Howard Jacobson: You can keep your good health and long life. Just give me back my pasta

Better to live a brief life without fear than live to 100 and afraid of every pea that rolls on to our plate

I'm away as you're reading this. I'm aware you also might be away as you're reading this – the world now being a global village and The Independent being available in every corner of it – but it's me I'm talking about. I've come away to commit a crime. I've come away to eat pasta.

Eating pasta shouldn't be accounted a criminal offence, I know – to my mind stealing pasta should not be a criminal offence – but I've been in the hands of a dietician and nutritionist these past couple of months (a vanity, not a health thing) and pasta was the first thing she banished.

"So what are you saying?" I asked her. "Pasta only twice a week?"

"Pasta not at all," she said.

"Not ever?"

"Not ever until you've reached your goal."

I told her my goal was eating pasta for every meal, but she explained that that wasn't a goal, it was a death wish. They are fastidious people, nutritionists; as puritanically precise with language as they are with food.

It's the puritanism I can't bear. All right, if pasta has to be forsworn until I've reached my goal (which is never to forswear pasta), then that's that. But why does she have to turn her nose up at the very word? Pasta – she makes it sound like a sexually transmitted disease. After she's finished with the word you'd rather eat chlamydia than pasta. You'd rather tuck into a bowl of trichomoniasis.

Baguette the same. I won't say what you'd rather eat on her lips than a baguette, but how does she manage to render something as innocently joyous as a baguette – warm, fresh, light in the crumb, crackly in the crust, vanillaish French somehow, Balzacian and yet at the same time Rabelaisian – so repellent? What's a baguette ever done to her?

I was brought up not to go in fear and loathing of food. We didn't eat well but we ate plentifully. When my father went to a restaurant he ordered double. Most times he didn't bother to look at the menu. "I'll just have what you're having," he'd say, "only double." "Dad, you've never eaten here before. You don't know how big the portions are." "Doesn't matter. I'll have double." Then when the food arrived he'd double that.

He couldn't handle alcohol so he'd flavour it with lime. It is likely my father invented lager and lime. Certainly he invented scotch and lime, with double the lime.

There was the pleasure in eating out for him – plenty. He feasted, my father. He celebrated being alive every time he raised his knife and fork. Food, in a manner of speaking, killed him in the end, and well before his time. His stomach went. So the world's nutritionists can consider themselves vindicated. But what's the measure of a life? How long you can extend it or how much you enjoy it? "It is not growing like a tree / In bulke, doth make man better be," Ben Jonson wrote. "In small proportions, we just beauties see: / And in short measures, life may perfect be."

The quotation lacks a certain aptness, I grant you, in the instance of my father, "small proportions" and "short measures" being beyond his comprehension – but you take my point. Better to live a brief life without fear than extend its small affrights until we are 100 and afraid of every pea that rolls on to our plate.

I don't exaggerate. I have seen careful eaters actually check to see what's underneath a pea. They push it about the plate when they think you aren't watching them. They prong it with their fork, raise it, inspect the underside for fear it has come in contact with something their fastidiousness forbids – gravy, unwashed mint, a contaminated potato – carbs, carbs! – or just another rogue pea, paler, greener, smaller, larger than their gullet can accommodate or their tongue can bear.

Dine with such a person when they're eating fish and you're there until the early morning. First the skin must come off and be interrogated for trace of fin or gill – which is odd since they aren't going to eat the skin anyway – then the flesh grooming begins, a combing motion with the back of the knife to remove marine impurities invisible to the human eye, then the tail must be removed and the head severed at just the right juncture of throat and shoulder, and now the bones ... You have eaten a whole lobster linguini along with a basket of Italian bread, side dishes of tomato salad, spinach and maybe, to help pass the time, a bowl of parmigiana di melanzane (and make that double melanzane), and they're still picking at the bones of a sardine.

That was one of my father's devil words, "pick". It was the worst offence we could commit at table. Picking instead of shovelling. And I have inherited his loathing of it. In picking is comprised everything that is suspicious, neurasthenic, mean spirited, narrow gutted, fearful of the appetites and therefore anti-life. Yet now I am paying someone to tell me I must pick at every course.

It goes beyond pasta and even beyond baguettes. All bread that's had anything interesting done to it is verboten. This at a time when delicious breads from every part of the world have never been more accessible. Not that many years ago it was sliced white or sliced brown, thick, medium or thin. And that was if you lived in a middle-class area and had a bakery near by. Where we grew up it was Hovis for the Gentiles and for the Jews that plaited, sweet baby's milk confection called a challah – bread you could drink through a straw.

Now, when I can choose from fougasse, focaccia, ciabatta, sourdough, campaillou, lavash, pugliese, and a thousand others, I am confined to limp flaps of wholewheat which taste like manilla envelopes and clog up your insides with furballs of dead dough.

The consequences of gluttony are not, I grant you, pretty. The consequences of our devouring the rest of the planet's resources ditto. But we are without doubt heading for a new era of puritanism in the matter of conserving food and fuels which won't be pretty either. It might be true that unless we cut back on everything we consume we will be finished. But who said we have to go on for ever? Expenditure is a part of nature. Maybe blowing ourselves out is precisely nature's plan for us. What's unnatural about wanting to die full and carefree, rather than live on with long faces, self-righteous custodians of a joyless environment, watching every pea?

Comments