The Good, the Bad, the Cake on the Table

When the family I work for left me home while they’re at the beach, they also left part of a cake. It’s getting stale on the kitchen counter. I want to eat it. I am eating it.

In theory, I could resist. I’ve already had dinner (and dessert). It’s not even a kind of cake I like very much. But I’m finding self-restraint nearly impossible, and eating this damned thing is making me think not only about how and why we make decisions, but maybe more importantly, when.

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The culprit.

I bring this up because a lot of conversations about climate change focus on decision-making of various forms. There’s decision-making on an individual level (i.e. do you buy organic or not?) and there’s decision-making on grander scales (GMO labeling, Kyoto treaty…). Although I’m going to talk about cake in this post, the point is not to criticize cake consumption (or to make you salivate).

I know that eating this cake is not “good for me.” Rationally, I should stop. I shouldn’t have started in the first place.

But what should I have done? The cake is there. I didn’t bring it into existence and I certainly didn’t want it to be left here while I’m all alone with no social pressure to restrain myself and no one else to eat it before I do. It’s already at least half-way to stale; if I don’t eat it, who will? What will happen to the poor, fruitless fruitcake? (Sorry, as with eating it, I couldn’t resist the play on words.)

Now that I’ve eaten more of it, I’m starting to get a telltale sugar high, one I know will end in a pretty nasty crash. I worry about developing diabetes. I’m disgusted by the packaging of this thing (half of which I’ve already thrown out–it was neither recyclable nor compostable, and was too beaten up to reuse in any way). Like I said, I’ve had dinner. I’m full. I’m thin now, but I know that’s not something I should take for granted.

But the cake is right next to me. It’s staring me down. And when I take a bite, in that moment–and only in that moment–it tastes, well, sort of good. Even in one bite I don’t love the flavor, but it’s sugary. Sugar = energy = “good.”

The thing that really gets me is that I’m capable of having a very healthy diet. Last year, making my own decisions about what groceries I would buy, I stopped purchasing anything with high fructose corn syrup. Then I stopped buying almost anything that was highly processed at all; my staples were pasta, rice, couscous, a range of fresh vegetables, beans, eggs, and anything I had killed or canned the previous summer–so chicken, rabbit, jam, green beans, homemade ketchup, and pickled zucchini.

The only thing that hasn’t really changed between my diet last year and this year is my copious yogurt consumption (every morning for breakfast). Even with breakfast, however, there’s a big difference: last year, I would buy oats (yes, plain oats) and a few sweet bits (raisins, semi-sweet chocolate chips, honey, walnuts) and have some combination of the above. This year, I have a bit of yogurt with whatever cereal is on hand–sometimes something organic, sometimes sugar puffs. It depends.

Earlier, before I started in on the cake, I had settled into making soup. Left to my own devices and knowing there were plenty of odd vegetables ready to expire in the fridge, I set about throwing something together. Melt a little butter, add onions and garlic, add a cube of bouillon and some water, add other vegetables, add lentils, add spices, add more spices–woohoo, soup!

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This soup, in fact.

Eating the super-gross-sugarfest that is that cake right after the super-awesome soup, I feel like I’ve cancelled out my “good decision” to make and eat soup for dinner with my “bad decision” to hack into that cake. In fact, I’m going to compost the cake right now, before I get any more ideas (eating it is, if anything, more wasteful, since it will just make me feel sick).

But why did I find it possible–in fact, easy–to eat really well last year, while I find it really challenging this year? I’m not just talking about the cake, either. I binge-eat cookies regularly; I overindulge in chocolate; I take too large servings at dinner of food I don’t even like. The answer says a lot about decision making in general.

The first aspect of this question is a weird one for someone who has never experienced true hunger: a lot of my over-eating comes from insecurity about the next meal. I think about food a lot, but I think about it even more when I’m totally dependent on other people to stock the pantry or cook the meals.

I’m also partly paid in food (or being fed, rather). Food arrives in the house and I have the option to eat it or not. To eat it is to be paid, to not eat it (even if I’d feel better) is, in effect, not to be paid (at least in that form of currency). The second effect of being paid in ‘board’ is that I don’t get paid enough to cover that expense on my own; while I can afford the occasional indulgence (like a 2 euro bar of chocolate), that’s about it.

These are sort of psychological motivations for over-eating and especially over-indulging in foods I perceive as “valuable” (whether they actually are valued by the family or not). But, beyond my inability to pay for my own groceries now, there are other economic factors at work. Last year, I bought all my own food. There was a strong incentive to eat cheaply. Believe it or not, that means staying away from processed foods.

It also meant never wasting anything. If I bought celery, for example, the main part of the stalk could go into tuna salad, or into a stir fry, or into soup (I make a mean celery soup!), or onto eggs (fried eggs with celery and paprika is shockingly delightful)… but the rest of the celery plant could also be used. I would only cut off the very very bottom; the tough end would go into a soup or stew, and the leaves could also be chopped up and used to season (and add some bulk to) a soup.

I’m not a great cook by any means, but I do have a few solid fallbacks up my sleeve. Rice or couscous can round out nearly any meal. Making fresh pasta to go with bits and bobs of leftovers is a great way to use them up in a way that doesn’t feel like “eating up leftovers.” After a few weird loaves, I perfected a bread recipe for an extremely basic white bread. Not the healthiest, mind you, but by making it with only honey, butter, yeast, and flour, I at least knew what I wasn’t adding. And it was fresh. But once it had gone stale, I grated it with my cheese grater and used it as filler for burgers made from ground meat (such as the mutton I “earned” by helping butcher an older sheep), or as a way of livening up soup, or as a slight crunch in scrambled eggs.

The most important factor was that I never (or, okay, not that often) gave myself the option to “be bad.” When I bought junk food, I inevitably consumed it almost instantly. But it didn’t feel like deprivation of any sort, at all. I never went hungry. I enjoyed the challenge of coming up with ways to use the odds and ends I could find instead of relying on easy tastes like potato chips or cookies.

There’s an expression you hear a lot when you train horses: Make the right choices easy and the wrong choices hard.

If you think about it, it’s kind of a funny phrase, because it’s making the assumption that the right choices are likely to be the hard ones unless we–the horse trainers–do something about it. Intuitively, we–people in general–tend to think the easy option is often the best. Sometimes that’s true, but we have to be aware of why various options are alternatively easy or hard.

Leaving the kitchen, we can think about transportation. In the U.S., it’s almost obligatory to own, or at least have access to, a car. Once you have a car, using it to get somewhere is almost always the easy–or at least the easiest–option. (Especially outside of major cities with decent public transport, such as New York and Chicago.) The drive between my house and my college was almost a straight path North-South, but there were no busses that could get me even halfway there. (Forget about trains.)

Two of my friends decided to bike home as an adventure for one break. Although there were many treacherous patches–practically no bike lanes or any kind of path or paved surface designed for something other than a car–their journey began with me driving them and their bikes across a major bridge–one they needed to cross to get home but which was illegal to cross except in a car–and for good reason, since it was steep and had no shoulder on either side.

In that case, biking wasn’t necessarily the “right” choice–but it certainly wasn’t easy. And in far less dramatic situations, biking, walking, or taking public transit in the U.S. are still notably difficult options. One of the biggest culture shocks for me in France was learning what it was like to live with public transportation that is actually more efficient (most of the time) than personal transportation–a car.

This has almost nothing to do with French individuals being more civic minded people and deciding to choose the bus rather than the car; although the French are pretty civic-minded, the individual decisions that contribute to high usage of the public transportation network depend on an array of circumstantial factors making public transit–the “right” choice–easy (or, at least, easier).

Parking is expensive and hard to find. Roads are relatively narrow. Bikes and busses both have their own lanes, making those forms of transit quicker and less dangerous. The public transit system as a whole can be accessed with a ticket or subscription card, both of which offer access to all three forms of transit–tram, bus, and Metro. Getting a driver’s license in France is hard, time-consuming, and expensive. I could (and probably will, in a later post) go on, but the important idea is that the successful public transit system doesn’t depend on many individuals inconveniencing themselves; it depends on the overall environment being more conducive to public transportation than to individual drivers in most situations.

The question, then, is how to we facilitate these situations? Who is the ‘horse trainer’ making the right choices easy and the wrong choices hard? When it comes to avoiding binge-eating, a big factor for me has been having control over what comes in the house. I have relatively high self-restraint in the grocery store, where price tags and a desire to get in and out quickly make me stick to wholesome standbys. Even still, I rarely buy organic (shocking, I know). While I insisted on high-quality eggs (like eggs from local farmers or from chickens at home), I rarely bought organic vegetables between the prohibitive prices and excessive packaging.

Yet there was an exception to this: strategic purchases at farmers’ markets usually proved cheaper than organic buys in regular grocery stores. This is because a lot of organic stuff in the grocery store is falsely expensive–it’s heavily marketed ($$), shipped long distances, and often grown with chemicals and extra water usage that while still falling under USDA organic standards fail to make these products truly sustainable. Plus, “conventional” products are typically subsidized at various levels in their production. The end result is that organic and conventional products do not have equal footing on which to be competitive and consumers are faced with easy, though wrong, decisions.

The increase in farmers’ markets throughout the U.S. is an encouraging prospect, but there are still many if not most areas where it is difficult to find a farmers’ market or where these markets can’t meet the demand of the population. In other sectors, it’s also important to note that we can’t and don’t rely on individuals making good choices–we rely on policy makers to shape situations conducive to making good decisions.

The trouble is that the people responsible for making decisions for ‘the group’–for populations, not just individuals–are individuals themselves. They are just as swayed by individual motivations, as irrational as they may be. They are just as likely to eat the entire cake.

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