Immediately after I lift the lid off the skillet, I realize my latest culinary creation is, quite literally, a hot mess. Bubbling violently, the pungent pastiche of grouper fillets, applesauce, and flour strikes an olfactory chord that hearkens back to my hamster’s pee-soaked pine shavings.
But I eat it anyway. Because I’ve eaten a lot worse.
While I writhe in agony on my living room floor, clawing my way to my far-flung cell phone to call Kelli–one of my best friends who, fortuitously, lives across the parking lot–I listen to Jake Gyllennhal’s on-screen character mutter to himself as he masturbates in a barrack bathroom stall.
The two of us grunt in sync: one toward release, one toward rescue.
I’m shifting uncomfortably in my seat. The department’s archaeology lab is dead quiet, but my mind is screaming itch, itch, itch! A week-long case of poison ivy has nearly broken me; my sleep-deprived mind can’t take it. I need an escape; otherwise, I’ll tear off my skin. So, I lock the lab, leave campus, and resolve to spend the afternoon in hedonistic repair.
I stagger to a nearby video store, peruse the possible selections, and contemplate my accompanying food options: pizza, doughnuts, candy. But then I rent Jarhead, and resolve to fall completely off the wagon. About ten minutes later, I pick up three pizzas and totter next door just as the neon hot light clicks on. A dozen cream- and jelly- filled doughnuts slide across the counter in their crisp, white box. With one pustule-covered hand I balance them; with the other, the piping-hot pizzas.
Without putting anything down, I unlock my front door and spread my decadently deleterious dinner across the kitchen countertop, then add a bag of crispy M&M’s from an open care package. Perfection. Sweet, savory, greasy bliss will surely help me convalesce.
Before I know it, the movie is well on its way and everything but half the bag of M&M’s has been reduced to a few scattered crumbs. Horribly full, I stretch across my partially broken yellow leather sofa. But as I do, a breathtaking pain shoots up my right leg.
And when I try to stand, I tumble face-first into beige carpeting.
So, here I am: bloated, disgusted, and surrounded by a truly horrifying array of crappy food containers. I can almost hear the coroner whisper Sweet Jesus as he photographs the carnage around my crumpled body.
But if I can reach my phone and call Kelli beforehand, I know she’ll at least have the decency to toss the evidence of this culinary catastrophe before the authorities arrive.
Just as Jake climaxes, I reach my phone. The screen’s dark, the battery dead.
Having little recourse, I re-extend my leg. A few muffled screams later, I’m on my back breathing heavily, distended stomach slowly rising and falling. The pain is gone.
Food and I have always had a complicated relationship. But I’ve salvaged it repeatedly, pulled it out of the ashes of a former incarnation–made it new again.
With Jake as my witness, binging was once my modus operandi when life got too chaotic. But I’ve also avoided food altogether to achieve a slim, anorexic body: exposed ribs, concave abdomen, sunken cheeks–physical markers I once believed defined beauty. And mediating those extremes during graduate school was a bulimia-induced, grossly toxic ballet of stomach acid and esophageal tissue.
Whether it was finishing some postmodern tome or finally understanding what heuristic meant, I’d contort eating into some sick rewards system: minor accomplishments served as my meal tickets. But that system became too subjective–what was worthy of dinner, really?–so I opted for a strict one-meal-a-day rule.
Only after my friends began commenting on my ghostly pallor–the bags under my eyes, my thinning profile–and my hair began falling out in clumps did I become slightly more proactive about eating a little here and there. Nothing major, nothing heavy. But if I did go overboard–enjoy the taste too much, binge a bit–down my throat my index finger went, and I was light again. I was in control.
An intervention later, I re-centered, and was told by my therapist to start a food journal. I had to re-learn how to eat.
March 22 2007 6:43 am
Eating breakfast today makes me feel disgusting, especially since I ate three times yesterday. I just don’t like how eating during the day disrupts my schedule, my routine.
Regardless of the disorder, the result was always the same: shame–both for engaging in the destructive behavior and perpetuating it. To relate to food as I did–to abstain, to binge, to repeat–was a First World luxury in which I overindulged.
By now, I know I’ll never be ripped, nor entirely rid of vestigial baby fat under my chin. But with that knowledge has come self-acceptance. Now, rather than feeding a disorder, cooking sustains me in every imaginable way.
I transform with every dish, and have a newfound respect for the ways in which food has dovetailed with my personal history–informed, strengthened, diminished it. Because making something out of what ingredients you have isn’t reserved for the kitchen: I’ve rebuilt and filled this shell of a person like a manicotti roll.
Food unlocks the culinary and carnal–the feelings that fill those liminal spaces where the pious believe souls reside, but where I think inner happiness is born and nurtured. Because there, within the stalks and sinews, the leafy greens and hardened shells, is a place where the past and present collide.
Where I find redemption.