“Wish I weren't judging a cocktail contest tonight,” I recently whined on Facebook. The almost immediate comeback from a clever friend: “Said nobody ever.”
Why would anyone complain about the “duty” to sample 10 delicious cocktails from top bartenders or a lineup of invitations to foodie events in your inbox? Well, since you asked...
"Anything Worth Doing Is Worth Overdoing"
To understand where I’m coming from, it would be helpful (but not required) to have seen the movie Tommy Boy. There’s a scene in which Chris Farley is so overzealous about his sale that he ultimately kills it. That was me my first year as a full-time freelance food and travel writer. Every invitation that came up, I pounced. Eat my way through a couple dozen restaurants in Orlando in one weekend? Bring it! Sample pizza from the top pizzaiolas in Naples? Sì! Judge the Jack Daniels World Barbecue Championships? I'll swear the Kansas City Barbeque Society oath right now.
But somewhere between the 9 am bourbon tastings, judging a Cochon whole hog event (read: trying 30 pork dishes in one hour), and inhaling a vast buffet lunch on a steamy day in Bangkok, the shine wore off.
Don't get me wrong: I still love food and drink, and I obsess about what I'll get to eat and sip. But now, other thoughts creep in too. Sometimes they show up in dreams as I toss and turn in unfamiliar hotel beds, drenched in meat sweats, visions of entering a bodybuilding competition with a food baby bulging over a bikini bottom plaguing my dreams. That food baby was funny at dinner with my fellow food writers. We heave with laughter as we name the bumps between endless glasses of drink. We plow through the relentless stream of heirloom, foraged, heritage, drizzled, lathered, smothered, covered dishes that chefs send out, professing fullness but finding room for just one more bite, or, OK, polishing off the platter of all the desserts.
But lying gorged in bed at night, or waking up to a food hangover the next day, I wonder why I do this to myself when I know what it will mean after the fact.
It means hiding my favorite jeans in the back of the closet because I don't want to squeeze them on after a particularly lavish trip; it's a sludgy feeling that prevents me from opening the door to my garage gym; it's a pervasive sense of gross.
Why do it then? Nobody's making me eat this food. I need to taste it (in order to write about it) and Instagram (#LookWhatImEatingNowIsntItAmazingDontYouWishYouWereHere?), but I don't have to finish it. I go into events or trips with the best of intentions: One bite of everything. Two if it's incredible. Maybe three if it's one of the best things I've ever tasted. But after a couple of cocktails, those restrictions seem like a silly idea. Why, look at all this food! Think about how hard the chefs and growers have worked! What a shame it would be to waste it. And it tastes so good! Enjoy yourself, the beguiling little voice in my head tells me. Food is a source of pleasure, not something to experience guilt over. And so I eat.
After the Deluge
The post-binge era can take one of two forms:
Scenario A: I've trained my body and soul to crave indulgence and can't turn it off when I get home from my travels. My goal of eating just good, real food—lots of plants, reasonable quantities of pastured meat, limited treats—disappears in a puff of liquid nitrogen smoke, and I find myself going out to eat daily or reverting to comfort food at home (think anything oozing with cheese or enveloped in carbs).
Scenario B: I become overly restrictive, refusing to eat out, lunching on tuna salad, averting my eyes from my whiskey collection, prowling the Internet for new ways to prepare cauliflower and chicken, and going to bed with a growling stomach—penance, I think, for the nights I've been so full I can't even eat my turn-down chocolate.
Photo: Maria Daniela Quirós Arapé for Flytographer
Either way, I'm making myself miserable. Worse still, I can't garner any sympathy. The one-time whine notwithstanding, I know better than to complain about my job. I travel; I'm wined and dined; I'm spoiled. Nobody's going to commiserate with me about the time on a Mediterranean cruise press trip that I had to go change frocks during dinner because the first one was too tight to allow me to enjoy the bounty hitting our table. People dismiss any notion that I struggle to stay fit and healthy and to feel good about my body. “Look at everything you eat and how tiny you are,” they say.
My shiny, happy Facebook is a lie—or, at least, it's carefully edited.
Well, yeah. When people see my social media feeds chock full of over-the-top meals and photos of yours truly that are carefully taken from the most flattering angle, that's what it looks like. What people don't see in my Instagram feed is the third tuna salad of the week or the boring bowl of Greek yogurt and trail mix I eat every single day for breakfast (to be fair, I love it). To paraphrase an article I reported on a while back (inspired by the time people mistakenly thought my daily gelato photos during three rainy weeks in Italy meant I was having an all-wonderful-all-the-time trip), my shiny, happy Facebook is a lie—or, at least, it's carefully edited.
What people don’t see are pictures of me finally stepping into my garage gym, slogging through TRX push-ups, swearing and sniveling because I'm not as strong as I used to be (the result of overtraining injuries that are a whole other story). Who wants to see those pictures? We put our best face forward on social media and—especially for us freelance writers hustling to stay afloat—that face is exuberant, insatiable, and carefree.
I can't keep showing photos that only tell part of the story.
But it's unfair, at best, and dishonest, at worst, to post scenes one week of a swimsuit photo shoot for my fitness column in a local magazine and boast about excesses in pork the next. I can't keep showing photos that only tell part of the story and pretending the filter that makes the pictures so tantalizing also prettily colors my real world. I want to be honest with readers and myself. I'm ready to interrupt my regularly scheduled program of ever more fabulous meals and extreme feats of eating. I'm ready to eat like my life—not my career—depends on it.
Nearly a year and a half into making writing about food and travel my full-time work, it's (past) time to find a balance. So I’m making some changes.
To start, I've cut drastically back on travel. The only trip I've taken this year revolved around more than just food: I learned to ski and spent my days on the slopes of Park City (before falling upon mountains of food at night). I'm turning down judging requests and looking for assignments that, when they do involve travel, explore more than just the culinary side of a destination (For fun, I've also replaced eating my way through Detroit with a project that entails photographing my dog in iconic locations).
I'm working on finding the happy area between obscene excess and miserable self-deprivation (#EatRightDammit), and focusing on consuming nourishing food at home. Luckily farmer's market season is back, and I can get my beautiful-food-photo fix there just as easily as at far-flung restaurants. I've also tried everything from powerlifting to Muay Thai in my quest to find a physical activity I can enjoy (injury-free) this summer.
Now that I've fessed up, I'm going to try to make my online life bear at least a closer resemblance to my real one.
My job is the best I can imagine, and I want to enjoy it and feel good about it—and myself—for as long as I can. I can't promise there won't still be a lot of food porn on my social media feeds, but now that I've fessed up, I'm going to try to make my online life bear at least a closer resemblance to reality. Will people be as interested? Maybe not. But in the end, I'm the one who lives in this body, and I'm the one who has to live with the image I'm putting out there. It's time to get real.
Dana McMahan is a Louisville, Kentucky-based food, travel, and fitness writer; bourbon enthusiast; and serial learner of sports. To learn more about Dana, visit bodybybourbon.com or find her on Twitter, Instagram or Facebook.