Zoe looked anxiously into her cupboard. There was one more tin of hot dogs. That was it. And then? Then she would just have to do without. The authorities regretted it if current restrictions made it difficult to obtain food, but food was hardly a priority in a time of crisis. According to some who were more strident in their beliefs, this was an opportunity for Zoe and others like her to ‘evolve’, to grow out of their primitive belief that they could not live without food. They would have to recognise the supremacy of the spiritual life, even if it led to a deterioration in their ‘physical health’.
Advanced spiritual people always pronounced that term in scare quotes. They considered it outdated or irrational or both. And they invariably added that they enjoyed a rich and rewarding physical existence without the need to stuff their bodies with disgusting organic waste, especially meat! The spiritual life also fed the body, they said. And it was true that the drugs they took to enhance their spiritual experiences also kept their bodies alive and more or less functional. Advanced spiritual people did not need to be physically strong. They spent most of their lives online, after all.
Of course, the spiritual authorities had been perfectly willing to tolerate those who insisted on eating food, even meat, though the practice was heavily regulated to bring it as close into line as possible with civilised values. Some spiritually advanced people even admitted to enjoying the old-fashioned rituals associated with eating food, and would gather round traditional ‘dining tables’ on special occasions to play with cutlery and toast one another.
Under ordinary circumstances, all that was fine. But these were no ordinary circumstances. Spiritual life itself was at stake. Food was a luxury society could no longer afford, at least for now. And it was not that food had been singled out as a unique evil. Social media and video games were far more dangerous, not least because they were so much more popular. They too were heavily restricted as a result of the emergency. So nobody had set out to deprive Zoe or anyone else of food; their craving – what they histrionically called ‘hunger’ – was collateral damage.
You see, the actual target of the restrictions was a dangerous spiritual malaise that was at large, a widespread and growing discontent with life. This was not the kind of malaise that was deliberately propagated by subversives or deviants – despite conspiracy theories to the contrary, conspiracy theories being themselves a kind of spiritual malaise. Instead, it spread more insidiously, especially online. A kind of spiritual one-up-manship spiced by schadenfreude was stoking rampant jealousy, self-loathing and general unhappiness. The real problem with food was the accidental transmission of this malaise, not only in restaurants where people browsed menus, ate together and compared notes, but even more dangerously online through the exchange of recipes and the sharing of photographs of food.
Zoe’s brother had explained it to her many times. ‘I know you food eaters believe the physical world is somehow more real than the spiritual one. But the embarrassing fact for you is that despite all your grand claims, the physicality of food is quite irrelevant to its real menace, which is purely spiritual. You can stuff your faces all you want in the privacy of your own homes. It’s only when you talk about food, intellectualise it and make it into an artefact of culture, that it becomes dangerous. In that respect it’s no different from video games. And if those of us who love video games can do without them for a few months, surely you can desist from swapping recipes and instagramming everything you ingest for a while?’
If only it were that simple. It just so happened that for most food-lovers, those things were an essential part of the experience. There were other food-lovers who thought all that was silly. For them, food was about physical sustenance alone, and they were proud to disdain what they saw as the superficial trappings. Zoe had a friend who competed in triathlons. Such flamboyant physical exertions were considered by most people to be unspeakably vulgar, but increasing numbers of food lovers were drawn to such activities, relishing the sheer physicality of it all in a culture dominated by spirituality. ‘It’s all just calories to me,’ Zoe’s friend would tell her as she loaded up on carbs.
Zoe’s relationship with food was not like that. She loved talking about food, exchanging recipes, and yes, taking the occasional picture. If she ate something bland or uninspiring and lost her appetite – ‘wasted her appetite’ was how she saw it – she considered it a lost opportunity to enjoy something really tasty. More profoundly, Zoe understood that without a culinary culture, there would be no food at all for most people. Unless you lived on an idyllic farm where you could be self-sufficient, you were dependent on the small but vibrant food industry.
In an enlightened, modern culture like theirs, the food industry existed to serve ‘food hobbyists’, not triathlonning fanatics. The current restrictions had put the whole industry on ice. And without the suppliers who depended on recipe sharers and instagrammers, where was Zoe supposed to get hold of food? Even amid the restrictions on such talk, there were rumours of a black market: packets of dried pasta changing hands on street corners, speakeasy diners where the chef would whip up a giant batch of chilli and leave the back door open for hungry customers. But Zoe would have to break the restrictions outright just to find out where to go. She was no rebel. And besides, she was afraid of being infected by the malaise.
She was hungry, though. Starving, in fact, however histrionic that might sound to spiritually advanced people. She opened the tin of hot dogs and slid the entire contents into her trusty old pan before setting it on her little portable hob. That smell! The anticipation! If she didn’t know better, she’d have called it spiritual.
Zoe felt her strength coming back with every mouthful of hot dog, her animal vitality restored. And with it came a change of perspective. If she did have to fight a spiritual malaise, she would rather do so on a full stomach. Indeed, one surely did not have to suspect that the whole malaise was no more than a mass chemical imbalance caused by malnutrition – and such an explanation was too vulgar even for Zoe – to wonder if everyone might not be better able to confront it if they ate something now and then.
Zoe had never tried to force her preferences on anyone else. If people wanted to subsist on pills and mindfulness, that was their business. But she did enjoy discussing food with her few friends who also indulged, and she missed that. The hot dogs had not been the most photogenic dish she had ever cooked, but when she had more to work with, she enjoyed sharing pictures too. It somehow made the food taste even better. And she did feel sad for people who never made the effort to enjoy eating real food, even something as simple as hot dogs, photogenic or not.
Those people would never know the delicious sensation of smell and taste and texture coming together to form an aesthetic experience. They would never know the mysterious feeling of inner strength that stayed with you for hours after eating, and carried you through the day, whether or not you chose to expend it on gratuitous physical exercise. And now Zoe realised she was dancing. Without noticing, while still enjoying her last mouthful of hot dog, she had got up from the table and started swaying about the room, humming contentedly as she did so, before breaking out into a full-fledged boogie. This was what food could do to a person. No wonder spiritually advanced people never touched the stuff.