A prominent Vermonter shares his love -- and hate -- for food in a new book
In 1982, Bill Schubart was fast approaching 500 pounds. He knew that if he were bedridden — or worse — by his heft, he couldn’t run his new media manufacturing and distribution company, Resolution. So he slogged his way past the airport vendors selling pretzels and cinnamon buns and hopped a plane to an addiction treatment center in Florida.
The place was “really a dump,” as Schubart now describes it from the safety of his Hinesburg home. Nonetheless, by the time he left that dump, he was down to nearly 250 pounds, his weight when he entered Phillips Exeter Academy at age 13.
Before long, Schubart was asked back to deliver an inspirational speech at the facility. “I looked at this sea of really huge people, some in wheelchairs, a couple on gurneys,” he says. “I was so overwhelmed emotionally, I never even looked at my notes.”
A version of the ensuing address appears in Schubart’s just-published book, Fat People. “In Treatment,” one of this collection of 14 short stories, features a scene in which obese patients at a flea-ridden Florida treatment center are moved to tears by a speaker who echoes Schubart’s words to the crowd: “I just want to let you know that you’re all OK. It’s not unique to you.”
This is the message of Fat People. In Schubart’s stories, we meet a vividly realized cast of characters who all fight a battle with the scale. Some emerge relatively unscathed. Many don’t emerge at all.
Vermonters may know Schubart as a Vermont Public Radio commentator, a presence on the boards of numerous nonprofits, and a host and epicure. Last March, in a spread for this paper called “Bitchin’ Kitchens,” Suzanne Podhaizer took readers on a tour of the impressive food-prep space Schubart shares with his wife, Kate — which spans two indoor kitchens and a pair of outdoor fire pits.
Schubart loves food, and he doesn’t hide it. But in Fat People, which he self-published through his company Magic Hill, he explores the dark side of that passion.
Rather than happy gourmets, Schubart’s characters tend to be secretive binge eaters: One hoards saltine crackers under her bed; another wolfs down sandwiches in the car on his way home from work so his wife won’t see.
Schubart’s own relationship with food is a more amicable one: He and Kate, a reporter for VtDigger.org, travel the world in search of new tastes. He expounds excitedly on spiced paneer he had in India, and lamb tagine and fava beans with argan oil that he bought from a street vendor on a recent trip to Morocco.
Back home, the Schubarts are famous for the dinner parties they host about 15 times a year. Kate, who grew up partly in France, tackles the baking and the vegetable and pasta dishes in the conventional kitchen adjacent to the living room. Down a short flight of stairs is Schubart’s lair, which he calls the “primitive kitchen.” There he prepares his own chickens, or meat he buys from local farms and often butchers himself. The clay woodstove can rise to a heat of 900 degrees. Kate pops her roasted potatoes and gnocchi in it for a supremely crisp finish.
Every spring, the Schubarts invite a large group of relatives —including both of Bill’s ex-wives — to feast on the meat that has piled up in their freezer over the past year. The couple calls it their “Empty the Freezer Smallah,” an Arabic “gathering of the tribes,” according to Schubart. “There are 30 to 40 pounds of poultry, rabbit, lamb, beef and fish,” says Schubart. “I have to build three different fires to cook everything in the freezer, and the platters keep coming.”
How does the author handle his weight issues around all that food? Now 65 and about 350 pounds, at a height that makes him look more mountainous than mushy, Schubart says he is no longer looking for a quick fix. “My doctor is just very good and sensitive,” he says. Her advice is for him to lose 10 percent of his body weight, rather than shooting for 100 pounds.
To do this, Schubart follows an addiction model — but, since alcohol and narcotic treatment involves going cold turkey, that’s easier said than done. Instead of skipping meals, Schubart goes through bursts in which he cuts out wheat and sugar. Aside from their fat content, he considers highly refined carbohydrates his drug of choice. “I think everyone has a different biochemistry of addiction,” he says. “For some people it’s alcohol, for some people it’s heroin, for some people it’s fat.” Following an Alcoholics Anonymous-style prescription, Schubart lost 45 pounds last summer. Since he discontinued the diet, much of it has crept back on.
Though Schubart and his wife, a childhood friend with whom he reconnected in 1995, share their intense passion for food, Kate still wears the dresses she sported in college. In Schubart’s view, that’s a result of her different neurochemistry. “Kate has a wonderful attitude about food: You just have to enjoy food the way you enjoy art,” he says. “There are times that you don’t worry about what’s in the delicious brioche or cassoulet.” His brain works differently, as his extra girth reveals: “The addictive piece is always lingering beneath that,” he says ominously.
While Schubart believes overeating is part of his nature, he says it was also nurtured by his childhood relationship with his mother, whose drift from caring parent to bedridden compulsive eater he fictionalizes in his story “He Lets His Mother Down.” “She used to eat in bed just endlessly,” he says now. He remembers the metal tole lamp his mother kept by her bed — and used to heat soup when her children were not available to bring her food from the kitchen.
Schubart says there’s at least a germ of real experience in each of his stories. “Father Bob at the Beach,” the tale of a 740-pound priest who dies after a last attempt to lose weight at a food addiction center, is based on a real-life acquaintance. The book’s deceptively breezy opener is based on Schubart’s encounter with a lonely, overweight woman on a train ride to New York City.
Schubart admits he has poured his own experiences with obesity onto the book’s pages. At first, he didn’t intend to publish his musings on deeply personal struggles. But he found himself writing “a couple of stories” that turned into enough for a collection. Within a year, Schubart had a follow-up to his successful The Lamoille Stories, which White River Press put out in 2008.
After he decided he had a book in the making, Schubart traveled to Spain, where he encountered the image that would become Fat People’s striking cover. “La monstrua desnuda” was painted in 1680; the morbidly overweight young girl who posed for Juan Carreño de Miranda stares back pained and embarrassed, as if she knows she will be immortalized as a “nude monster.” To Schubart’s surprise, the Prado Museum charged him only 60 euros to use the image for Fat People.
Schubart can relate to the apparent horror of “La monstrua.” His story “Cliff at Deane” is a veiled version of his own coming of age at Exeter. There, Schubart was among the thousands of incoming students at Ivy League and Seven Sisters colleges and elite prep schools from the 1940s to ’70s who were forced to pose for nude “posture photos” as part of a eugenics study. In the story, Schubart describes how his proxy Cliff is “paralyzed by fear” at exposing his unclothed heft to his fellow students. Unlike Schubart, Cliff eventually drops the weight, with a little help from bulimia.
Despite the hopelessness he describes in Fat People, Schubart is far from despondent about his girth. He laughs as he remembers the commotion he caused when visiting China. More times than he can remember, he says, he noticed a couple looking at him and nudging each other. This led to an approach, which almost always ended with the wife photographing the husband beside Schubart, whom they appeared to view as not a monster but a marvel.
Schubart considers himself lucky to carry his weight well. He puts heavy people in two categories: those like his character Art Plouffe in “A Man of Appetites,” a dairy farmer whose girth is distributed over his tall body like a bull’s; and “people whose weight hangs on them like a shroud.” Among the latter is the title character in “Carla Loses Weight,” whose apron of fat prompts her husband to leave her with the words that “he’d need a two-foot dick to even get inside her now.”
Unlike Art Plouffe, whose condition ends up morbid, Schubart says he is in good health. At 65, he can still log his Hinesburg property for “six hours at a clip with a chainsaw.” Pan bagnats, Niçoise-style tuna sandwiches, are now his “good” binge food. “I could eat that till hell froze over,” he says.
He adds that he hasn’t set foot in McDonald’s since his children were small and keeps his visits to fattening favorite restaurants, such as Bluebird Tavern and The Kitchen Table Bistro, to a minimum. His favorite snack is no longer cheese and crackers but a fresh wedge of cabbage.
While Schubart worked on Fat People, he says, Kate asked her heavy but active husband, “Why don’t you write a story about how you can live well, be healthy and be fat?”
“I said, ‘All of that can be true, but so is everything else that I write,’” recounts Schubart.
He’s grown frustrated, he says, with the scores of books devoted to food, dieting and the science of obesity. Schubart wanted to write about what it’s like to be a fat person — and, as he sees it, things are none too rosy. “It’s not intended to be a prescriptive book,” he says with a shrug.
Because of that, the author says, finding ways to market Fat People hasn’t been easy. “This is one of those books you’re not going to give as a Christmas present,” he jokes. “We’ll see — do you buy it in the dark of night and slip it under someone’s door?”