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I recently read a book called What She Ate: Six Remarkable Women and the Food that Tells Their Stories, by Laura Shapiro. It was capsule biographies of six women, three British, two American, and one German, and how their lives were defined to some degree by what they ate, cooked, or served to other people. Anyone who knows me well knows that I am a sucker for any sort of food history, and this one was a particularly interesting take on culinary culture.

One of the women is Eleanor Roosevelt who, for all her other accomplishments, was famous for lacking any palate, not caring at all what she ate, and for serving—or causing to be served—the worst food on the history of the White House. At some point she became enamored of the newly forming discipline of Home Economics, and its practitioners at Cornell University. They were much more concerned about nutrition than about how food tasted; that they were feeding hunger, not appetite, seems to have been a motto with them.

Hunger, not appetite. We pretty much use the words synonymously. Are you hungry? Sure, I have an appetite. But there is a distinction, and I have known it many times first hand.

This morning was pretty cool for my run, cool enough that I pondered whether I should put on long pants rather than shorts. As I set out in the unusually crisp air of a mid-August morning, I thought about autumn and all that, and I felt some pangs of hunger. This happens frequently when I run. I thought about what I would make for breakfast. Last night I poached two peaches that had gotten a little old in simple syrup and baking spices. They are in the refrigerator now, cool and steeped in sweet syrup. Those, with a warm bowl of cream of wheat, would make a nice breakfast for a cool morning.

But when I got home and sat down to take off my running shoes, I had the most vivid flash of a plate full of bacon and eggs. I think my mouth watered at the thought. Probably because the run in the cool air left me hungry enough that it seemed like only a big hit of protein would suffice. But was I really hungrier? Or did I just have a different appetite?

Cool weather, warm weather. We have different appetites at different temperatures. How many times have we heard someone say, ‘It’s too hot to eat?’ Or how often have we come home on a cold day and wanted nothing more than to eat a whole bag of cookies? No, we’re not hungrier at that time, we simply have different appetites.

Our ancient ancestors, when they felt winter coming on, would stockpile food and eat all day, hoping to pack on as many extra pounds as they could to endure the lean months ahead. We no longer need to pack on the pounds—Shop n Save won’t run out of frozen dinners just because it’s snowing—but I think we still feel this primordial appetite, this urge to bulk up against the cold weather.

There is hunger in America: it’s a daily reality for too many of our fellow citizens. Given the current régime in Washington, and the simple fact that too many Americans claim to be Christian but misunderstand that being a Christian should include practicing Christian charity, hunger is likely to get worse in the years ahead. But most of us have never known real hunger. We know the appetite that develops between meals. We don’t wonder where our next meal will come from: we spend too much time deciding whether it will be Chinese, Italian, or that great new Indian place that just went in where that great old taco joint used to be.

As I finish writing this I am also finishing the cream of wheat and the poached peaches. I don’t even have bacon and eggs in the house. By tomorrow, I will.

 

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