I don’t cheat on my taxes and I never cheated on a test, but lately I’ve been experimenting with “cheat meals.” This kind of cheating doesn’t require me to make up imaginary deductions or sneak peeks at my friend’s quiz paper, but it does let me indulge in whatever I want for one meal a week as long as I eat healthy the rest of the time. Actually, I started out experimenting with a whole cheat day, but that turned into a food orgy that even Caligula would be ashamed to attend, so I’ve cut it back to just one cheat meal a week. It’s supposed to help prevent your body from thinking you’re starving and keep your metabolism geared up. Just like most diet science, I have no idea if that’s actually true, but I’m willing to experiment with it especially if it lets me sample those pastries in the Kroger deli that always look so delectable.
Sadly, some things look a lot better under glass than they taste in my mouth, like Starbucks pumpkin scones. I carefully examined every item in the coffee house’s display case last weekend, regarding the size of every flake of coconut and the geometry of every caramal swirl, trying to decide which brownie or cookie or cake was most worthy of being my “cheat meal” for the week. I ordered the pumpkin scone along with a pumpkin latte to create an autumnal theme meal, and I truly experienced a Fall when I was disappointed by both of them. When I sipped my coffee, it didn’t taste like pumpkin anything, though I didn’t want to immediately spit it out, which is unusual for a non-coffee drinker like me. The scone was dry and semi-hard, almost like the stale bread we used to feed ducks as a kid. When I walked back to my car I could only think, “I wasted my calories on that? But it looked so good!”
Like so many things in life, the illusion of these desserts is frequently far better than the reality. If you used a computer to follow my eye-tracking at the grocery store, you’d find my pupils tend to linger several seconds on the elaborate cake and cheesecake displays before they flick back ahead to direct me to the meat section. I don’t really eat that sugary stuff anymore and I don’t even miss it most of the time, but I do notice it. If I want to I can dream about how tasty it must be. Now that I’ve sampled a couple of the items, I wonder if it’s better to live in the fantasy world. There I get to believe that pumpkin scones are scrumptious even if I’m not eating them, instead of in reality where I eat them and discover they’re just “meh.”
It’s probably best to buy baked goods from restaurants that actually bake them fresh. I recently read the book Kitchen Confidential by Anthony Bourdain, an insider’s memoir about the restaurant industry, so I really should know better than to buy pastries from chain coffee shops. When my mom worked at Borders, she said they bought pastries from outside manufacturers and simply defrosted them before setting them out on a tray.
The anticipation of eating something good can sometimes transcend the experience itself. I get to spend all week thinking about what I want to eat for my cheat meal and how good it will be. By the time Saturday actually rolls around and I bite into a cinnamon roll, even if it’s as delicious as I think it will be the experience is over fairly fast. There can be just as much joy in anticipating something good than having the good thing actually happen.
The other good thing? I can now eat “bad” foods in public without shame. For another cheat meal, I went to my local whole foods grocery store and bought a fist-sized mini pound cake for an afternoon snack. After purchasing it at the register, I sat at one of the tables and chairs in the middle of the store and ate half the cake right there, in front of everybody, plastic fork held proudly. When I was morbidly obese I would have hidden my cake in a plastic bag and waited until I got home to devour it in its entirety. If I was still that large, I would have feared being judged by other shoppers who would see a really fat girl eating something that wasn’t going to make her any thinner. Now that I’m basically thin, I feel like I can eat crap in public without being judged, or at least not judged as harshly. I’ve also reached a point where I don’t care what people think of what I eat, be it frosting or a salad. People are going to judge no matter what, so I may as well eat what I want to.
I’ll probably still be mesmerized by rotating pie displays, even if I intellectually know the slices probably look better than they taste. According to an episode of the radio show “This American Life” the spinning increases pie sales. I guess I’m not the only one who has been fooled by eye appeal.