I think I first discovered my love of food through books, more so than food itself. Of course, food itself came later. But I was reading from an early age, books that allowed me to travel across space and time, long before I myself could. So I developed a hunger for Narnia's turkish delight, Robert Frost's apple cider, Laura Ingalls Wilder's vanity cakes and maple syrup candy, Ruth Reichl's foie gras (sparkling like jewels!)...the list goes on and on and on. I built up entire fantasies about what these foods tasted like, even if it would be many years before the experience itself would come to fruition.
And they did, in time. I made a few misguided attempts at maple syrup candy as a kid, but it would be over a decade until I would have foie gras, and it would come from a small French farm, the uncle of the French girlfriend of my boyfriend's brother. (13 year old me would be tickled.) In college, when I moved to Minnesota, and visited a beloved farm stand that always read 'apples fudge cheese caramel', I would drink freshly made apple cider with two friends while eating sticky, sugar-sandy doughnuts, hot, from a striped paper bag. It would be when I was twenty five that I first tasted turkish delight, in a Middle Eastern food stand in a strip mall outside of a town in Denmark, pink colorful squares that tasted much too sweet for my liking and pulled at my teeth.
The mouth becomes a way to move forward in the world, to take something from the outside and literally internalize it.
In Colombia, my memories are the paleta with sharp chili lime salt flakes, the cold, life-quenching sip of aguila, stripping a fish with greasy, greedy fingers, the friend corn-cream taste of arepa, the mangos that taste like a color you didn’t know existed in this word. Probably the best filet mignon you ever had, cooked on an open-air grill by an unassuming 24 year old, and when you try to tell him it was amazing, seriously amazing, one of the best, the words translate flatly, you sound like the over-effusive american, he smiles shyly and clears your plate.
The first time my heart broke I completely lost my appetite. My sorrow disconnected my bodily needs, my stomach felt like lead, my throat felt full. And I have never recovered from this.
This heartbreak happened during a semester abroad, a culture of tall, skinny Scandinavians, and returning to a cold college campus where I was eager to redefine myself upon return. The pleasure of refusing meals, large portions. The joy of describing my new diet, my new love of health, raw food, veganism, yoga. I began to get very competitive about eating. If a friend was eating a small plate, unaware, I’d be furious with myself for not having the control to eat less, even if it was just a plate of raw vegetables. On Saturdays, which I knew precluded a night of drinking, I’d allow myself two plastic cups of soup broth, sipped throughout the day, and tomatoes. I began sneaking food late at night, most often when I was drunk—eating most of my roommates candy, embarrassingly denying what happened when she asked, sitting alone in a corner at a party eating half of classmate’s chocolate birthday cake while around me everyone played beer pong and socialized. (I didn’t even know the birthday girl.) I started fantasizing about food all of the time, becoming obsessed with baking and cooking and concoctions. I read a lot of food blogs as I chewed raw carrots and chided myself for needing to snack between lunch (soup broth, cucumbers) and dinner (a salad, five hours later and after a two-hour workout). I saw my love of sugar as an addiction, a sad love of candy and cake that I was saddled with as a child. It was genetics, it was destiny, it was in my blood, it was a plague, it was the result of my childhood. I saw it as a weakness, as I had been diagnosed with genetically high cholesterol two years earlier. I was hurting myself, I thought. Heart attack at 35. The only way to achieve total health is to take complete control. People reverse these things all the time. Try vegan. Try raw. Don’t snap.
But my self gradually began to betray myself. After my final round of finals that winter, I sat down to a stack of two pancakes, with whipped cream and rainbow sprinkles. I ate them and savored them. Serotonin flooded my system. My reward, this little stack of childish, rainbow pancakes. Everyone around me was chatting about finals and stress and studying, and I got up from the table and told myself that I had earned anything I wanted to eat. I had survived finals, right? I was stressed, right? I could eat anything. I loved myself. I filled my plate with everything—chicken, ice cream, veggie burgers, salad, cookies, rice pilaf—and ate it together. It wasn’t a terrible amount of food, in the end. But the floodgates had opened.
I stepped off the plane for spring break and headed to the kitchen, wearing a white t-shirt and black leggings. My mom had every kind of food in her apartment that I hadn’t gotten at college, and I wanted to try it all. An avocado. Berries. Ice cream. Lamb. Macaroni and cheese. Trail mix. My sister still has a picture on her phone of me, hiding in the pantry with a box of cereal. She thinks I’m joking. “Pantry troll,” she calls me. I can barely fall asleep that night because my stomach is so distended and I tell my mom, who is intrigued by the amount I have just eaten, that I just missed being at home and fresh food and I just got done with finals and I’m going to bed. And to myself I say, “That was nice. Tomorrow, we’re back to normal, okay?”
Except I don’t go back to normal. I don’t go back to normal for quite a while. Spring break turns into two weeks, then I head abroad and it’s fun, but there’s also anxiety, and subconscious stress of being in three new countries, and boredom, and occasional loneliness, and more heartbreak from the same source, and I’ve defined myself as the sweet lover so why not give into it? And eating competitions, and jokes, and having my first Magnum ice cream bar, which leads to finding a local store where I buy a pack of Magnums every two days. In Barcelona it’s ice cream. I have fond memories of Barcelona, I do. I cooked for myself, then. I still fit into my clothes and I drank a lot of boxed wine, and I ate 4 Magnums sometimes, in one sitting, but the air was salty and the food from the markets was fresh and I did okay for myself.
Berlin was cake. Berlin was bread and meat and no kitchen and cheap sandwiches and cheap pastries and cheap cupcakes. The first time you hit three cupcakes, you feel a sugar rush, a burst of dizzyness that requires you sit down and push aside anything, immediately, that will remind you of food. You groan. You feel lightheaded and nauseous and wow, it only lasts for ten minutes. So you think, well, that was a lot of sugar. But the secret is, if you continue to eat three cupcakes almost every day, in about a week it won’t bother you one bit. And you’ll keep hitting sugar, of course, until you can’t even think and your mind wants to die and you want to vomit. But eventually you’ll get up to: five cupcakes and three pieces of cake in one sitting, without feeling a thing. And you’ll have to tell the German lady whose bakery you frequent that you’re buying for your friends, because she’s starting to look suspicious. She doesn’t speak English but you know that she knows that you both know it’s bullshit. And eventually it will rise even higher. Throw a sandwich in there. Throw a Magnum in there (they have them in Germany, you discover, to your delight), and maybe a few lollipops and a shitty beer for the sake of it. For the hell of it. Give yourself thirty minutes, hate yourself for fifteen, then get up and go eat Thai food. Smile at the little old Thai lady that always gives you oranges. You’re her most loyal customer, after all. Calculate how long it’ll take you to walk to McDonalds to buy a fucking burger. You don’t even eat burgers. But in Berlin, it’s burgers.
Copenhagen was fear. And regret. And returning to a place I loved, except I couldn’t even function there because I felt so crippled by my decisions and I had gained twenty (twenty!) pounds in under three months. Shame, hiding, nothing, really. You’re there for two weeks and you reel from your decisions and you thank god you’re coming home and heading straight for a summer at college working at a campus bed and breakfast.
And at college, it’s------drink on drink on drink on drink----it’s----beating everyone at drinking and eating someone’s bag of frozen mini sausages and passing out on a couch, and---realizing that you’ve eaten the food you’re supposed to make for your job while you’re drunk, you’ve picked at it and gnawed and it and come Sunday brunch you can’t really explain why you have to make more food and why the supplies seem to be going faster this summer to your supervisor, and---oh, did I mention this food was all frozen solid at the time? At 1 am, my favorite place to stand is in front of the freezer. Because you can eat, and eat, and eat, and suddenly realize two hours have passed---no thoughts are required, it’s summer---fucking jean shorts, it’s summer---I hate myself in a bikini, what’s new, it’s summer---fad diets, it’s summer---binge drinking and stealing, the worst part is stealing someone else’s food, because it’s not you, but it is you. It’s embarrassing but the worst part is you don’t fucking care, and if they hadn’t caught you, or noticed, you wouldn’t fucking care! It’s fucking food and they should have eaten it sooner, your animal brain shouts.
Senior year of college you begin to date someone, and they become the first intimate observer of the new relationship you have with your body. Except later you’ll look back and realize they were a victim to the relationship you have with your body, a passer-by cajoled into a threesome.
Winter, I shrink again. I am working one part time job and one unpaid internship and have 33 dollars to spend on groceries every week, which I dutifully do at Trader Joe’s, plugging each half cucumber and cup of oatmeal into a meal tracker on my phone. I fill with pride when I hit below 1200 calories each day (and this is before exercising) and run the treadmill at the Y after work and refuse to see friends for anything but a cup of tea.
New Years of 2013 I am tiny again, down to 117 pounds, and men complement me at the party I’m at. I am smug. I am miserable. I do not drink. I stand in the corner and pick at the food. I am a ball of anxiety that looks like a vision.
rinse, and repeat for five more years.
When I binge my breath becomes shallow and I begin to feel an urge in my mouth, in my jaw, on my tongue, in my belly. I eat the world around me with rabid consumption, forcing things through my tongue and jaw and into my stomach as if to try to own them, greedily. My jaw chews with a sort of ecstatic violence. To stave off the undesirable effects of binge eating, I sometimes turn to chewing up everything and spitting it out, a physical act that sees me tear through food stuffs like some sort of animal. The best for these are protein bars, thick cookies, or sour candy (chewy) but not cake, or brownies, or ice cream (dissolves too fast).
Other times, I calm my mind by choosing foods where I can deftly, gingerly pick pieces out with a tweezer, or a fork, or my nail. Chocolate chip cookies are a good example. Desserts with a shell of chocolate that must be carefully extracted. Cakes with many different layers and fillings. The slow surgical like meditation urges me forward, lost in a trance of small movements, utter concentration, and constant reward. Surgical, savored delicacy.