Eating vicariously brings the middle-aged a certain joy

THE BALTIMORE SUN

HAVE YOU ever watched a teen-age boy eat? It's an amazing sight.

I'm treated to this vision seven nights a week, courtesy of my 16-year-old. Call him Marlon or call him Mar, just don't call him late for dinner. The boy eats like an escapee from a concentration camp. Like his stomach begins at his collarbone and ends at his knees.

Sometimes, I have to pause in my own feeding just to watch his. Chicken wings and turkey legs, broccoli and burritos, collard greens and catfish, anything and everything, consumed with a prodigious ardor that leaves me shaking my head in awe.

I used to eat like that. Now, I eat the way many of us do -- carefully, cautiously, each bite evaluated on the basis of fat content and cholesterol intake. Used to be, food was fun. Now, food's an issue, a test of will.

Meantime, my son just eats.

Morning snack

Eats three squares a day, with second helpings on each. Then a snack or three between meals. Then a little 3 a.m. nosh to tide him through the long hours till breakfast. I've never seen the kid when he wasn't hungry -- don't even know why we even bother owning a refrigerator, since nothing stays in it long enough to get cold.

You can probably guess the upshot: For all that eating, the boy is still skinnier than a supermodel stranded on a desert island. So thin he has to hop around in the shower to get wet. So scrawny he could use a Cheerio for a life preserver.

There will now be a short intermission as the portlier members of our audience gnash their teeth at the basic unfairness of life, mutter dire imprecations at my son, or just console themselves with massive quantities of Death By Chocolate ice cream.

Meantime, my son just eats.

Big Mac envy

I have to admit that what I feel watching him is less enmity than envy. I wish I could still eat that way. Of all the things the march of time has taken away, I think I miss most the ability to eat without thinking. More than hair on my head or knees that don't creak, I miss burritos that gush cheese in three directions when you bite them. Dark chocolates that melt in your mouth like delicious sin. Grease-oozing, two-story hamburgers with french fries and a chocolate shake on the side.

Once, I ate those things without a second thought or a backward glance. Now, on the increasingly rare occasions when something naughty hits my plate, it's eaten guiltily and accompanied by furtive looks and dark thoughts about obesity, high cholesterol and other dangers that stalk the middle years.

Meantime, my son just eats.

There seems something innocent about it, something joyous in the hedonistic indulging of gastronomic wants without thought of consequences. Small wonder he gives me this funny look sometimes when we're in the supermarket and I'm intently studying side panels and labels, searching for the cholesterol-free, low-fat version of this food or that. He thinks the old man has become, well, an old man -- worrying too much, and making complication out of a simple thing. Occasionally, I try explaining to him. Try telling him that he won't always be able to eat as he does and that someday, he'll be just like dear old dad. Which is, of course, a mean thing to say to a kid.

Not that he gets the point. Why should he? He's 16. Might as well try to explain a mosh pit to a ballroom dancer.

Part of me doesn't mind that he doesn't understand. He reminds me of me -- or at least, of the kid I used to be.

Because my son just eats. Eats happily, hungrily, without worrying about tomorrow.

Truth to tell, I kind of like watching him. Envy mixes with a certain vicarious pleasure, and I let him have his fun.

You might say he's eating for two.

Leonard Pitts Jr. is a columnist for the Miami Herald.

Pub Date: 3/14/99

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