Catherine Ford Gets Personal

One year: A challenge for change


with 3 comments

Am I the only person who, as a kid, loved the taste of cod liver oil? And would willingly chew and swallow Aspirins without water? And just to be really disgusting, would eat Miracle Whip with a spoon?

I bet I’m not alone. Pica, it’s called. The compulsion, especially during pregnancy or childhood, to eat things that aren’t really food. Personally, I draw the line at dirt. To me, “eat dirt” has always been an insult. (This was before I grew up and learned more expressive insults, usually heard while riding public transit and often entailing the imaginative use of the “f” word in an assortment of parts of speech. The dangling participle is my favourite, followed by the past pluperfect subjunctive.)

Where was I? Strange eating habits. Doctors in Northern Peru removed almost a kilo of metal from a man’s stomach this past week, according to reports from CanWest News Service. It took surgeons almost two hours to remove nails, coins, scrap metal and a knife from the man’s stomach. He presented (that’s a doctor-type word meaning he came to medical attention) with a severe stomach ache. No kidding. No word on whether he set off metal detectors or had a magnetic personality. (Sorry, some puns just beg to be let out of their cage.)

The patient is now undergoing mental health tests. This doesn’t mean he’s crazy, although anyone swallowing a knife should be a candidate for a really close psychiatric examination. Maybe he swallowed the knife while engaged in a food frenzy usually only seen at conventions featuring “free” food. I got caught in the middle of one of those one year at a convention in Montreal and I escaped with my life and, if memory serves me correctly, about half a plate of dinner.

The hungrier conventioneers used their sheer bulk to push the more modest – i.e. the Canadians — out of the way of the food, despite assurances from the servers in both of Canada’s official languages that there was more than enough. Everyone could have unlimited refills and nobody needed to shove like they were at a United Nations food distribution centre somewhere in famine-starved Africa. Actually, all that was unspoken, but went through my mind watching the near-riot. The servers had gone to ground, leaving the crowd to its own resources, presumably to prepare themselves to rescue the survivors.

It would have been funny, a sort-of Animal House reality show if it hadn’t been so real and so horrifying. Unbridled greed — for food, sex, money, whatever — is never pretty to watch.

We think eating nails is bizarre, that overloading a plate with too much food because it’s there is impolite, but who are we to decide what is and what isn’t edible?

I don’t know about you, but when did people start putting ketchup on eggs? Eew. Why can’t I get plain white vinegar for French fries? Who was the first person to invent poutine? (For those of you who have never been to Quebec, poutine consists of fries, gravy and cheese curds. It’s as common a sight served by the sidewalk vendors of Montreal as the hot pretzel is in New York.)

Of course it’s fattening, it’s deep-fried potatoes with gravy and cheese. And French women do, indeed, get fat, despite the 2004 best-seller French Women Don’t Get Fat written by Mireille Guilano, who praised the way French women savour their food and don’t snack. So there was a certain amount of satisfaction in reading this past week that a recent survey showed 15 percent of French women are obese and another 26 percent are overweight.

Poutine is a French-Canadian fast-food treat. I can’t eat it. The thought makes me gag. As a child, I loathed liver. Today, I consider calf’s liver a delicacy, sautéed and piled high with onions. My sister and brother, both of whom were forced, as I was, to eat liver as children, still can’t abide the thought of a slice of cooked liver.

“The very thought of liver is still upsetting for most North Americans,” writes Margaret Visser in The Way We Are. “Converts to the recent gourmet revolution . . . find themselves coping not only with liver (which is the least offensive of innards to mainstream North Americans) but also with tripe, brains, hearts, trotters tails, tongues, sweetbreads and kidneys – every one of them the object, in various traditions, of loving culinary attention.”

The strangest of all, though, has to be clay.

I had never heard of anybody seriously eating dirt — clay, actually — until my husband, the retired doctor, talked about his three-year residency in obstetrics and gynecology at Cleveland Metropolitan General Hospital from 1962 to1965. How does a Calgary-born and raised medical graduate from the University of Alberta choose a county hospital in the United States for training? Easy. In Canada, all of the hospitals are private, and patient flow, if you’re a resident, is at the whim and permission of the attending doctors. At a U.S. county hospital, the residents are “not at the mercy of private doctors,” says Ted and “the residents ran the show, with oversight.” For a young doctor, it was an intensive course in patient care.

What set him back on his heels, though, was the young, pregnant African-American woman who came to the hospital and while Ted was taking her history, he asked about her diet. She was from West Virginia, she said, and she ate dirt. Clay, she explained. Everybody did it. And it turns out that the particular clay she was eating was full of carbohydrates.

As Margaret Visser writes: “All that’s edible is not eaten. Unless human beings are desperate for food, this is for us a universal rule. Being accustomed to having enough to eat grants us the privilege of exerting choice, of being moral about food, of having ‘taste’.”

Personally, I’ve never been able to eat rabbit. Not that I reject the taste. Presumably, it tastes like chicken. But I have never been able to think about tasting rabbit, let alone eating it. Blame my reluctance on Roman Polanski’s 1965 movie, Repulsion, starring Catherine Deneuve as Carol, a young Belgian manicurist who lives with her sister in a flat in London. Repulsion is a psychological thriller and the audience watches as Carol descends into full-blown psychosis while the sister is away on vacation.

She doesn’t boil a bunny, as did Alex, the character portrayed by Glenn Close in Fatal Attraction, but in the background on the kitchen counter lies a skinned rabbit, slowly rotting, a gruesome metaphor for Carol’s life. Eat rabbit after watching that movie? Never.

What any of this has to do with losing weight and how and what we eat is simple: We are as encouraged to eat by culture and traditions as we are by sight, sound and smell. For so many of us, eating isn’t so much about nutrition as it is about comfort and desire. We eat to soothe ourselves, to bond with friends, to placate hurts and sometimes out of sheer spite.

No wonder food is fraught with meaning beyond being merely fuel for our bodies.

What we eat and how we eat it depends much on culture, tradition and social status. Nobody goes around killing squirrels in the cities of Canada even though they are readily available and a nuisance. In rural communities in the American south, squirrels are hunted for meat and are the main ingredient in Brunswick stew. Just this past January, the New York Times reported squirrel dishes appearing in restaurants in England. “With literally millions of squirrels rampaging throughout England, Scotland and Wales at any given time, squirrels need to be controlled by culls. This means that hunters, gamekeepers, trappers and the Forestry Commission (the British equivalent of forest rangers) provide a regular supply of the meat to British butchers, restaurants, pâté and pasty makers and so forth,” reported the Times.

According to Visser, squirrels “are tender, tasty and available — yet we rarely feel like killing them for dinner.” I’d happily shoot the ones in our backyard, if only it was legal in the city and if only my husband would buy me a .22 rifle. But I wouldn’t eat one. Why? Visser writes that they taste like rabbit.

One of the world’s favourite cookbooks, the Joy of Cooking, first published in 1931, lists recipes for squirrel, opossum, bear, raccoon, muskrat, woodchuck, peccary and beaver tail. But its recipe for Brunswick stew, traditionally made with squirrel, is made with chicken in the 1964 edition.

Customs change, fashion moves on, what we thought was attractive years ago no longer is acceptable. Whom do we please?

NEXT: The saboteurs are all around you.


Written by Catherine Ford

November 16, 2009 at 2:45 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses

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  1. You were featured in an op/ed by Robyn Blumner which inspired me to share my story. While losing 25 lbs. with Weight Watchers I was introduced to raw foods. My maintenance regime is now consuming 50% raw foods, and 50% SAD (Standard American Diet).
    Researching the why’s of raw foods changes one’s perspective from food as a vehicle of pleasure to food as a vehicle of health. Once that connection is made, a whole new world opens up.
    There are tons of DELICIOUS recipes beyond carrot sticks and celery. I invite you to explore. Just search “recipe for raw….” whatever veggie you can imagine and multiple choices will appear. Youtube videos give demos and hot-to’s. My favorite is youtube/liferegenerator.
    Stop dieting and depriving, and start pursuing health and life forces. Welcome to my world.

    Susan Bessette

    November 17, 2009 at 7:50 am

  2. Like Susan, I read Robyn Blumner’s article and was attracted to Catherine’s history of successfully dieting yet having a hard time maintaining her weight loss. Am a lifetime member of Weight Watchers – in fact, I used to work for them in the late 70’s weighing people in when I lived in Milwaukee. 30+ yrs laters and stints (successful, I’ll add) with two other programs and… I’m on my fourth month of a medically supervised ‘very low calorie diet’. What interested me in this program is that it is a three year program, they don’t give two hoots how much weight you lose weekly yet do care where you’ll be two to three years from now regarding maintenance and focus both on the medical issues as well as mental issues of being overweight. Weekly meetings include each month one with an MD, one with the group leader, an individual meeting with a behavior psychiatrist, a group meeting with the psychiatrist and one with a nutritionist. As we all know, 98% of food issues relate to headshit issues and this program addresses this. Blood draws and urine samples are taken monthly. Didn’t mean to ramble….sorry! In any event, I look forward to reading Catherine’s blog!

    Cathy Scott

    November 17, 2009 at 1:07 pm

  3. Catherine, your Remembrance Day comments were so appropriate and beautiful. Thank you.

    Now, as for the nails and other scrap metal as a source of food…! I want you to know that I love poutine. When I lived in Quebec, I formed a loose association of like-minded people and once a month we sussed out and tried a new poutine. We’d rate them. We gained wieght.


    November 18, 2009 at 8:16 am

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