In honor of Thanksgiving, here is the first half of a loooooong essay I wrote about eating. Kind of. It’s also about how a cooked shrimp cost me a TV job.
I know I promised there would be no more doling, but I sent this in its entirety to a few legit publications and I don’t wanna screw myself over by giving it all away here just yet. I’ll drop the rest after the new year when it’s clear no one wants it. OR I’ll send you a link to the rest if it finds a home elsewhere.
In the meantime…
HAPPY TURKEY DAY! 🦃🙏🏼‼️
Two weeks ago at a lunch meeting in LA, I ordered a plate of deviled eggs and a side of charred broccoli rabe. When my meal came, I cut a few tiny pieces off both items, chewed them carefully for a long long time, and placed the rest in a small box to take home. My lunch companion reacted with surprise and concern: “You can eat more if you want.” I said I was fine, it was delicious, and I looked forward to finishing it later.
She scrutinized me, then asked if I ate. Like in the global sense. It wasn’t an unfair question, given my odd behavior and the social norms of this city. Also, I had discussed my side gig as a fitness instructor with her, which would account for some rigorous consumption habits.
But the truth is a bit more um… complicated?
Back in my 20’s living in NYC, I’d adopted some spectacular coping strategies to deal with my broke-ness. I’d show up to theatre and art gallery openings on an empty stomach, linger by the buffet table or the door where the pass-plates emerged, and snag as many hors d’oeuvres as possible.
The more artfully constructed bites would find their way into my mouth immediately, while the less complex snacks got tucked lovingly into napkins and stored in my coat pockets.
At my own play openings I’d generously offer to take all the leftovers home, which tended toward fruit and cheese platters and maybe a tray of brownie bites. Transport back to Brooklyn proved challenging on those late evenings, as I navigated several large trays of food and my laptop bag up and down city blocks, up and down subway steps, into and out of crowded cars, and up several flights of stairs to my walk-up. But ultimately the struggle was worth it because BREAKFAST!
Out for drinks, I’d order extra olives in my martinis, or hit up dives that offered unlimited popcorn and nuts. Or I’d sit close to the garnish trays at the bar and nonchalantly munch on orange slices and pearl onions. And yeah, it was difficult to justify to the bartender my need for multiple maraschino cherries when I’d been nursing the same warm glass of Merlot for hours, but I did! ‘Cause who knew the next time I’d be able to eat so healthily for free?
Weekends I’d make my rounds at the Gourmet Garage on 7th Ave in Manhattan or at Sahadi’s on Atlantic in Brooklyn and nab all the samples while they were fresh. I’d pretend to be so confused by the taste of soup that I needed to try all the flavors multiple times to decide which one to go with. In the end I bought none of them.
Just to be totally clear… I wasn’t poor. I was broke. I’ve heard this distinction before in relation to privilege and I’m not interested in making any specious claims to paucity. It was my choice to be a working artist with three jobs and an ambition to someday support herself with her writing.
And even though my jobs did not pay particularly well (adjunct English professor at a community college, phone clerk at a continuing education program, freelance graphic designer), they covered my rent, my student loans, my Metrocard, and the occasional discounted theatre tickets.
My husband was a grad student at NYU at the time. He lived off pizza slices and falafel. He was like, you have enough money to go grocery shopping. You like to cook. You live in a city where cheap take-out is plentiful. So WTF is up with the cheese cubes?
🍤 🍤 🍤
I grew up in a lower-to-middle-class suburb in New Jersey. My father, a six-foot-two 350-pound former athlete, was inclined toward excess. Too much food, too many Christmas presents, too-cold air-conditioning, too-big cars. He’d burst through the patio door with a sizzling grade-A porterhouse steak right off the barbecue, as big as a sofa cushion. His bannister-shaking voice would announce, “WE’RE LIVING LARGE NOW!”
My father was hell-bent on living large. As a teenager in Brooklyn, he’d had a blistering left-hand fastball. He was always baffling his batters, most of whom were unaccustomed to southpaws. He got recruited by a major league baseball team and became a local celebrity before his 19th birthday.
He never made it to the diamond. One night at a party he got drunk and fell down a flight of stairs. He landed on his left side and shattered all the bones in his pitching arm.
While his arm healed, he signed up for the army. He spent the next five years in Vietnam hiding inside his country’s shame instead of his own. When he returned to the ol’ hood, he married the girl four houses down who still considered him a hero.
Throughout his life, he cast himself in this role with unwavering resolve. No one in our family ever doubted him. We grew up thinking Dad could handle anything.
I’ve had a hard time forgiving my parents for not being honest with us. If I’d known how bad things were, I would’ve asked them to return my Barbie camper van. Or I’d have skipped seeing Bon Jovi in concert a second (and third) time. But my father’s pathological need to play the hero was fed by my mother’s childhood memories of him as one. And since he never behaved as though money were tight, neither did she.
So, instead of getting smaller steaks, or keeping the house a little warmer, or buying off-brand toys, or ordering maybe one less pizza, we lived large.
Until we didn’t.
One morning my brother and sister woke up to find several men dragging our furniture out the door and dumping it onto the lawn. My father had forged my mother’s signature on some documents and we had lost the house. As my parents begged some dude named Harold to let us stay for just one more week, my siblings and I struggled to understand what the word “foreclosure” meant.
After we lost the house, we still didn’t talk about money. My father found us a rental home with a pool and insisted it was better than the home we grew up in. When his front teeth fell out and he refused to get them replaced, a kind of dread settled over our family.
We didn’t discuss it.
Soon after that, my father’s heart exploded in his body.
I’ve had a hard time forgiving him for that too.
But all this is hindsight. In my 20’s, I wasn’t thinking about forgiveness. I was consumed with the fear I could lose everything at any second. And because my grasp on what I cared about felt perpetually tenuous, I was compelled (condemned?) to do what my parents could not: conserve.
Which meant any time free food presented itself, I would eat. Regardless of my state of hunger. I figured that way I’d stave off my future hunger. But this strategy had the horrifying effect of actually increasing my appetite.
So then I’d eat things that made me sick. I’m talking about old food in the fridge at work no one else would touch. Nausea is better than paying for lunch, amirite?
One less pizza…
Whenever I caught someone looking at me in confusion or suspicion as I grazed or hoarded– say a theatre colleague or a grocery store employee or a co-worker–I’d either confess ignorance (“Oh, that’s your yogurt parfait? Coulda sworn I bought it”) or I’d shrug sheepishly and skulk away, leaving small chunks of my dignity on the floor behind me. As if I had any to spare.
I knew I couldn’t keep going like this. I was becoming a thief, a liar, a sneak, and a weirdo. But I couldn’t bring myself to purchase a seven-dollar sandwich if a zero-dollar sandwich lay in wait for me elsewhere.
So… I decided to stop eating entirely.
🍤 🍤 🍤
GO HERE FOR THE REST…