Sugar, Sugar

Telluride Daily Planet,  Thursday, August 5, 2010

My mother used to tell people — quite emphatically — that she lost her appetite during the war. She said it as if she were an amputee, or someone eviscerated of the mojo that made her desire deliciousness and nourishment. And every time she said it, I was mad at the war and mad at her.

Belated note to mom (via George Herbert): Living well is the best revenge.

But she never did seem to enjoy her food. Never spent her long hours in the kitchen lovingly, the way she spent long days in the garden tending the flowers and shrubs. She didn’t become a fine cook like one sister, or a fine hostess like the other. She did her K.P. and had a few things she could do with her eyes closed — cream puffs, cheese soufflés — but she never liked anything about it except possibly satisfying everybody else’s appetites.

Though one could argue that emigrating to the U.S. and raising her children in ‘40s and ‘50s America instead of post-war Paris might make something entirely different of her anyway, I think it was the wartime allotment — of sugar in particular — that eventually tripped a switch in her brain, a switch not so much about food as betrayal. I’ll get to that in a minute.

One could hardly blame her, though, for losing a sense that she might ever again find trusted satisfaction in eating. Food supplies in occupied Paris were down 50 percent, and rationing was as severe as it was anywhere in Europe. The daily ration card allowed each citizen a scant portion of bread (half a baguette), a mere taste of meat and cheese (poker-chip sizes), half a potato, about a teaspoon of butter and not quite enough sugar to sweeten a cup of coffee or tea so weak and unfamiliar it required as much imagination as water. Coffee made of chestnuts, lupin seeds and chickpeas? Tea made of carrot tops, apple skins or lime leaves?

The rations constituted approximately 950 calories — less than half the amount needed to sustain an average woman, let alone one standing in lines all day and expending all mental and emotional calories trying to cipher portions and hedge barters for her family. In general, if it wasn’t on the shortlist — or unless one was wealthy, privileged, or powerful — it was simply not available and one was left to one’s own devices. Solutions were just as desperate as they had to be.

While government-issue tobacco consisted of a certain combination of herbs and grasses, my mother remembered her father and his friends rolling whatever was growing between cracks in sidewalks. She remembered trying to cook the same yanked-up stuff for dinner. She remembered being served cat stew at a family gathering (eventually a government warning was posted on the dangers involved) and not telling her sisters, even though she could plainly see — however thick the pot au feu — that the bones were unfamiliar ones. She continued to swear off root vegetables after the war, pretty much every time she encountered one. But mainly she talked about sugar cubes, the monthly allotment of 30 per capita.

Mom, aka Jeannine Moulignier, handled the sugar cube issue differently than her sisters, Michelle and Nicole, and her mother, Jeanne. While the rest hoarded and savored, self-administering one daily for a baby-sized happy moment in a sea of trouble, my mother would eat them all the minute she got them, finding comfort in the gob of crunch and syrup oozing down her gullet.

What was it, though, this act, and what did it say about her? Did she want to feel sated, and to be — however briefly — in control of that? Did she then want to go beyond control, make herself sick once a month so that she might just destroy the want? Did she want a permanent end to anticipating, so that every day would not have to be lived in careful orchestration around a 5/8-inch square of sweetness, something once so ordinary she might have even thrown it away on an ordinary day in an ordinary café before the war?

Sugar betrayed my mother. From it she learned not to want, not to anticipate, not to desire. These in themselves are not such bad things — in fact, they are familiar concepts in many eastern traditions. But what happens when you carve out future joy in the process? When there is lack today, must we lower our expectations for once and for all in order to protect ourselves from the shadows, even, of disappointment?

Living well is the best revenge. It is worth parsing out, and then examining again, until it makes perfect sense.

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