It’s pretty rare for a Special Sauce interview to speak so directly to me that it feels like I’ve been hit in the gut. But that’s exactly what happened when I talked with Pulitzer Prize-nominated author Tommy Tomlinson, whose book The Elephant in the Room: One Fat Man’s Quest to Get Smaller in a Growing America is a moving memoir about struggling with eating and weight issues.
As someone who has grappled with a weight problem my whole life, I identified with every word Tomlinson wrote and every bite he took, and I often felt during our conversation that he was speaking about my own experiences with food.
For example, here is Tomlinson on how food makes him feel: “I’ve never done hard drugs, but the feeling that I’ve heard people describe when they shoot heroin, for example that incredible rush and that warm feeling that goes over their body, is very similar to what I believe I feel when I have like a double cheeseburger from Wendy’s. It’s just this burst of pleasure and good feeling.”
Tomlinson is similarly eloquent about how he started to make the connection between obesity and food: “I didn’t really connect being overweight with eating because I was eating what everybody else in my family was eating. I just wasn’t working the way they were working to burn off calories. And as I got older, I started to realize even more deeply that I had these two lives. I had this one life where I was successful and doing well, had good friends, had people who loved and cared about me. And had this second life where I had this addiction that I could not control. And…up until basically this book and me trying to figure it out, I never could reconcile those two things. And so, sure, I knew from early on that I had some fundamental issue, I just never could figure out what it was.”
And here he is on the fraught relationship between food and love: “And then there’s stuff that’s very common in food which is it’s about love and affection. Your family has made this gift for you often still to this day it’s your mom or your grandmother or somebody like that has made this thing. And they’ve sacrificed and they’ve sweated over it. And they’ve worked on this recipe for years. And it’s a family tradition. And they always have it. And so for you just to not indulge in it carries a whole lot of symbolic weight. It’s like rejecting the people who love you.”
This episode of Special Sauce made me laugh, made me cry, and made me think, and any podcast that can make you do all three of those things is worth listening to, whether you struggle with your weight or not.
Ed Levine: Welcome to Special Sauce, Serious Eats’ podcast about food and life. Every week on Special Sauce we talk to some of the leading lights of American culture, food folks, and non-food folks alike.
Tommy Tomlinson: I’m never done hard drugs, but the feeling that I’ve heard people describe when they shoot heroin, for example that incredible rush and that warm feeling that goes over their body, is very similar to what I believe I feel when I have like a double cheeseburger from Wendy’s. It’s just this burst of pleasure and good feeling.
EL: Today I’m thrilled to be talking with the terrific writer, Pulitzer Prize finalist, podcaster… What else can I say about you, Tommy? Freelance writer extraordinaire.
TT: Man about town.
EL: Tommy Tomlinson. Tommy is the host of the podcast SouthBound in partnership with WFAI. But we’re here because he’s the author of the remarkably brave and candid, The Elephant in the Room: One Man’s Fat Quest to Get Smaller in a Growing America. And I have to say, Tommy, I couldn’t improve upon the press release copy, so pardon me for plagiarizing. “This moving memoir is at once a meditation on weight and identity and a candid and sometimes brutal look at the everyday experience of being constantly aware of your size, obsessing over where you’re going to sit at basketball games and restaurants or dreading the lurch of a packed subway and the fear and guilt that result.” Wow. Man, did you write that?
TT: I did not. But whoever did deserves a raise.
EL: Exactly. So welcome to Special Sauce, Tommy Tomlinson. It’s so good to have you here.
TT: Thank you so much, Ed. I appreciate you having me on.
EL: I literally read your book twice. I’m a little embarrassed to say that. Some people will read like A Tale of Two Cities twice or Middlemarch. I read The Elephant in the Room twice.
TT: That’s good company. I’ll stay in that company all day.
EL: But weight is something I too have struggled with my whole life. So The Elephant in the Room speaks to me on so many levels. I once chronicled on Serious Eats my lifelong struggle with weight in a series of posts that were weekly for more than two years called Ed Levine’s Serious Diet. And I would literally get on the scale every week and tell people how I was doing.
TT: That’s brave.
EL: So let’s talk about life at the Tomlinson family table which you obviously go into in the book. So it’s a particularly relevant question for you.
TT: Well, back in my growing up years, I grew up in the Deep South on the coast of Georgia. And my family was a very Deep Southern country family. My mom and dad picked cotton when they were young. They were sharecroppers. And so they lived in a world where you could eat whatever you wanted because they would burn it off at work during the day.
TT: And so by the time I came around I was leading a softer life but we still had these big Southern meals, especially things like family reunions where there would be five or six meats. There would always be a huge platter of fried chicken in the middle of the table. And they would always, called the white food group, which is like mashed potatoes, potato salad, deviled eggs, rice, that sort of thing. Biscuits and cornbread. And then all these vegetables which were fresh out of the garden but also cooked with ham or bacon or fatback for seasoning. And then the deserts which were pecan pie, peach cobbler, pound cake, and all these incredible desserts that we had. Those were meals that up through my generation of my family. They could eat that and they’d just go off and work it off the next day.
TT: Well, I had a different life and that’s part of the reason I got so big.
EL: Yeah, that’s interesting. And it was your mom. Your mom was a good old fashioned country cook, right?
TT: Oh, absolutely. I mean everything. We had usually a coffee can on the back of the stove where she kept the bacon grease. So when she made bacon in the morning, she would save that leftover grease and put it in that little pot, that little can, and then would use that for later meals. So something that was very common is we fished a lot. And so we would catch catfish let’s say. And she would use that bacon grease to fry the catfish in. And so the catfish would have that not only its own flavor but that bacon flavor too which was just incredibly intoxicating.
EL: I want that right now.
TT: I know. I know.
EL: Can I say that?
TT: Me too.
EL: So were you hyper-aware? Were you always aware? Like for me when I was a kid, I couldn’t escape it because I shopped at the husky section at Meijer’s department store.
TT: I was too big for the husky section of the department store. When I was a little kid, we tried to shop at Sears and JCPenney’s and places like that. But eventually by my teenage years I’d even grown out of those stores. And so in the town where I grew up, Brunswick, Georgia, there was one big and tall store. It was called PS Menswear. And the clothes there are always out of style, often by 10 or 20 years. Nothing ever fit quite right. There was never any of the cool things that the other kids were wearing were never in that store.
EL: Right. There was no Ralph Lauren for big guys.
TT: Right. When I was a kid, it was Izod shirts. When I was a teenager, that was the cool thing. I’d never once saw an Izod shirt in that store. And so I would go in there with all these other overweight men usually and often teenagers with their moms. And we were all just incredibly ashamed and embarrassed to be there. And we would grab whatever came even close to fitting and go in the little dressing room to try it. And the worst days are when even those things wouldn’t fit. And I remember a couple of those days when even the stuff in the big and tall store wouldn’t fit. And I remember just going away incredibly frustrated. Like, “How am I going to dress myself for the rest of my life?”
TT: My mom managed to patch up a lot of the old things I had, let out some stuff, and sort of keep me in clothes for a while. But that was always a problem for me.
EL: And you talk in the book about being teased. And I remember when I was in junior high school they used to say, “Hey, it’s fast Eddy without the S.” Did you have that stuff too?
TT: That’s among the more clever ones, actually. I mean, yeah, you always hear like, “Fatty, fatty, two-by-four can’t get through the bathroom door.” And all that stuff. But what I remember more than verbal stuff are just kind of insults was just the way people looked at you differently or laughed. I have a scene in the book where I talk about the relay races that we used to run when I was in elementary school. So they get like the whole grade into two big lines where it’d be a race grade against grade. And there’d be maybe 30 people in each line. And people would shift around because they wanted to be matched up against somebody who was sort of their equal. And I always got matched up against this one girl named Pamela who was as big as I was. And we were about the same speed. Some days I was faster than her. And that made me really happy. Some days she was faster than me and I was just devastated. What I always remember about those races is we would run from the line to this big pine tree in our school yard, touch the tree and turn around and run back. Every time Pamela and I went to that tree and touched it and turned back, I could see the other kids laughing at us. And I’m never going to forget that.
EL: Yeah, it’s weird. We all have those childhood moments. And yet you were… From reading the book like me you were eating unconsciously. You had no idea why you were eating as compulsively as you were, right?
TT: Yeah, a lot of the books I’ve read on this subject start with some incredible trauma. Like somebody was abused as a child or something like that. That wasn’t true in my case. I had an incredibly happy childhood. I had two parents who loved me. Very stable. We didn’t have much money. But it was a very stable childhood. I had friends, good friends. I did well academically and all those sorts of things. This was just the one thing that I always had in me that sort of constant craving for more and more and more. And that has led all the way through my life basically.
EL: I want to talk about what food meant to you then and what food means to you now. But there’s this amazing section in the book where you talk about that by any reasonable standard I won life’s lottery. Then you say, “Except in those mornings and I take a long naked look in the mirror. My body is a car wreck. Skin tags. Long mole-like growths caused by chaffing dangle under my arms and down on my crotch. I have breasts where my chest ought to be.” And then you say, “Some days when I see that disaster staring back, I get so mad that I pound my gut with my fists as if I could beat the fat out of me.” Then you end that section with, “What the hell is wrong with me?” So when you just couldn’t figure out what to do about it.
TT: As you said, it didn’t really dawn on me at first. I didn’t really connect being overweight with eating because I was eating what everybody else in my family was eating. I just wasn’t working the way they were working to burn off calories. And as I got older, I started to realize even more deeply that I had these two lives. I had this one life where I was successful and doing well, had good friends, had people who loved and cared about me. And had this second life where I had this addiction that I could not control. And I never… up until basically this book and me trying to figure it out, I never could reconcile those two things. And so sure I knew from early on that I had some fundamental issue I just never could figure out what it was.
EL: So your dad had various jobs according to the book. And your mom worked as well, right?
TT: Yeah, they both worked. So when I came around they’d met at a seafood packing plant down in Georgia. So basically factory jobs. But my dad later on was a carpenter. He could fix anything. And my mom later on was a waitress for a long time. They always worked these blue-collar jobs. When they were young, they were sharecroppers. They picked cotton in other people’s fields down in south Georgia. And so they always had the type of jobs where they could burn off big meals all the time. And this is a big shift not just in my family but in many American families where the culture goes from blue-collar work to white-collar work. But the food doesn’t change. So we were eating those same big meals that they ate all their lives because they had needed that fuel to cover them for being in the cotton field for 14 hours a day. Well, they worked really, really hard in their lives so I wouldn’t have to. And so I grew up sort of this bookish kid who was destined for a desk job. But I was eating those same meals. And so that’s why I got big, and they didn’t because we were eating the same meals but with different lifestyles.
EL: And when you were growing up, I mean in the book you go back and forth between the micro issues you’re confronting and the macro issues that the country is facing with the obesity epidemic. And you say that fat America runs on the fuel of easy and cheap junk food motivated by constant adds for burgers and beers soothed and sated by oversized portions. And you also say, “As every fat person knows, there’s no such thing as a cheap buffet. You always pay later one way or another. Fat America comes with a devastating bill. According to government estimates, Americans pay $147 billion a year in medical costs related to obesity.” But back when you were growing up, and I think you’re a little younger than me, but back… People didn’t talk about the obesity epidemic, right? There wasn’t a lot of macro chatter about it.
TT: Well, I think that’s because there probably wasn’t that much of an obesity epidemic because so many people still worked really blue-collar industrial-type jobs. And so it’s really hard to get fat when you’re sweating in a mill for 8 or 10 hours a day. And so I remember there being certainly overweight people walking around that I saw and encountered in my life. I went back for this book and went back and looked at some of my old school pictures like the class photos and stuff. And I was always the biggest kid in the class but there were other kids who were overweight too, but not nearly to the extent that people are now. If you just sit on a bench in the park and you watch 20 people walk by, 8 or 10 of them are going to be pretty seriously overweight. And that is I think part of this shift in the culture of work. And the vast amount of money that’s to be made in selling high calorie, high fat food to people. As I said in the book, the movie theater closest to our house, a small coke is now 32 ounces. That’s a quart of coke. In no world should a small anything be 32 ounces.
EL: That’s true.
TT: But portion sizes have grown and grown and grown over the years as these food providers, restaurants, and theaters and places like that are competing for the audience. The audience reacts to having bigger and bigger portions. Everything’s bigger.
EL: Yeah, you live in the South where Hardee’s has been marketing two-pound hamburgers or whatever for so long now. It’s like you can’t have a big enough Hardee’s burger in their universe.
TT: Yeah, and each one has like, “Here we’ve got the burger and we’re putting on half a pound of barbecue,” or, “We’re slapping a couple of fried eggs on there,” or whatever it is to make it even worse. And so yeah, I mean it’s astonishing now if you go look at the calorie counts for some of those Hardy’s burgers or some of those other places, the one that always, the place that always freaks me out is the Cheesecake Factory. If you ate a regular meal at the Cheesecake Factory, you’d have to run halfway across the country to burn off that meal.
EL: It’s true.
TT: It’s just an astonishing amount of butter and sugar and grease that goes into making something like that. We’re all vulnerable to that kind of stuff.
EL: Yeah. You say in the book what food is about to you and you say that food is connection. Food is friendship. Food is a certain kind of love. But you also then later in the book talk about pleasure and even in the beginning of the book you say, “Bless me father for I have sinned. I lust after greasy double cheeseburgers and fried chicken legs and Ruffles straight out of the bag. I covet hot Krispy Kreme donuts that melt on my tongue. I worship bowls full of peanut M&Ms, first savoring them one-by-one then stuffing my mouth with handfuls, then wetting my fingers to pick up those last bits of chocolate dust and candy shell.” For all of us that deal with weight problems food represents so many things to us.
TT: Well, first of all as you just described, it’s a great pleasure. I’ve never done hard drugs. But the feeling that I’ve heard people describe when they shoot heroin for example that incredible rush and that warm feeling that goes over their body is very similar to what I believe I feel when I have a double cheeseburger from Wendy’s. It’s just a powerful… It’s just this burst of pleasure and good feeling. But yes, beyond that in my family growing up we didn’t have much money and so food represented in some ways the only real wealth we had. Our table at dinner time was as good or better than anybody in town’s. We knew that we were wealthy at the table. And then there’s stuff that’s very common in food which is it’s about love and affection. Your family has made this gift for you often still to this day it’s your mom or your grandmother or somebody like that has made this thing. And they’ve sacrificed and they’ve sweated over it. And they’ve worked on this recipe for years. And it’s a family tradition. And they always have it. And so for you just to not indulge in it carries a whole lot of symbolic weight. It’s like rejecting the people who love you.
EL: It’s true. In my family my grandmother, everyone has these stories in their family. And my grandmother was the good cook, an old Eastern European Jewish cook. And there’s the story of when my oldest brother brought home three friends from college and there were seven of us at the table. And we consumed a hundred blintzes. But everyone has that. Your book is full of those moments.
TT: I had a very similar experience in college. I brought several of my roommates home. We were going to see a football game the next day. And so they slept over at our house. And my mom made what for us was a pretty typical meal. And I could see one of the guys in particular who didn’t grow up in sort of a traditional Southern household with every bowl and platter and basket my mom brought to the table, his eyes got bigger and bigger and bigger. He was thinking like, “How many people are you feeding here? Are you feeding 30 people? There’s just 5 of us here.”
EL: That’s awesome.
TT: And so the level of, first of all, the goodness of it. And then the abundance of it, is something that’s really hard to push yourself away from.
EL: And you went to college at the University of Georgia.
TT: I did.
EL: And as you lay out in the book, college also lends itself to terrible eating habits.
TT: Well, yeah. I mean it was the first time I was out on my own. So I was unsupervised. I certainly ate a lot when I was home but my mom and dad were watching over me so I couldn’t totally indulge. But you get to college and at most places, most colleges and universities they have all- you-can-eat dining halls which I had. And then we had the little sub shop across the street which I often indulged in. I had a friend who worked for Domino’s at the time and he would often come back at 1:00 in the morning with pizzas that they hadn’t sold for one reason or another. We would split up those pizzas. And then that was also a time when I started to drink fairly heavily as many college students do. And so I’m eating unlimited buffets. I’m eating sub shop’s right across the street. Free pizza at night and lots of beer. That’s a recipe for disaster.
EL: Yeah, for sure.
TT: Trying to keep in any kind of shape. I probably was more physically active those first couple years of college than I ever was. I played basketball hours a day almost every day. Took long walks from one class to another across a very hilly campus. But I still gained like 50 pounds because I was just inhaling so much food and so much alcohol.
EL: I assume without, like me, like without even thinking about it. And it wasn’t just when you’re anxious or nervous about something. It was just your default mode.
TT: Well, it’s both. It’s a catch-22. It’s a thing that you’re supposed to indulge in when you’re happy. When everybody’s happy and celebrating, what do you do? You have food or you have beer or whatever. But it’s also the thing that’s soothes you when you’re feeling bad. The whole going to the fridge at night, eating the pint of ice cream. It’s linked with both the euphoria and the downside too.
EL: So how much did you weigh in college?
TT: I was probably, I didn’t step on a scale very often at college. But when I went to college I was probably in the 250-260 range. By the time I got out of college, I probably gained another 75 or 80 pounds.
EL: Wow. So that’s really like, yes, 250 is heavy, but if you came out of 330 that’s when you go into morbidly obese mode, right?
TT: Exactly. Which is I didn’t even really know that phrase until I was in my late 20’s and I ended up having throat cancer which is why I have this weird voice. And as I was in the doctor’s office one day, he turned to talk to his nurse and I could see the note he was writing. And the two words ‘morbidly obese’ jumped off the page at me. And he was just… It was just a clinical description of what I was. And that meant I was obese to the point where my weight was likely to kill me. And so even though I knew that at that moment it took me a long time to get better. But yeah, certainly for the time I was in my mid-20’s and on I was morbidly obese.
EL: And when you started the book, it’s New Year’s Eve 2014, right? So there were many years and by the time you started the book, you weighed 460.
TT: Yeah, and I was 50-years-old at that moment.
EL: You were 50-years-old and you weighed 460?
EL: And that must have been just beyond terrifying.
TT: It was. And the thing that had happened just prior to that was my sister had died. My sister Brenda who was a light in our family. She was a good bit older than me. She was in her mid-60’s. But she had struggled with her weight most of her life as well. And that year and the holidays she’d had some swelling in her legs that was weight related, developed an infection, and it was one of those MRSA-type infections that by the time really anybody knew what was going on she was really, really sick. And my wife and I were in Tennessee with my wife’s family. And my brother called and said, “Brenda’s really sick. You need to get down here.” So we made our way down and we hadn’t even gotten halfway there. And my brother sent a text that said, “She’s gone.”
TT: And it blew a hole in our family. And at her funeral service as I was sitting there watching everyone grieve for somebody who was gone too soon I could see my future. As I wrote in the book, I was 50-years-old at the time and guys like us don’t make it to 60. I realize that if I kept going down that path I wasn’t going to make it much further. I had this old black suit. It was the only suit I owned at the time, this pinstripe suit. And I remember looking down and looking at that suit and thinking, “That’s the suit I’m going to be buried in.”
TT: And so that was the big impetus for me to change.
EL: My late brother, who was the first investor in Serious Eats and who adopted me after my parents died, had radical and early bariatric surgery where they removed part of his small intestine. And even though it had lots of anticipated and unanticipated side effects, he does say that it gave him a bonus. He probably had it when he was 50 or 55 and he made it to 75. And I think for him it was the same thought process for you. It’s like, “I’m not going to make it if I don’t do something and he didn’t think that he had the self-discipline to do it on his own.” So he went for the major, major surgery when they didn’t know very much about this stuff, right? But you decided you weren’t going to do that even though bariatric surgery had come a long way by the time you started 2014.
TT: Two things there. One is I know lots of people who’ve had bariatric surgery. And even though as you say they’ve improved it vastly over the years there’s still a wide range of outcomes. There are people who have it and it totally transforms them for the better. They would do it a hundred times out of a hundred. I know some other people who’ve had real problems with the side effects, the lifestyle changes they’ve had to make, all those sorts of things. And they might not do it again if given the chance. And then all kinds of outcomes in the middle. So for me if the way I’m doing things now if I’m not able to sustainably lose weight for the next 5 to 10 years or so, then that’s certainly on the table for me. But I wanted to try losing weight in a way I never tried before. And I wanted to give it a sustained effort one more time to see if I could do it on my own.
EL: And you describe the diet you put yourself on very succinctly, right?
TT: Well, yeah. It’s a three-step diet. It’s what a lot of people disdainfully describe as calories in and calories out. So I have a Fitbit that measures my steps and exercise every day that tells me how many calories I’ve burned. It also has an app where I can type in everything I eat during the day and it tells me how many calories I’ve brought in. If I burn more than I bring in every day, I consider that a win. And with my doctor’s supervision I have set out on this plan to lose weight very slowly and sustainably.
TT: The reason for that is the vast majority of crash diets, not only the ones that I’ve tried, but the ones I’ve read studies about, the vast majority of commercial diets don’t work for people like me. As the way I describe it, if you have 10 pounds to lose, you could probably go pull just about any book off the diet book shelf at your local bookstore and you can make something work for you. If you have 200 pounds to lose or more, you have to find something that’s not just going to work for 30 days. It’s got to work for 300 days or 3,000 days. And that requires a different approach.
EL: And to make it to 3,000 days that’s also the only way to do it. You talk about in the book that the body has very strong defenses against crash diets.
TT: Absolutely. What happens inside your body when you lose a lot of weight, your body is still… part of your body is still stuck in Neanderthal days. And when you start to lose weight, it thinks you’re starving. And so your metabolism slows down. And it tries to basically push you back to the weight that you once were because that was what they thought was normal. What at the cellular level your body thinks is normal. There was a study a few years ago of a group of contestants who were on The Biggest Loser, the TV show. And they found many of those people lost a lot of weight on the show and then gained it back. And what they found was that even for the ones who gained it back, their bodies were still slowing down their metabolism because it still wanted to push them even further to make them basically harder and harder for them to lose weight because your body sees losing weight as a flaw. Because you’re suppose to fatten up for the big winter. And so your body fights against you in many ways, especially when you’re trying to lose a significant amount of weight.
EL: I’ve always found that true. I once went on the Atkins diet in college. Remember the Atkins diet?
TT: I do.
EL: And I ate so little fruit I actually got scurvy.
TT: That’s dedication. I have to tell you.
EL: I mean it’s crazy, dude.
TT: You were the last person who wasn’t a pirate to get scurvy.
EL: I was the last person who wasn’t a pirate that got scurvy. So what’s interesting to me is you say you’re a journalist so you’re into deadlines and here is my deadline. “By the end of 2015, one year from now, I’m going to lose weight and get in shape. I’m not going to set a number because every time I’ve done that I’ve fallen short. My goal is to prove that I can head down the right path and stay on it. I have to show that I won’t quit even when it’s hard because it’s going to be hard. And if I get to the end of the year and I’ve failed every option goes back on the table. Bootcamp, pills, surgery, everything. I have a long history of doing this the wrong way. I’ve thought about the few simple things that might help me do it right. But it will take more than just a meal plan and a walk every morning. I have to dig deep.” Again, that really spoke to me because there have been various times in my life where it’s like, “Okay. Enough with the bullshit. You’re just going to have to do this the only right way to do it. You eat less.” And you know when you’re eating less. And my body at least, and I’m sure your body does too, it tells you when you haven’t. You get on the scale. Like I had a… Can I admit this to you, Tommy? I’ve got to admit this to you. I had a Popeyes’ feast for Superbowl.
TT: Oh, wow.
EL: I love Popeyes.
TT: Popeyes is fantastic.
EL: I mean but then I got on the scale and I’ve been pretty good at keeping my weight down to around 230, 228 sometimes. And I got on the scale. Two days later and I was at 235. It’s like, “Yeah, see. Scale doesn’t lie.” The ball doesn’t lie. A lot of things don’t lie.
TT: That’s right. And there are direct consequences to all those terrible meals I ate over the years. But a big part of, for me, and I think for most people who are significantly overweight if you just have a few pounds to lose, you could probably just figure out how to do it. But if you have a significant amount of weight to lose, the how is never enough. You have to start talking about the why.
TT: And in fact the majority of this book is about me trying to figure out why I got so big in the first place.
EL: Yeah, exactly.
TT: And then understanding myself better helped me sort of unlock the ways to turn it around.
EL: Which is what we’re going to get into in your next episode of Special Sauce. So we’re going to have to leave it right here for now. Thank you very much, Tommy Tomlinson. It’s really been a pleasure. Serious Eaters we’ll be back next week so we can find out what is going on with Tommy and what he did discover when he went on this incredible journey. And we’ll see you next time, Serious Eaters.