I’m walking down Sixth Avenue on a Friday evening after work, hurrying to my therapist, a blue-green headache crawling over from the back of my skull towards my right eye. I’m hungry. I want meat. The Halal Foods truck isn’t open yet, and the cart in front of the Best Buy on 23rd has nothing but pretzels. Time is running short. I duck into the CVS on 25th and browse the snacks. Jerky is ridiculously expensive. I settle for a cannister of Slim Jims. They’re greasy in a queasy way, but they have the mix of salt, fat, protein and umami that I’m craving. They get me through.
I stuff the cannister in my bag, and when I get home, I slip it into a dresser drawer. I don’t want Jenny to see. I’m ashamed of having bought such down-market junk food. I’m afraid she’ll think I’m disgusting for eating it, for wanting to eat it. There’s no reason she needs to know.
This is the insanity from which I am working to recover. I confessed to Jenny last night about the Slim Jims, though it hardly counts as a confession considering that I hadn’t done anything wrong. It made her laugh. What’s especially ridiculous about the whole thing is that I went with Jenny to McDonald’s on Saturday to indulge her particular junk food craving. Why would she have a problem with mine? But I had to confess because the mechanism of this secret-keeping — the shame, the hiding, the justification — was exactly the same as the mechanism for much bigger, more serious secrets.
This incident has got me thinking now about my relationship with food. I don’t think of myself as someone with an eating disorder, though I tend to overeat from time to time (like most Americans) and to treat emotional distress with tasty treats (also like most Americans). But my psychological relationship with food is nevertheless tangled.
I grew up in Northern California in the late 1970s and 1980s, an era when food virtue replaced religion for many people. Terms like “macrobiotic” and “Pritikin” and “organic” were in the air, and food allergies were just coming into fashion. For children, the complex restrictions, and the earnest moral tone that went with them, was often bewildering, especially in group settings. (I still harbor a bitterness about efforts to convince me that carob was just like chocolate. It is not, and any idiot could taste the difference. It was insulting.)
My parents were pretty chill on the health food front, but beginning in my early childhood, a strange, isolating, ever-tightening net of restrictions began to enclose me, one intimately tied to morality and virtue: the laws of kashrus. At first we just kept kosher style, which was easy and kind of fun, offering a whiff of superiority without demanding much. We didn’t eat pork and we kept our milk and meat separate. No big. It meant we were better people.
But gradually the rules became stricter, and eventually we went wholly kosher: separate dishes for milk and meat, eating only products that were labeled with a hechsher, subscribing to newsletters that detailed the ongoing debates about even hechshered foods, waiting an hour (then three, then six) after eating meat before eating anything with milk in it. There were no kosher restaurants in Northern California, so that was out too. Chinese food was gone from my life. Around friends, I was expected to keep track of a vast library of unacceptable treats and shun them when offered. No more Oreos. No more Starbursts. And there was always the danger that a beloved product would slip into doubt. Worse, my parents would make an exception for something they loved, and then one day decide — arbitrarily, as far as I could tell, and certainly without consulting me first — that the exception had to end.
Holidays brought other restrictions. Every couple of months, fast days came around, and from age 13 I was supposed to go either from sunset to sunset or from dawn to sunset, depending on the particular fast, with neither food nor drink of any kind. Before fast days, including the highly sacred Yom Kippur, I would sneak extra snack food into my room, but I was always careful tokeep myself hungry enough to eat a lot when the fast ended. Passover was a week of confusion and despair, as the available foods were limited to the flavorless and the difficult; I lived primarily on macaroons, leftover roast from the Seder, and a sort of matzah-based breakfast cereal my mother concocted, and which was always under threat from a potential restriction on gebruchts, or matzah that has become wet.
Added to those food issues was my father’s ongoing hectoring of my mother about her weight. She wasn’t ever obese or even very chubby, but neither was she the hot-bodied 19-year-old he married and painted in a bikini, and I don’t think my father accepted easily that my mother’s body was simply never going to return to the state it was in when she was getting catcalls across Europe in 1966. And none of us could help but be aware of my maternal grandmother’s long struggle with serious obesity, punctuated by crash diets and involvements in OA.
That this way of life led to secrecy and dualism is hardly surprising. I wanted to be a good son and a good Jew. I also wanted to eat things that tasted good. What alcohol or cigarettes or pornography are for some kids, bacon and Nabisco products were for me. Except that in other people’s homes, these things were completely normal. When Dan down the street got his Easter basket full of Starbursts and offered to share, I didn’t say no. By the time I reached adolescence, when constant hunger and rebellion are pretty much the norm anyway, I was willing to break food rules whenever I could. In high school, I would drive down to the mall and eat a big plate of Chinese food for lunch, savoring the pork dishes. It wasn’t that I went out of my way to eat pork specifically, but that I wanted to eat what I wanted to eat, without restrictions from my parents.
And I wanted to eat in restaurants. I wanted to be normal. When Joey got into Thai food — his parents were much slower to adopt the full religious regimen — I wanted to know what he was excited about. My parents actually mocked the food freaks with their semi-imaginary health fragilities, somehow never realizing that they’d turned me into the nerdy kid with the milk allergy. (Later, in my pot-smoking years, when I shunned tobacco-mixed spliffs because tobacco gives me headaches and tastes lousy, I usually felt it necessary to make some comment like, “I hate to be the kid who says, ‘I cannot have milk because I have a lactose intolerance,’ but I really don’t like tobacco.”) It was one more of the many, many ways that Orthodox Judaism isolated me and kept me alienated.
In my teen years, I would disappear into my room with a box of cookies and not return it to the kitchen. Did it take me a week to finish, or two days, or did I finish it that night? I kept the pace of my indulging secret from my parents so that they couldn’t scold me for overeating, or for the cost of my eating.
It was also in this period that I learned from my peers to feel moral and political shame around eating. My high school had militant vegans. Eating meat was bad. Eating environmentally damaging foods was bad. Mostly I made a mockery of this sort of thinking, but it affected me. And perhaps because of my own upbringing, I have found myself attracted to or in relationships with food moralizers quite often. Berit was a vegetarian who thought seasoning was creepy; T had complex ethics and aesthetics around food that kept me nervous and uncertain. To an extent, I think I hid the Slim Jims from Jenny because T might have scolded me for eating them. And I have sometimes waited for Jenny to go to bed so that I can snack without incurring her fear that I’ll get diabetes like her father.
But I like Slim Jims from time to time. I like Hormel chili. And more importantly, I have a right to like whatever I like. Food shame and food secrecy are habits that I need to break. They are part of my systems of indulging my own desires through secrecy rather than being open about what I want and need. And that has to change.