One of the benefits of living with a good friend is that sometimes I come home from work and through no effort of my own my pals are hanging around in my kitchen. Wednesday night I had the most amazing experience with Heather, where she popped out a pile of bok choy and we sauteed it up. I have never eaten bok choy (or cooked it) to my knowledge and she taught me how to make it. It was amazing! Great food for wild ponies like us.
The experience of learning how to make the bok choy from one of my close friends reminded me of an amazing piece I had read just that very day. I related to it from a very deep level–raised by a single mom just barely above poverty level and often relying on fast and instant foods for lack of time, and growing up in a fat body. It is so honest, so beautiful and I am so grateful to Blyth for allowing me to share it with you below. I think food justice and healing our relationships with food starts when we are very honest about our her/his/theirstories and come together to discuss them. And when we share our resources and knowledge base to enjoy new and different ways of eating.
This is the spread made by queer hands for Heather’s birthday party. The drink we called the “Punani Sunrise” which somehow had to do with my tendency to date/sleep with people from California. It is champagne, vodka, grapefruit juice, a squeeze of lime and some mint. Quite refreshing. Those pigs in a blanket were hand rolled by me and cooked in bacon fat.
How I Learned to Eat Greens
Most of my time in my mother’s house was spent eating something quickly over the sink, changing my clothes or maybe sleeping. From age 11 on I made it a point to be in a house with my mother as little as possible. To say I left home would imply that home was something steady. When the truth is that home had always been in transition, so it was not a place I could leave, it was something that traveled with me. Most nights I stayed with a friend or alone at my Grandparents. Andrea’s mother fed me more frequently then my own. Most of the time food was not expected anyway.
When I was in college I went home with my freshman year roommate for a holiday and embarrassed myself by starting to eat the lavish meal her mother prepared for us while I leaned against their kitchen cupboard. She looked at me with confusion, and maybe a little sadness, and said, “Would you like to sit at the table?”. It was the first time I noticed my inclination to eat standing. It ensured that there was little room for feigned intimacy and my ability to walk away was always close at hand.
Nobody taught me to eat. Nobody told me that people should share a table or chew slowly. Not that vegetables could come from somewhere besides a can or that bread could be made fresh. I was 15 when I walked into a friends kitchen and saw a pot of potatoes boiling on the stove. I asked her what she was making and her response shocked me, mashed potatoes. It never occurred to me that mashed potatoes could be made from anything besides pale flakes in a brown box. I remember the surprise registering in every limb of me and the humiliation of not thinking of that sooner.
I grew up working class. We went to pick up our welfare check and food stamps on the first of each month. Food stamps back when they still came in small booklets of play money. Some booklets were worth $10, some $20, some maybe even $50. And each booklet had an assortment of $5 or $1 ‘bills’ inside it. Though really I only remember the $1 bills. The ones that always tore too noisily from the binding at the end of the month when you were searching desolated packets for just 10 measly slips of paper. There was no way to be quiet or quick about it. And you weren’t allowed to rip them out ahead of time because they wanted to make sure you weren’t selling them or giving them away. They had to be torn from the packet in front of the cashier, which also meant in front of everybody else in your small Ohio town.
Shame and eating for a poor fat girl is a layered thing. There was the shame of being hungry, of feeling watched every time I put something to my mouth. And there was also the shame that had to be endured just to get the food in the first place. People make a lot of assumptions about poor folks on welfare. Like we’re all just taking a vacation on the system. Somehow my large body seemed to prove that point. So all of a sudden I was not just deciding on food for my ten year old self, I was also trying to guess at what would please every tax payer around me so that they wouldn’t think I was ungrateful. So I could earn the right to eat at all.
My eating and access to food seemed to always be negated by my weight. Even though I ate much less than anyone I knew and much less frequently. In reality we rarely if ever had the food we needed throughout the month. Most of the times because the food stamps ran out, but some of the times because neither my mother or I could face going to the grocery store to buy any.
When we did have food we ate Hamburger Helper, Tuna Helper if it was a special occasion, shit-on-a-shingle (which is ground beef, salt, and flour over a slice of white bread), pasta with Prego sauce, discount cereal and whatever my Mom happened to bring home from the deli counter she worked at. Vegetables were canned corn or green beans. Every now and then someone would decide that we should eat healthier and frozen broccoli would get thrown into the mix for a while. Of course these meals always changed depending on where we were in the month and whether we could actually buy food at all.
After lots of work/saving/borrowing/ass-kissing, I left for college when I was 17. And when I got there I found I could camouflage my broke roots with politics. All of a sudden I wasn’t poor, I was anti-capitalist. I learned where to dumpster dive for food and got most of my toiletries from the trash at the CVS where I worked. Any extra food I got was from the $1 store or purchased for me by a friend with too many points on their college meal plan. And I didn’t stand out because my friends (who I was shocked to learn weren’t actually broke) were digging for dumpstered donuts right along side me. All of a sudden this was a value system. It was something to be proud of.
In my junior year of college I started dating a woman. It was my first queer relationship and I was so into her I could hardly stand it. She was sexy and nerdy and political. She grew up in Connecticut with parents who were still together, who loved her dearly, and who had taught her the importance of balanced meals. In an effort to woo her I invited her over to my place for dinner. Angel hair pasta from the dollar store, flavored with a dash of vegetable oil and a heavy pour of Adobo seasoning. It was classy. Nothing came from a trash can, it was angel hair pasta instead of regular old spaghetti, and I might have even stolen some of my housemates olive oil to use instead of vegetable. She wasn’t impressed, though she never told me that. She asked me later if I ate like that all the time. I told her no, sometimes it’s not so fancy. I remember that not being the answer she expected. We talked in length about food. Where we got it, what we learned about it, what we liked about it. She told me she wanted to be a farmer and was fascinated by nutrition. And I don’t remember feeling ashamed. Which is really a credit to her and how she framed things.
She was good at slipping things underneath the radar. She once asked if she could make me my lunch, since she was concerned that I didn’t eat frequently enough. I told her she was sweet to worry but I could feed myself. She tried to argue the point but my pride ballooned bigger and bigger. However, over the next few months it happened more and more frequently that her quest to try and cook a new vegetable left her with way too much food. And of course she needed my help eating it cause her fridge was too small for storage and she didn’t want it to go to waste. So I would cross the campus from class and sit down to a lunch of brown rice, sweet potatoes and kale. Had I not been so deeply infatuated with her I probably would have never put any of it in my mouth. As it was, I smothered nearly everything in ketchup until she banned it all together. She told me I could only put it on potato products like french fries or tater tots and she rolled her eyes at me when I pointed out that sweet potatoes were actually in the potato family.
These lunches were her way of feeding me, nourishing me, and side stepping my ego which was wrapped in a desperate need to fend for myself. She taught me how to boil rice and what vinegars tasted good. She introduced me to leafy greens and showed me how to let a vegetables flavor shine through instead of being smashed by seasoning. She sauteed chard, reminded me to drink water and managed to make squash a dessert. She would casually comment about how inexpensive rice and beans were and how kale was only 79cents a bunch. She set a table for us and I ate those meals seated, plates spread out on a small dorm room table. Of course I knew what she was doing, though my pride and perhaps my shock wouldn’t let me say anything at the time. But she was teaching me how to eat. How to receive love. She was showing me what it was like to be cared for. It was overwhelming. And so desperately simple.
Now, years later, I live in San Francisco and find myself among many others who have the privilege of choosing their food. At the moment I’m a lapsed vegan who does her best to avoid the gluten and cheese that wreak havoc on her body. I eat remarkably slowly. It is something friends and lovers comment on, though I hardly notice it. The perfect bite has become a prayer, a gesture of gratitude. It is a reminder to separate shame and sustenance. It is a reminder to appreciate not only the food on my fork but also the space and safety required to enjoy it.
Blyth is a babe. Read her blog!