Saturday, September 18, 2010

Lemme Count the Calories... 10, 50, 500...

Why do we count calories? Why do we sit in our comfortable green chairs around a plain wooden table, our eyes glued to the small black and white column on the back of the chip package, the pasta package, the green bean and potato package, the orange juice, the diet soda, the pretzels, pears, goldfish, real fish, frozen peas, tortillas, snickers bars, apples, grapes, fruit-by-the-foot... you get the idea.

Why do we count calories, though? Why do we measure how "good" something is for us by its energy content as measured in calories? In France they use kilojoules... but most of the time I doubt French families read the nutritional information on the back of their freshly baked baguettes. Why do we evaluate food, and our experience with food, by this strange and artificially scientific standard? I mean, do the people at Hostess Snack Cake Company really lie awake at night, thinking, "I did a good deed today! I produced seven different varieties of synthetic, artificially flavored, chemically rich 100 calorie snack cakes to sell by the millions in grocery stores to nervous women everywhere, inadvertently advertising to them that their bodies are not sufficient for the absurd beauty standards of American pop culture!"? Is there some person who, upon being interviewed for a job, would say that their life goal is to design a "calorie-free dessert with little taste, no natural ingredients, made of wood paste and Splenda packets"? Does that person exist anywhere?

I was walking through beautiful downtown Georgetown this morning, hauling a Trader Joe's reusable grocery bag with me (it is decorated with DC themed decorations, thank you very much), and my apartment mates and I were on a cupcake mission. We originally planned to go to Georgetown Cupcakes, the bakery famous for having its own TV show. When we got to 33 and M St, however, and saw that the line extended out the door and up an entire city block, we decided to make our way back towards Baked and Wired, a more out-of-the-way bakery that boasted large cupcakes for $3.59, espresso drinks, and pies that looked so good I wanted to give up on teaching, law and the liberal arts and become the next Betty Crocker.

And then it hit me, right as I was drooling over the glass cases filled with sample cupcakes like Unporked Elvis (peanut butter, banana and chocolate) and Blueberry Lemon (blueberries... and lemons). Why do we count calories? The experience of shoving the "Pretty Bitchin'" cupcake into my mouth (it's dark chocolate cake and fresh peanut butter frosting, just in case you were curious) is worth the 400 calories, right? And more than that, how can the 400 number accurately describe the feeling of sitting there with some good friends in the warm September sun, looking out at Georgetown and the water, realizing I am in Washington, DC and that I am an independent, cool, cupcake-eating person (who is mistaken for a local sometimes!)? When there is so much contained in between my bites of chocolate/peanut butter goodness, why should I count how many units of energy it contains?

We probably count calories because we want to be healthy. We probably count them because since we were four years old we have been practicing our numbers, and want to stay on top of the tens and hundreds places. We probably count calories because our friends do, or because we're on a diet, or because we aren't very happy with how and what we are eating, and we want to change it.

And I don't want to discount these reasons; I just want to offer a suggestion that our experiences with food are never going to be adequately captured by the caloric intake number. I want to suggest that when we eat, we engage all our senses, we create memories of place and people, we bond with each other, we enjoy the good fruit of creation. I will never forget this afternoon where my fork and I devoured that cupcake like it was our business, nor will I forget the wonderful spinach and mozzarella ravioli I got at Eastern Market, or the apricot iced tea at Port City Java, or even the overly-iced blended chai smoothie thing at Jacob's Coffee & Tea House. Food creates memories; calories create anxiety.

So if you are tempted to turn over that chip bag or that bread loaf or that soda can next time you're sitting at your kitchen table, remember that I am here, in Georgetown, or Dupont Circle, or Chinatown, or even Capitol Hill itself, wholeheartedly loving eating cupcakes. My caloric intake is decently high here, but it corresponds directly to some of my favorite memories so far: FroYo at Mister Yogato, going to Red Velvet Cupcakery and waiting 1/2 an hour for a non-existent bus one night, walking through Georgetown with my roommates enjoying the sun and the window shopping, having pizza at Cosi and talking about living in DC after graduation with a friend, and of course trolling Eastern Market for fresh fruit and veggies. And I will happily pay for those memories in calories.

Love to you all,


  1. Thanks to this post - I headed straight out to the cupcake shop in NBPT and had a chocolate raspberry cupcake dipped in chocolate topped with vanilla cream. Chased it with a double short nonfat dry cappuccino. Calories, smalories. JRay

  2. WHY did you not start a blog 2 years ago so i would have had the perfect place to procrastinate studying/essay writing to read your wonderful thoughts, written so flawlessly (and articulate-ly (if that is a word))??

    it sounds like you are having an amazing time in DC! thanks for the SB shoutout and for knowing my thoughts exactly about the last christian man (your last post) and thinking about memory making more than calorie-intaking.

    i miss you!!


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