Ravenous: A Food Lover's Journey from Obsession to Freedom
- By Dayna Macy
- Hay House
- 256 pp.
- Reviewed by Diana Pabst Parsell
- March 23, 2011
An emotional look at one woman's complex relationship with sustenance.
Food scientists have a term known as “mouth-feel.” It describes the complex interplay of physical and chemical interactions in the mouth that makes foods taste as they do, whether a fine red wine enjoyed with dinner or a bag of artificially flavored cheese curls scarfed down in the parking lot. In Ravenous, Dayna Macy adds another powerful ingredient to the mix: our emotionally driven response to food, especially as it leads to overeating.
All her life Macy has found it difficult to control her appetite. As a child she popped olives on her fingers and sucked them down, one by one, until the jar was empty. Outside the A&P she gorged on comic books and Slim Jims, craving the chewy taste of fat and salt. Even as an adult she can’t keep from stuffing herself — with predictable results. At 5’6”, she’s watched her clothes expand to a size 16.
Macy’s predicament is, as we know, all too common in our modern society. It’s also anomalous to the “mindful living” culture of Berkeley where Macy, like her neighbors, practices yoga, supports community-based agriculture and enjoys food that’s uniformly fresh, organic and delicious. If she can’t moderate her eating habits in such a culinary Eden, what hope is there for the rest of us? Though the lessons of Ravenous are more meditative than prescriptive, Macy’s story of learning to eat for nourishment, instead of by habits that have little to do with actual hunger, will resonate widely.
Macy first sets off to investigate how some of her favorite foods ― gourmet cheeses, sausages, olives and chocolates ― are produced. “Once I demystify the origins of these foods, perhaps I’ll no longer be in their thrall,” she writes. It’s a pretty thin premise, and as might be expected, this section of the book seems flat. Thanks to her storyteller’s eye for details, the field trips offer an interesting behind-the-scenes look at the work of artisanal food producers. She watches a sausage-maker plunge the parts of a metal grinder into an icy bath so they’ll be cold enough to “retain chunks of fat” that improve the texture and taste of the meat. But overall, these chapters lack adequate development and the material is poorly integrated; every few paragraphs or so Macy interrupts the narrative to interject food-related anecdotes from her life, which makes for choppy reading.
Happily, Macy finds her stride as the book progresses. Her story becomes more engaging through greater interaction with people and places and deeper contemplation of her troubled relationship with food and body image. The writing, too, grows richer and more polished, less salted with the pronoun “I.”
In one lovely chapter, Macy prepares a traditional Passover Seder ― for the first time, in her late 40s ― as a means of reflecting on her family’s Jewish roots and how it may influence her attraction to rich and heavy foods. “Could there really be such a thing as cellular memory,” she wonders, “the idea that our habits and tastes are stored on a cellular level, passed down from one generation to the next?”
The most riveting chapter describes Macy’s visit to a Northern California ranch that produces “humanely raised and handled” organic beef. Tracking the cattle’s path from birth to death, she forces herself to watch the slaughtering operation, “to feel the connection between my choice to eat meat and the animal that must die to provide me with it.” Macy handles the tough story sensitively, expressing her own uneasiness and ambivalence while allowing for the dignity of the workers who go about their jobs in a quiet, professional manner.
As memoir, Ravenous could have benefited from greater probing of emotional issues Macy raises. In discussing the history of her eating problem, she recognizes that a troubled relationship with her father ― a man warm and kind at one moment, cruel and remote the next ― was an important influence. That doesn’t seem like the whole story. Yet Macy seems to have her guard up much of the time. She alludes often to longstanding feelings of anxiety, anger and loneliness. The picture she gives us, however, mostly shows a woman pleased with her life: cooking, writing, doing yoga, making music; with a kind and supportive husband, two clever sons and a large community of family and friends. There’s very little here that shows us Macy has a real weight problem.
Toward the end of the book her journey grows increasingly spiritual. She undergoes a fast, tries new yoga poses to loosen her hard-wired samskaras (habits), works with a Tibetan scholar “to meet some of the demons I try to subdue with food.” She also consults a nutrition expert. “Am I fat?” she asks. It’s a word she’s always skirted, preferring the kinder, gentler “chunky” or “curvy.” At nearly 50, she’s finally ready to shed delusions, along with some pounds.
Macy draws on memoir and reportage, but her real strength as a writer is her graceful, inquiring essayist’s voice. A basic humility and earnestness trumps the book’s flaws, and I enjoyed Macy’s powers of observation (“Wild edibles love areas with dappled sun,” she notes in a chapter on foraging).
More than just a look at our often-troubled relationship with food and self-image, Ravenous touches on the desire to heal the hurt we carry within. “The truth is, it’s difficult to be in a body, period,” Macy observes. Her story of learning to find balance leaves us with a wonderful reminder that getting life right takes practice.
Diana Pabst Parsell is a Washington-area journalist, writer and editor specializing in science topics, memoir, personal essays and literary travel. She studied creative nonfiction at Johns Hopkins and in 2008 had a residency fellowship at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts.