Of Carrots and Sticks

Back in my dieting days, I would periodically try to convince myself to ‘snack’ on nothing but raw carrots.    At the start of the week, I would make up a big bag of peeled carrot batons and put them in the fridge: a totem of my good intentions.   When hunger struck – which was often – I would force myself to chomp joylessly on these raw carrots, instead of the stack of toasted teacakes I really wanted. If only I swallowed enough of them instead of what I really wanted to eat, surely I would lose weight.

 

But a few days on, the carrots started to taste like a chore. They felt cold in my mouth and insubstantial in my stomach.

 

Come the weekend, I would be back on the teacakes.

 

My trouble, I now see, is that I had turned the carrots into sticks, to beat myself with.  I put them in a box marked ‘health’ not ‘pleasure’.  I treated them as something punitive that needed to be swallowed as quickly as possible, like a pill, rather than a true food, to be savoured. No wonder I couldn’t stick with the diet.  Every time I ate a raw carrot, I was thwarting my own desires.

 

I’ve been thinking a lot about this question of carrots and sticks.  My new book, First Bite: How We Learn to Eat (Fourth Estate), is published this week in the U.K .  When I first saw the cover, designed by Jo Walker, I almost burst out laughing, because it so perfectly encapsulated the themes I grapple with in the book. It shows a beautiful carrot with thick green foliage being dangled on a stick, like bait.  The image is saying: what if carrots really were carrots and not sticks?  What if you could reach the point where – give or take the odd plate of fish and chips - you wanted to eat the foods that do you good?

To my own astonishment and gratitude, I honestly can say I’ve reached this point myself.  When I was a compulsive eater as a teenager, I never would have believed it was possible.  But now when I think of carrots, it is not as something that I eat to be ‘virtuous’, but something sweet and nourishing that I can enjoy in many different forms.  Sometimes, I make carrots into a smooth buttery soup with chicken stock and crème fraiche; in other moods, I grate them and mix them with Indian spices and chickpea flour and fry them as delicious crunchy fritters.  Another way I love to eat them is roasted with honey and nigella seeds and tossed in a salad with avocado and spinach leaves.

 

In my unhappy dieting days, I never would have lavished such love on these orange roots.  I saw them as fuel, to be ingested in the form that gave me the fewest calories, which meant raw or plain steamed.   And because I ate them in such a meagre way, they gave me little pleasure.

 

Things look very different when you start from the presumption that carrots – or any real wholesome food – can be something delicious.  You start to cook and eat them in more interesting ways. Maybe you appreciate the vibrant texture of a grated carrot salad with oil and lemon; or the soft comfort of a carrot and potato curry, stewed in coconut milk.

 

My teenage self would be incredulous to hear it, but I would now be very sad if you told me I had to give up carrots.  As for teacakes, I’m still partial to them, once in a while – especially made to Dan Lepard’s recipe from Short and Sweet  but I can’t say they form a staple part of my diet.

Good things happen when we learn to treat carrots as carrots and not as sticks.

 

Good things happen when we learn to treat carrots as carrots and not as sticks.