Anorexics are perennially teenagers, at once anxious to fit in and eager to be noticed for their deviation. (This is not an insult directed at anorexics, but rather anorexia, the pathology.) One thing that I was always rather proud of, later on in my anorexic years, was my burgeoning indifference to food. As a teenager, I was a more typical anorexic in that I would force feed my brothers cookies, flip endlessly through cookbooks, and bake to pass time and inhale calorie-free aroma. Food was a source of fascination, even if eating it was out of the question. But as I entered my twenties, that began to change, and I started to prize anorexia not only in practice but also in thought. Disgusted by anything atavistic, I considered time spent on food––whether that was preparing it, shopping for it, or even thinking about it––to be time wasted. I suppose my ideal state of being would have be something like a modern Franciscan monk: focused on God (or another higher intellectual pursuit), clad only in sackcloth, undistracted by the pesky requirements of the human body, including but not limited to grooming, sleeping and eating.
If you are rolling your eyes and thinking about smacking twenty-three-year-old me straight across the face right now, don’t worry––I totally get it. On the surface, it all sounds nauseatingly pretentious, and that’s because it was. But it was about something sadder, too: a firm belief that I was, for one reason or another, incapable or undeserving of participating in joyful normalcy. Had you pressed me at the time, I would have likely admitted to a vague but very intense credo I held that I was somehow biologically different than other people, and this biological difference made me better equipped for certain activities than for others. Endless philosophizing: okay, sure. Having intimate relationship: not so much. Suffering: definitely. Giving birth to children, which I had always wanted to do: extremely unlikely. Doing anything that supported health––like eating––was in some ways communicating, to myself and others, that it was possible for me to live contentedly, and that, because of my invisible genetic default, was a big, potentially harmful lie. I had to kill any of those unreachable desires within me, to spare myself the pain.
And after a while, that ability to savor food, rarely exercised, just atrophied. I didn’t ever feel tempted by things I once had labeled “fear foods,” because I honestly couldn’t remember what they tasted like. Other times, the food I ate tasted like wet newsprint or sludge; usually, the act of deciding what to eat felt so utterly pointless that I would just forego meals altogether. As I became better nourished physically, this abated, but I still had a hard time actively seeing how food could be anything other than a chore, particularly making it. Even as I began to enjoy the act of eating itself, it seemed like honing one’s culinary skills was energy poorly spent. As a single denizen of Brooklyn, it was very easy to avoid learning to cook, what with the absurd plenty of delivery options. I ordered in, or ate snacks, or went out to restaurants, much of it at the expense of my health in a way very different than anorexia was. Food was already this prevalent in my life––why should it have to take up more space?
Then I started dating my boyfriend, whose family is stereotypically Jewish in that they place a high premium on cooking and eating together. He did pressure me, in a good-natured way, to learn to cook, but if I’m being honest with myself (which is forever difficult to do!) I can say that most of the motivation came from me. I wanted to be able to nurture him by feeding him, and I realized that sliced cucumbers and hummus or delivery pizza wasn’t going to be particularly satisfying day in and out. Learning to cook, and to enjoy it, was a bit like learning to eat again: sometimes exciting, sometimes frustrating, and eventually, basically a non-event (unless the feast contains brisket or soufflé or something else complicated.) Though feeding my loved one was the primary motivator, eventually, I also began to see how cooking could be––dare I say it––a fun, even creative activity. The curating of ingredients, the stirring of liquids together (who doesn’t love stirring!?), the frothing and spitting and bubbling that makes you feel like a chemist in a lab: if you aren’t on a deadline, all these things can make pure delight. The fact that they result in a product that helps sustain human life––even just the animal part of it––makes it all the much better.
Some years ago, before I started to bookmark recipes on the Internet, I was asked to review a book called Pain, Parties, Work: Sylvia Plath in New York, Summer 1953. The author, poet Elizabeth Winder, focused on the time Plath spent as a Guest Managing Editor at Mademoiselle, an experience that would later be immortalized in Plath’s autobiographical novel, The Bell Jar. Winder, like most writers who tackle Plath’s legacy, was concerned about the way society handles the poet’s memory. Winder feared Plath had been posthumously miscast as self-indulgently morose, hateful of all things bright and plush about life, and so took pains to point out the ways in which Plath actually reveled in tiny extravagances, especially food. Upon first read, I wondered if Winder wasn’t trying to counter a mythology by simply creating a new one, which wouldn’t have left anyone in a better spot. Then, more recently, I read Plath’s diaries, and found myself coming to believe not only in Winder’s characterization of Plath, but also in the curative powers of cooking and eating. While the typical narrative goes that the ambitious Plath was suffocated and eventually destroyed by the expectations of 1950s womanhood, I wondered if perhaps Plath actively used cooking, which she writes of loving , to connect with the world, and thereby stave off depression. The specter of nihilism looming over her, Plath cooked and ate–“seared steak, quenching chef salad, wine, luxurious lucent green figs in thick chilled cream”––thereby investing in her being, and her life.