Most Americans have a highly neurotic relationship with food. Those who grew up during World War II will remember being admonished by their parents to eat everything on their plates. Why? Because there were starving children in Europe.
Then came the all-you-can-eat buffet. They had just two rules. You can keep going back for more and more food. But you couldn’t take any of it home with you.
While attending a convention in Long Beach, California, I found a great buffet nearby, and really stuffed myself. By coincidence, my friend also had eaten there. A few days later we compared notes.
“Didn’t they have great desserts?” he asked.
“They looked good, Len. But by the time I was ready for the desserts, which did look really good, I couldn’t eat another bite.”
“I was just as full. But I forced myself!”
With our attitudes toward food, is it any wonder why two thirds of all American adults are overweight, and one-third are obese?
Is there something built into the American psyche which affects our attitude towards food? Are we afflicted by some kind of food insecurity?
Well, don’t come to me for answers. I’m certainly no expert. I’d just like to tell you about a woman I’ve observed, whose food insecurity is so extreme that her behavior became a distraction during a recent presidential campaign.
During the primary, I happened to attend more than a dozen fund-raisers. I was close friends with the finance chairwoman of one of the leading contenders. I’m a partner in one of the nation’s largest PR firms, and these affairs were great places to network.
I quickly found that the higher the price of admission, the better the buffet. Of course, few of the really wealthy folks even looked at the food. At the five-hundred-dollar affairs, the spread would usually include pasta, rolls and butter, and maybe some packaged cookies. At two or three thousand dollars, you’d begin to see caviar and filet mignon.
At one of these fund-raisers, I happened to glance at the buffet and see a rather attractive woman in an evening gown. She was probably in her fifties, quite nicely dressed, and was gazing at the table. What really got my attention was that she was carrying a shopping bag.
I watched her as she moved along the table, very unselfconsciously taking rolls, pieces of cake, and several handfuls of French chocolates, and stuffing them into her shopping bag. Nobody else seemed to notice her.
I might have soon forgotten her, but just a few days later, there she was at another fund-raiser. This time she was chatting with a very distinguished looking gentleman, whom I later learned was a United States Senator. Continuing their conversation, they moved toward the buffet. He picked up a plate and took a few spoonsful of caviar and some crackers, while she began stuffing food into her designer tote bag. They continued talking as he nibbled on the caviar and she filled her bag.
What was up with this woman? Why was she taking food home? She certainly didn’t look poor.
I saw her several more times, nonchalantly filling her bag. Amazingly, no one tried to stop her, or at least ask why she was doing this. Maybe she had some kind of food insecurity. But surely she could have easily afforded to buy all the food she thought she needed.
No one else seemed struck by her behavior. Unless she knew somebody important and got in for free, why would she be paying thousands of dollars just so she could help herself to a few dollars’ worth of food?
Also, it interested me that she never seemed to be eating. I had once known a huge woman who would eat five or six pounds of food at parties, and then stuff whatever she could into her handbag. But the woman I was watching seemed much more obsessed with taking food than eating it.
I didn’t see her for a while, until one evening when my friend and I went to the ultimate fund-raiser. The minimum contribution was two hundred fifty thousand dollars, but if you wanted to spend a little time with the candidate, you had to fork up at least a million. This event was held in perhaps the most spectacular apartment in the city. Consisting of the top three floors of a forty-story condo on Central Park South, the apartment’s windows provided spectacular views in all four directions.
When we arrived, my friend chatted with a couple of Secret Service agents he knew, while another agent thoroughly checked out whatever it was we might be carrying. Then we strolled into a grand ballroom that appeared to be about the size of a basketball court. In another room the candidate worked the crowd, shaking hands, kissing cheeks, and occasionally hugging particularly generous contributors.
After greeting our next president, we went from room-to-room, admiring the artwork and the furnishings. Neither of us had ever seen anything this over-the-top.
And then I saw her. She was chatting with several people, all with drinks in their hands. Did I mention that there were three open bars?
I wandered into the next room and saw a forty-foot very well-stocked buffet. While I was admiring it, she walked right by me. She had a huge green Tiffany’s shopping bag. As she began filling it, two of the secret service agents rushed towards her.
Just before they reached her, another agent intercepted them. They got into a heated discussion. One of them was whispering to the others, “I’m telling you, she’s OK!”
“I don’t know, Mike. I don’t remember checking out any Tiffany bags at the door.”
“Jane, do you have any idea who she is?”
“OK, I’ll bite. Who is she?”
“This is her apartment.”
“Are you crazy?”
“No Jane, but would you like to meet someone who really is?”
A recovering economics professor, Steve Slavin earns a living writing math and economics books. His short story collection, "To the City, with Love", was just published by Martin Sisters Publishing.