With the first snap of autumn weather, I immediately rush to retrieve the duvet from summer storage, and my next response is to appease my suddenly ravenous appetite. Usually a light breakfast-eater of fruit, a little yogurt and of course a cup of coffee, I instead find myself thinking about pancakes before I even get out of bed or better yet, waffles, or maybe some poached eggs on toast. When the weather turns cold, I am no longer satisfied with a leafy salad for lunch, but must now compose salads with tuna, beans and the remaining tomatoes from the garden, hoping that will satisfy me until dinner. But it doesn’t. So I go for a midafternoon snack of sliced apples with peanut butter, a really tasty combination.
This correlation between appetite and the seasons has always intrigued me. For instance, the pot roast I am planning for dinner would never appeal to me in July when grilled fish would more likely be my choice. This relationship between food and outdoor temperature reminds me of the ancient world’s belief in the four humors. Put simply, it was based on the theory that four major fluids dominate the body: blood, phlegm, choler and black bile (or melancholy). Each humor is composed of two basic elements: heat and moisture make up blood, cold and moisture for phlegm, heat and dryness for choler, and cold and dryness for melancholy.
Believers thought that a healthy body required a balance among these elements, and that particular foods either contributed to the desired effect or caused a serious imbalance. I recall a maxim based on this doctrine that warned against serving cold fish to old men for fear that cold wet food would jeopardize internal balance, and I think about this each time I observe elderly gentlemen in delicatessens eating pickled herring. They seem just fine to me.
So I find myself turning to modern medicine to shed light on my winter appetite and quickly find that an increase in appetite in cold weather is pretty standard for us humans. One researcher noted that people eat about 200 more calories per day in the winter and that they eat faster than at other times of the year. To explain this phenomenon, another study associates winter eating with the absence of light, that shorter days are linked to the desire for foods denser in calories. Not yet understood by science, explanations tend to attribute this phenomenon to reasons physiological and psychological.
Some say that when the weather turns cold, our body temperature drops and our drive toward self-preservation causes us to crave carbohydrates and fats. This may be a throwback to the days when people, like bears, needed an extra layer of fat to survive the winter. Others point out that the drop in temperature may trigger appetite centers deep in our brains, and that increased darkness may have an effect on cravings. We want beans, mashed potatoes and macaroni and cheese, not gazpacho or watermelon.
Meals that satisfy winter appetites
And this leads me to the question of what to do about winter appetite. I am a great believer in listening to my body and tend to give in to cravings, for I have found that if I skirt around them they will only build into obsessions.
This plays out in the following way. Let’s say I am thinking about a nice beef stew with carrots and plenty of potatoes and instead serve myself a grilled chicken breast. I will eat the chicken but continue to long for the stew until I break down and produce one. It gets even worse. If I am longing for chocolate but instead eat an apple, I will polish off the apple and follow it up with a Snickers bar.
I find that if I have what I want in the first place I will come out ahead as far as calories are concerned. Of course, the usual cautions are in order: keep portions small; don’t eat between meals; exercise even more in winter than in summer. But the tradeoff is that I will not feel deprived, and my sense of well-being will not be compromised.
So when the temperature drops, I turn to my cookbooks for hearty dishes I have never before tried. James Beard reliably offers a chicken casserole loaded with corn, peas and lots of macaroni and topped with a half-pound of cheddar cheese and breadcrumbs. Sounds good. Lidia Bastianich has a recipe for ziti, sausage, onions and fennel, and Molly Stevens has an intriguing recipe for sauerbraten. I am going to try them all, but my first impulse when the weather snaps is to cook a hearty soup that was my family’s standby recipe for all of my life, a dish loaded with memories and nourishment.
1½ pounds short ribs of beef or boneless chuck with marbling
8 cups cold water
1 cup (8 ounces) of dried green split peas
1 cup (8 ounces) of large dried lima beans
1 medium onion
1 cup carrots, peeled and sliced
1 cup celery
Salt and pepper to taste
1. In a large pot with a cover, put in the beef and water and bring to a boil. Skim off scum that comes to the top.
2. When clear, add split peas, lima beans and onion. Cook for 1 hour.
3. Add carrots and celery and cook for 1 more hour. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Photo: Hearty “Family Soup” with beef and beans. Credit: Barbara Haber