The dinner party

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Once, I almost wrote a book called The Hungry Heart: One Man's Quest To Understand How Women Think About Food. I never wrote it because I thought I would never achieve the quest, and perhaps also because I was frightened of trespassing on such intimate territory.

Nevertheless, I remain fascinated by the way women relate to food - how it has a whole series of layers of meaning for them that seem to be more or less absent from the male psyche. How it often represents control, and love, and guilt, and self-punishment, and communication. How so many women I have met experience anxiety and even fear in relation to food. How beliefs about food operate almost as a small-scale secular religion, including as they do themes of purity, redemption, sin and virtue.

To help me to understand the subject better, I sat down to dinner with three women and discussed, for an evening, how they feel about food. During the meal I frequently felt that I existed, as a man, in a parallel universe - that the matters that they found compelling and which had a powerful effect on their behaviour were a mystery to me.

Susie Orbach

Now 52, author of

`Fat is a Feminist Issue'. A therapist, she

specialises in eating disorders. Her latest book, `The Impossibility of Sex', comes out in May. Any problems she had with food are over

Jane Green

Novelist, 30, author

of `Jemima J', the story of a woman who finds losing weight doesn't make her happy. Her next novel, `Mr Maybe', is out in June. She has a turbulent love affair with food

Brix Smith

A musician, she grew up in California and moved to London. She played guitar with rock band The Fall. Now 32, she will shortly

be presenting a new fashion programme. She is always on a diet

Jane Green: I'm pretty frightened of food really. I was never very good at expressing emotion, so I try to express emotion through food.

Tim Lott: (to Brix Smith): Tell me if there's anything on this menu that you find disgusting?

Brix Smith: Almost everything. Not on a major level but in terms of how fattening it is, and how it's prepared. Every time I go out to eat with anybody, it's the same, unless I'm incredibly low - and then I feel I deserve something. It's a reward.

Tim: For what?

Brix: No it's not a reward, it's a comfort. If I've had a really hard day, if it's been really stressful, I need it. If I'm in a bad state, I immediately want to throw it up.

Tim: Which of these dishes make you go aaaaaargh?

Brix: You look at things like Cajun spiced goats' cheese. I mean, that sounds good on its own, but it's in filo pastry so that's out... It all starts off good then ends up bad. Look: stir-fried mangetout...

Tim: What are the toxic words for you?

Brix: Deep-fried.

Tim: Is it the amount of fat it involves that makes you nervous?

Jane: I worry about carbs: pastry, pasta, bread...

Brix: I'm looking at asparagus, lemon juice and oil - but then it's in puff pastry with a lime hollandaise. That's just sinful.

Tim: Sinful. That's an interesting word, as though it's about morality.

Brix: It's characterised by the feeling that if I've had a good day, it's because I've eaten well.

Susie: By which you mean you've eaten according to the set of rules which you have laid down for yourself.

Tim: Is that about keeping chaos at bay?

Brix: Yes.

Susie: So how do you manage a menu like this?

Brix: I will have gazpacho and then I will have salad. The rocket salad. But I won't have the croutons or the bacon. That seems safe. I used to be so bad when I first came here [from California] that I would carry my own skimmed milk in my bag so I could have a cappuccino with skimmed milk - and it used to drive everyone crazy.

Tim: Do you think what you eat has an effect on your mood?

Brix and Jane: Absolutely!

Jane: At the end of every day, you go over what you've eaten: has it been a good day or a bad day? You are a good person or a bad person depending on that.

Tim: This is almost universally reported among women. It's become a kind of moral system: a way of assessing whether you are a good person. A man would not get that feeling.

Jane: Exercise is the same thing.

Tim: Overcoming sloth or greed?

Brix: I used to be obsessed with exercise, as well. It's really vicious - it makes you feel you've done something today.

Tim: How much of your time do you spend thinking about these issues?

Brix: What takes up a lot of time for me is combining: you don't mix protein or carbohydrates, so there are a lot of calculations.

Jane: Does anyone have an uncomplicated relationship with food?

Susie: I have had issues around it, but it was a very long time ago.

Jane: So you actually managed to put those issues to rest?

Susie: I hope so, yes.

Jane: That for me is extraordinary, because I think once you do have issues with food you're going to have them for the rest of your life.

Susie: I don't believe that. I don't believe it's like being alcoholic. The beauty of it is, because you have the option to eat every time you're hungry you get to solve your problem if you can dare to eat what you are actually hungry for.

Tim: What's the daring about?

Susie: How terrorising food can be for women, which then sets up the idea that these foods are bad and dangerous, these foods are good...

Tim: The thing is to rediscover a sort of natural relationship with food.

Jane: When I was a teenager, I lost that relationship. Of course, what was good and bad food then was very different.

Susie: Nutritional theory changes every year.

Tim: Then potatoes and pasta were the food of the devil; now they're good. Now purity has become a really huge issue.

Jane: With organic food.

Tim: In several ways. Not just the purity of the food, but whether or not it will kill you.

Susie: Whether it's psychically poisoning.

Tim: Preservatives, when I was a kid, were considered a boon; now they're a problem. We used to know what we were eating. Now we don't know what the hell it's going to do, or what the long-term effects are going to be. Somehow, food has come to represent purity.

Susie: This goes back to the moral issue. You're making a moral statement about what you are like in relation to what you consume.

Tim: What is the moral statement you are making? That you're strong enough?

Jane: I don't care what it's got in it, so long as it doesn't make me fat. I remember stuffing my face with fat-free, sugar-free yoghurt and not caring that it had a billion terrible things in it.

Brix: I wouldn't say I binge, but I allow myself to combine improperly. Sometimes I can't control it. In my worst stages it will be, like, I've had two cookies now, I've fucked myself for the day, I might as well keep going. I feel very angry with myself because I've failed, I've lost control.

Susie: What was eating like in your household when you were growing up?

Brix: My mother's a model. She was stick- thin. She had an eating problem, which I did not know until I grew up and she told me. My mother had anxiety attacks, she was afraid of choking, so she had only liquid. My father was a Beverly Hills psychiatrist and now he's chief of staff at a state institute for the criminally insane. I started going to a shrink at the age of 12 and I kept going until about 32. I was a very, very skinny child. I only wanted to eat McDonald's or chocolate. So my father would say, "You have to eat. If you do not eat this egg, I will sit on you and shove it down your throat". I was about six when that started. I would eat the egg, then go and throw up. I wouldn't even have to make myself, I just would throw up. Then it became like a weird control thing; I wanted him to love me, so I ate more and more, until I became a chubby teenager. He would say, "Gee, you could be so beautiful if you would just lose weight. I will pay you five dollars for every pound you lose, and when you lose 20 pounds, I will buy you a whole new wardrobe."

Tim: How do you feel when you get on the scales and you've put on weight?

Brix: I can't bear to get on the scales at the moment. I can't bear to look. I only get on them when I feel very thin.

Tim: Can you explain food-combining?

Brix: You can't have protein and carbohydrate at the same time...

Tim: This scientifically makes no sense.

Brix: But it always, like, seems to make complete sense.

Susie: It's a way of managing food. It's OK. Makes you feel safe.

Brix: Well, I also feel better in terms of digestion and what goes into my stomach. It's like the Hay diet and the Montignac diet. You have to have fruit on an empty stomach.

Tim: Why do you believe this?

Brix: It just makes complete sense.

Tim: There are thousands of theories. Why do you believe this one?

Brix: When I tried the Hay diet and really worked hard at it and ate all-organic food, I felt great. I felt I was glowing and my eyes were clear and I was healthy.

Jane: As for no carbohydrates, it's not that I think that carbs are intrinsically bad, but for me they are my trigger food. When I get cravings, it's always for bread or pasta.

Susie: Do you think if you had them in your daily diet, you might neutralise that?

Jane: It's far too frightening even to contemplate.

Susie: Why don't you just eat bread?

Jane: I think I would balloon.

Susie: But you might find at that point that bread no longer became that magical for you.

Jane: I don't think I can do that.

Tim: Have you ever been obese?

Jane: No, but I've been a stone heavier.

Tim: And did that make you miserable?

Jane: Yes.

Tim: I'm very struck by the passion with which people who have theories about food believe in them, whereas in fact it's very hard to know these things. Fashions change at incredible pace, but while they are in force, people believe in them very strongly. Food knowledge has become a kind of secular religion.

Susie: That's going too far. It's more a question of containing.

Tim: Containing what?

Susie: All sorts of things - passion, conflict, difficulties.

Tim: Doesn't it also have an element of seeking spiritual elevation?

Susie: No, I don't think so. I think it's a response to distress.

Brix: I take so many food supplements: echinacea to keep my immune system happy; I take giant multivitamins and minerals and stuff, sometimes with added ginseng; and I take zinc in the morning and evening, if I remember. I also take chlorella, a seaweed extract.

Jane: Oh yeah, I take that.

Brix: And I take St John's wort as a natural antidepressant, then I take acidophilus.

Tim: Acidophilus?

Brix: It's happy bacteria.

Tim: As opposed to miserable bacteria?

Brix: It's about keeping your system happy if you eat the wrong thing.

Susie: If you were eating a very limited diet, it's not such a terrible thing to be ingesting all those supplements, but why aren't you ingesting them as food?

Tim: Jane, do you do supplements?

Jane: I do take chlorella. It's an alga, it's like spirulina.

Brix: I also have chromium drops.

Tim: What's that all about?

Jane: Chromium is the only one that really matters.

Tim: This sounds like total rubbish.

Jane: I'm sure it is rubbish... Chromium polymate is supposed to boost your metabolism.

Brix: It also stops craving for starch.

Susie: What you mean is, it binds with the starch molecules that are in there already.

Jane: There was this natural slimming pill in the States that loads of people lost lots of weight with, and then it proved to produce heart attacks. Suddenly people were dropping like flies, and they banned it. I'm pretty sure chromium is not that great. I know that when I've taken too much, I get very speedy. When I've taken it without food, I feel terrible. But I take it every day.

Tim: Food obsession also acts as a kind of social connector.

Jane: It's a bonding.

Susie: It's a way of conversing about other things. Instead of saying "I feel terrible", or "Get a grip", you say, "you should take chromium"...

Tim: I don't know any men who take food supplements. I don't know any men who think food affects their mood.

Jane: Every man I've ever known is in a foul mood when they're hungry.

Tim: Sure. But this is a whole culture we're talking about. There's also this kind of underground-knowledge aspect. Have you ever been given a secret diet smuggled out of a hospital?

Brix: Yes.

Jane: Yes, the three-day hot dog, ice-cream, beetroot one.

Brix: There's the heart-attack one.

Jane: Is that the vegetable soup?

Brix: Yes! How many times did I do that?

Jane: No I couldn't, I couldn't...

Tim: You know about this then?

Brix: Definitely. I did it for a week. Shocking - it's gross. You make a soup, you make a cauldron, it's cabbage and carrots and -

Jane: You end up using every pan in your house.

Brix: I have a giant vat. This is the fat-burning soup.

Jane: The idea is, the more you eat the more you lose.

Brix: You have to stuff your face with vegetables - like, you're gagging. This one guarantees losing between 10 and 17 pounds in a week!

Susie: Anyone who's ever been on one of these crazy diets knows that you may lose some but then, the week after, you put it back on again and more.

Tim: All the evidence suggests that dieting simply does not work. That everyone puts it back on.

Jane: It doesn't work. We all know that. Of course it doesn't work.

Tim: Then, why the hell? why don't...?

Jane: We're not dieting. We have specific eating habits. We just have a way of...

Susie: You have food-management procedures?

Jane and Brix: Yeah, exactly.