, pull it out and start again. Maybe the next time a tendril of strawberry would hang over the edge of the spoon, and he’d have to open wider or give it a bit more action with the tongue. As the sundae melted, the whole process got messier. But he attacked that sundae with determination and rhythm, pausing for breath and to check the street signs — rarely, because he was transfixed by the ice cream.

Here was a grown, fit man, eating a sundae. Totally ordinary. But, briefly, utterly captivating. It wasn’t sexy or funny like food can sometimes be. It was just a guy eating ice cream. But it struck me how silly the whole thing was — this process of carrying food to our stomachs — junk food especially — only to have it passed through, digested and dropped back out again hours later. The whole fact of eating seemed to me in that moment to be just a weird waste of time.

Why chew? Why break it up into small pieces? Why put it in a cup or bowl? On a plate? With matching utensils and napkins? Why cook and prepare it? Why transport it great distances? I wonder why we don’t simply take the raw ingredients and put them directly into our bodies. Why this activity called eating?

I guess, it’s because we absolutely need to fill our minutes with sensation.

People so often invest so much attention in what they are eating. How often have I watched someone stare at a bagel with cream cheese, lift it to her wide-open mouth, clamp down, smear her cheeks with goo, chew madly while wiping her face, then stare at the bagel again? Or blow across the rim of a polystyrene cup, gazing into space as the waves of coffee lap the far edge? What are we looking at?

Maybe we’re watching the steam rise. Maybe we’re looking at the shapes our teeth make or the layers of colors in a sandwich. Maybe we’re looking at the ice cream melt against the spoon or the saliva freeze to the stainless steel. Maybe we’re watching the butter glisten in a bowl of peas or the oil dribble from a slice of pizza. Maybe we’re looking at the holes in the bread or wondering about what grows from a sesame seed.

Who knows. But whatever we’re doing, it seems to me to be an extremely introverted and self-indulgent practice.

Eating is a function of the body no more glamorous than sleeping, crying, sweating, farting, burping, bleeding. Truth be told, chewing is only a few steps away from shitting.

There’s a scene in My So-Called Life, in which Angela says in one of her voice-over monologues, “I cannot bring myself to eat a well-balanced meal in front of my mother. It just means too much to her. I mean, if you start to think about, like, chewing, what it really is, how people just do it, like, in public.”

She seems not to complete the thought, but even then I knew exactly what she meant.

And she’s right: We — sensible, boring people, that is — don’t have sex in public. We don’t pee in public. Eating is kind of gross. It’s kind of personal. What in the world are we doing with a sundae on a bus?


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the untallied hours

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