Going Cold Hershey

Every year, the novelist, short story writer and sugar addict Rick Moody bans the sweet stuff. This is his story, from 2012’s food issue

It’s carcinogenic, you know, or that’s what they say these days, or, at least, the refined variety of sugar might be carcinogenic (there are links in abundance, but you can look them up yourself), which is a far cry from: you will become appallingly rotund if you keep eating this stuff in such abundance (though it is everywhere, and in foods that have no business being sweetened, in ketchup frequently, in peanut butter, in yoghurt). You know all this.

Therefore, I am not going to belabor the carcinogenic thing, though on this side of the pond, where our posteriors of great voluptuousness are edging into that second seat on the plane, or taking up a goodly portion of the subway banquette, it might behoove us to entertain the scare stories, if just as a means to an end. But I am not going to do that. Instead, I am going to tell you exactly how hard it is to stop.

There are many reasons that I have tried to stop over the years, and they are rather obvious (in addition to not wanting to be one of the people with an enormous American posterior), viz, I feel badly when I am eating a lot of it. I mean, I don’t feel badly at the exact moment it’s going into my mouth. Actually, I feel kind of great at the exact moment it’s going into my mouth, my spirits soars — up into the ethereal latitudes — my spirit cavorts with the heavenly throng, particularly if it’s, say, artisanal chocolate. But afterward I feel kind of jumpy, ill-fitting in my clothes, and I can tell that certain interior operations among my array of sluices and organs are not functioning as designed, as if something radioactive, something highly disadvantageous to carbon-based life forms, is working its way through my system.

Here’s another reason to stop, When I start I cannot stop, and you probably do not believe me when I say this, and you may imagine that it is sheer weakness that I cannot stop, but I am here to say as someone who has been addicted to many other things, and for whom a certain amount of frankly self-destructive behavior is a daily struggle — one route to self-destruction is tamped down, and another pops up, in some constant, ongoing example of whack-a-mole — but I am going to say that though weakness may play a part in what I am describing it is not the kind you imagine, a mere failure of Yankee willpower and know-how, but more like some profound and systemic variety of mental degradation, that means that when a certain spot in my brain is lit up by this particular substance I have to keep doing it over and over and over and over and over until I strike some heavily reinforced impediment, and so when I start on the binge, I might have a week or two where things are fine, and I can eat a bite of your parfait, and then maybe try one fabulously homemade marzipan, and then by the next week I will suddenly say, “Hey, I made it through that meeting, I deserve that bag of M&Ms,” even though that bag of M&Ms, while comforting, is not going to provide what I need, and I probably don’t deserve them anyhow, and then within days I am, at dawn, opening my mouth and literally pouring in malted milk balls from a quart-sized container of same, and grabbing cookies off a plate at an art opening until there is not a cookie left for anyone else, not a single cookie.

And so it is that each year I come, on January 1st, to a halt. It is now perhaps the seventh or eighth year that I have stopped eating sugar on January 1st, and in no calendar year, thus begun, have I ever made it to December 31st. But I have, in fact, made it to September on a couple of occasions, with only isolated moments of failure. As I speak, it is April 20th, the proposed due date for this composition, and I have eaten, let’s see, a bit of ice cream one night last month, and Jacques Torres himself handed me a hot chocolate on Valentine’s Day, and there have been a few containers of yoghurt that I know were not free of the stuff, and I think one ginger chew, and that’s about it. A cookie before a panel discussion at South by Southwest a month ago, because I was nervous. So far so good. I’ve lost nine pounds since the first of the year.

But: do you know how fucking hard this is? Do you know how much irritation I feel right now? Do you know how much ridicule you come in for not eating sugar? Do you know how ridiculous your every acquaintance thinks this? Do you know how natural is the consumption of sugar in daily life, and how just about everyone thinks you’re supposed to be able to eat it after dinner every night, or perhaps after lunch, or perhaps how you’re supposed to, say, put sugar on your grapefruit, or stir a little bit into your coffee (I don’t drink coffee, but that’s another story), or have a bit of it on some confection in mid-afternoon, a fruit tart, as a sort of longeur to remind you that everything is okay? Just last night I appeared at a benefit for my high school, and on the way out they gave us all some swag, and the swag consisted of: artisanal chocolates, made by someone who went to my high school. What a lovely man, what a lovely profession. How I lingered over that little box of four individually fashioned and lovingly decorated chocolates, each described with a kind of language (on a little insert) that I can only describe as Art Nouveau. I stood for a while on the subway platform looking at this box of chocolates, eventually noting that one of them had Bourbon in it, and I do not drink, and cannot drink, and so there it was, a kind of Bourbon Russian Roulette, could I take just one, one chocolate, and hope it was the one that didn’t have the Bourbon in it? Who would know that I was taking it? It’s just a tiny bit of Bourbon! It was probably cooked so that it had only trace amounts of alcohol! I seriously considered this! Just so that I could have the fucking chocolates, even though I’m not supposed to be eating the chocolates, and I would have had to tell my girlfriend that I had eaten the chocolates, and she’s in Chicago this week, and she would not have known, and days would have gone by, but I could have eaten them! Very quickly! It was only the Bourbon that kept me from doing it.

In my experience: it takes easily two months of avoiding sugar before you get to a moment like this without eating the chocolates. Luckily: it is month four. I threw the chocolates in the trash receptacle. On the subway platform. Later on, some hungry disturbed subway-dwelling guy was in extremely good mood.

Wish me luck.