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The Gestalt of Food

(article, Deborah Madison)

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p(blue). Editor's note: Here's a short excerpt from What We Eat When We Eat Alone. Another excerpt, about leftovers, is also on Culinate.

At a graphic-arts workshop held at the New York School of Visual Arts in the early 1980s, long before our first trip to Spain with a group of writers and chefs, Patrick was introduced to the gestalt of eating. 

An unlikely place, you might be thinking. “But,” Patrick says, “considering the workshop was taught by Milton Glaser, a whole-systems kind of guy, it makes sense. In a letter inviting us to New York, he outlined the following assignment:

bq. The week preceding the class, I’d like you to keep an exact record of everything you eat and drink, including size of portion and time eaten. Organize this information on an 8-1/2-x-11-inch sheet(s) of paper without signing or indicating in any way your authorship. Keep it with you in class. At one point I’ll ask for it.

"On the third day, Glaser collected all the assignments, shuffled them, and passed them out. Then he gave us the real assignment.

bq. Tonight after class, read the record of food and drink I’ve given you. Then read it again. Keep reading it until an image of the author emerges. Make a portrait of the person and mount it on illustration board. Then write a one-page description of your subject’s typical day.

“It’s astonishing how much a diet journal reveals. The size and portion part of the record tells as much about the person as the kinds of food and drink, as does the time one eats,” Patrick observed. 

“The question of what sex I was dealing with became clear immediately. I stationed myself in a coffee shop, document in hand. With the first cup I nailed it. Clearly this was the record of a woman. This was not a cheeseburger-cheeseburger-cheeseburger diet. There were too many chicken-and-white-wine combos for a man. Occasionally a girl will eat a chili dog, but a man will go to the dogs four times a week. I read it over and over and, sure enough, a character walked into my imagination.”

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="A man's breakfast?"] 

While we all eat many of the same foods, men and women differ in the ways they eat in a fairly predictable way, though not entirely. There are always those pesky exceptions that make life interesting, for men and women can change places and do so regularly. While I will share a steak with Patrick on occasion, I have never entertained the possibility that I might pick up one for myself when he’s out of town. Other women, when asked, have told us the same thing. But then, a slender young woman quietly revealed that she loves to have a steak when her boyfriend is away.

“The fattier, the better,” she confides.

Still, we haven’t met the woman yet who will eat a steak three times a week. She will, however, eat from a pot of soup night after night. A man might eat a hamburger twice a day, but not a woman. A woman will eat too much and have an Alka-Seltzer evening once in a while. A guy, however, will settle in and make a habit of eating large quantities of food, as if it proves something about his maleness. A guy might swig whiskey between bites of food and a woman might prefer white wine. But if she does have a whiskey, she’s probably sipping, not swigging.


h1. About the book and authors

Longtime Culinate contributor [/columns/deborah "Deborah Madison"] and her husband, artist Patrick McFarlin, have charmed us with What We Eat When We Eat Alone. The couple interviewed a host of friends and acquaintances about what they eat when no one else is around, and they set those anecdotes amid their own eating-alone stories. Helpfully, there's also a collection of one-serving recipes. 
Excerpt reprinted with permission of Gibbs Smith (2009).


To boldly generalize, men are simple and women are complex when it comes to food. Women’s choices are often more thought-out, whereas men are “I like this and that’s what I eat.” Over and over again. If you cook in a restaurant, you’ll notice that women tend to be more adventurous about what they order, and that they like to share their plates with others so that they can taste everything. Men, more often, like to know that a certain dish they’ve grown accustomed to eating will always be there for them. And as for taking tastes off others’ plates? Well, that’s just not something most men are eager to do.

“We’re predictable and consistent,” Patrick says, speaking for men in general. “We have the same kind of breakfast five times a week, the same hamburger for lunch, similar dinner themes, and many identical full meals.”

And we’re not just talking about gonzo guys. Refined men like repetition, too. Richard McCarthy, who runs the Crescent City Farmers' Market, says that when it comes to cooking during the rare moments he’s home alone, he’s a “bit of a pomp-and-circumstance cook,” by which he means many pots and pans are involved. “Even at the worst of times I don’t open a can.”

What comes to mind for Richard are such dishes as sliced Creole tomatoes with cracked black pepper and hard cheese, mushroom omelets, sautéed kale with sesame oil and rice vinegar, bushels of fava beans, and buckets of beets. Not your usual solo male menu, in part because Richard is a vegetarian.

“But at heart,” he says, “I’m also a peasant. I’d happily eat the same foods for days. If left to my own devices, probably I would.”

reference-image, l