Secret eating is something seldom spoken about or easily admitted. If you ask most people what they enjoy eating alone, without sharing, they generally hesitate with a questioning look. Or mumble that they don’t know. It’s possible that they’ve never experienced this type of solitary pleasure. The desire to eat intimately and unobserved isn’t like bingeing on ice cream or sneaking candy bars to feed your chocolate craving. It’s not comfort food either. It is something you eat surreptitiously, consciously, and quietly by yourself. It is a moment, by choice, of indescribable satisfaction.
A survey of extended family members about clandestine eating revealed only one answer close to my definition. It comes from my daughter-in-law who is Latvian, with Russian heritage. She formed a covert eating ritual as a child, from about the age of ten. In the summertime, after her parents left for the evening, she would go to the market and buy a huge ripe watermelon, by herself, with pennies saved or found under chair cushions. Lugging it home, she managed to cut it in two, carried half to the living room, sat on the sofa, watched television, and ate it down to the rind. Spoonful by decadent spoonful. Seeds and all. She was not under the watchful eye of anyone, or told to get a plate, or to sit on the floor, or not make a mess. She did it quietly and happily, for her own pleasure, over several summer seasons.
MFK Fisher, of course, has a wonderful story about secret eating. It took place during a frigid winter in Strasbourg, France when she and her husband, Al, lived in an unheated walkup apartment. They grew increasingly depressed by the unending cold, dreary grayness and couldn’t afford to move. So they rented a room in a pension for one luxurious week. It came with a big bed, billowy curtained windows, and, most importantly, heat.
Each morning after waving Al off to the university, Mary Frances sat in the window, considering the day ahead. She wasn’t ready to brave the outdoor temperatures. While the maid fluffed up duvets and pillows, murmuring in a thick Alsatian accent, Fisher carefully peeled several small tangerines. Meticulously separating each orange crescent and removing the white “strings” between pieces, she placed the sections on top of newspaper over the radiator. And forgot about them.
There was a long lunch when Al returned, and perhaps a wee nip of “digestif” from the decanter before he went back to afternoon classes. By this time, the orange sections had majestically puffed up, ready to burst with heat and fullness. Opening the window, she carefully placed them in the snow on the outside sill. Several chilling minutes passed. Then it was time.
For the rest of the afternoon, she sat watching the world go by on the street below, savoring each morsel slowly and voluptuously. She reveled in the spurt of cold pulp and juice after biting through the crackling skin that was like …”a little shell, thin as one layer of enamel on a Chinese bowl”. She mused while vendors sold half-frozen flowers, children ran home after school, and prostitutes sipped hot tea in a café across the way. Winter’s early darkness descended and the orange sections were gone. She couldn’t exactly say what was so magical about them. Yet she knew that other people, with “secret eatings” of their own, would somehow understand.
I read this story many years before we moved to Europe. The first winter we lived in Germany, in 2006, I traveled alone to Strasbourg, via the train from Frankfurt. There is a small hotel off Place Gutenberg where I stayed in a room under the roof. The bathroom was at the very top of the peak–reached by climbing an open staircase with a skylight. The historic Cathedral was visible if I stuck my head out the dormer window. It was a bitterly cold, gray February.
I bought a bag of seasonal Clementines, peeled them into sections, laid them out on a piece of hotel stationery, and left them on the radiator. Then I went out to explore. Later, when I returned, the oranges had grown fat and hot, just as Fisher described. There was no snow, but the outside temperature was below freezing. Out on the sill they went. When thoroughly chilled, I ate them one by one in the dim wintery afternoon light. It was true–the skins were crisp and crackling. So thin that, when you bit through them, there was a “pop” followed by the rush of cool juice and pulp. It was a replay moment from the pages of a story by a writer I had long admired. And it made me happy.
My current secret eating began during a visit to “Nutritionist Daughter” in late March. She was buying a snack item for her husband from the bulk bins of a national U.S. food chain. I watched her fill a bag with extremely flattened, dull colored brownish-orange pieces of fruit. They looked run over by a truck. As it turned out, they were unsweetened dried mangos. Dehydrated into stiffened leather. She handed me a piece and said, “Try it”.
The first sensation was what it looked like–rough, tough and hard-edged, with the taste and texture of dust on shoe leather. As salivary juices kicked in, so did transformation. That road-kill-looking mango became softer, warmer, and moistly pliable. Careful, considerate chewing brought out interesting changes. It turned vaguely sweeter but held onto the essence of fruity leather. You had to chew slowly, without hurrying. You had to pay attention.
The degrees of subtlety from dry dusty toughness to a satisfying payoff several minutes later completely hooked me. I took my own bag back to Paris. Now when I feel the urge, I go to the secret hiding place and randomly choose several pieces. Then I stand or sit for awhile in a window of our apartment, often overlooking the vine-laden courtyard, where I never tire of the view.
If I stand in the kitchen, I might muse over the gradual unfolding of the Virginia Creeper vines or the work-in-progress renovations of the apartment across the courtyard. If I choose to sit in the warm afternoon sun of the dining room window, I have a private view of sky, rooftops, vine covered brick walls, and my own blooming geraniums.
If I move to the noisier street side windows for “mango time”, I take note of pedestrians, shopkeepers, and sometimes a wandering trumpet playing musician four stories below.
My secret eating is something I usually keep to myself. It gives me enormous pleasure. But what is it really? Like Fisher, I can’t exactly say. Perhaps a meditative “time-out”, a few solo minutes of simply “being” and not “doing”, a uniquely satisfying break in the midst of a day, a week, a month…
Still, there must be someone out there who understands what I mean?