Every woman you know has a messed-up relationship with food. Some try to subsist on red wine, black coffee, and cigarettes in the guise of bohemia. Others count calories assiduously and make complex, Paltrovian protein smoothies filled with different powders. Other women just eat too little and don’t talk about it, like the girl I had a poetry class with in college whose wrist bones stuck out like macadamia nuts, and during one seminar took two hours to eat a granola bar, grain by grain. All of us have brushed up against one diet or another: the cabbage-soup diet, the lemon-juice fast, no fat, no carbs, no sugar, quarter-portions. From our earliest years we are told to battle against our own desire for food, and we dole out rations to ourselves like it’s always wartime. I suspect everyone who exercises this type of control is doing it to allay a fear—of fat, or of mortality, or fat as a visual emblem of mortality. With so little else we can control as women, our bodies feel like the last battlefield against entropy.
I have the luck of being fat already. The fear so many women have is the body I live in, soft and round and swelling. My body is a metaphor for loss of control; my body is the one I breathe in. But I’m still afraid.
Specifically, for five years, I have been afraid of dumplings. The fear is not of pockets of dough and meat, but of eating them. Not even eating them—swallowing them. Not even swallowing them, but that the act of swallowing will somehow malfunction, go so disastrously wrong that I’ll choke, my throat perfectly plugged. The perimeter of an average female trachea is 21 to 23 millimeters, which is not so far from the perimeter of a dumpling.
This fear was born during a Fulbright grant to Ukraine. For the first six months of that year, with the aim of writing a novel and little notion of how cloistered a literary life could be, I lived alone in an enormous post-Soviet apartment complex, across the Dnieper River from central Kiev. It was the first time I’d lived alone in my life, and that little, neatly pre-furnished apartment became a crucible of solitude. As the light waned through October and December and further still through January–what little there was a silver thread through vast banks of cloud, or none at all, and snow–I began to descend into myself. I stayed up all night and slept during the day. Once in a while, in the afternoon and evening, I would go to a little café, and order coffee to hear my own voice out loud. I bought all my food supplies from a little grocery in the apartment complex, including bag after bag of frozen dumplings, pelmeni, the kind that in English is sometimes called “Siberian ravioli.”
In my little pot I boiled them a handful at a time. And I thought: if one of these sticks in my throat, who would know? No one would find me. Everyone who loves me is in another country. My living room was full of jars of cigarettes, doused in reeking water; when I tried to clean my clothes, they froze solid on the washing line, even in my little closed-in balcony. The days blurred into a dark rush, and the notion that my own hunger would kill me returned again and again. When I took my first hesitant steps out of that darkness and moved in with a roommate to the other side of Kiev, as spring began to unfurl in gold and blue,– I found that a phobia had been born, and came with me.
Sometimes I try to eat alone. But anxiety and eating are not natural companions; panic constricts the throat, and the face flushes, livid as a beacon. A little broth and a little rice, one spoonful at a time. A fixation on Ayran, a brand of salty Turkish drinkable yogurt. And mostly nothing until someone’s home, and then too much.
I still love to cook. I love to cook far more than I love to eat: I will cook and cook and cook, too much, a feast, a surfeit. Some nights I make three courses, or four, for a roommate and I, inventing new combinations of the same ingredients, researching complicated techniques. I cook until midnight, past midnight. There are always leftovers, and they never get eaten. Even when the thought of eating sickens me, I want to marinate meat and chop onions, whisk eggs into froth, clean gristle, peel carrots. I want to serve it on a pretty plate and give it away.
There are a whole garden of eating oddities that fall outside the DSM-V definitions of eating disorders. There are night eaters, eaters of specific numbers of chicken wings at specific times each Tuesday, there are those for whom tomatoes will always bring up tremendous sorrow. There are those who like to cook better than they like to eat and there are those who never cook at all. In our own ways, we take in the notion that food should be carefully monitored in order to make us thin and disciplined, and some of us follow too closely, and others rebel. I have grown to like my soft, unruly body over many years. But to feed it is a Sisyphean effort filled with fear and concomitant shame.
Here is my ritual: I do not eat alone. If I am alone in my apartment I will leave it to eat, most often hunched over the ice cream freezer at my local bodega, which accommodates a broad enough cast of neighborhood characters that immediate sandwich consumption can pass as a simple quirk. If I am at a restaurant, there must be someone seated within one table of me, or I must be close enough to a pathway regularly used by servers. Otherwise, my deepest instincts tell me, I will die. Specific phobias can get complex–a certain type of moth; a wind from the north; the color red glimpsed from the corner of the eye–but mine is as simple as it is enormous. I merely fear what keeps me alive.
I suspect, if prodded harder than I can handle, that this fear of mine contains so much about my womanhood that it would tear me in two, if fully deconstructed. Instead, I live in the cramped life my fear has made for me. The terror of loneliness has made itself so physical it lives in my throat like an ortolan, a dessicated little lump that hurts and hurts me. For some it’s fear of fat that keeps their mouths tightly shut amid plenty. For me, it’s lack of company.
I have tried to exorcise that dark Kiev winter, or at least turn my proclivities into something fragrant and good. I’ve become a connoisseur of soups. I’m a dab hand at tempering eggs for avgolemono, for blending gazpacho with just enough garlic to make you sit up straight; I can conjure up stock from onion peels and dry bones, make a dour broth sing with cayenne and paprika. I invite guests to my table as a means of survival. To my surprise, I have endured so far. But I always make too much to eat, because sometimes eating itself is too much for me.