I’ve eaten at least three meals a day every day of my life. I don’t remember most. Most feedings aren’t celebratory, and most of the time food simply serves to banish hunger for the next four hours. And I’ve been thinking. What if someone were to ask me what my three most memorable meals are? Where would I begin? How are they memorable? Is it the food? Is it the provider? Is it the company? Here are mine:
One of my meals lasted all day. It was the one I never ate. I was 18 years old at a conservative university in South Carolina and in the midst of the worst season of what would be a four year plus bout with an eating disorder. I’d lived a few months consuming a maximum of 280 calories a day. Most mornings I’d wake up, walk to work at the costume shop, sit down at my sewing machine, lose my vision, and slump to the floor. Then Mrs. Sandy would either drive me home or to the campus hospital.
I hated food. I hated that I needed it. And I considered my need to feed a weakness. So in an assault on my own hunger, I decided to eat nothing for an entire day. I barely remember it. But I remember it strange in general to not punctuate my day with food. I found other things. I walked the long way home. I holed myself up to read at a desk in the back of the third floor of the library. I slept. I had conversations I remembered only small portions of. Really, what you do in a day without food is wait. Time without food is long. Very long. And it’s always a losing battle.
The meal that broke my fast is not significant, but the fact that I went more than 24 hours without one is. More than a day without a calorie. Food never consumed is a fantasy for most, and even more fantastic to the one who is going without. I’m not proud of the way I treated my body and my spirit during this time in my life, but I am strangely proud to know what a day without food is like.
My second memorable meal is a painfully silent one I shared with my dad when I was about 20. Prompted by some sort of parental guilt, he decided to ask me, his middle daughter, out on a father-daughter date. Just he and I at a Mexican restaurant. I can’t handle forced social situations. I hate them. I’d always gotten along better with my dad when we worked on our roof or in the garage together. We’d either have a reason to be silent, or we’d discuss physics and time theory–the only conversational plane that me, the artist, and he, the physicist could truly share..
Over a couple baskets of chips with salsa and two sizzling plates of fajitas, I made a number of failed attempts at starting a simple conversation with a man with whom I’d occupied a house for most of my days since birth. The atmosphere around us vibrated with the continuity of other peoples lives and relationships. Yet my father and I faced each other with nothing more than the food he knew I’d like in between us. What do you ask your dad when you never talk to him? Did he want to know something about me? Should I just offer any information about my life? Should I pick something that would be interesting me or should I cater to him? Why would we talk about it now? What does a girl ask about a man’s life? Should the question that break the silence be significant?
Between bites, we swallowed our failure to connect. Today, I’d be happy to cannibalize any wall we’d have, and sadly the opportunities are fleeting. In years since, I’ve traded a young adulthood of silence for an aggressive “no t.m.i.” approach to social situations. But at a quiet 20, with a parent whom I had to assume loved me, I endured a meal that was painfully just about the meal.
Most of my memories of meals are salted with lost friendships, the sounds of cafeterias I used to frequent, and first tastes of new food. I couldn’t think of a significant third. But I remember getting to 13 years old, having never tasted chicken and dumplings. My parents were out of town, and the lady that stayed with us made us some. The three of us girls sat in the kitchen slurping the food that had been previously foreign to our family table. We exchanged greedy, guilty glances for enjoying a comfortable food our mother didn’t know how to make. There were paper bag grilled cheese sandwiches on Sunday afternoons in college. The cafeteria let us take food out of the building for only that meal, and we’d bring back white bread and cheese slices, slip them into brown paper bags, and they’d cook, squeezed beneath hot clothes irons. There were weevils in a bowl of mac and cheese when I was ten. There were carpet picnics. The chicken foot I found in the bowl of curry in Thailand. Steak and eggs in the woods in Tennessee. Tomato and cheese sandwiches in my dad’s office.
And Medieval Times…