A Food Journal Gone Awry
Reflections on an Italian-American upbringing
My hometown, as a location in space, has deep underpinnings governing a fundamental relationship: that between the food I intake, my body, and mind. I eat for fuel — to build my body strong and powerful — and for a number of other reasons.
This Thanksgiving break, I ate for my shortage of close friends in the area, for my introversion, my lack of recent movie knowledge and insufficient contributions in anti-Trump quotes and pithy remarks at the Thanksgiving dinner table. Three servings of mashed potatoes is the small price I pay for my hasty New Yorker skimming and inattention to the world of pop culture.
Ground zero is 11 pm Tuesday night. Duffel in hand, I swing open the front door and subsequently raid my parents’ pantry. Humans crave comfort, by nature, and there’s nothing so familiar as this hodgepodge of culinary offerings I know so well — Trader Joe’s pumpkin crisps, raspberry goat cheese, brownie brittle.
With my dog in the yard and my parents and brother exploring Madrid, this moment of indulgence is a private luxury. It amazes me that even on one of its worst days — a week into the Spanish vacation, the fridge devoid of produce — this kitchen is more stocked than my Charlottesville apartment will ever be. Access to it is a rare treat that I openly take comfort in. But my response is one of scarcity — a chipmunk stuffing her cheeks in anticipation of a long winter. I see this in my gluttony at free food events, my approach to all-you-can-eat dining halls, the way I privately sneak bites off customer’s plates at the restaurant I work at.
I puzzle over this: Is it because I think my future self will lack access to food of this caliber? Or that I feel undeserving: of the temporal and monetary investment that cooking healthy food for myself would entail?
Pulling open the pasta drawer, the oak wood feels heavy in my palm. This is unsurprising. It bears the weight of years of my mother’s home-cooked noodles, the scent of fresh marinara wafting through the air — the reason the aroma of boiling water still brings me immense joy. The celebrations made ever sweeter when topped with parmesan cheese. The sorrows, troubles, hardships — none of which cannot be remedied by spaghetti carbonara. But it’s also the weight of nights feeling too satiated to go out after dinner; my grimace and sucked-in stomach in the mirror before a shower; that summer of my ribs-revealing bikini body when I got really into salads. It’s the 8-hour days of gum-chewing when I worked at a cooking camp; nights dragging my toned high school boyfriend to the gym when I was too bloated for a swimsuit, or for physical intimacy. It’s stealthy, 2 am tiptoes to the kitchen to reheat leftovers in the dark, a fugitive stealing calories to which I did not feel entitled.
I’ve carried the weight of this kitchen across the country, and 100 miles south, to Charlottesville, but on the journey, it’s become a lighter load. It’s been lightened by happy days hiking through Shenandoah; running down Rugby; biking on O’hill; delicious quinoa-and-veggie meal preps; the Saturday morning farmer’s market; my rejection of the all-you-can-eat meal plan. There’s still pasta, too — the water, as per my mother’s wisdom, salted until it resembles broth — but it now tastes different on my tongue. It’s a rare treat: a congratulatory meal; solace on a cold, rainy day; or fuel for a paper due tomorrow. Maybe it’s two bowls, not three, coupled with indie rock on a Bluetooth speaker, hearty marijuana intake, and affirmation of my sex appeal — “even after pasta?” I once asked — “oh, especially after pasta,” I remember being assured. I’ll carry that sentiment with me — long after that boy and that bowl of penne have been forgotten — when I’m eating rigatoni on a first date, or feeding it — drenched in words of affirmation— to my daughter.
I know my mom wants the best for me, although I used to resent her for her beauty, slim figure, and for tempting our family with large portions of her amazing cooking. She bears the weight of emotional baggage from her own childhood, which I mustn’t forget. I spent years questioning how her front teeth were so perfect — almost looking fake — until she told me that they had caps on the back; her multi-year struggle with bulimia had worn down the enamel. Raised in a perfectionist Italian family with undue value placed on appearance, she never wanted her children to experience something similar. She’s the most compassionate, nurturing person in my life, who raised a strong woman with well-attuned taste buds and an affinity for good food. I’m so grateful for it.
Learning to love yourself authentically is the hardest thing in the world, and I think we’re all still figuring it out. Nourishing yourself with self-compassion isn’t a recipe passed down through generations — it’s something you discover alone, along your own journey, with ingredients scratched out and annotations scribbled in the margins. I’m on my way.