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Articles / My Appetite is a Gift, But Sometimes I Must Rein it In

My Appetite is a Gift, But Sometimes I Must Rein it In

Published March 2, 2023

A story of perseverance and a very, very hungry man

Illustration: Getty Images

When I was nineteen, I lived in West Philadelphia with roommates. One had a wiry and neurotic dog named Neok; he was short-furred and mid-sized. Neok coped with his nervous energy by eating. When the food slid out of the can and plopped into the bowl, he ate it so ravenously that he had to pause every few seconds to wheeze and heave. Sometimes, he ate until he puked.

I took Neok on daily walks around the neighborhood. The blocks were lined with two-story row houses with porches, each with a raised front garden bordered by an old iron gate. A man who lived at the special needs group home on the block sat on his porch every day and asked about Neok as we walked by. “What do you feed him, Alpo?” he asked in a drawling Philly accent.  “He eats everything,” I said. One day the man shouted, “It looks like that dog is walking you!” I nodded. Neok didn’t just pull me in a straight line; he zigged and zagged in short bursts, almost hyperextending my arm as he lunged for chicken bones.

Around the neighborhood, bones were strewn everywhere—drums and flats; they outnumbered cigarette butts ten to one. There was a chicken spot a few blocks away, and everyone ate from styrofoam containers as they walked and then discarded the bones on the sidewalk. My roommate warned me that if the dog chewed and swallowed them, the bones would splinter and shred his intestines. So, each time Neok picked one up, I’d wrap the leash around my forearm several times to shorten it, pry his dripping jaws open, reach in, and extract it. He would have eaten himself to death if I had let him, and enjoyed every minute.

Neok had a brother named Chim. Chim was dull. I didn’t take him for walks much, and he didn’t care. He preferred to lay curled up on his mat, one ear flopped over, his bored eyeballs glinting, a precious ball of long silky fur. He had no appetite.

Neok definitely had an appetite. It was his engine. His tongue was always hanging out, and he looked happy as hell. I would have taken him anywhere.

A big appetite is a gift; it leads you to eat broadly and passionately. No one should be ashamed of a big appetite. Sometimes, I pity the uninspired and joyless way others eat, the way they smirk with thin-lipped satisfaction after a spoonful of quinoa.

Photo: Getty Images

A few years ago, some coworkers and I went to this hundred-year-old, ship-themed restaurant, the Ship Lantern Inn. The place had a menu of continental classics and a fascinating history—the founder, John Foglia, was best friends with Chef Boyardee and helped him prepare some of the first batches of prepared pasta and sauce in the Ship Lantern kitchen. As we sat at the bar, listening to Foglia’s grandson’s stories, I had a crock of escargot, a martini, a chicken dish, and then bananas foster with coffee. The waiter flambéed the dessert, and my co-worker stared with fascination and concern, not at the flaming bananas but at me. I looked at her, and she said, “Jesus, you are decadent.”  I don’t remember what she ordered, except it came on a small plate and was pitiful. I wondered why, given the opportunity, she wouldn’t want to enjoy a feast like mine. Didn’t she know we were running out of time?

Photo: Getty Images

I’m not the biggest glutton in history. There’s a long line of epic eaters that I can only admire. Some consciously traded years on earth for short-term hedonistic pleasure, which is reasonable. I’ve flirted with the idea that life is not meaningful in any celestial sense, that we might as well get fat, be happy, and make love. As a writer, on food assignments about a specific thing–fried chicken or spaghetti—I plow through the streets with my mouth open, like Pac-Man, devouring everything in my path. I’ve modified my philosophy in recent years, though. My health conditions are racking up on the online “Patient Portal” at my doctor’s office—GERD, prediabetes, high cholesterol. With chronic illnesses, I’ll suffer. If I die young, my young children will suffer.  I now realize that pain management is as crucial as pleasure seeking. So I strive for balance, but it’s hard for me.

Marcel, Naeem, Zoraida, and Mike. Photo courtesy Mike Diago

In social work, there is a model called Narrative Therapy. One tenet states that it’s easier for people to deal with their issue if they think of it as some external metaphorical character rather than something integral to their being. In practice, I tell hyperactive kids to treasure their energy since they often feel ashamed. I say, “Let’s think of your energy like a fun and playful dog pulling you forward on a walk. We want to train it to trot alongside you, so the dog isn’t walking you.” That same metaphor works well regarding my big appetite. I don’t have ADHD—I tested negative for it when I was sixteen, although my wife wants me to get tested again—but I don’t know what to do with myself if I’m not cooking or consuming something. My appetite yanks me forward. I’m not ashamed of that, but I’d like to instead train it to trot alongside me when I want it to.

Regrettably, mindfulness exercises and portion control turn out to be the best paths to achieving this goal. The two things I’ve found most helpful are Tai Chi and the Weight Watchers app.

I use Dr. Paul Lam’s Tai Chi 24 forms. I found the DVD at the library years ago (though now I watch it on YouTube). After performing half an hour of Dr. Paul’s forms, slowly, coordinating my breath, I move through the next few hours of the day slowly and intentionally; my brain and breath lead the way. It’s a feeling I can access later when I’m stressed or salivating over studs of chicharron, still attached to a strip of crackling.

Last year, I discovered the Weight Watchers app. Nothing is prohibited; the app just helps you monitor portion sizes. For example, if I eat fried pork belly with rice and beans at lunch, I should eat less and have vegetables for dinner. When I eat that pork belly, I let it sit on my tongue for a long time and cherish it. I’ve found that the pleasures of a big appetite are even more potent when concentrated.

So I use those tools, Weight Watchers and Tai Chi, seven days a week, three weeks on, and ten months off. I’m still ravenous for most of the year, but I’d rather be a Neok than a Chim. At least, for now, I’m living.

Mike and Naeem. Photo courtesy Mike Diago