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Savage Feast & The Elephant in the Room

February 4, 2019

Recently I read two books by men about their relationship with food: Savage Feast, by Boris Fishman and The Elephant in the Room, by Tommy Tomlinson.

Both books are memoirs, and both have parts that make them worth reading, but eventually the viewpoints expressed by the authors ticked me off because they were so self-centered. Yes, it’s memoir; the genre itself is self-centered. But the assumption is that we read memoirs because it’s interesting to see how other people think and feel about issues that affect us all, right? Especially with food, as everybody has to eat.

I was trying to think of the right word to describe how Tomlinson’s character came off in The Elephant in the Room, and the one that came to mind first was “naif,” but that didn’t seem quite right, so I asked Ron and Walker for synonyms. “Innocent,” they said. That didn’t seem right, either and I described the attitude I was seeing in the book a little more. “Unaware of the whole wide world of diet books,” Ron suggested. The “wide” world? I repeated, laughing. Here’s the thing: Tomlinson has never before lost a significant amount of weight (I’m defining “significant” somewhat arbitrarily as 50 pounds or more). Although Tomlinson claims to have tried a lot of diets, his actual list (on pages 126-127) is fairly short, and he presents them in order to set up what he calls “the carny test” for diets, pointing out that they’re always trying to sell you something. As if we didn’t all know that. Tomlinson feels original for coming up with what he calls the “Three-Step Diet” which is just calorie-counting and exercise.

Reading about Tomlinson’s supposedly common-sense solutions to weight loss is exasperating for a woman who has tried way more than two pages worth of diets and been successful at many of them, only to regain all the weight and then some several times. It’s like one of those cartoons about how a man cuts out one dessert each day and drops ten pounds in a week, while a woman drastically cuts her total food intake and struggles to lose two pounds over the course of a month.

Tomlinson spends a lot of time re-inventing the wheel. Rather than reading anything about the psychology of weight loss, he wades right in with his individual (but by no means unique) discovery that “I’ve forged my weight into a shield that keeps me from the risks of a bolder life.” Reminding myself about fat as a shield is one of the reasons I keep a copy of Fat is a Feminist Issue on my shelf. Another reason is what it says about how significant weight loss is only possible when you start hating your body less, an insight that Tomlinson expresses with the metaphor of listening to a radio station he calls “USUCK-FM.”

Another author Tomlinson echoes without appearing to have read is Roxane Gay. Her descriptions (in her own memoir, Hunger) of scouting out restaurants and theaters in order to avoid the embarrassment and possible pain of trying to fit into a too-small chair are more detailed and evocative than Tomlinson’s one example of checking out the Brooklyn Diner to find a chair that will hold him before his friend gets there.

Tomlinson says he has read Lindy West’s Shrill and won’t argue with her about the body-positive movement, but still disagrees with her personally: “I don’t want the world to expand to make room for me. It’s not good for me, and it’s not good for the world. I need to make myself fit.” Ironically, the reason he feels he needs to take up less room is because he believes that out-of-control eating is childish, and that if he wants to become a full-grown adult, he has to learn to moderate his appetites. No one is going to disagree with him about his own perspective, but I’m sure there are plenty of other women besides me who can moderate their appetites from now till kingdom come and still aren’t going to take up much less room in the world.

Both Tomlinson and Fishman come off as self-centered because their memoirs are centered around food and yet they’ve never had to cook for anyone but themselves. They’ve never had to contemplate (or resist) foods that they must prepare for others.

Fishman, who invited himself along on a trip to see his grandfather’s caregiver’s family in Kiev, tells his only story about pitching in as a cook with a tale about how he helped her prepare borsht for a multi-course family dinner. The big revelation: he says “my contribution had been decidedly limited, but I felt a swelling, embarrassing pride all the same. It was different cooking for others.”

The title of Fishman’s memoir comes from a summer he spent in Crimea, on the Black Sea coast in Ukraine, the summer he was six, when they had to send nonperishables from home in “slatted wooden boxes. This was called ‘savage leisure,’—vacation the primitive way. The same boxes returned home filled with southern fruit.” He describes “sigh-worthy meals” like “pan-fried flour-dusted pike perch in sunflower oil” with “salat provencal—shredded cabbage, sweet onion, grated carrot, vinegar, sunflower oil, salt, pepper, and a teaspoon of sugar.” He includes recipes for each lovingly-described meal.

Among the many stories about great meals he’s eaten, Fishman tells one story about a time his father cooked for his mother and grandmother and his mother said “I didn’t know you could cook,” to which his father replied “You never let me near the stove.” So his self-involvement is, unsurprisingly, a role that was modeled for him. The three meals his father cooked are described only by the list of ingredients.

The meals the women in Fishman’s life make for him are described in loving detail and interspersed with recipes. I was interested in Fishman’s book because I have a son who loves Russia and its food and I thought we might make some of the recipes. Most of them are very complicated and call for ingredients it would be impossible to find in the American Midwest, however. The only recipe from this book that I ended up thinking I’d be willing to try is the recipe for a salmon broth soup called Ukha, which Fishman gives two recipes for to show how differently it can be made (the second recipe is made with a different fish).

The stories about Fishman’s grandparents and their lives in Russia were interesting; I enjoyed most of the book, the parts that weren’t so intensely focused on Fishman himself or the vicissitudes of his love life.

Fishman is an only child. Tomlinson is not, but he talks about how he “spent so much time alone in my room growing up. So much time alone when I was single. So much time working a day shift while Alix worked nights. These days I spend so much time working at home or in a hotel room somewhere. Aloneness has become my natural state.” This is why he eats so much, Tomlinson claims: “I’m hungry, I’m lonely, I need to feel a part of the world.” Although he briefly describes his sister’s premature death from complications of being overweight, he doesn’t explain why he felt so alone when he grew up with her and also a brother. It’s unclear whether the brother is also overweight, as he is barely even mentioned in passing.

There were actually three parts of Tomlinson’s book that I liked a lot. The first is what he figured out about riding in a car with a seatbelt that wouldn’t go around him: he says that he finally “slipped the belt behind my back and buckled it.” I had never figured out that solution, but you can bet that the next time I’m in a mini-van with my very slender sister-in-law insisting that we all buckle up, I’m going to be buckling that belt behind my back.

The second is when he says what all fat people know: “It always makes me laugh to hear people say fast food doesn’t taste good. They are obviously trying to convince themselves. Fast food tastes FANTASTIC. It has been engineered and test-marketed and focus-grouped by billion-dollar corporations whose profits depend on getting customers to come back.”

The third is when he says another thing all fat people know: “telling a fat person Eat less and exercise is like telling a boxer Don’t get hit.
You act as if there’s not an opponent.
Losing weight is a fucking rock fight. The enemies come from all sides.”

Overall, though, it seems to me that these two particular men have a less complicated relationship with food than most women do. What do you think?


9 Comments leave one →
  1. February 4, 2019 10:35 pm

    Just from your description I’d say both are narcissists and live in a fantasy world. I feel no empathy at all. They have all the advantage of the masculine metabolism – and still have problems. They don’t have the situation of a body which changes after having kids – and they still have problems.

    They’re not in the middle of the world’s expectations, and having other people try to control them. They don’t have to feed a family. All they have to discipline is themselves.

    That’s off the top of my head.

    Don’t get me started. I can’t even muster up some sympathy.

    • February 5, 2019 3:16 pm

      Much of what you say feels like a gratifying response to my post, but I do think that each of us is “in the middle of the world’s expectations” and any visible physical difference makes that more difficult.

      • February 6, 2019 1:41 pm

        I had to chuckle: I recognize my lack of empathy. The men you describe don’t seem to have the capacity to learn from being slightly different. Or aren’t displaying it yet!

        When I have a complaint (after all, being physically disabled and chronically ill does leave one a few unsatisfied wishes), I think about how much better I have than so many people, and pray for our world. If I can actually DO something, I’m gratified (losing the ability to do almost any volunteer work is part of my fate). The complaint then has led to gratitude – my choice.

        Which reminds me that, now that we’re settled in our new community (just moved yesterday to the final apartment for a long time), I have to start choosing to skip some of the delicious things (fresh baked crusty bread, ice cream, the chocolate croissants at Sunday brunch) that are piling pounds on, and go back to my more parsimonious way of eating – because I don’t like the consequences. I have this slow disabled female metabolism – and I can either acknowledge it and make better choices, or have to deal. Already working on it – now I have to get serious.

  2. February 5, 2019 8:08 am

    I think men in general have a less complicated relationship with food than women do. It is harder for us to lose weight yet it seems society accepts a heavy man more than a heavy woman. If I read either of these books, it will probably be Savage Feast.

    • February 5, 2019 3:18 pm

      It does seem that people, in general, police men’s bodies a little less.
      You might like much of Savage Feast. I liked the first part of the book better than the last part. It’s almost like I soured on it (what is it with bad puns and these books?)

  3. Elizabeth permalink
    February 6, 2019 7:53 am

    I’m reposting here what I’ve shared with you elsewhere: there’s so much emotion and judgment on all sides re food and weight. But for me (as our friend said, my personal point of view), my motivation is how good I feel at this weight and at this fitness level (referring to pre-break fitness, which is achievable again).

    Yesterday walking around before we had to head to the airport, I shared the gist of this post with Kent and your frustration about these two male authors felt so self-centered to you–I may have put words in your mouth, I described that frustration as also feeling as though they were trying to universalize their experiences as the one true way. He said, you know there’s an epidemic of obese men these days who are experiencing weight-related health issues. Those authors may not be talking to women at all. Which I thought was at least worth considering.

    • February 6, 2019 9:02 am

      If they’re not talking to women at all, then these books should be marketed exclusively to men. They’re not, though. The Elephant in the Room got a big, general write-up in the NYT and Savage Feast was sent to me for an advance review.

  4. August 5, 2019 6:17 pm

    I’m about three quarters of the way through Tommy’s audio book and it’s got all my wheels turning. I hadn’t yet thought about male-female differences because I’ve been focused on his personality and blatant honesty regarding his food addiction. I like the three points you highlighted as well and only wish he could apply that same level of insight to himself…it’s like, what’s missing for him and how many others feel this way? I suppose I’m curious to know because it’s part of my job. It’s like something inside him keeps making allowances-are these the inner thoughts of other addicts or is food addiction completely unique because we need to eat to live?
    If nothing else it’s given me so much food for thought! Ha. Couldn’t help myself.

    • August 5, 2019 8:48 pm

      I do think food addiction is different from other addictions, because you can’t just give it up cold turkey. (ahem, another bad pun)

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