I graduated from college eventually, but that excitement about eating has stayed with me every single day of my adult life. Three times a day—more, if I feel like it—I can choose things I like to eat, and eat them in peace. I never take this freedom for granted, I never get tired of it. I never don't anticipate eating with pleasure.
This is how much I love eating: The first time I ate soft-shell crabs—an experience so sublime that if you have not yet had it, I urge you to as soon as possible—I broke out in hives, head to toe. It is the only time I have ever had an allergic reaction to something I've eaten. The second time I ate soft-shell crabs, I—you know, I think that's all I need to say. That there was a second time, that I tried them again, hoping against hope that the hives had been a freak event, sort of says it all, doesn't it?
You are wondering how fat I am. Let me say this: If I lived in most places in the United States, where the all-you-can-eat restaurant is part of the landscape, I would probably weigh 350 pounds. But until recently I lived in Manhattan, where the ridiculous rents won't allow for "family-style" restaurants, so I'm usually about twenty pounds overweight. At the moment, I weigh 150 pounds. I am tallish—five feet eight—and "big-boned," so I carry it off, more or less. I try to lose five pounds sometimes, and sometimes I do, but then I forget I'm trying to do it and order the tartufo.
* * *
I have been heavier than I am now, but I thought I looked okay then too. For a few years, I generally weighed about ten pounds more than I do now, and it was not unusual for me to need a size 16. I'm a little surprised when I look at the pictures of me from that time; I've wondered if I have the opposite of that phenomenon that afflicts anorexic girls, the one where they think they look fat when they are actually skin and bones. I think I look normal when I am on the pudgy side.
And I have been heavier even than that. When I was pregnant with my older daughter, I was hungry all the time, and I used to eat cheeseburgers and drink vanilla milk shakes for a little midmorning snack. By the time I was eight months pregnant I had gained fifty pounds. I weighed 185. I thought I was allowed; I thought I looked fine. "You think that when you have this baby you're going to lose all the weight," my obstetrician said to me. "But the baby is going to weigh about seven pounds. So after you have it, you'll weigh seven pounds less than you do now."
He was right. I didn't think I looked great after I had my baby, when I did indeed weigh 177 pounds, but I didn't worry about it that much. I just wore my maternity dresses for a few months until I could fit into my old clothes again. Shortly after my daughter was born I was wearing one of the maternity dresses when I went to a reception for a Cuban poet in an elegant Manhattan town house. I sat down on the thick-glass-topped coffee table in the beautifully appointed living room, the better to talk to some poet on the sofa. The thick glass broke, and I fell through the table frame to the floor, where I had to be delicately lifted out (amazingly, unharmed). I thought it was hilarious. It was only after telling this story for a year or two that I realized I'd gone through the coffee table because I was fat.
Except for my pregnancy binge, I seem to be able to check myself before I get truly tubby. I interviewed Martha Stewart a few years ago. She doesn't weigh herself, she told me, doesn't "watch" her weight, but she does go on diets.
"When?" I asked.
"All the time."
"So I can zip up my pants."
I have a lot of thoughts about Martha Stewart, most of them quite critical (this is how she diets: she doesn't eat), but I will say that I was with her on the pants thing: that's how I know I need to resist dessert and the restaurant dinner rolls and the urge to polish off the mushroom ravioli that my dinner companion has left on his plate.
And although I say I'd weigh 350 pounds if I lived outside Manhattan, the truth is that even I have outgrown the stuff that's really bad for you. Even I prefer my hot open-faced turkey sandwich sans thick caramel-colored gravy, even I usually turn down sausages with my eggs and french fries with my hamburgers.
* * *
But I have a lasting affection for institutional steam-table food—for the food itself, the mashed potatoes and chicken rollatini, and for the sheer heaping plenty of it. I have spent some of the happiest hours of my adult life in cafeterias—employee cafeterias, YMCA cafeterias, the cafeteria at my daughters' public school, where I ate on days I volunteered at the library. I like the cute little milk cartons. I don't mind plastic utensils. I don't mind sporks. I don't even hate most airplane food, and I am actually nostalgic for it when I am handed the seven peanuts in a foil bag they give you now in lieu of a meal. And I am probably the only person you will ever hear say that she enjoyed her meal in the cafeteria at Sing Sing (I went on a tour): sloppy joes, macaroni and cheese, red beans and rice, syrupy canned pears.