Dig in, Girls

The pie’s consumption was unplanned. Louise and I were sitting in the kitchen of our student flat, picking idly at homework and staring out the window at the wrinkly hills of the Edinburgh skyline. At some point, we realized we were hungry. We turned to survey the counter, which held a half-eaten tin of beans, a flaccid banana, and a few dejected-looking slices of bread. So we grabbed our keys and walked to the grocery store down the block.

I don’t remember who saw it first. But there it was, a silent, malignant presence behind the slightly fogged glass. The picture on its box showed a looming mass of chocolate, caramel, ice cream, and malt balls, all bulging at the seams of a thick chocolate crust. It was, nominally, a pie. In our eyes, it was more like a portal to the far corners of Xanadu.

Before we even reached the checkout line, Louise and I had begun plotting the pie’s demise in sick and urgent detail. “It might take a while to defrost,” I said, slightly worried. “We can start around the edges. They always go soft first,” Louise replied. The cashier raised his eyebrows.

By the time we reached the staircase to our flat, we’d already ripped open the box and started gobbling the still-frozen malt balls soldered to the pie’s surface. Once we reached the kitchen, we sat down and started stabbing the pie with our forks, shoveling icy chunks of it into our mouths with a savagery that would have humbled Idi Amin.

Eventually, the front door opened and one of our roommates and her boyfriend walked in and caught us with our forks suspended, chocolate smeared across our faces, ice cream dribbling down our chins, looking like either very naughty children or criminally insane adults. They regarded us with a look of wonder and disgust, then quickly retreated to the relative safety of their bedroom and probably locked the door.

Louise and I looked at each other, and then at the remains of the pie. I stabbed my fork into the edge of the crust and the whole thing, plate included, shot off the kitchen table and smashed onto the floor. So we did the only thing that seemed reasonable under the circumstances — got down on our hands and knees and carefully picked plate shards and carpet fuzz out of that last piece of pie, and ate it.

The pie may have actually tasted that good; it may have not. It didn’t really matter. It was, save for the entire box of Graham Crackers I sucked down one sunny afternoon when I was thirteen, my first brush with the transformative, mind-warping power of gluttony. Though my stomach was threatening secession, I felt exhilarated, like I’d just trespassed onto someone’s property, gone skinny-dipping in his pool, TPed his trees, and gotten away with it. It was, in other words, unexpectedly liberating, though I couldn’t figure out why.

At the time, the only clue I had came from that scene in the 1963 film version of Tom Jones where the title character, played by a young, meltingly attractive Albert Finney, shares an enormous feast with a lusty wench whose acquaintance he’s recently made. They stuff their faces while exchanging lascivious looks, and then tear one another’s clothes off. That sort of giddy abandon and faint air of taboo captured how I felt, and finally, a few years after the fact, I understood why.

If gluttony is somewhat quaintly considered a sin of biblical proportion, then among women, it’s considered something far, far worse: it is un-ladylike. And although gluttony is generally viewed with disapproval, among men, it’s at least tolerated, and often even encouraged. See, for example, Man v. Food, hot dog eating contests, and the continued existence of beefsteaks, those historic spectacles where predominately male diners shove a few metric tons of meat down their throats while the ghosts of A.J. Liebling and Henry VIII hover above, cheering them on. Displays of male gluttony are not only acceptable; they’re publicly sanctioned.

But for women? Not so much. Unless, of course, it involves one woman eating whipped cream off of another woman in front of a paying audience. Or if it’s some freakishly thin wraith like the erstwhile Top Chef Masters host Kelly Choi tucking away half a pizza — that sort of gluttony is considered a cute if odd novelty, like a poodle riding a donkey.

I should point out what I mean by gluttony here. I’m not talking about the kind of sad, mindless, quotidian gluttony that involves working your way through an entire roast chicken and a six-pack of Yoo-Hoo while dully contemplating the three Big Macs and German chocolate cake you’ll eat for lunch.

I’m talking about those occasional forays onto a psychological minefield, where pleasure and guilt commingle with rebellion against a century’s worth of diet and etiquette advice from the women’s magazine industry. The kind of pre-meditated, mindful gluttony where you’re aware of the transgressive joy of every bite, along with the singular gratification it yields. The kind that feels more like going on a date with your stomach, where you plan in advance, carefully choosing your means of seduction, and then go all the way, enthusiastically succumbing to temptation.

I’ve done this on countless occasions, usually with members of the dessert family, which I often substitute for “real” food. Peanut butter ice box pie for lunch, top-loaded waffle cones for dinner, cake and ice cream for breakfast. And if I happen to be eating at home, I’ll lick the plate — or bowl — clean.

It’s an act that feels equal parts slovenly and radical, at least within the context of how women are taught to look and behave. It’s not fashionable, ladies, to lick the plate clean, much less visibly enjoy your food — stick with the steamed salmon and microgreens, and nobody gets hurt.

The one exception to the rule is, of course, the cupcake. That milquetoast stalwart of children’s birthday parties has been re-sold to us, courtesy of certain TV shows and the baking industry’s industrial marketing complex, as our all-purpose reward and consolation for, basically, life. Finally, we can have our cake and eat it too; as a bonus, it comes in pastel.

But when I think of indulgence — something that’s supposed to count as a reward for the ofttimes dispiriting work of being an adult, I don’t think of the edible equivalent of a make-believe tea party or Barbie’s Dreamhouse. Because the problem with the innocent cupcake is what is also supposed to be its greatest selling point: its size. We can only go so far with one — to the edge but not over it — which makes it boringly acceptable, particularly if it’s gluten-free and sweetened with agave.

What about those of us who crave something more than two bites of dry cake and a pile of enamel-stripping frosting? Something lusty, irresponsible, and intimately acquainted with the inside of a deep fryer. Something that requires you to lick your fingers and long for a pair of maternity pants; that feels more like an affirmation than a culturally sanctioned compromise.

That, for me, is what womanly gluttony come down to: embracing your appetites without apology, not passively eating your feelings. It may not be exactly on the same level of women’s liberation as getting the right to vote or having access to birth control, but it does provide joy, something whose value cannot be quantified.

And though even I will admit that there are far more dignified acts than eating a slice of half-melted pie off the kitchen floor, there are few, at least involving less than two people, that are more fun.