Food & Drink: Lies, damn lies and health statistics

YOU MAY have noticed that a large part of our information on food and health comes, these days, from statistics. In just one week, I have learnt - if I believe any of it - (a) that the price of pork in France is set weekly, by computer, (b) that 43 per cent of the French have their evening meal (not the main meal) with the television on, and (c) that smoking (reading the headlines, not the small print) takes 20 years off your life.

This is all passed off as 'information' and is supposed to be both useful and instructive: (a) tells me that while I am in France I am not going to get a cheaper pork chop by shopping around, and that the small producer with a few choice pigs is getting rooked, as usual, by the agribusiness combines; (b) tells me nothing I need to know, but arouses a certain curiosity, first because, French television being what it is, I cannot imagine what it is they watch, and second because it is my belief that all audience measurements in television and radio are purely mechanical: that is, they register the gloomy presence of the various boxes and the fact that they are on, not whether people are really watching or listening; and (c) tells me there are still messiahs out there trying to save us from ourselves by means of shock/horror headlines based on little evidence that has not been shown to be based on the pursuit of a predetermined conclusion.

These statistics are part of a general sociological bias, in which our behaviour as social animals is studied in rather loose form. Sociologists are great propagandists for their 'discipline'. Not having completed a 'social science' requirement at university (I found the field intellectually impoverished), I was asked to take an exam in lieu of the course, on which the first multiple-choice question ran something like this: 'The following disciplines most advance humanity: (a) sociology, (b) religion . . .' Anyway, you know what any sensible person would answer.

I think much of this field is bunkum, and that is as true of 'studies' of our food behaviour as of any other subject. People engaging in any activity are complex individuals and eating, or sharing food with others (eg, a meal), is a particularly complex subject. It is layered with historical connotations; it is richly layered culturally; it depends on our moods, our state of being; it varies daily; and for all these reasons one should eschew generalisations on one's food habits or those of others. The number of variables is too great to arrive at a satisfactory conclusion.

I introduce this subject because I have lately wondered whatever happened to the glutton. I know gluttons exist. I have even known some, and on occasion been one, but they are not easy to find. A sort of opprobrium rests on the breed. Gluttons are ashamed to show their gluttony, and it has become a secret vice. I have no sociological insights to report on gluttony, a sphere that makes some therapists rich. I can, however, observe myself, since on two successive days this past week I have reached satiety and beyond. Why? I ask myself. As the two occasions were vastly different in nature (and as, begad, I ought to know better), most of my theories about my over-

indulgence were in conflict.

For instance, the first orgy - a vast paella offered me in the foothills of the Pyrenees by a kind reader of this column - was, I concluded, due to two factors: waiting and watching the dish cook for too long and a nervousness that overtakes me when I meet a dozen people I do not know. I have over-eaten (and drunk) at every conference I have ever been to; as if the engine of conversation would die without extreme stoking.

The second, among intimate friends, was a couscous prepared by their Moroccan maid, which was excellent. There, I think, the eating of several large helpings was meant to absorb an excellent gigondas and to keep up with the retired British doctor who kept us all vastly entertained. Also to flatter the cook?

The point is that I know, without sociology, what gorging is. It is a form of sin for which you pay right away. A statistic could be devised which would show that almost all of us have the occasional binge, but it would not be particularly informative. Grateful to be alive after a dodgy operation, I once demolished four dozen oysters and a great deal of Moet. In exceptional circumstances one may well do without prudence.

The glutton, of course, is a different beast: his excess is consistent; his digestion must be nonpareil; and if some celebrated cases are taken into account, his longevity is unaffected. The occasional pigger- out is different; he - I - will almost certainly suffer the consequences. But to follow the Spanish proverb that has pride of place in our kitchen, En la cama y en la mesa es inutil la verguenza - at table, as in bed, shame is of no use - I think we probably should not inquire too much, and certainly not pseudo- scientifically, into our food (or other) habits. They are ours, we are stuck with them, and they harm no one but ourselves. I have recovered from my double orgy, am grateful to my hosts for the opportunity, and do not like to think of myself as a statistic.