A rabbi once told me, “Eating is a celebration.”
It took me a long time to understand what he meant because for many years, I viewed eating as a punishment or a chore at best. I felt that my worth was determined by how much or how little I ate, that I needed to purge not only calories but “badness” from my body. I felt that eating was a moral transgression.
This is a terrible way to live. I used to dread my own birthday because I’d have to eat cake. I hated family vacations because my parents always wanted to try new restaurants and I wouldn’t know the calories in the meal. Even family dinners at home were a battlefield because my parents practically had to force-feed me.
These days, I consider myself 99% recovered from any sort of eating disorder. (I’ve been diagnosed with anorexia, bulimia, and EDNOS [eating disorder not otherwise specified] all at different points in this journey.) Yes, I can still be weird about certain foods, such as peanut butter and milk, but the mental energy spent on obsessing over food, calories, and purging has diminished significantly.
The rabbi who told me that I should celebrate eating was certainly right. Now that I live on my own, I get to figure out what to have for every meal. Forever.
At first, this is how it felt. I often found myself at restaurants, eating sub par versions of food I could have cooked myself. Yes, Denny’s is great, but I also know how I like my eggs and toast. And I don’t think it’s ever a good sign when the people working the Dunkin’ Donuts drive-through recognize your voice before you even get to the window.
As it turns out, I am a very good cook. Family lore fondly remembers Nanny’s old adage, “If you can read, you can cook!” I use that line on a lot of customers, either young college students who subsist on Hot Pockets, or little old widowers who have never had to cook for themselves. Most of them laugh it off, but a few take me seriously.
And speaking of working in the supermarket, let me just say: people put a ridiculous amount of thought into their food. Of course, it’s important to be mindful of what one consumes. A diet of straight beef jerky and soda isn’t healthy, but neither is only eating iceberg lettuce and water. What I’m talking about is the implied morality of food. When I say to a customer (usually a woman), “Ooh, these cupcakes look so good!” She frequently replies with, “Those are NOT for me! Those are for my kids. This is mine,” and she’ll hold up another product, typically a bottle of wine or a box of Special K “dessert bars.”
Once, I asked a customer if she wanted to hold onto her candy bars or if she wanted them in the bag. “They’d better go in the bag,” she said. “Otherwise I might eat them.” It was near the end of my shift and I was feeling silly, so I replied, “That’s typically what we do with food.” She didn’t find it funny.
People say things like this to me on a daily basis, explaining that they’ve just come from the gym, so they “deserve” the pastry, or they’re going to “be bad,” or “I’ll hate myself after this,” or “I usually can’t keep these in the house,” and on and on.
The point I am trying to make is this: nobody should have to apologize for the food they choose to eat. Nobody should feel bad about the food they choose to eat. What you eat has no affect on your worth. Depriving yourself doesn’t make you good or clean or any other lie your eating disorder may tell you.
Recently, my mom added me to a Facebook group called Appalachian Cooking. I spend a lot of time on the more “millenial” corners of the internet, and I was pleasantly surprised to find this group to be helpful and welcoming. More than that, it’s very quickly given me a new perspective on food. Eating is, indeed, a celebration. It is a celebration of family traditions, of innovation, of togetherness, help, and love. When either of my parents has a cold, I make them matzo ball soup, like they did for me when I was a little girl and had a cold. My dad’s slumgullian recipe, which my mom won’t even come near, transports him back to Nanny’s house and his childhood.
In the cooking group, I see people posting things about recipes passed down from their grandparents. People offer helpful tips for when things go awry, and most importantly, they lift each other up and toot their own horns. I see people saying things like, “This came out perfectly!” and “I made these cookies for my family, and now they ask for them every Sunday!” There are hardly any posts about diets, low-calorie recipes, and very little “fat-talk” (i.e.: “I’m going to gain X lbs overnight after this meal!”) Even the people who post pictures of bologna sandwiches and hot dogs get a good reception. Right now with most of the country under a stay-at-home order, groups like this can give people a sense of community. I know it certainly has for me.
After spending years obsessing about my food being right or perfect, I finally feel free enough to experiment in the kitchen. I feel like little Katie again, standing on top of the jungle gym, preparing to jump to the ground, screaming, “I can do anything!” I’d never made a casserole before a few nights ago, and it came out great! I used a recipe as a guideline, but ended up doing my own thing (like so many other aspects of my life…). The fear of failure can be paralyzing, but I try not to let it hold me back. Like I always reassure Chance when we’re trying a new recipe, “Pizza is always an option!”
I’m learning that cooking is more of an art than a science. I’ve even been writing down the recipes I use and modify because I think the handwritten recipe cards my mom has are very cool. It’s okay to enjoy food simply because it tastes good, even if it’s not low-calorie, low-carb, low-whatever. I don’t want to worry so much about my weight that I miss out on all the good things life has to offer. When an eating disorder doesn’t rule my life, things can be pretty sweet.