A diet is for life

Feeling a bit on the porky side post-Christmas? Thought of taking that new wonderdrug that friends s

With the possible exception of the credulity of the bald-headed man in the field of hair-growers, there is nowhere to be found such simple trustfulness in the veracity of printer's ink as that possessed by the obese within the realm of fat cures.

Arthur J Cramp, 1928

If, like more than half of all Britons, you are on a New Year diet, stop reading now. According to a study by the American Psychological Association, after two years of effort, 66 per cent of slimmers weigh more than when they started - in a nation that spends $40bn a year trying to shed pounds. What hope is there for us amateurs across the pond?

We might increase our chances of success by adopting the long view afforded by Louise Foxcroft's new history, Calories and Corsets (Profile Books) - for, as the 18th-century doctor Thomas Beddoes (reportedly as plump as a feather bed) remarked: "No process in human life is so common than sinning against the stomach and repenting shortly afterwards." Foxcroft's fascinating survey of 2,000 years of self-denial and snake oil puts paid to any idea that obesity is a modern phenomenon. There was no room for flab in the ancient Greek cult of physical perfection. (Hippocrates's insistence that overweight people take long walks in the nude is one of his less rational prescriptions.)

Gluttony, alas, is a visible sin that has always attracted disapproval. In the 6th century, Pope Gregory identified five varieties, including eating with "unbecoming eagerness" and the seeking out of delicacies for the purpose of gratifying "the vile palate".

Overweight people are one of the last groups it is acceptable to stereotype as "stupid" - or, as one 1930s "obesity expert" let rip, "disgusting, pathological and degenerate". The wisely anonymous author of Advice to Stout People (1883) declared that the only way to deal with the problem was to "make obesity penal . . . The police would be justified in arresting the oleaginous pedestrians, slapping them into scales at the nearest police station, and if they exceed a certain . . . weight, at once procure their summary imprisonment, without the option of a fine." No wonder the plump, in desperation, turn to quick fixes to shed extra pounds.

It's always been more tempting to subject oneself to a massage ("to crush the subcutaneous fat lobules") or invest in a fat-burning lip balm or a bar of flab-dissolving soap than to deny oneself a slice of Christmas cake. And who wouldn't want to believe in the Fat Whisperer of west Hollywood, who claims that she can sweet-talk fat cells into packing their bags?

Drugs don't work

Aspiring flappers popped arsenic and strychnine-laden pills and binged on laxative chewing gum in pursuit of a fashionably boyish silhouette. The drugs available today might be safer, but they don't seem to be much more effective. According to the Lancet, those on the wonderpill Orlistat shed 3.9kg a year on average; a recent study of Weight Watchers members found they lost nearly one and a half times that in just 12 weeks.

But sadly, anything that promises to "reduce stoutness in a marvellous degree without any alteration in diet" is, as the Edwardian doctor C Stanford Read observed, too good to be true, and faddish eating, though effective temporarily, fares little better in the long term. Milk camps, cabbage soup diets and grapefruit plans will all drive you back into the arms of that cream cake. The successes in Calories and Corsets share one thing: the recognition that a diet is for life. As Foxcroft points out, the Greek diaita, from which our word derives, describes a way of living, rather than "a narrow weight-loss regime". Dukan devotees, take note.

Felicity Cloake write the food column for the New Statesman. She also writes for the Guardian and is the author of  Perfect: 68 Essential Recipes for Every Cook's Repertoire (Fig Tree, 2011) and Perfect Host: 162 easy recipes for feeding people & having fun (Fig Tree, 2013). She is on Twitter as @FelicityCloake.

This article first appeared in the 09 January 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Forget Obama

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The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis