When I was about thirteen, my mother gave me Calvin Trillin’s book Alice, Let’s Eat. My guess is she gave it to me for three reasons: (1) my mother loved good writing; (2) she had named me Alice; (3) I loved to eat.
My mother has told so many times the unbelievable story of how, as a toddler, I would demand raw onions and eat them like apples, I think that at this juncture it is a story that just has to be believed. According to my mother, there pretty much wasn’t anything I wouldn’t eat as a child. Not just try, but eat. I was even inclined to dig into stuff she about which she expressed open disgust – lobster and other shellfish, and cheap Chinese food with pepper so hot it made your gums feel like a medieval dentist had been at them.
I could make a martyrly claim to having been the victim of childhood enslavement when I report that I started regularly cooking with my mother at a hot stove when I was five. But the truth is I wanted to cook. Cooking meant being near food. While my mother encouraged me to borrow her copies of Plato and Shakespeare, I much more frequently dipped into her cookbooks, wondering aloud to her what fatback was and whether it was critically different from bacon, asking her why one was supposed to use a copper bowl to beat egg whites, trying to figure out whether there was a difference between “browning” and “braising.”
As a kid, I felt as if I could never get enough to eat. I remember more than once my mother giving my big brother the last serving of dinner only to have me cry out in jealousy. To this she would always answer, “But he’s bigger than you,” and I would always retort, “Of course he’s bigger than me – he gets more to eat!” (I now doubt this is why my brother turned out six-foot-two to my five-foot-six.)
By the time I came along, my mother’s father had become a butcher, so he frequently gave us what I now realize were remarkable cuts of meat. But I so hated having to eat the same thing two days in a row, even if it was good. I remember complaining, to an equally middle-class neighbor, “I just can’t stand the thought of filet mignon again tonight.”
In case you’re not familiar with the book that shaped my life, Alice, Let’s Eat carries as it’s subtitle Further Adventures of a Happy Eater, and so it chronicles various forays by Trillin into the world to find something good to eat. It also chronicles the wry patience of Calvin’s wife, Alice, during these forays.
Alice Trillin loved to eat, too, but it was obvious to me from reading Trillin’s book that Alice didn’t need to eat the way Calvin and I needed to eat. She was not the sort of person who would unconsciously favor friendships that entailed access to difficult-to-find ingredients, nor was she inclined to drive several hundred miles out of her way for a particular olive burger because one could know for sure that said olive burger amounted to a sure bet – that perfect balance of grease, mayo, salty cheap green olives, and a little more salt. That would be Calvin, and me.
But, in spite of Alice, Let’s Eat bestowing on me a sense that there was at least one person in the world who understood me, Trillin’s book didn’t bring me comfort. No. The relationship Calvin described having with Alice made me terrifically uncomfortable, because I didn’t know any other marriage like his: a marriage made up of two people somehow fundamentally different and permanently in love.
Already by thirteen, I knew (and everybody who knew me knew) that I could be a downright difficult soul – and not just because I could not brook filet mignon two nights in a row. It seemed impossible that I would ever manage to find a person like Alice.
Yet coming to know what Calvin had with Alice was like having tasted a perfectly ripe, sun-warmed, fresh peach, right off the tree. You taste such a thing for the first time, and then suddenly you know how far out of your way you would go to have it again. And again, and again. Only where can you go, in the dead of winter, to find such a thing? Especially when you live in the north?
When I was a young woman, there were a couple of guys I stayed with in relationships far longer than I should have, because they knew how to feed me. One was a guy who took me, every week, to what would have been a three-star Michelin restaurant. We were there so often that when the maître d’ gave us our usual corner table, he’d also make a point of going ahead and arranging for me my favorite off-menu dessert: a warm raspberry soufflé with crème Anglaise.
That was the first place I had the experience of food paired with wine by someone who knew exactly what he was doing. The dinners lasted about three hours each, and left me positively blissful. It says something that I can better remember the faces of the maître d’ and the sommelier than the fellow who for years paid my bill.
The other guy with whom I stayed too long was a Calvin in terms of love of food, and a really good cook to boot. This was a guy who bought a professional stove from a restaurant supply wholesaler long before it became fashionable to have a Viking. He didn’t have the money the first guy did, but no matter: his notion of a romantic date was to start at Zabar’s, put together a perfect meal of bread, cheese, cooked sliced sausage, olives from the barrels up at the front of the store, fresh fruit, and chilled champagne, and head to any hillside in Central Park to eat.
I honestly can’t remember anything we talked about except for cooking. I expect when other people hit middle age, they seek out old lovers for romantic reasons, whereas I think of this guy only when I’m cooking something that I know he’d know how to spice better than I’m managing.
There seemed, by the time of my adult life, no point in even thinking about marrying anyone, knowing I would never meet an Alice. My plan was instead to do well enough in my life to always eat well, and to hang out with men who put up with that. Like Trillin, while I could appreciate a three-star meal, I didn’t have to have it all the time. If living without a spouse meant having to subsist mostly on good falafel, olive burgers, and red beans and rice, I was okay with that. (Well, so long as the red beans and rice came with a reasonable helping of well constructed Andouille and fresh ground nutmeg.)
Then I met Aron.
I don’t know why I could sense from so early that he could be my Alice Trillin. Maybe it was that, like Alice, he seemed amused (perhaps even charmed) by my relationship with food. Perhaps it was that, although I came off as the more openly comedic one, he was actually much funnier. I suppose it could be that so early he signaled an easy devotion and maturity that I knew I’d be a fool to turn down.
I think it was the very first time I was at his apartment, when I was in graduate school and he in medical school, both in Bloomington, Indiana, that I busted into Aron’s frig to look around and to ask, “Do you have anything a girl could eat?” From there I finished off one bowl after another of what he had in store, the way Pooh cleaned out the larders of his friends with the claim that he just needed a little smackerel of something.
From the start, I felt impatient with Aron’s willingness to eat the same damned thing, day in and day out, even when he understood why good food was better, and so early on I started cooking for him. I remember that when I had to go away to Washington for a week to do my dissertation research, just two weeks or so after we had met, he had a cold and I left him with a pot of my mother’s chicken soup. (He said once to a friend, within my hearing, “I married Alice for her chicken soup, her apple pie, her tomato sauce, and her ability to turn a phrase.”) He accidentally burned the remainder of the soup while we were on email together – him in Bloomington and me in Washington, discussing what our wedding would be like.
We hadn’t even had sex yet, but he was eating my chicken soup and we were talking about my wedding dress. Seriously, we’d only known each other a couple of weeks. But I’d said to him, as soon as I knew this was probably it, “I need to be fed a lot, to sleep a lot, and to be walked regularly. And I like being with people. Basically if you think of me as a Labrador retriever, you’ll do fine.” And he’d taken that advice, so that I already had the sense he knew how to manage me.
A few weeks later, he asked what we were going to do when he had to move to Indianapolis to do his clinical rotations later that year. “Don’t be silly,” I answered, “I’ll just come live with you. I can do my dissertation from there.” I remember him being a little taken aback, but he was clearly more worried about how to explain to his parents why he was going to live with a woman he’d just met than worried about the idea itself. We were practically already living together.
He asked me what we were going to do for money if his parents didn’t want to support him in such a venture. To this, I replied that I wasn’t worried about it – in my experience, a little money always showed up when you needed it. Not a lot, but enough to eat, and that was what mattered.
A few weeks later, word came that the Woodrow Wilson Foundation was giving me a dissertation fellowship of $14,500 – a fortune to us then. Aron asked how we should celebrate, to which I answered, “With lunch, of course.” I remember we went to the Siam House, and had that marvelous appetizer dish they had, with the ten different little ingredients that you wrapped up in a spinach leaf and crunched, a rollercoaster of sudden flavors – dried tiny shrimp, shredded coconut, wee bits of juicy-zesty lime, peanuts, and so on. We downed it with a bottle of something white and tolerable. His company made absolutely every place feel three-star.
In that apartment in Indianapolis, I cooked mostly what we could afford. I remember making a lot of bean chili. Aron tried for the first month to keep up with the way I ate, but after he gained six pounds in about four weeks, he went back to his normal intake level.
I knew I had found the right guy when, to celebrate our engagement, his parents specially made dinner including a salad with a dressing that used the last of Aron’s grandfather’s accidental vinegar. This was from a barrel meant to turn grape juice into wine. Instead, that barrel had transformed that grape juice into the most astonishing balsamic vinegar any of us had ever tasted in our lives. Only a couple of ounces of that elixer remained when I formally became part of the family.
Or so his parents thought. A couple of months later, when we went to go help Aron’s aunt move, in California, I was packing up her liquor cabinet when I discovered she had a half-bottle of Grandpa’s vinegar left. I stopped, stunned, for the first time in my life seriously contemplating theft. I already loved his aunt, but I felt sure that she – like pretty much everyone except me and maybe Alice Trillin – was unworthy of this extraordinary elixir. His aunt came upon me and obviously knew exactly what I was thinking. She laughed and said, “Get your hands off my vinegar. You can take the vodka.”
In Indianapolis, I made a habit of working when Aron was at the hospitals doing his rotations, and stopping when he came home, which meant working much harder than the average graduate student, something I knew would assure me being able to succeed in my career. But each day, I took time around lunch to wander down to the City Market, to see what they had, to talk to the vendors and try to come up with something interesting for us to eat for dinner, in spite of the culture of Indiana’s capitol.
When I had writer’s block, I cooked more elaborate meals – coq au vin, a giant pot of my mother’s chicken soup with another pot of homemade kluski, fancy cakes. I heard Aron tell a friend, a few years ago, that he misses the days when I used to get writer’s block.
But even though he likes to eat, like Alice Trillin, Aron never developed my Calvinistic need for food. He could do very well on PBJs and yogurt every day for months. Nevertheless, as Alice Trillin did with Calvin for many decades, for eighteen years Aron has put up with my tendency to schedule vacations based on culinary possibilities, with my habit of inviting eight people to dinner – for a four-course dinner – in the middle of the week, and with the amount of money I have made us spend on dinners out, in search of the three star Michelin experience.
Insert storm clouds here.
About ten years into our relationship, I went from being severely lactose intolerant – something I figured out when I was in my early twenties – to being highly reactive to dairy proteins. Casein, even in tiny quantities, now gives me migraines – the kinds of migraines that involve several days of pain, nausea, and layered sunglasses. This made it hard and sometimes tiresome to eat out, or to eat even at friends’ houses. (Lactaid doesn’t work on the problem I have with dairy, because Lactaid works on the sugars, not the proteins.)
I had long thought this was as miserable a curse as could befall a Calvin like me. And then it got worse: about two years ago I could no longer pretend that I wasn’t also having all sorts of gut problems related to gluten. When I went for my colonoscopy just to make sure it wasn’t something more serious, I said to Aron, “What I’m hoping for is that I have the kind of colon cancer that’s curable, because gluten-intolerance isn’t curable, so I don’t want that.” Only he could understand my making a calculation that had me favoring cancer.
But it was gluten intolerance. The first few days I really had to face this, I wailed away a whole weekend.
“Why couldn’t it have been curable cancer?” I kept asking Aron, as he handed me another tissue and said he was also sorry it wasn’t cancer.
“Romance is dead!” I said to him. Which just hurt his feelings in a way that made me mad at him.
“Bread!” I cried, by way of explaining the obvious: you can’t have a proper date if it doesn’t start with a loaf of bread.
“Bread,” I said again, adding sadly, “pasta, bagels, Chinese food . . .”
– most soy sauce has wheat in it –
“. . . and beer. . . .”
It was always the “and beer” that made me burst into tears. My big brother and his wife now grow their own hops and make amazing beer, under the private label Swagger’s Swill.
But it was also that Aron had become a serious baker. He made wonderful breads, delicious pie crusts, and tarts that guests still talked about years after they were served. And in being our baker, he had learned to work around my dairy problem.
There was no way he was going to be able to really work around the loss of honest-to-goodness wheat, too.
I know that I should report that, after two years, I’ve completely come to terms with being unable to eat dairy and gluten. Aron’s figured out a pretty good pie crust, and hell, I have a guy who makes pies for me. So I should say that I’m just so relieved it wasn’t cancer, and I’ve discovered all these other great recipes, and I feel so much better (which I do), I’m just so happy.
But I’m not really happy when it comes to food. I can no longer approach food without trepidation, yet I have lost not at all my deep love of food. I hate gluten-free bread, and I hate gluten-free pasta – much more than I would if I could still eat wheat, because they are constant reminders of having loved and lost. And hard cider is fine, but it isn’t beer. And gluten-free beer makes me gag.
I especially dread being invited to dinner by someone who doesn’t know how to deal with my food issues – or worse, by someone who doesn’t know anything about my food issues when they extend the invitation. How do you answer such an invitation? “Oh sure, I can come over, but let me list for you the hundred things that will make me sick, and let me tell you how you need to clean your cookware”?
I try to schedule my public speaking so that I won’t have to attempt to eat out with my hosts, because even if they miraculously find a place that can tolerate my dietary needs, I will spend the whole meal in fear of getting sick, and nine times out of ten my hosts will want me to tell them the story of how I discovered I can’t eat dairy or gluten, a story that to me feels like having to repeat, for everyone else’s amusement, the story of how I accidentally ran over my own mother. (Not that I did; it’s just an analogy.)
When I’ve had an exhausting run of work, with no time to go to the market and no energy left to cook, for his own dinner Aron can break out a piece of good bread, a piece of good cheese, a nice salty piece of prepared meat that might very well have hidden dairy or gluten in it, and some fruit. He doesn’t do it to mock me, and it doesn’t feel like he’s mocking me, but I do gaze at his plate with a sense of deep sadness. There is nothing I can prepare that quickly that I want to eat, at least not at such times.
Two weeks ago, I was at home fixing the final version of the prenatal dexamethasone paper – my third, and I hope to God my last, of my year-long investigative histories related to my new book. I had had to check the paper while I had a migraine from yet another accidental exposure to milk while eating on the road for work a couple of days before, so dealing with the manuscript was especially exhausting. (Fixing reference formatting with a migraine just makes the complicated punctuation seem like fire ants.)
As if to make it all worse, that very day, a really great reporter whom I had dared hope would pick up the dexamethasone story had had to tell me the story was too complex for her to figure out how to package and sell it to her editor. Damn it.
So I had a migraine, a broken heart, and a mind unable to stop double-checking a couple of new references that I’d just added to the paper. Which meant I had no energy to cook, and no desire even to eat. When Aron got home, I came in from my writing cottage, and poured myself a glass of white wine from the frig. Aron asked me, “What are we doing for dinner?”
“I can’t think about food,” I answered, with the tone of a woman who’d just put her beloved dog down. “I’m too tired, and too depressed.”
I knew he’d make himself what he would be perfectly happy with – in this case, some nice granola with fresh berries and good yogurt – but I couldn’t eat what he could eat. Even if I happened to have gluten-free granola handy, fake yogurt is disgusting in every single form in which it comes.
But I also knew that Aron and I both knew that if I didn’t eat something with some protein in it – and soon – I’d just get worse. He sighed and opened the frig. He found some chicken, and started a pan with some olive oil and minced garlic, in preparation for sautéing the chicken for me. I sullenly suggested he add some sundried tomatoes, and some basil from the garden.
I had been thinking, about an hour earlier, that I love and hate having to do the kind of work I do while also knowing, way too well, the history of the kind of work I do. In particular, I was thinking about the way whistleblowing works in medical research, and how miserable it has been to stupidly hope, while I’ve been whistleblowing around dexamethasone, that somehow I would manage to avoid all of the tedious and stressful steps that inevitably attend this kind of work.
Because I haven’t been able to avoid all of that. I’ve had to live the same damned maddening historical arc as everyone else who’s ever done this. I think it must be like when a researcher who studies some horrible disease gets the disease. It’s bad enough to have the illness, but knowing all of the stages of suffering, knowing the statistics of the various complications and outcomes, without being able to know for sure which statistic you will ultimately be – it’s just that much worse.
So yeah, I knew, from teaching the history of medical whistleblowing, it was perfectly common for reporters to come this close to picking up the story only to walk away, to have the story have to wait a few months longer, or even a few years longer, to break. But damn it!
Aron had been encouraging me to just write the mainstream version myself, but I couldn’t see how to do it when I was in it. That’s not how the history works.
I was about to tell Aron, who was now adding the chicken to the pan, that I thought the chicken could use some salt, and that I thought that someday it would be interesting to write about this, about knowing the way the history plays out while you have to live it, about the way it becomes a feedback loop of laws of history. How it’s like a recipe you can’t really alter.
But all I got out was, “Someday I would like to write about – ”
when he cut me off, and said,
“ – what it’s like to live with you?”
We both cracked up.
And then suddenly, in that moment, in that cascade of depression and knowing the source of my relief, I also had the feeling I often do, of having found my Alice Trillin.
I had somehow stumbled upon and married a man just impatient enough to know when to indicate he’s had quite enough of me. So while I had my mouth open as if I were still laughing, I also silently dissolved into tears from that special mix of guilt, gratitude, and relief I must have in pounds where Calvin Trillin only ever had to have it in ounces.
He turned off the chicken and pulled me in for a hug.
On that weekend about two years ago, when I realized I could no longer eat gluten, I really did spend pretty much the whole weekend crying. On that Sunday night, I finally took a shower in an attempt to stop my crying and clean myself up. I did so not because I was done with self pity, but because I had enough sense to realize that Aron needed me to act as if I was tired of self pity.
While still in the shower, I cursed Calvin Trillin, the man who had fooled me into thinking I could forever have my cake and its baker, too. I thought about how lucky Trillin was that he never became dairy allergic and gluten intolerant.
And then suddenly I thought about how unlucky he is that he outlived Alice, who died of a side effect of a cancer treatment that had long ago cured her.
And, for an instant anyway, my self pity lifted enough for me to think straight.
I got out of the shower, dried off, got dressed, and went downstairs. I found Aron, and I said to him:
“You know what? If I had only one hour left on this earth, you know what would I want to eat? A handful of sun-warmed, perfectly ripe raspberries, straight off the bush.”
He was quiet for a minute.
Then he said, “Well, I’d better go order more raspberry bushes, and figure out where to plant them.”