Is there a right way to eat?

Is there a wrong way to write about it?

I’ll take the second question first. I’ve got an apple in one hand, a pen in the other, and my mouth is moving as fast as my mind. Is this as bad as talking with your mouth full, or is it the boldest kind of personal journalism? It’s not academic; consciousness swings on a chemical hinge — another way of saying we are what we eat — so a description of my eating habits is no less revealing than a catalogue of my sexual preferences, and the analogy is hardly haphazard. Michio Kushi, the leading proponent of macrobiotics, goes so far as to assess the Presidential candidates on the basis of their physiognomy, and helpfully suggests that George Wallace would do well to cut down on meat and eat more grains and vegetables. If there’s a wrong way to write about politics, this may be it. But since Mr. Kushi admittedly had no previous knowledge about the candidates or their policies — a blessed but odd turn in an election year — his conclusion that none of them has the stature of a world leader is all the more remarkable. Now, you don’t have my picture before you, but if I told you I drink coffee and sometimes smoke, you’d get some ideas. Unfortunately, so does Mr. Kushi. If you’ve ever gotten sick eating nothing but brown rice, you’ll want to chew that over. (In macrobiotics, they tell you to chew everything at least fifty times. I tried this once, but before I was half done I was chewing my gums.) But this is the wrong way to write about macrobiotics. If you believe in it, and it works for you, these thoughts are as nourishing as a maraschino cherry. If you’re prejudiced from the start, I’m only reinforcing your conceit. Don’t think you understand macrobiotics, because most of those who follow it don’t. George Oshawa, who popularized it, is to the written word what Kushi is to political science, and a philosophy of eating which begins with the principle that “everything is the differentiated manifestation of one infinity” is about as helpful to spiritually gullible Westerners as Sophie Portnoy’s dictum to eat, because it’s good.

Eating pure, whole foods that grow naturally in your area, chewing well, and avoiding bad combinations is the basic macrobiotic idea; like many other worthwhile notions it has been turned into something forbiddingly esoteric. My friend Bruce, who’s seven feet tall with a kind face, understands it better than anyone I know. He was quietly amused, I’m sure, when I barrelled into a 10-day brown rice fast without proper knowledge or preparation; I went down for the count on the seventh with the worst headache I’ve ever had. Discharging poisons, he later explained. About to die, I insisted.

But when it comes to food I’ve always been an extremist. For four years, I was a strict vegetarian. Humans are not biologically carnivorous, I explained to whomever would listen. Meat, I went on, is the dead flesh of an animal in a state of decomposition. Besides, it’s riddled with harmful chemicals. Finally, what right do we have to kill other creatures?

Persuasive arguments, especially when everyone is concerned, and confused about his health, and, more generally, about how to live; not a few of my friends were convinced, changed their ways, applauded my example.

No one’s applauding anymore. I’m as uncomfortable with the vegetarians as I am at Hardee’s. When they asked a Buddhist monk why he didn’t eat meat, he allowed that the vegetables are no less alive than the animals, but the animals make more noise when they’re killed. Nearly as much noise as the vegetarians. If this offends you, because your pantry has no meat, only honey, robbed from the bees; and natural yoghurt, made from milk the cow would naturally have stopped producing when she naturally stopped nursing; and sprouts, which are eaten alive; if this makes you so hopping mad you want to take off your brushed suede jacket and teach me a lesson, about right and wrong, I’ll ask you to calm down, because the plants in the room are shrinking from your violence, and the Gates of Hell, hinged with a high protein meat-substitute, are yawning wide. From where I’m standing, I can see Arnold Ehret, father of the no-dairy mucusless diet, being licked head to toe by a transvestite cannibal in peacock feathers, and Robert Rodale, father of the organic gardening movement — who laid the blame for John Kennedy’s assassination squarely on sugar, in a tract that pictured Oswald holding a bottle of Coca-Cola — neck deep in a vat of hot fudge, being stirred by a benign-looking CIA operative with a double chin.

We outgrew economic determinism and, with barely a pause for air (fouled by a proletariat that had settled for Ramblers rather than Revolution), moved on to nutritional determinism. We search for the right food with the same zest as scientists looking for the cure to cancer, and what we forget — but I can’t say it, can I? This is already too offensive by half, and God’s a mouthful.