I am obsessed with food.
On about twenty different levels.
I get near-erotic thrills from beautiful produce. I read recipes for fun. I fret about what my ten-year-old daughter eats and track the comings and goings of chefs and the openings and closings of restaurants the way some people here follow the Yankees. I’m a leafy greens, whole grains freak. I grew up in a home where my mom made stuff from scratch, even bagels and ice cream and bucatini alla amatriciana. I’ve been on a diet since I was about 12 and can ballpark the calories of pretty much anything with maybe a 5 percent margin of error. To top it off, I’m married to a chef. It’s quite the cocktail.
Luckily, I live in a place where I am surrounded by people who are obsessed with food. That place is Manhattan, which I think of as me multiplied by 1.6 million. We all have wildly different backstories. Moms who cooked, those who didn’t. Fat as kids, skinny as kids. We’re meat eaters or not, reflexive dieters or caution to the wind types. We love food. We worry about eating too much, about not being able to eat enough, and about not being able to stop eating. It is a tangled love-hate dynamic complicated by an unhealthy interest in celebrity chefs, imported gelato, bad street food and anything to do with restaurateur Danny Meyer. OMG!!! Have you been to Maialino? Lincoln? Colicchio & Sons? Fill in the blank new restaurant/grocery/bar/gelateria?
I have to be honest. Sometimes, it’s exhausting. Not just keeping up with the endless trendlets– bee pollen, artisanal popcorn, Momofuku spinoffs—but deconstructing every single morsel that we eat or consider eating. I’d like to take a break. But I’m obsessed. So I can’t.
We even have a neurotic foodie mayor, the billionaire Michael Bloomberg. At 67, Mayor Mike worries so much about his appearance that he maintains a running weight-loss competition with one of his friends. An unflattering photo in the press is said to tip him into weeks of soul searching and cranky dieting. Yet the man who got the city to cut back on smoking cigarettes apparently can’t wean himself off peanut butter and burnt bacon sandwiches and super salty bagels. Meanwhile, Bloomberg is often spotted by local gossip columnists at the opening of foodie destinations like Eataly, the 50,000 square foot food hall co-owned by chef Mario Batali, greasy spoons like the Viand Café and restaurants ranging from Blue Fin (fish), to Morton’s Steakhouse (not).
And here’s the kicker: Since 2002, when Bloomberg became mayor, he has led the charge for a citywide ban on trans fats, forced chain restaurants to post calorie counts, tried to shame chefs into cutting the salt in dishes and campaigned against sugary beverages. As the city’s dieter in chief, Mayor Mike is in a unique position: anxious about his own waistline, he is able to force his citizens to join him in the battle of the bulge.
But our mayor is hardly alone. Pretty much everyone I know suffers from a variation on the foodie disorder. We’re control freaks. We clearly spend too much psychic energy and way too much disposable income on food-driven pursuits. Mr. Bloomberg, like many of his fellow Manhattanites, is not just slim, he’s fit and seemingly healthy. He weighs what he did in college. He golfs. He plays tennis. Sometimes on the way to the office in his chauffeur-driven SUV, he gets out walks a few blocks. He lives and breathes what I think of as the Manhattan mystery, which is this: He is obsessed with food, and yet the city’s 20,000 restaurants, four-star chefs, candy shops, doughnut carts and endless other temptations don’t show up on his thighs, butt or other visible body parts.
Then I saw a study comparing the overweight and obesity rates of the five boroughs that make up our city – Queens, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Staten Island and Manhattan. Guess what. The folks who live in my ‘hood are thinner than those in all of the state’s other 62 counties, including what we call the outer boroughs (a snide reference locating Manhattan at the center of the universe and everyone else in the nosebleed seats). Okay, given that the city is still 42% overweight or obese, that’s a kind of dubious honor. But it’s way better than the nation as a whole (which has 67 percent of the population overweight or obese) and believe it or not, way better than Colorado, which always places first in those publicity-generating surveys of the skinniest and fattest states. In fact, if you look at the 2010 combined obesity and overweight stats, Manhattan is thinner than every state in the country. By 13.6 percentage points!!!
All of which raises the question: Is there something about living here that allows Manhattanites to indulge in every cuisine, sneak in junk food, eat out more often than seems mathematically possible, drink heartily, and yet somehow keep our girlish figures? Have Manhattanites unwittingly stumbled upon the eater’s holy grail? The diet that isn’t a diet. The diet that actually works?
You’re probably thinking, Ha! Manhattan is full of Dirty Sexy Money types who’ve got nothing better to do than double up on morning spin classes so they can burn 1,000 calories before lunch. And you’re right. One reason there are so many skinnies and so many healthies in Manhattan is that people who live in the fancy zip codes have money, and often a lot of it. On the Upper East Side, the per capita income tops $120,000, making it one of the densest concentrations of wealth in the country. It’s all you can do to turn the page of a magazine or click through a gossip site to know Gwyneth works out with trainer Tracey Anderson, is a patient of detox doctor Alejandro Junger and lives on vegan fare, meal replacement shakes ($350 for a 21-day supply) and kale. Julianne Moore works with trainer David Kirsch, does yoga and prefers granola bars, yogurt and breakfast cereal. Model Karolina Kurkova, also a client of Anderson’s, stays away from processed foods and mainlines green fruit juices. Granted, in these circles, cost is no bother. And that means a lot when you’re talking about four-star restaurants, personal trainers, private chefs, nutritionists and the dubious luxury of 7-day juice cleanses delivered to your doorstep.
But having lived here for 30 years, I know it’s not all about having the scratch. When I walk to the grocery store there are a few key things going on. First of all, note the verb. I walk to the grocery store. I also walk home from the grocery store with about 20 pounds worth of purchases in two very heavy bags. I do that two or three times a week. Everyone here walks to the supermarket, to take their kids to school, to go to the dentist, to pick up a paper or magazine or a Lotto ticket from the corner newsstand. You get the idea. Paula Seefeldt is a health counselor in New York. Recently, she worked with a client who had moved from Manhattan to San Francisco and put on 25 pounds in the process. Both counselor and patient strapped on pedometers for a few days, and when they compared numbers, Seefeldt was registering 9,000 to 15,000 daily steps. Her client tallied 3,000.
In Manhattan, size matters, and in ways you might not have thought about. There are more than 1.6 million people living here, on a sliver of land smaller than Walmart’s total retail space. That makes Manhattan the most densely populated piece of real estate in America. Manhattanites have to have tiny appliances to fit in their tiny kitchens which are size-appropriate for their teensy-tinsy apartments. They have miniature dogs and equally miniature furniture.
In sum, apartment life is cramped, and that is where I begin. With the fact that Manhattanites are thin and fit, at least in part, by circumstances. More people want to live here than there’s room for. City apartments are insanely expensive and equally claustrophobic.
Because my kitchen is small, I shop for groceries three, four or five times a week. It’s a time suck and means my grocery bills are ridiculously high. But my produce, meats and dairy products are super fresh and I’m forced to buy packaged foods in apartment-sized doses.
Apparently that’s key, because smaller containers lead to eating less, according to Brian Wansink, a professor at Cornell University. Wansink has done hundreds of studies examining the ways that people eat, and his book, Mindless Eating, is something of a bible among Manhattan’s nutrition set. The studies are often hilarious, and usually very telling. My favorite is the soup bowl he rigged up to refill until the unsuspecting diner declared she’d eaten enough. It took a lot of soup.
I can totally vouch for this theory. My cabinets literally can’t accommodate suburban family-packs and tubs-o-whatever, so I buy the 1 pound 2 ounce container of oatmeal, not the 42-ounce one. I buy maple syrup by height (7 inches max), and other wee things: the two-pound box of sugar, the 8-ounce jar of peanut butter, and single-serve containers of yogurt. If I eat half a carton of Rocky Road after starting with a pint, I think, eek!, half a carton. But it’s better than a quart, which is where I might stop had I purchased a half gallon.
Patricia Duffy is the quintessential Manhattan Dieter. She is slim, petite, passionate and informed about food and wine, but she watches what she eats like The Little Red Hen counting her grains of wheat. If she overindulges one evening, she’s in the gym early the next morning working it off. Yet the Patricia who is my friend today is a very different woman than the one in sweats who moved here in 1986 from Minneapolis. For starters, she’s about two clothing sizes smaller. She is also now a stay-at-home mom and an exercise nut. But more importantly, is that living here, she’s learned to feed herself in a way she says was impossible growing up. Back in Wisconsin, where she was born, Patricia remembers all-you-can eat Friday fish fries, oversized portions, and the understanding that you cleaned your plate before you got up from the table. The guiding principle was quantity. A good meal was a big meal. When she traveled, she brought her fat pants so she could eat even more. That started to change after she began traveling to Europe. She remembers in particular a two-and-a-half week trip to Italy with John, her husband. The couple ate and drank whatever they wanted, had pasta at every meal, and when they got home, Patricia found that her pants were loose. It was a total eye-opener, she says. “We were having small portions– nothing was smothered with sauce–and a small salad and wine. Plus, we were moving around a lot.” Over time, that eating style became her own.
Not every place on the map puts a premium on looks. But Manhattan is headquarters to some of the biggest image industries: There’s beauty, from niche brands like Bobbi Brown and MAC to big Revlon-style firms; there’s fashion, both retail and the design end. There’s also advertising, media, publishing and so on. And the people who work in those businesses go to work dressed for the job. I don’t mean dressed as in they put on clothes. I mean dressed up. Spend a half an hour in the lobby of the Conde Nast building around 10 a.m., or any time actually, and you will see what I am talking about. Dozens of tall, willowy, 20-and 30-something-year old women will stream through the revolving doors in an astounding array of costume jewelry, headgear, things that wrap around their waists and capes. They’ll be in skinny pants and Chanel jackets, carrying totes and handbags that cost what we spend to put our daughter through a year of private school.
The point is, Manhattan is more formal than many American cities, closer to a European aesthetic than a California one. Like the way travelers used to dress up to take a plane or train in the 1960s and 70s, people here dress to be in public. It is both a form of showing off and a throwback to a more elegant time.
Excerpted from The Manhattan Diet by Eileen Daspin. Copyright © 2013 by Eileen Daspin.
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