Our Cravings, Ourselves

I'M THE go-to girl on menses. My cred beats that of most OB/Gyns.

I'm versed in the dark arts of Advil, yoga tapes, and hot-water bottles. I've fashioned sanitary napkins from tea towels, gift-wrap, and two yards of ribbon. I even know that Midol isn't kosher.

I've had a twenty-four day cycle for decades, with time off only for the nine months of my pregnancy. That adds up to approximately 693 visits from my redheaded cousin. She brings her appetite with her -- we raid the fridge together at half-hour intervals.

I am fortunate to have many female friends and relations. As many a naive and horrified man has grown to understand, women tell each other everything. I refer you to a recent thread on eGullet about PMS food cravings. Read it and you'll notice that the PMS fodder of choice can be broken down into precious few categories. Three, in fact.

Group One: Fried. Heavy emphasis on bacon, potatoes, salt, and unnatural acts with pasta.

Group Two: Chocolate. Need I say more?

Group Three: Red. The naughty negligee group. Red meat and red wine. Cognac and sex. The lucky cat in this tigress's life will profit by keeping her very happy when Day 24 rolls around. It should be a pleasure.

But whatever sense of security a gentleman feels is temporary at best. Madame wants claret and caresses today, but tomorrow it's the couch for you -- and a case of Krispy Kremes for her.

The ballots from our unscientific survey added up to seventeen marks in Red and fourteen greasy smears from Fried. We also tallied eleven separate sets of deep, dark fingerprints that could only be Chocolate.

Depressing Food Means Happier Menses

Surely there are physiological reasons why we want these foods. Perhaps a little research will reveal true understanding and disperse the shame or guilt we may be carrying like six pounds of retained water.

Ladies, there is a wealth of information available. Caress silver mouse with manicured finger. Bookstores can also be helpful. Libraries too. You could even talk to your gynecologist.

But girlfriends, all this information provides little that we don't already know, right to the soles of our Manolos. Hormone levels rule. They rock our lovely bodies and roll our intellects. But what's so shameful about two hours on the couch, wallowing in a pint of Chubby Hubby and admiring Ralph Fiennes's bare butt while you sob your way through The End of the Affair? Nothing. Or so I thought.

Sisters, the news is not good. There are medical experts out there who would deny us even gastronomic solace.

From Judith Wurman, Ph.D., a research scientist at MIT, at www.healthatoz.com: "It's a Brain Deficiency"

That caught my eye quicker than All-Clad at half price. She continues:

It's a real phenomenon, provided by changes in the brain when one's hormones are changing. The one chemical that drives all of this is seratonin. One way to make seratonin is by eating carbohydatres. But you don't have to eat chocolate or potato chips to do that, any more than you need to drink champagne to satisfy your thirst.
Indubitably true, but oh! so wrong .

I was interested. If not chocolate, potato chips, black and blue beef, red wine, ice cream, and three helpings of mashed potatoes, what would be an acceptable substitute? I continued to investigate. Somewhere, I was sure, was the correct answer: Grilled bacon and cheese sandwich. Bottle of Bass.

Alas, no. The real solution?

Loosen your whalebones, Sistergirl. You are going to need all the oxygen you can get. Here's the punchline:

Grains, beans, tuna on a piece of rye crisp or a rice cake.

I know: You are rolling about the boudoir floor, helpless with laughter, straining for breath. Wipe your eyes. Get up. I'll tell you a story, shameful and private.

When I eat alone in the kitchen, I read. One day, I laid down my book, probably a romantic/masochist classic on the lines of Rebecca, The Last of Cherie, or The Critique of Pure Reason. What the hell was that orange sludge on my plate? The evidence was everywhere, and it was ugly.

On the table, a box of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese. On the stove, a saucepan wearing smudges to match the ones in front of me. On the counter, unbagged, the rest of that morning's grocery shopping.

I don't eat Kraft Mac and Cheese. Haven't since college. Although I adore the homemade version, what Kraft hawks qualifies only as sustenance. Would you suggest to a woman who loves good food to whip up a cauldron of this? You're going to tell this woman, who has blindly -- and thoroughly -- disposed of a tub of fluorescent orange glob, to eat a rice cake? Are you on crack?

More bad news, and it seems to be medically sound and often-cited advice: PMS could be alleviated by taking a Vitamin C supplement and eating broccoli, bell peppers, Brussels sprouts and cranberry juice. You need your Vitamins A and D, so stock up on raw carrots, spinach, and sweet potatoes. Vitamin E is said to help counter anxiety, depression, and feelings of homicidal rage. It can be found in olive oil, apples, and blueberries. Make sure you get lots of calcium and magnesium. Beans, tofu, salmon, green leafy veggies, halibut, mackerel, and rice bran are good bets here.

Smug Scientific Bastards. I do enjoy all of these fine foodstuffs. (Well, not tofu or rice bran.) But cross-reference them with the items listed in the Big Three PMS Food Groups. There is not a whole lot of overlap. I can't remember one of us saying she gorged on raw carrots and mackerel.

The American Academy of Family Physicians offers additional tips. You should cut back on sugar and fat. Drinking less caffeine can help prevent breast soreness and the jitters. Eat six small meals, not three large ones. (Okay, but only if an Almond Joy and a bag of Corn Doodles counts as a meal.) Get regular exercise, and lots of sleep.

The Academy left the best for last. Winning the Award for Best Tip in a List on How to Prevent Stress during PMS: If possible, try to schedule stressful events for the week after your period. Sure. Try telling your boss that the budget meeting must wait a week. For fun, play with him by telling him why. Or for that matter, order the radio station to eighty-six Otis Redding singing I've Got Dreams to Remember, or your child's teacher to reschedule the science fair.

Sometimes an expert does throw us a bone. At www.womenhealth.com Debra Waterhouse, a registered dietitian, admits that chocolate is the "perfect combination to raise both seratonin and endorphin levels." But she recommends chocolate in laughably small doses. Traitor.

What are the real issues at play here? Are we ashamed of the Dark Thing that drives us to gorge on container cars full of rich food once a month? Do we feel panic that unseemly ingestion, in concert with the lunar cycle, is yet more ammo that men can wield against our hysterical selves? Are we afraid that we will lose control of our weight-attending duties for a day or two? Heaven forbid.

Science might explain how to avoid the worst side effects of menstruation through so-called sensible eating. But it has the hollow ring of good advice about "sensible shoes." Good for us, yes. But about as alluring as a pair of Earth shoes.

I challenge any gourmand to step up to the plate. Try to stick to the cheerless regime the experts have helpfully suggested. One could certainly prepare a tasty dinner from salmon, broccoli, sweet potatoes, and blueberries. Almost surely, during the other twenty-four days of the cycle, we have. And enjoyed it.

But the science doesn't work. It doesn't work because we don't crave bell peppers. We crave Milk Duds. Or a 40-ounce porterhouse. Or eight pieces of bacon, oozing a nice puddle of fat with which to sauce that four-person portion of spaghetti carbonara . . . eaten solo. And that's why, I, the Menstruation Maven, scoff at the very idea of ticking the days off the calendar and cooking preemptively to take some of the curse off the Curse.

To do so is completely unsensuous and unsensual. Neither adjective describes a happy woman's table.

Be Voluptuous

I won't suggest that you emulate one of Rubens's milky-thighed lovelies. But let's read the Random House Dictionary's first three meanings for the word voluptuous:
1) Full of, characterized by, or ministering to indulgence in luxury, pleasure and sensuous enjoyment. 2) Derived from gratification of the senses. 3) Concerned with sensuous or sensual enjoyment.
Who said dictionaries are dry reading? (Note: Gentlemen, to pass a pleasant half-hour, plug "Voluptuous" into Google.)

But I'm being serious here. Ladies: You. Are. Voluptuous. Work it.

As the Biblical punishment for encouraging a cute guy to eat an apple, women are cursed (that word again!) to bear children in pain, and suffer through all that entails. If we are condemned to that path for, give or take, forty years, I suggest we fight back. No pain, no shame. Be voluptuous.

The Plan

Replace the empty Tampax box immediately, to avoid nasty surprises next month. Lay in the painkiller of your choice; I prefer Advil. Take a multivitamin and a calcium supplement. And realize that a mere two days' indulgence per month is unlikely to make you a Tubbette.

Do not keep a handy stash of tofu and rice bran. Keep, instead, an emergency kit of whatever makes you stretch, sigh, and smile. I know a man, for heaven's sake, who understands this. He learned it early.

Will (we'll call him) is a serial heartbreaker, a professional bachelor, and a cold-blooded womanizer. When he was in college, and hadn't yet hit his stride as a Lothario, his Aunt Colleen dropped by. Auntie was impeccably ladylike, a social worker, an ex-nun. Will was astonished when Auntie started throwing open cabinet doors and rifling through the contents of his fridge. Before he could offer refreshment she turned on him and snarled:

"Where the fuck is your chocolate?"

She blushed, apologized, and made a quick exit. Will called his mother, concerned. She giggled. He could almost see her shaking her head. "PMS. Colleen used to babysit every weekend, just to have enough to cover her once-a-month Hershey attack."

Will doesn't eat chocolate. But since the Rampage of the Chocolate Nun he's kept the bachelor pad well-stocked. "No way I'm freezing my 'nads off running to the 7-Eleven in February. Chocolate is the single man's insurance."

Don't mess with substitutes. If you want chocolate, make sure it's good chocolate. You deserve it. Do not substitute a gas station cello-wrapped brownie. You want a half-pound of St.-Andre, baguette and butter, bottle of St. Estephe? Roll in it. If you've made two pounds of mashed potatoes, fire in the heavy cream and butter in the obscene. Yours. All yours. Remember: This is not being weak or shameful. This is being voluptuous. You. Are. Voluptuous.

You've retained water? Of course you have. It will go away. You cried during the television ad for your local Animal Shelter? No shame. You will be better armed to face that HR Guidelines meeting tomorrow if you've indulged in a Midnight Croque Monsieur. You threw a book at his head? He probably deserved it. You can make up in a couple of days . . . if he survives. This is not your problem.

Lose the rage, babe. Make it a quart of Chubby Hubby, and don't share. Stake out the sofa, seize the remote for five days, and stock up on hankies.

Press rewind.

Wednesday, March 12, 2003