It is one o’clock in the afternoon on Monday, the fourteenth of December. I am hunched over in a chair in Kelly’s snug, windowless office. The conversation thus far doesn’t have me in the highest of spirits. We are turning over some pretty heavy stuff. Childhood stuff. Old trauma that goes way far back, beyond my memory. Even though Kelly is my nutritionist, this conversation has nothing to do with food.
In five days, I’ll be home again for a nice, long Christmas visit. “While you’re back east, why don’t you go out and try to find something that you can’t eat when you’re here (in the Midwest)?” Kelly suggests. “Find one food from your childhood that you really enjoy that you just can’t find here, maybe something that your mom makes.” It is her way of trying to knit some positive connection to my very distant past. I sit blankly, staring at the bookshelf behind her. Nothing is coming to mind. Suddenly, my face twists into a horrific contortion. Into my head pops an image of thick slices of gooey, French toast dripping with butter and maple syrup. It was my favorite breakfast on the rare day off from elementary school, but it was probably twenty years ago that I last savored its indulgent richness. The writhing of my facial muscles can’t be disguised. Kelly practically claps her hands in anticipation. “You just thought of something, didn’t you?”
“French toast,” I admit, grimacing fiercely. The next thought is of the inevitable sugar rush and crash followed by the heavy feeling of lead in my stomach persisting well into the afternoon. The reason I stopped eating French toast for breakfast was because I decided the after-effects were not worth a few moments of sweet pleasure.
“Ok, well, maybe not French toast…” she allows. A flash of my brother’s chocolate chip pancakes smeared with peanut butter and drowning in syrup as only he makes them quickly chases the French toast from my imagination. My stomach clamps down, my jaw clenches, and I feel a gag forming in the back of my throat. I’m beginning to hyperventilate. I can’t do this.
It turns out, I discovered, after going into the greater world and experiencing a variety of foods prepared by many different people, that my mother is actually not terribly skilled in the kitchen. (I still love you, Mom). She makes, by far, the best apple and pumpkin pies on the eastern seaboard. (I am not biased at all). She is a master at pretty much all of the meats and fishes. Just thinking about her marinated flank steak makes my mouth water. However, growing up, I was raised on a steady diet of hot dogs, grilled cheese, canned soup, a rather unpalatable stew prepared in a noisy pressure cooker, salad that consisted mostly of wilted ice burg lettuce, peanut butter sandwiches, and grayish-appearing canned vegetables. Just thinking about her “American chop suey” makes me gag. Have you ever heard of a bologna roll up? Probably not, because it was a concoction of my mother’s and was a staple of weekend lunches in our household, along with cheese and crackers. An entire meal of nothing but cheese and crackers. Yes, we were a nutritious bunch.
The mixed messages about food in my house abounded. “You’re looking kind of fat.” “You’ll ruin your dinner.” “Don’t you care what you look like?” “You’re going to wind up just like [comparison made to an obese relation].” “Well, what else did you eat today?” At the same time, dessert was a given after every meal. There were always at least two gallons of ice cream in the freezer, whipped cream in the fridge, a bag of chocolate chips in the lazy Susan, and bags of Reese’s peanut butter cups and York peppermint patties in the basement pantry. Usually, there were also cookies and potato chips to be found. Food was used as a reward, a punishment, and a comfort. There were too many disordered behaviors surrounding food to even begin listing them all.
It’s for all of these myriad reasons that Kelly’s challenge to revisit a food that I enjoyed from childhood is especially… threatening is not a strong enough word.
Attempting to bring to mind an array of dishes from my past that I might want to sample again is so unsettling that I find myself pushing and pulling my thoughts at the same time. As I draw forth an image of a food, I hastily reject it and recoil mentally, emotionally, and physically. “I’m enjoying social activities with food. I go out to eat with friends, and I attend parties. I am gradually trying ‘new’ foods. I don’t really need this challenge. Kelly was wrong,” I am telling myself. As I recollect all the very unhealthy meals that I consumed growing up, I realize that I am afraid of what will happen if I even allow myself to continue this brainstorming exercise. “I like the way that I eat now,” I affirm. “I don’t need to go back there.”
The issue remains unresolved. I am not entirely closed to the idea, but I am definitely not welcoming it with an open mind and attitude. Challenge not necessarily accepted.