I am an emotional eater. Not in that I eat when I’m emotional. It’s that the act of eating itself tends to trigger strong emotion in me. Sometimes, when I eat, I’ll get a little misty. On rare occasion, I’ll outright weep. It took a number of years to figure out the pattern in this neat, socially awkward party trick: at first, I thought it strictly had to do with being hungry, but then I’d find myself in the middle of dessert after a large meal- past the point of full- with a tightening in my chest and a hot face, and so I scratched that from the list. I thought then that perhaps it had to do solely with the quality of food. Like, maybe it’s the level of the chef’s skill or the quality of the ingredients, but then one night I started weeping over a fried egg sandwich. At store-bought white bread and an industrial-farm egg and Duke’s mayonnaise and salt and pepper. And it wasn’t just that delicate sort of lash-in-your-eye crying, either. It was ugly crying. Bawling. I was alone in my apartment at two a.m., [mostly] sober, standing over the sink in my underwear, eating a fried egg sandwich and practically choking on sobs between bites.
It dawned on me after washing the salt and the grease off of my face what the actual trigger could be, and extensive trial and error proved me right: It was a potent mixture of volatile but suppressed emotions and well-timed comfort food. A muffaletta after a hard day at work, for instance, or garlic mashed potatoes on a rainy Sunday afternoon in autumn. A waffle with syrup when I missed my grandmothers. Boiled peanuts in traffic. Just beneath my calm exterior, there was a roiling shitstorm, tightly bottled up, just waiting to be set loose by a danish, or something.
I’ll save you the trouble of psychoanalyzing me (which would be nasty and dull for all involved) and jump to my conclusions.
The vast bulk of my earliest memories take place in North Miami Beach. We had a small house on a quiet side street with a half-dozen mango trees in the back yard. They were very productive, these trees, and I am told that on a weekly basis my parents had to clear the ground of countless mangoes, which quickly fermented in the powerful South Florida Sun, stinking up the place with their sickly-sweet rot. You do not forget that smell. (Despite it, I am for real as I type this eating a cut-up mango with cayenne pepper, lime, and salt.)
You also do not forget the smell of my great-grandmother Rose Tecosky’s kitchen. We called her Mom Mom. She called me “Richard,” my father’s name. I favored him with my white-blond hair and blue eyes. Mom Mom was an endlessly sweet woman. Very slight of frame. You look at a picture of her and you’d swear she’d blow away at the faintest breeze. And, like any Jewish grandmother, she thought you looked too skinny. That you could use something to eat. Don’t argue, just eat, for the love of God, you’re breaking my heart.
Her cupboard always seemed bare. When she fed you, it seemed as though the food materialized out of thin air. And then there was chicken soup or pot roast or snickerdoodles or these incredibly delicate poppyseed cookies she used to make, barely brown around the edges. There was an endless supply of Andes mints on the coffee table. If all else failed and the adults had their heads turned, there was that small statue of the Bagel Peddler with his payess and long skewer of lacquered Cheerios masquerading as bagels. Technically they were “inedible,” and I was not allowed to put them in my mouth. But I was very young, and life finds a way, no?
Mom Mom died when I was ten or twelve. She was the first person who I ever loved who did that. But while she lived she shined very brightly, and she loved very fiercely, and those qualities have a way of sticking with those left behind long after a soul departs. I can still very clearly recall her voice. I have a couple of her recipes, too, that I squirrel away for when things get desperate.
Mom Mom loved you, so she fed you.
It seems easy enough, I guess, to equate food with love, pure and simple. But also, it’s kind of bullshit. Because there’s no such thing as simplicity. Especially not when it comes to love. Yes, of course, my love for my great-grandmother was pure and honest as I’m sure was hers for me. But I was also three or four in these earliest memories so I didn’t really do nuance at the time. The very young are very lucky in that way. Complexity comes with age and experience.
Adolescence sucked. It sucks for everyone. Being an adolescent is fucking horrid. And you yourself are horrid. All elbows and knees and hormones and oily bits and funk and dirty socks used for nefarious Deeds Which Must Not Be Named. (Frequent and sometimes violent masturbation, is what I’m getting at.)
It was in my adolescence that the parents split (which, for all intents and purposes, was the very best thing they could do for themselves and their family). It was also when we were suddenly very poor. Dad worked a series of ill-paying jobs during those years. Mom owned a small and struggling business (a travel agency, remember those? Probably not, they started dying out in the ’90s, when this part of the story takes place! ) She worked 60 or 70 hours a week to keep it afloat. And so we didn’t see a lot of either parent during the three or four years immediately following the divorce, though it wasn’t for lack of want on the part of any involved party. At first, my siblings and I were too young to be left alone after school. At first we stayed with neighbors. But eventually, I turned (technically) old enough to watch my younger siblings until Mom got home from work, usually well after dinnertime.
In my memory, it always seemed to have been winter during those years. It is not by coincidence that it was during that time period that I felt recognized the little hard kernel of hopelessness in my core that would eventually blossom into a lifelong relationship with depression. But at the time, we were all dealing with our own shit. Mom most of all with her frequently struggling business and insurmountable pile of bills, my siblings and I with each other, and loneliness, and how quietly the light died in the living room every evening.
In her absence, Mom tried to keep the pantry stocked with affordable, semi-nutritious, easily accessible food for my siblings and I. Canned veggies and Rice-a-Roni and ramen and the like. But she was anxious about us eating well, and so one night, she pulled me aside, and informed me that I was going to learn how to cook something. At the age of 13, it seemed like a massive pain in the ass to have to take time out of my busy schedule to learn how to do something as pedestrian as cooking, but my mother persisted, and so I was taught how to make Tuna Noodle Casserole. Which I made at least once a week for the next four or five years, I think.
And it is that act- the act of my mother teaching me how to fend for myself and my siblings in some small way- that lies at the center of my strange emotional reaction to comfort foods. Because it wasn’t just “I love you so I feed you.” It was something much more complicated than that. My mother was making herself sick to keep us afloat. She came home late and exhausted and barely slept for the anxiety. She couldn’t be home for us because she was so busy trying to make sure a home existed for us. And so she taught me how to cook something nourishing. So at least we would remain fed. And so I could have one little thing that I could do so that I didn’t feel so useless. I got to help. I got to be a working part of the slapdash system that kept my family alive.
To this day, the act of cooking is one of the few things that relaxes me. Makes me feel useful. Allows me to show affection. I feed you because I love you, but also because I may not know how else to tell you that.
So yes, in a very real sense, food equals love. In that nuanced, messy way that love has about it. In that way that Cheerios in whole milk is actually the last time I saw Mom Mom, in her housecoat at the assisted living facility in Fort Lauderdale, touching my face, calling me one last time by my father’s name. Or that Salami wrapped around a piece of cheddar is the darkening kitchen in the house where I grew up, my little sister sitting at the table, her feet barely touching the ground.
And then sometimes, of course, a casserole is just a casserole.