"You Won't Believe How Good This Is"
on Nutella, desire, "Tasty," and the natural state of humankind
To my surprise she picked up a jar and put it in our cart. If my mother was to be believed, and this jar of spread was actually just chocolate, to buy it and bring it home with the regular groceries was unheard of. We didn't have treats in our house, and certainly not ones that served no other purpose than to just be chocolate. That is not to say that we didn't have desserts, but they always came with a catch. For a while my mother would buy me Lucky Charms to have only for after dinner, but I had to eat the bland rice kernels and drink the calcium rich milk along with the delicious marshmallows. In the summer she bought popsicles, but only the kind that contained real fruit, that were tangy instead of sweet. A jar of spreadable chocolate was a game changer.
My mother was right about the Nutella. It tasted amazing on anything. We ate it on Graham Crackers, horrible twelve grain seed and nut bread, fruit, plain with a spoon, until the jar was gone. Another did not materialize. I realized that the Nutella was a coup. Now that the rebel's resources were depleted they had lost their ability to fight, and in no time at all the old order was returned to power.
This was just one instance in a long childhood of craving foods. When I was in first and second grade, several years before the Nutella, my mother restricted my sugar intake to none. She went to my school and told the women working at the cafeteria to not serve me anything with blatant sugar, which meant on the rare and special day that they served maple bars for breakfast, I was stuck eating rubbery scrambled eggs and scorched sausage links.
She told the supervisors at the after school care – "Kids Club" – I went to as well. At that age I also suffered from chronic ear infections, which prevented me from going swimming. This was particularly difficult as Kids Club took almost daily trips to the local indoor swimming pool, a giant cavern of a building with a wave pool, water slide, massive mushroom fountain, inner-tubes made especially for riding the fake surfs. Most days I sat out of this activity, not wanting to go through the hassle of putting uncomfortable plugs in my ears and attempting to keep my head above water. My only reprieve was the snack-bar. I would save up coins I found in the couch or stole from the change basket in my parent's room to buy nachos or a soft pretzel, both served with molten, fake cheese. Usually, though, I had only a few dimes to my name, and relied on the jar of gummy worms, ten cents apiece, to eke out some pleasure from the experience. After my mother put the kibosh on sugar that pleasure was fleeting. I once attempted to secretly purchase two gummy worms, but was quickly found out by one of the counselors, who confiscated them and put me in time out.
Later when she relaxed her rules (sometime after my younger sister entered toddlerhood) I went full tilt in the opposite direction. With no one to stop me I gorged myself on anything with sugar. On one rare day I had three dollars to my name when we went to the pool. I purchased three twenty ounce sodas (all Mr. Pibbs) from a vending machine and drank them over the course of the afternoon. My mother either did not know or did not have the energy to continue to police my sugar intake. I never knew for sure what exactly had prompted her to do it in the first place. My parents were not overbearing hippies like many of their friends and colleagues. I was perpetually skinny as a child, no matter what I ate, and I had no underlying health problems, other than with my ears. Sugar was just where she had drawn their line in the sand, one she felt comfortable smudging to make room for a jar of Nutella.
I currently work for a corporate law firm as a receptionist, a job that requires me to do very little outside of answer the phone when it rings and process the occasional invoice. This job was a deliberate move to give myself more time to focus on my writing career, although I often use my downtime at work as everyone else does, feeling my spine compress as I sink further and further into my chair while I right-click-open-new-tab on dozens of articles that I'll read three paragraphs of before giving up. I refresh my Twitter and Facebook feeds constantly, cherishing every piece of new content that is shared. On Facebook this has become an increasingly singular experience. As with Bitstrips and personality quizes before it, my feed has become overrun with cooking and baking videos, mostly from a BuzzFeed offshoot aptly named "Tasty." The videos are quick and simple, most under a minute long, and are shot from above a work space in one and a half speed, captions pointing out exactly which ingredients the disembodied hands are sloshing into the clear mixing bowl at any given moment. Although there are new recipes each time, aesthetically the videos are basically the same. There is none of the pomp of Julia Child preparing a duck, or the Barefoot Contessa chopping forty cloves of garlic before Jeffrey comes home for the weekend, or Sandra Lee turning a jar of pineapple and a bag of flower into a no muss no fuss dessert. It is utilitarian. It is made exclusively to be shared (I use this word in the sense of the act of sharing a video onto your timeline on Facebook, I doubt anyone has ever left the computer to tell anyone else about these recipes). Almost none of the recipes look good. I don't plan on making any in real life, unless I was getting paid to keep a Julie and Julia style blog, but I cannot stop watching. The second I see the familiar font appear across the screen I have to watch. It's a compulsion.
The recipes on "Tasty" are profoundly lowest common denominator. Recent additions have included a "Chocolate Almond Braid" that is simply a puff pastry with a large chocolate bar in the middle and some almonds on top, and a recipe for homemade chicken nuggets (see above) where you shake raw chicken in a bag of crushed potato chips and then bake it. "PIN IT FOR LATER!" they add at the bottom of their posts, as though you might somehow forget all two to three ingredients.
I have a distinct memory of being in the "Pie Shop" – a pizza restaurant next to the main cafeteria from where I once ordered penne alla vodka and found a band aid at the bottom – and gazing upon a four foot tall curio of plastic bins that held several different types of candy that one could purchase by the pound. The only other time I'd had that much capital combined with that much access to candy was when my mother took me to a street market while on vacation in Mexico City and gave me fifty pesos to shop with. I ended up buying a kilo of Runts, which I ate by the handful in our hotel room until well after the skin on the inside of my mouth began to burn.
I turned to a friend, who I was sitting next to at the time, and said, "If we wanted to right now we could just buy two-thousand dollar's worth of candy by the pound with the money we were given that we are supposed to buy food to nourish ourselves with for the next few months." She agreed that that was definitely within the realm of possibility.
People make choices about what they eat for a multitude of reasons. Some people are careful to select only healthy and nutritious foods to fuel their mind and body, others eat whatever the fuck they want and feel great about it. Often people's food choices are dictated by access, means, class, or illness. Other than the summer that I lived in Brooklyn on $150 a weekand ate nothing but peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and Trader Joe's microwave mini-tacos, my choices around food have rarely been limited by those factors. I typically try to find food that fits somewhere in the overlap of tasty and not-too-bad for you, with the regular dip into either end of the spectrum.
In the clickbait age the concept of "healthy eating" has boomeranged back and forth so many times that it's almost impossible to tell where we stand. There is a Portlandia skit that addresses this, where a young woman moves into a house haunted by the ghosts of a couple who died of confusion because they couldn't tell what was good for them and what was bad for them. "Sitting kills," one ghost eerily whispers to the other. "No, humans were made to sit, I heard it on NPR," the other ghost responds. New information (or old information dressed up as new) about how we should eat comes at us so fast that it often feels like we barely have time to spit the butter out of our mouths before someone comes along and tells us to shove it back in there again. Before "Tasty" arrived on the scene to show us how to melt cheese onto bread, there were hundreds of thousands of listicles and videos that showed us how to make all of the gross food we bought at Whole Foods edible. But the healthy eating route is bad business for clickbait because, outside of the obvious, there is little consensus on what it means to "eat healthy." You can write the best "15 Ways To Eat Chard This Winter" listicle around only to have it relegated to the e-compost pile a few months later when it turns out that ramps are actually a better source of vitamin whatever. I once saw a Nutella commercial that sold it to moms as a health food because they could put it on whole wheat bread and trick their kids into eating it. Only later would we discover that bread, whole wheat or no, isn't really that healthy, and that Nutella on whole wheat bread is nothing more than a donut with more fiber.
And so this uncertain pandering gave rise to a new trend, the "fuck it" fad. Quinoa may turn out to be cultural appropriation, and almonds may be sucking drought ridden California dry, but you can't go wrong if you cut open a loaf of bread, dump a round of brie into it, and bake it for ten minutes. The result? I can't wait to try it! Because really, who fucking cares if eating nothing but bread and cheese will ensure you are bloated and constipated for the rest of your life? Who cares about ingesting dangerous levels of sodium by eating potato-chip chicken nuggets? Those studies about salt have been disproved anyway, and they will be probably be proved again by the time you are reading this article. There's no way to get ahead in the healthy eating racket so fuck it. Just fuck it. Say it loud and proud: Fuck. It. Eat. It. Taste. Y. If you're not trying, you're not failing, and not trying has become the biggest and best fad of the nu-digital age.
So why can't I get on board? Why can't I just allow myself to dive face first into a cornucopia of edible delights? Besides not wanting to feel like a garbage fire after every meal, I do believe there is such thing as too much of a good thing. Eating whatever you want whenever you want it brings pleasure until it doesn't. That's because in a state of unfettered pleasure you are missing the most important aspect of pleasure: desire.
Or maybe I’m a fool for listening to the little girl who warned me not to eat too much Vegemite. Perhaps man will never cease to want, and instead our wants will just change. Instead of enchilada stuffed shells or a tear apart buffalo chicken wheel bake, our tastes will become more extreme. Once we've exhausted the possible uses for Nutella and camembert, science will be forced to create something even tastier and meltier and "you've got to try this"ier. In pin-ing and sharing and DIYing these meals of Dionysian pleasure we'll transcend desire. The laws of man will crumble at our feet as we writhe, naked and slathered in garlicy oil, in an orgiastic state of having. "Tasty" will be our new God, our new church, our new prophets, tenets, prayer. Omnes salve gloriosissimo regi formellas casei has panem. And when we've risen above the paltry state of humanity we’ll loop back in time, find a new level of having. Our brains will yearn for the unbridled pleasures of having desire. We'll go back to hunting game and eating organ meat. We, delirious and nude, will wander down to smash snails and muscles on the rocks of a primordial beach. We'll suck out their briny guts and lick the salt and slime out of their shells. Tasty.