Hieronymus Bosch, The Seven Deadly Sins (detail), ca. 1500.
It’s impossible to be completely happy when you have no appetite—or when you’re sated. People talk about the contentment that comes with a full belly, but to the food lover, this seems paradoxical. After all, if you are of the sort who lives to eat, rather than the other way around, being full means that, for the moment, you don’t have much to live for.
I’ve quoted Iris Murdoch on the subject before, but the quote bears repeating: “Every meal should be a treat and one ought to bless every day which brings with it a good digestion and the precious gift of hunger.”
For hunger I might substitute the word appetite, because here I think the distinctions between needing and wanting must be preserved. No one is advocating for asceticism, or claiming that those who go hungry are the happier for it. Nor am I talking about great hunger, urgent hunger, the kind where the thought of food turns from theoretical to actual in a horrible blood-sugar drop. It’s often a delicate balance. While hunger is the best spice—and can turn an ordinary meal into something magical—in a moment it can become an angry tyrant.
Anyone who has gone to a supermarket knows that: while shopping hungry might lead to a cart full of Fruit Roll-Ups and California Dip and pudding cups, completely food-sober shopping is no fun either. Yes, you get everything on your list and nothing more, but it is a joyless enterprise.
I spend some of life’s happiest moments dreaming of meals to come, of the alchemy of ingredients and the possibilities that lie in wait so many times a day. By contrast, those times after a meal, when the mere thought of food is faintly sickening, are empty indeed. Suddenly, there’s less scope for imagination and fancy and reasoning.
I need not say that this probably applies to much of life. Needs must be met—but when they are exceeded, a lot of the zest goes out of things. Pure happiness is in anticipation and planning and knowing comfort is nearby, but ever so slightly tantalizing.
Sadie Stein is contributing editor of The Paris Review, and the Daily’s correspondent.
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