My Relationship With Food Is A Mess, And That’s Fine

Reading Ruby Tandoh’s new book Eat Up, I’ve been reminded that eating is a minefield for all of us at times — and our messiness is what makes us human.

In college, I liked to throw dinner parties. They were more like rambunctious potlucks, lubricated with jug wine and cheap beer, but I took pride in feeding my friends vegetable paella, shrimp and garlic fried in olive oil whose juices we sopped up with fluffy bread, tortilla de patatas dolloped with homemade mayonnaise and smoky pimenton — foods I remembered and craved from a childhood eating out in Down Neck Newark, where my grandparents had grown up. Sometimes I would also bake, maybe clafouti or a chocolate cake I’d adopted while studying in Paris. My parties were fun. I liked playing host to a bunch of people I loved. What I could not admit was that these feasts carved an all too rare space for me to eat with abandon.

I could forget about the minefield that was eating: my worries that I would consume more calories than I needed and gain weight, that dairy was congesting, that refined sugar was unhealthy, that meat was environmentally unethical, that all this bounty would trigger a binge, that I would have to eat less tomorrow to make up for all I ate today — all the anxieties that I’d learned could contain my appetites, whose unruliness I distrusted.

Leading up to the party, I could shop carefully for ingredients and set my hands to cooking, channeling my usual meal planning in a way that felt generous instead of restrictive. Most of all, I could anticipate eating food that would, in less heady circumstances, seem bad for me, and enjoy them as part of the celebration. It was a party! Looking forward this much to eating was normal. I was normal. I was free.

I still have Facebook photos from those nights, dimly lit, pre-iPhone, orange-gold. We are flirty and flushed, healthy and hamming. I am startled by how happy I look among the empties and mess of plates, knowing that I was also tamping down an urgent, anxious unhappiness. I do not doubt that I am engaged in the conversation, delighted to be there, pinching myself about how lucky I am to call these people my people. It is possible to exist in multiple experiences simultaneously. I am a smart and confident college student. I am grasping, lost. I am hungry. I am much too full.

We are constantly being told, in one form or another, that we should not be eating things. Every day there is some article published about the deleterious effects of one food group, and another article rebutting it. Or an article touts a diet, more and more often disguised in the trappings of a “lifestyle.” Some foods are deemed “super,” others junk. Then there are times of day after which you should never eat. Cleanses and detoxes promise all kinds of benefits, while gluten free is offered as a cure-all, even to people who suffer from no illness or allergy (I am deathly allergic to peanuts, so I understand that for some people, this is a matter of choosing life). And then there are people who insist that all this health hoopla is ridiculous, that you should enjoy yourself, live a little, stop worrying — but you have no self-respect if you eat a Big Mac.

Our eating habits follow the same ideology as our culture in general, which is to say, self-improvement and optimization at all times.

Our eating habits follow the same ideology as our culture in general, which is to say, self-improvement and optimization at all times, no excuses. No matter what your flavor — wellness or hedonism or well-hedonism — there is a best way to eat, and you’d better be striving. And this self-improvement moment extends well beyond food, as Alexandra Schwartz wrote recently in the New Yorker. It is a given that we should want to upgrade, whether that means buying the latest mobile device, doing the better workout, researching the best way to cook a steak, serial-masking our way to dewy skin, or eating only the best burger.

I do not want to reduce anyone’s struggles with eating — or my own — to a direct cause-and-effect reaction. There are so many reasons why we turn to certain refuges in times of stress, so many factors that may exacerbate our response. But in the context of this endless quest for perfection, there is still an indisputable stigma around eating disorders, which are perceived in popular culture as shallow, self-inflicted, disgusting, fake. We judge, ask why anyone would do that to themselves.

Even in this era of body positivity and recovery advocacy (Feb. 26 marks the start of this year’s National Eating Disorders Awareness Week), it is hard to shake the picture we have of a person with an eating disorder — something rarely discussed in the same breath with strong women and great food. I would like to believe I am a strong woman, and I love great food. So this disjoint has presented a challenge to my identity.

I love wandering through grocery stores and farmers markets. I love making dinner for friends. I love going out to eat and feeling an almost spiritual resonance with another human over a dish because it has the right amount of garlic, according to us. Absurdly, I will sometimes wistfully exit a restaurant, believing with absolute certainty that, given time, the chef and I would be best friends, all on account of some charred sardines or wobbly panna cotta. The irony is that before I acquired an eating disorder (I’m in the habit of phrasing it thus, as if it were a company merger), I liked food but did not love it. My eating disorder made me a Food Person.

It started as an obsession when I was restricting, and then took on a different shade when I was binging. Either way, food was always on my mind; sometimes I even dreamed about it. I went to college in the late aughts — a fertile era for food blogs, which, predictably, I found and devoured. This was before people blogged professionally; Smitten Kitchen, Orangette, the Wednesday Chef, and a host of lesser knowns existed for no reason other than personal satisfaction. At first I read like a peeping Tom. I wanted to gape at cakes and lasagna, bento boxes and canelles. But! Here were women (they usually were women) who had strong opinions about chocolate chip cookies. And ate them eagerly! Without freaking out! And they could write! One day, I realized I’d stopped visiting those blogs to gape and was there for the stories and recipes, which I brought into my own kitchen.

I began to care about food writing. I discovered John Thorne, Calvin Trillin, M.F.K. Fisher, Elizabeth David, Marcella Hazan, Nigel Slater — writers with opinions as sharp as their appetites. I felt understood. These writers were role models I didn’t know I’d needed, people who, like me, dreamed of roasts and oysters, puddings and pies, but without the looming cloud of “disorder” to threaten rain on their experiences. They were enthusiastic about cooking for company, yes, but they also wrote of the pleasures of eating alone. That was the point of it, to take personal pleasure. Otherwise, what was the goal of all the chopping, trussing, browning, basting? I started to feed myself with the same care as when I fed my friends. I was eating for myself again.

At the end of the aughts, the internet was full of tempting information about restrictive eating. Raw veganism and juicing, for example, were gaining traction in fashionable circles, with their promise of environmental responsibility and glowing health, as if the path to an effortless existence might also save the world. I was attracted to structures — rules and habits that, like my dinner parties, might tame the wayward, unpredictable eater I feared I was. But when John Thorne could spend a whole chapter on his quest for the perfect crisssinnkch of excellent toast, and I really cared, the lure of such rules became less attractive. Count me in for flavor, sensuality, and a good story. I was becoming a hedonist.

Struggling with eating shook my confidence in my ability to know how to be

So my eating disorders could exist hand in hand with a love of food, no problem. But being a strong woman with an eating disorder? That part was — and is — more tricky. Most of the time I believed I was her. But sometimes it felt like a double life.

Struggling with eating shook my confidence in my ability to know how to be. I actually did not know, at times, whether I was hungry or full, let alone whether I was indulging a healthy craving or eating in a disordered way. Forget the question of being a strong woman. I distrusted my ability to feed myself “properly,” the basic required activity for all animals.

As is often the case when trying to find one’s way, I became fascinated by other people muddling through stories like mine. Like a truffle hunter, I nosed around for a whiff of self-recognition. When I found people, especially accomplished people, who had openly struggled with disordered eating, and when I also discovered they were resilient and capable and talented and not at all tragic, it was like I’d uncovered a jewel. If they professed to love food, even better. This is how I started following Ruby Tandoh, and how I recently came to read her new book, Eat Up!

Ruby, if I may presume to call her that, had been on my radar because, like so many people, I was a fan of The Great British Bake Off (or Baking Show, to US audiences). Ruby, then a 20-year-old philosophy student, was a finalist in the show’s fourth season. The show satisfied my enduring voyeuristic desire to watch other people around food, especially decadent food. By the time the first season of the Great British Baking Show aired on PBS, in December 2014, I was thankfully mostly over my fear of “empty calories,” but this defanging of treats — through indulgence in the curious English traditions of trifles and tiffins — was welcome therapeutic maintenance.

As for so many viewers, the show won my heart because of its contestants, all earnest and oddly (to American viewers, used to our toxic reality TV) sweet. Ruby, especially, won me over. She was so easy to read on her journey from timid stressball to finalist. Her “bakes” were beautiful, and her facial expressions — legible and GIFable — were endearing. Under the fray of palpable nerves waited potent steeliness.

By 2016, Ruby’s fortitude was no longer subsurface. She was writing a regular food column for the Guardian and had come out as queer. She was vocal about her experiences with disordered eating and began to write about issues of food and mental health. One day on Twitter, I stumbled on a piece she’d written for Vice. It contains a line I still remember: “The rumble of your belly is not a saboteur.” Reading it, I felt a slap of recognition — not just in that point, so direct and true — but in the tone of the piece, its seething frustration.

I knew the feeling. It was the feeling of having run uphill for a long time, only to realize that there is no race. Everyone has been telling you there is one, most of all yourself. Now you are done. That was the feeling, like a scream — the scream of a woman who has had enough.

With the help of therapy and yoga and cooking, taking one step forward and three steps back, I evolved: from sophomore-year restrictor to guilt-ridden binger and then, by my mid-to-late twenties, to willing hedonist. I had moved from Providence to New York City, gone to graduate school, entered the workforce, and would soon enter my thirties. I still threw dinner parties, and I was getting to know the New York food and wine landscape, in all its varied glory. I no longer set strict rules about the type of food I would eat or the number of calories. In fact, I would have told you I was fine, that I no longer had rules at all. But oh, I did.

My new rules were tied now to my “love” of food and centered around quality, both in terms of ingredients and experience, which would have to be mindful. I wanted all my eating henceforth to be “good.” Grass-fed butter, shattering croissants, the toothsome fight of a real bagel. Otherwise, not worth the calories. I went out to dinner with friends and ate with gusto, but I held tight to my residual expectations that outside that decadent meal, the day’s plates would be all vegetables and nutritional powerhouses. Otherwise, catastrophe. Meanwhile, a soggy airport sandwich hastily eaten would throw me into a funk that would last a day.

I would have told you I was fine, that I no longer had rules at all. But oh, I did. 

Around this time, my (now) husband and I moved into an apartment that had a microwave, something I had never found a use for before. He is a cyclist, which means that I often have the house to myself — ideal for a writer, but not necessarily for someone with an unhealthy relationship to food. I cooked and baked often, and still do. Admirable things like buckwheat shortbread, for example, or sesame cakes, lemon tarts, braised fennel, roasted chicken, tall and proud. What I have not shared until this writing is a dish I’ll call “cracker nachos.”

To make cracker nachos, you line a microwavable tupperware with crackers. Triscuits are great, as are saltines, but any cracker works. You then lay thick slices of cheese on top of them before zapping the whole thing for 30 or 40 seconds. The grease releases from the cheese into the crackers, making the warm crackers sort of soggy, and the cheese is melted and boiling hot. You can pick them up individually or smash them together to create mini grilled cheese cracker sandwiches. Either way you eat them quickly, consider if you want more (the answer is yes), and repeat.

In this way, it was possible to conduct an almost scientific study of the varying melting qualities of extra sharp cheddar, sharp cheddar, mild cheddar, Jarlsberg, havarti with dill, manchego, smoked Gouda, and aged Gouda. Sometimes my partner would come home after a day out riding and ask, stupefied, “Where’s all the cheese?”

It would be funny. But those binges, which had begun as innocent snacks an hour or so after lunch, left me devastated. I felt like a fraud.

I used to think recovery meant finding an easy and eager relationship with food. In this image, I would not only be in control of my cravings and know exactly when I was full, but I would also always eat mindfully and blissfully. I would respect myself enough to eat food enshrined in loving intentions, like some kind of Brooklyn Jeong Kwan. A strong woman!

I have learned that recovery is nothing like that. It was a difficult delusion to shake.

“I want you to feel fine about the messiness of your illogical, impulsive appetite, and sometimes overeat, sometimes undereat, and still hold tight in your self-care.”

I have been thinking about and recovering from eating disorders for years. So I am a bit embarrassed to admit that when I read this sentence in Ruby Tandoh’s introduction to Eat Up! I felt a little disoriented. Still hold tight in your self-care. It’s not that the idea of forgiveness and acceptance of “imperfect” eating was new to me. I have ranted along similar lines to my husband and friends about the pressures that we — overwhelmingly women, but people in general — put on ourselves and absorb through the media to eat perfectly, to be effortless.

What made me dizzy is that Ruby’s message, which is so obvious, made me own something about my self-professed love of food that I’d been realizing gradually for several months. My love of food had an unhealthy cant to it that was not as evolved from my blatantly disordered eating in college as I wanted to think. It was still perfectionism. To co-opt Janet Jackson, my all-or-nothing mind had taken the pleasure principle and turned it back into control.

My identity, my eating, my appetite — all of it is a ridiculous, beautiful mess.

What I needed to embrace, as Ruby Tandoh writes, was the mess. My identity, my eating, my appetite — all of it is a ridiculous, beautiful mess. It is common for people with eating disorders to go through many epiphanies on the proverbial road to recovery. I know this by now, but it’s still startling to be unmasked.

While acknowledging that the impulse to improve is not always bad, Ruby offers a radical reminder: “There is nothing to cure.” In its resistance to improvement for improvement’s sake, Ruby’s book betrays an old-fashioned heart — a bit surprising coming from a millennial who once competed on a reality TV show. (I am a nostalgic and somewhat curmudgeonly person, so this suits me.)

“We all have moments when we let our appetites carry us places that we perhaps shouldn’t go, and that’s normal and fine,” she writes, like a wise grandmother. “Eating well means eating with compassion for yourself — for the bad and the good inside you, and for all the lumps, bumps, beauty and ugliness on the outside.”

Eat Up! is a series of loosely related essays, quips, and theses about our relationships with food, ranging from a critique of the fat-fearing wellness industry to prison food reform to the emotional origins and facets of our hungers, scattered with recipes and recipe-like passages. (See the “recipe” for a “Life-changing energizing drink to LIFT your spirits and KICKSTART your day!” in which she skewers the juicing trend while reminding us that sometimes a cold soda is exactly right.)

It is clear that the book is the product of Ruby’s frustration, a collection of retorts and rebuttals and alternate narratives that she has been gathering over the years and is now ready to put out in the world. And if the resulting book is a bit unruly, that seems appropriate. So are our appetites, and ourselves.

Ruby Tandoh is not the first writer to divulge her struggles with food, nor the first to call for a shift in perspective. I owe a lot to Frank Bruni, the former restaurant critic at the New York Times, for the excerpt from his memoir that that paper published in 2009, titled “I Was a Baby Bulimic.” I think my eyes crossed a little when I came across it. The New York Times restaurant critic had struggled with eating disorders? It was insane, sad, and wonderful all at the same time. (One of my truffle jewels!) Then last summer, I read Roxane Gay’s incredible memoir Hunger. It took me days to come out from under its spell, which was not a very comfortable or pleasant place, but nonetheless had a kind of magic.

It’s so much about when we read things, though. For me, the relief and rebalancing came in fits and starts, and an essential piece of that was relearning on a visceral level that not every morsel I ate every day would be wonderful — in fact, that such a day is extremely rare, no matter who you are. Ruby reminds me that eating is a minefield for all of us at times, and that’s okay. A few years ago, I wouldn’t have wanted to hear that. I would have wanted to hear that the unease goes away. But we are messes, all of us. It’s what makes us human, and I honestly don’t want it to change.

How we ride those moments of unease is part of who we are.

When I learn that someone else has struggled with disordered eating, body image, or simply the mental strain of being a fallible, fleshy human, I do not assume that this person loves neither food nor herself. She probably loves both very much. It is possible to be a strong woman who loves to eat and yet, as Ruby writes, for “moments of unease [to] take root, furrowing deep into the very essence” of one’s relationship with food. How we ride those moments of unease is part of who we are.

M.F.K. Fisher starts her essay “Borderland” with the line, “Almost every person has something secret he likes to eat,” and then proceeds to describe how she leaves orange segments to plump and dry on the radiator before cooling them in a winter window and popping them in her mouth. The landscape of food writing is supersaturated these days, and yet I still believe that at its best it can offer meaningful insights into what it means to be human, on par with what we get from the best novels. Food writing connects us to our human selves, infinitely odd and inexplicable as we are.

I like to devour an entire pomelo in one sitting, excavating the bitter pink sections from their rhinoceros hide. I like to slit the membrane around a fried egg yolk with the sharp edge of a piece of toast, fill the yolk with Worcestershire, and dunk the bread in (I inherited this one from my father). I like to gnaw the cartilage off chicken bones and suck at the marrow. I also like to eat cracker nachos.

I recently made myself some. Given our history together, the snack filled me with an uneasy, queasy feeling, as if I had made a mistake. But there was also a louder part of me that genuinely wanted them. Anyway, I ate them, and I survived, and a few hours later my husband and I sat down to dinner. ●

Katie Okamoto is a writer living in New York City.

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