As an adolescent and teenager, I often observed Lent by giving up some treat that I’d normally regularly indulge in. The two main ones I can remember right now are chocolate and soda. I don’t recall going crazy on Mardi Gras beforehand–actually, I’ve never really done anything for Mardi Gras–but on the years I gave up chocolate, I excitedly awaited Easter and the accompanying basket of goodies.

There were times when I would fast for a day as well, drinking only water, looking forward to the next day when I could eat again and the food would be twice as sweet.

I used to think these periods of stringent self-denial helped to build willpower. Now, though, I think that they didn’t, at least for me. A critical problem is that I always knew they would end. And once they ended, I’d celebrate by overindulging. That’s not willpower, really…it’s more like anticipation. It’s not behavior modification, but simply a deferral of desire. True willpower–at least in the “ideal”–would be to give something up forever, without hope of ever regaining it. Realistic willpower would be to make small changes in habits and diet over time, maintaining them for the rest of your life.

A friend has been exploring the paradigm of denial and indulgence in western culture, the “I deserve it” mindset, the outlook that one has been “good” or “bad” and that food can act as a reward or comfort. It’s interesting to see her take on this. She didn’t grow up within it, at least not in the same way I did. (To be fair, my family has always rejected the “I deserve it” mindset, but the other pieces are there.) My friend observes all this with a sort of bemusement and detached frustration. One of her thoughts is that this approach toward food demonstrates a lack of discipline, and she identifies “pre-1970s” as a time when the people of America had “values” rather than “obsessions”.

While this somewhat smacks of the “good old days” fallacy, I think she may be on to something, at least in terms of the relationship of Americans to food. Food is so plentiful here that it has become just as much a consumer product as anything else, and we are nothing if not a consumer culture. And as a consumer culture, we continually demand more for less. Even as the quality of food declines with price, we buy and eat more of it, because we feel we are getting a good deal.

As an example, I used to make and eat an entire box of macaroni and cheese myself. Why not eat it all? It was delicious. I’d offer some to Sean, but he’d always decline, saying he didn’t eat macaroni and cheese by itself; if he ate it, he wanted it with a meal. Sean, who was raised with significantly different food values than me, was, quite frankly, horrified by my eating habits. He doesn’t generally air complaints if he doesn’t think they matter in the grand scheme of our marriage, so I’m not sure I fully grasped just how grotesque he found my relationship to food until I started to share his opinion. And that didn’t come until after I had weight loss surgery, and I started eating more the way he eats. Now I look back at the way I used to eat and it seems shocking, unbelievable.

We were out at Ted’s Montana Grill with friends not too long ago and I tried a small taste of their chips and dip. The dip is an amazing French onion that I enjoyed very much. I related how I used to like to sit with a huge bag of Ruffles and a tub of French onion dip and just eat and eat and eat. And then I paused. “This has been a ‘This Is Why You’re Fat’ moment!” I concluded into the awkward silence. I’m not sure that I would have confessed such a thing before having weight loss surgery, or that I would have been able to make a joke about it.

My friend argues that our food obsession has Judeo-Christian roots. She points to the language used in advertising, phrases like “you deserve it”, “reward yourself”, “indulge”, “sinful”. These phrases either offer the consumer a reward for being “good” or encourage the consumer to be “bad”. Either way, they play on a cultural obsession with good and evil that is invisible to those of us who grew up with it. It’s odd to my friend mainly because it’s so alien. (Imagine how other religions are depicted in American media, when they are depicted at all. They seem foreign, unknown. Often all that can be done to make them acceptable is to add humor. Other attempts often feel preachy.)

It is fascinating to me to take a step back and see my own culture as it’s perceived by someone with one foot firmly in it and one foot firmly in another, or by someone completely outside it. I enjoy having my expectations and understanding shaken. I like to think about what it all means, how much of me has been shaped by my culture, whether there are universal values…there is so much to explore and try to grasp. More than one could ever hope to study in a lifetime.

I haven’t observed Lent in many years. At this point, in terms of food, there’s not much more I could give up anyway. But I’m glad I took part when I was younger, even if the lesson I learned was different from the lesson I thought I was learning. And I’m glad to have my culture, something that is mine, a place that is cozy and known. No matter how philosophical I want to get about it, it will always be my home, and a place of love.