At eight years old, I read my encyclopedia before bed and some of my favorite television shows were Dateline, Primetime Live, and 20/20. Apparently, I was a precocious child who loved learning about things like how light waves work, as well as shocking tactics predators are using to abduct children in your neighborhood.
My sick taste in television also introduced me to harrowing stories of teenage girls who would trick their starving bodies into feeling full.
I remember being surprised that they’d eat cotton from Q-tips or paper. I wasn’t about that, but I did think freezing food so you would eat less of it sounded compelling, which was probably what inspired the creation of my own recipe for “Ice Soup” – you know, water and ice cubes, in a bowl. Eating it with the spoon made it kind of feel like you were eating soup.
But I was never diagnosed with an eating disorder. I didn’t throw up my food, and I wasn’t anorexic.
I wasn’t like my mom, who told me stories of how all she would eat in high school was an apple a day, and that at times she was so underweight she stopped having her period. I surpassed her weight when I was in middle school, around the same time I got my period, because I also knew that my mother would never in her life weigh over 115 pounds.
So, no, I didn’t have an eating disorder. I wasn’t like her.
I just memorized the food labels on everything in the pantry. I knew the exact calorie count of everything I was eating, which, of course, was limited to not high-calorie foods.
I didn’t want butter…on anything.
I didn’t add gravy.
Mayonnaise and salad dressings were unnecessary.
Bacon was disgusting. I could not understand how anyone would enjoy eating cooked fat.
Maybe it’s true that my hyper-aware, hyper-restricted relationship to food was a product of the pseudo-heritability of eating disorders that can be “passed down” between mothers and daughters.
But even if my mom had been the queen of body positivity, I probably still would have been a chronic calorie counter. By that time in the nineties (mind you, way before personal access to the internet and Instagram likes), over 80% of ten year old girls had already been dieting. For a while, too. On average, girls started dieting when they were eight years old. Like me.
Those numbers are shocking, but that’s not the fault of my mom or moms in general. That’s sexist oppression. Only oppression would convince us beautiful young girls to avoid nourishing our bodies with the pleasures of food.
Oh. BUT…there was also my dad.
Don’t get me wrong, my dad is a pretty solid guy, but growing up, he was one tight motherfucker. He was so frugal that he took my mom to get twenty-five cent Costco hot dogs for one of their first dates.
A few years after I was born they got divorced. (Was it the hot dogs?!?! Just kidding…)
I only mention their divorce because, as a child, I lived with my dad, and I don’t recall us going out for dinner as a family. Even though I don’t have any particular memories of it, it must have happened, at least a few times, because I was well-trained and I knew the drill: Order the cheapest thing on the menu. No appetizers. No drinks. No sides, substitutions, or desserts.
It was probably because I grew up in this environment where money was not to be spent, certainly not on something so frivolous as food, that I developed my own reluctance to spend money on, well, anything.
I became an avid saver – holiday and birthday money was tucked away. I made some poor choices a couple of times by dropping a couple hundred dollars on a collectible doll when I was ten, and then a solar powered radio when I was twelve. The radio seemed like a great investment because it was going to help my family survive Y2K. But, of course, the doll didn’t end up being worth shit since I butchered its mullet haircut the moment I got it home, and Y2K was literally a “NOTHING” on the history books.
After those two major spending fails, I went into high school and doubled-down on saving money more effectively by cutting out unnecessary expenses.
Until I got a job, one of my biggest sources of income was the twenty dollars a week I got for lunch money. Four dollars a day. My strategy was to only spend a total of sixty cents a day on a plain, untoasted bagel with a little paper cup of cream cheese, which I would not spread onto the bagel like a typical person. No, I would dip bites of my bagel into the tiny thimble of cream cheese so as only to eat half of it, similar to how one might gently dip a blush brush into face powder, you know, with a little dip – tap, tap – pat, pat.
It was cream cheese with a light touch.
Basically, I wasn’t terrible at eating because I counted calories with the same fervor I counted pennies. Thanks, parents!
Things shifted, though, when I got to college.
I spent a lot of time with my college boyfriend and his parents, who were crunchy granola types, vegetarian Unitarian Universalist psychotherapists who lived in Wyoming but shopped at the Whole Foods across state lines in Colorado. They immediately invited me into their family as well as their peace circles.
And I was so grateful because they introduced me to the concept of eating fondue. At home.
They’d start by collecting pounds of cheese, expensive cheese. Gruyere and Swiss cheese, but it’s called ‘Emmantaler.’ Then they’d pour a whole bottle of white wine into the pot – as an ingredient! And then, they would eat it by the spoonfuls. Globs of cheese. Globs for so long, it would get hard again, and part of the fun of fondue night was figuring out how to melt it for rounds two and three. Just bread and so much cheese in one sitting.
I was (politely) appalled, but I was also changed.
This marked the season in my life when I started to let loose and just eat. I mean, from then on, I would consume food.
That boyfriend and I broke up after nearly three years of family fondue nights. Right around the time when I started to get close with one of my now best friends.
There’s a funny story behind how this guy and I met, but we don’t have time for details so I’ll just skip ahead to my senior year of college when this man, over thirty years my senior, became one of the most important people in my life.
And it mostly consisted in him sponsoring my vices.
This may sound weird, but I promise it’s not weird like that – he would buy my cigarettes because he liked the smell of second-hand smoke, and also, when we hung out, we would eat!
So, at the ripe old age of 21, I was introduced to fine wines and indulged in the freedom that comes from being told to order whatever I would like. Even if that meant two entrees.
After the fondue conversion therapy, I was no longer a bird at the table so I embraced all of our meals together. I was all about the butter and bacon, cream sauces, fried everything, meatballs, mac n cheese, and seconds.
I had finally come into my own.
Now, obviously, I love food. I like to cook (kind of), but I LOVE to eat.
The physical act of putting food in my mouth, the smells, textures, flavors, it’s one of my favorite things to do – right up there with sex and doing nothing at all.
I love eating so much that I realize it is how I catalogue people, places, and things in my life. Here are some examples of how I connect food to the nouns in my life:
In 2008, I met one of my best friends over couscous salad in her apartment. Hannah made the couscous. I brought the salad.
Laura gave me my most memorable birthday confection – a strawberry ricotta cheesecake.
My favorite City Park sunset was when Jim and I had these open-faced grilled gorgonzola cheese sandwiches with roasted radicchio and a balsamic and honey drizzle.
This one guy I dated in grad school was the absolute worst, but he was trained in French cooking which meant the massive pot of stroganoff he fed me for a week was the BEST.
Bryn is my bff – I love her to death. She’d want me to talk about the time we Iron Chef-ed a whole day to make something out of 8 pounds of cooked rice, but when I think of her I remember the time we came home so hammered after a night of dancing that she smeared chunky peanut butter on a piece of toast that was burnt to shit, and proceeded to spoon cold leftover, super spicy mapo tofu onto each bite. She assured me it tasted good, but that’s one of the few things I remember without actually putting it in my mouth.
Trust me, I could go on and on…
The more I think about it, I am happy that I do remember A LOT about my life – the glimpses of moments that stick in my memory are the very things that stitch together the story of me: who I am, the deep feelings I carry, what I do, who I know, how I live. There is a complex constellation of many people, places, and things, and if I were to tell you about them, almost every one would be punctuated by food.
Eating food is how I move through the world.
Now, in case you’re wondering, I still don’t have nice or expensive things, but since I know that my memories center around the food I eat, and since I want to live a good life and remember it, my food budget is now quite a bit more than sixty cents a day.
There are still a handful of instances where I don’t “let” myself indulge and eat certain things – if I’m honest, they are also largely due to still fixating on costs or calories. I’ve worked over the past couple of years to let myself to get popcorn at the movies, but only with a little butter. And sometimes I’ll stray from my black coffee and get a caramel latte, but only with half the syrup.
But this is made all the sweeter, because there’s someone in my life who I love, who only drinks tuxedo mochas and salted caramel lattes. When he goes to the movies, he gets buttered popcorn AND a cherry Coke. He could just tell me to get my own, but I love that he lets me steal samples and sips of his.
I still struggle with remnants of what I thought for so long I couldn’t have – for now, maybe just a little, but certainly not all the way – and yet he helps me remember to enjoy love and life by sharing experiences with me of how things are supposed to taste.
*This story was written for the event, From the Ground Up: A Night of Storytelling on Food & Farm, hosted by KUNC 91.fm and Harvest Public Media at Wolverine Farm Letterpress and Publick House in Fort Collins, Colorado on June 27, 2017.