Food and Drink: Solitary vice that will make you thin

As I rode the starch-laden skies towards an Arizona funeral last week, I happened to spy in Northwest Airlines' in-flight magazine the ultimate diet: solitude. Yes, solitude. Eat alone and you will slim.

In my view this will work for 90 per cent of the population; indeed, perhaps for all except the Solitary Glutton. Which, by the way, is one hell of a title for a TV cooking series - it even has its hero, Dagwood Bumstead of Blondie fame. You may remember that, despite the fact that his eponymous, charming wife slaved away at this model family's breakfast and dinner (until recently, when she decided to get a job), Dagwood still felt the need to fill up at the fridge. For Dagwood, eating alone, in pyjamas, was the ultimate thrill.

For most of us, however, eating alone is sure to reduce us. When I am left to my own devices, eating ceases to be an orderly process; I do not give up eating or cooking, but I certainly eat a lot less.

The reasons the authors of Northwest's guide to sleek health - and, to my mind, mental oblivion - offer for why we eat less alone are obvious. Our appetites are stimulated by company, they say: banish it. We compete to produce better food for others than for ourselves: stop it. We show off; the appetites of others affect our own: be eremitical. Conversation is a stimulus and we eat more without thinking: be silent.

I have said this diet works. St Simeon Stylites (AD390-459), who spent 40 years on pillars of different heights and hauled up his food in a basket, was notably thin; so was Daniel (unsanctified), who did 33 years on the same regime.

As far as carrying matters to extremes is concerned, our pillar-dwellers are on a par with that Greek philosopher who argued - conclusively, to my thinking - that the only sure way to avoid pain was to commit suicide. This is my back-door way of saying that, admirable though this diet is in conception, in practice it is certain to run into difficulties. Admirably suited it may be to greedy yuppie stockbrokers, merchant bankers, smart lawyers and others with whom one would not wish to live (I would put the lot of these selfish vandals up where Nelson is in Trafalgar Square), but it just will not work with normal people who have families or any occupation beyond cultivating the self.

What happens, I ask myself, at dinner? Do I come down at the appointed hour and find junior son, now six, scoffing his turnips and filet de sole normande by the telly? Is Number Three daughter, not quite still fresh from Oxford, up in her room reading Lao-tzu over a dainty repast of Marmite? Does my beloved wife point to the pork tenderloin and tell me to get on with it, all the while standing about eating a stalk of celery? Does she, when I sit down, move upstairs to continue boiling down her translation of a Proust biography to a size suitable for today's American readers who like nothing long except sex?

Or do we, instead, all assemble in the one place, face a batch of raw materials, compete for the stove, and then depart severally to consume, lest we speak or enjoy each other's company?

Of course, it is all typical American immortality-wish nonsense: in the first place, because most of us are fated (and this is one fate I bless) to spend our lives in the company of others, and in the second because, except for the occasional eccentric ostrich, we are social animals. All those things the Solitary Diet supposes to be ills are virtues.

True, there are dinners where I would rather be alone reading A S Byatt (I face one tonight, when I must listen to a lecture on Transatlantic Relations and the International Monetary Fund), but that is only because such a dinner is an obligation. I might, indeed, be thinner than I am (and I weigh the same as I did 40 years ago) if I had always dined alone, but I would have learnt nothing; and what profits it a man to be svelte but empty-headed?

When it comes to Basic Family Values and the like, there is one that is seldom touched upon, and that is the family meal, the one not timed to accommodate prime time but rather with the general need to comingle and exchange the news of the day - Number Four son's just-announced engagement, what it feels like to kiss a corpse, why Chinese philosophy is as vague as Nostradamus, how to fix icebound gutters that have collapsed and taken with them a good chunk of the front of our house. Would we turn out to live such interesting if ordinary lives had we not last night shared a souffle and boiled brisket? And what about the perils of solitary drinking?

If you think of the Bobbitt pair, the Menendez brothers or other socially dysfunctional criminals, all of them invoking (as in that Jewish definition of chutzpah: a man who kills his parents and asks the court for mercy because he is an orphan) a grievance about the painfulness of life, you know that every one of them was on a Solitary Diet. No dinner together, no morals.

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