I didn’t grow up in a “foodie” household. My mother claims she loves to eat – in fact, she’ll often moan audibly about how great a meal is while she’s eating – but I’ve recognized there’s an important distinction between loving to eat and loving food, and she’s certainly more the former than the latter. My grandmother, on the other hand, cherishes neither eating nor food – she “eats only to live” as my mom once quipped, probably while we were stuffing our faces at some restaurant.
I never learned to buy groceries or to cook, maybe because my mom didn’t really get into those tasks. My grandmother was the one who prepared our meals when I was growing up. Most of them were quite basic – stewed beef, boiled vegetables, baked chicken. I would sit at the kitchen table, uninterested, usually with my nose stuck in a book that I was reading at the time while I idly picked at my drumstick and green beans. Back then, I felt the same way about food that my grandmother did – it was merely an obligation. While I probably could have learned a thing or two in the kitchen if I had asked, I was a bookish and introverted kid, hardly the type to take initiative when it came to things like baking cakes and cooking roast.
My sister Marie, on the other hand, had both natural talent and earlier interest. She was already preparing fairly complex meals in her twenties, while I was still uncertain. As a college student, I relied on the student center – or, occasionally, my roommates or friends cooking – to provide my meals.
The summer before my junior year of college, my best friend Alice and I got a two bedroom apartment. For the first time I took my woeful culinary skills outside of the cocoon of home or the dorm and into a real kitchen with appliances that adults could use – if adults had been there, that is. Not that Alice didn’t know how. I don’t remember her preparing elaborate meals, but I do remember her scolding me when one night I attempted to make hot chocolate with the coffee maker. Somehow, I had reasoned that I could run milk through the machine to heat it up for my mug of powdered cocoa.
“Denise, no!” Alice was at once amused and horrified. “You’ll ruin the coffee maker that way!”
The incident, as you can imagine, has stuck inside my head ever since, even now that I’m well into adulthood. It was one of the first times that I realized how few skills I had. To my credit, however, I pressed on that year, wanting to prove to myself (and probably to Alice) that I could throw together a proper meal. On Easter Sunday, I served lunch for Alice, myself and her boyfriend at the time. It was hardly anything special – a rotisserie chicken from the grocery store that I’d cleverly removed from the bag, plus green beans and dinner rolls. But I put on a pink blouse and set the table and, honestly, Alice and her boyfriend were pleased with it. No one brought up the store-bought chicken, including me. I knew that somewhere, someone cooler than me was serving a real Easter brunch with roasted duck and honey ham – but for the time being, I had met my goals.
At 23, I had my first one bedroom apartment. It was a small, bare-bones kind of place with brown carpeting in a not-so-nice section of town. I was living by myself for the first time in my life. I hated it, truth be told; I had no real idea how to take care of myself. Without Alice and other people around to inspire a food project, I resorted to bowls of cereal, canned tuna and toast more often than not. I had a boyfriend in those days, but our relationship resembled that of two teenagers – we were more apt to run by a fast food joint for a burger from the dollar menu than to cook a meal at home. I was broke; both of us were broke. I was thin as rail and hardly ate anything.
It was around this time that I started having my first real bouts of anxiety and panic. Perhaps I’d experienced a stray panic attack before then, but while living alone they became frequent and severe to the point that I worried something was physically wrong with me.
“Mom, it feels like something heavy is sitting right on my chest, like a brick,” I tearfully said to her on the phone around 11 p.m. one night. I was pacing the brown carpet, walking from the kitchen to the tiny living room to the bedroom over and over in a maddening triangle.
“I think there’s something wrong with my heart,” I concluded miserably.
Mom was not in agreement. “You’re under stress,” she reported. “I do not believe you have a heart problem.”
It was true, life had suddenly become stressful. Without college as my safety net, a surefire something to tell people I was doing with my time, I felt adrift and scared. I had a job at a retail outlet, but it was just part time, and I was barely making ends meet. I wanted to be a writer, but I had only one magazine paying me about twenty dollars per story. My car in those days was a 1995 Mazda that constantly broke down and cost money I didn’t have. I applied for other jobs, but in the back of my mind I wasn’t even sure I wanted to stay in the area. Maybe graduate school was the answer. If I couldn’t be an adult yet, I would procrastinate.
These and other thoughts rambled through my head morning, noon and night, making me a nervous wreck. Then, one day, it happened – the first connection between food and calmness. I was crying on the phone to my uncle about my so-called heart problems, telling him about the brick that seemed to always seemed to hinder my breathing.
“Do you have any peanut butter, or any eggs?” he asked, which seemed wildly unrelated to the problem at hand – but he’s a physician, so I merely said yes, I had a dozen eggs in the refrigerator.
“I want you to cook yourself some eggs,” he instructed. “You need to eat some protein.”
I cried as I said “OK” and hung up the phone with him. I cried as I scraped a small pat of butter into the pan and watched it skate around the warm surface until I cracked two bright yolks on top. I cried as I added a touch of milk and scrambled it all together, adding salt and pepper, the only two spices inside my dark cabinet. I might have added a slice of cheese too; I can’t remember. But if I did, I definitely cried as I did it.
This is the lowest point of my life so far, I thought to myself miserably, watching two, maybe three tears fall from my eyelashes and into the softly sizzling eggs.
Well, you can probably guess what happened next – I ate my food and the tears stopped. Was I merely distracted by lifting the fork to my mouth and purposefully chewing, or had I stumbled onto a mood elevating secret? I had no idea, but it didn’t matter. I treated the day as an isolated incident, and went right back to having panic attacks. Eventually, I visited the family doctor, who put me on an antidepressant.
“I’m writing you a prescription for Zoloft,” she said in her soft, kind voice, scribbling onto her pad. She, like my mother, had said nothing was wrong with my heart. Instead, she diagnosed me with panic disorder.
I stopped taking the drug as soon as I moved to Charleston. I was happy again, thanks to starting graduate school, moving in with my friend Heidi, dumping my boyfriend and meeting new people. Still, my need for food remained. Furthermore, I was getting recurrent urinary tract infections, and each time I went to the doctor, they asked me if I was pre diabetic. I would always answer “no,” though I secretly wondered if I was. That would certainly explain why I couldn’t drink as much alcohol as all my friends without throwing up the next morning. Hangovers were absolutely brutal for me, even that young – lightheadedness, nausea and, worst of all, panic.
As my mid-twenties moved into my later twenties, my two roommates had a hard time taking the clinic doctors seriously in regards to my alleged blood sugar problems. They laughed in my face about the blood sugar testing equipment I was sent home with. They pointed out that I was not overweight, unlike most diabetic adults. I agreed with them, but I still noticed how often I needed to eat in order to feel normal.
As life got busier, I found myself worrying about food even more. When would I eat next? And what, exactly, would I eat? It got to the point where I was avoiding certain people or situations at certain times of day if it meant not eating. I realized not everyone had to eat three times a day – in fact, most people don’t. Clients I would schedule lunch appointments with would simply order a cup of coffee, perhaps a scone, but certainly not a full meal. Friends would swill cocktails in lieu of proper dinner. I would frantically pull into a fast food restaurant in the morning to get an egg sandwich before teaching an 8 a.m. class. And sometimes I’d find myself scarfing down a box of mid-afternoon chicken nuggets in my car, almost in tears, if I skipped lunch.
So what does all of this have to do with my cooking skills and childhood? Simple – I have had to get better at relying on myself to feed myself. It’s either buy groceries and learn how to prepare meals in a timely fashion – plus pack a snack or two inside my handbag – so I don’t completely lose my cool, or continue to park in the front row at restaurants and quick-service stops, desperate and on the brink of hysteria. Jokes aside, I would definitely call this a chicken and egg situation. I can’t decide, you see, if my feelings of panic are due to fluctuating blood sugar, or if I have panic disorder, as my doctor said so long ago, and it causes me to think I’m hungrier than I actually am. I’m tempted to think it’s both.
Now I will get up around 7 a.m. and by 9 I’m starving – sometimes earlier, depending on the weight of dinner the night before. I usually have eggs and bacon, maybe a smattering of cheese or spinach or avocado depending on my supplies. A mere few hours later, I’m ready for lunch, but I’ll try to hold off until 1:30 or 2 pm. Lunch is usually soup, tuna salad, a grilled cheese sandwich or some other simple concoction, unless I go out. Dinner, which I almost always eat at 7:30, consists of a chicken breast or some other protein, plus a vegetable and maybe a sweet potato.
Still, while I’ve gotten better about planning my day in regards to food, I still have a long way to go. For example, just the other week I had a fight with a close friend because she wasn’t ready to go out for the evening and I was starving. I watched her glide the eye pencil over her lash line, my heart racing, shamelessly ridiculing her for taking too long. She snapped back at me, and I quickly departed her apartment, relieved to have an excuse to eat, Friday night plans be damned. Another time, I waited far too long on a boy I was seeing to rise from his twilight nap so we could dine together. By the time he woke up, I had unceremoniously chowed down on a disgusting hamburger without him – and, to make matters worse, he scolded me for not bringing him food. I just stared back at him, a lump in my throat, unsure of what to say.
The truth is, it’s hard to tell people about my relationship with food and eating – not just someone I’m infatuated with, but anyone. It seems that needing to eat constantly is a flaw, a sign of weakness. If I’m not around a friend who already knows all about my crazy, food-related mood swings, I’ll try to hide it. I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve visited a gas station or grocery store before before a party or a brunch at someone’s house in order to grab a protein bar or a pack of almonds. I eat the emergency snack in my car, of course. I don’t want someone assuming I’m already full when I get to my destination just because I already ate my weight in salted nuts. It was merely to take the edge off, after all. I’m still more than ready for fried chicken and mashed potatoes, damn it – it’s just that now I won’t be crying and biting my nails as you pull it from the heat.
Denise K. James is a writer and editor based in Charleston, SC. Her prose and poetry have appeared in Auntie Bellum Magazine, the Dead Mule School of Southern Literature, Illuminations Magazine and elsewhere. Image: Hippiestink via Flickr (cc).