Laurie Toby Edison

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A Personal Food History

Lynne Murray says:

Virgie Tovar,  MA, lecturer on fat discrimination and body image, editor of Hot & Heavy: Fierce Fat Girls on Life, Love and Fashion, recently posted  about an encounter with a fast-food slogan.

This afternoon as I was walking to get a fancy sammich, I passed a smooshed up cup from Jack in the Box left by the wayside next to the sidewalk.

“Make a late night foody call,” it read.

First, the pun loving nerd in me thought: “Punny! Two thumbs up!”

Second, the scholar in me thought: “Fascinating! They’re conflating fast food and fast sex yet again. I have to include this in a lecture.”

Third, the foodie in me thought: “Grrr. Don’t fast food companies get that they’re the reason that foodies even exist?”

And it was this third reaction that stopped me in my metaphorical tracks (but not in my real tracks because, girl, I was hungry). I felt this sense of shame and guilt for feeling an actual modicum of aggression against Jack in the Box’s marketing department for daring to take the name of the foodie in vain.

Internalized classism much?

Tovar reflects that she …

grew up in a household where my Mexican grandma cooked nearly every meal: usually chicken, soups, and pasta, and menudo and tamales on holidays…. At school I coveted my friend’s peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and their Fruit by the Foot, which seemed like food diamonds compared to my perpetual tuna fish and apple. To me, the sandwiches and processed, hermetically sealed, fruit flavored, puppy-shaped gelatin snacks that some of my friends had represented everything about being American – and to a certain extent, everything about being white – that I didn’t feel. Those were the snacks on TV and in the movies I watched. Not tuna and apples.

Tovar’s description of her first steps into foodie-ness and how it related to her culturally and as a fat woman inspired me to contemplate my own “food history recollection sequence.”

We never went to restaurants; my mother worked in food service, so that’s one way class plays into my early relationship with food.

One of my earliest memories is standing in the backseat of the car while my mother drove and my father sat in the front seat testing her on menu items from a new job she was about to start as a carhop. For those who don’t know, carhops would take an order from a car parked around a restaurant hub and deliver the order on metal tray that attached to the car’s open window. My recollection includes how pretty my mother looked in the blue-gray trousers and  uniform jacket (no roller-skates).

Later, in Fairbanks, Alaska (still in the 1950s), my mother worked in an office and took a lot of flack from her Midwestern relatives for rarely cooking “from scratch.” We ate canned soup, frozen or canned vegetables, hamburgers or canned salmon or tuna patties with saltine crackers and eggs mixed in. Baked goods from biscuits to pancakes came from a box of Bisquick. I can’t remember seeing a cookbook in the house. My mother either memorized or improvised her recipes for special occasions: spaghetti with meatballs, beef roast (or heart) cooked in the oven in a covered pot with potatoes and carrots. Deep fried chicken with cornbread from a mix and cherry Jell-O with walnuts and fruit cocktail suspended in it.

The closest I came to learning how to cook was stirring Jell-O pudding or cake mix. I also knew how to put saltines, margarine and honey together when left to my own devices. Around Christmas my mother would enlist my friends and I–and after my brother got old enough his friends also–to roll out sugar cookie dough, use cookie cutters to create trees, Santas and reindeer. We applied white frosting tinted with food coloring and decorated them with red, green and silver sprinkles  After the holiday cookies were gone, back to the Jell-O.

I was a timid kid and didn’t go to dinner or stay over at other kids’ houses. When I was eight or nine, I did go for lunch to the home of my closest friend. No adults were around, and Sharon fried us some eggs using bacon grease stored in a Crisco container at the back of the stove. She poured the excess grease back in the can. I was most impressed. Sharon came to stay with us when her parents went back to the mining camp where they worked. She brought along a bag of dried split peas as her contribution to the household. They stayed in the cupboard for the duration. The only peas on our menu were frozen green peas.

Food was wrapped up with issues of being not good enough even before I turned 9 and the dieting began. The first warning came when I found my parents ordering my clothes for school from the Chubbettes section of the Sears catalog. My mother had her own body image issues and she was made to feel more of a failure because 1) she had a fat child and 2) she didn’t have the approved housewifely skills to sew my clothes to fit.

Enter a doctor with a diet sheet and a prescription for amphetamines. My father rarely got involved with meal preparations but dieting combined his taste for problem-solving with his interest in experimentation, We began to attempt one fad diet or another as a family activity (another place my food history was affected by class). Thus began a 20-year-long trip on the Disneyland diet ride from hell. I learned to see food as an adversary. I would briefly restrict what I ate according to whatever diet denomination we were embracing. The things that tasted good and made food enjoyable always were in at least one forbidden camp (calories, carbohydrates, fats). I would always fall off the diet wagon, until it came round again for another trip. None of these experiments in deprivation produced actual, sustainable weight loss.

Diets never do.

When I left home and moved to San Francisco I encountered cheap ethnic food, from fish and chips to ramen. Money was tight, so when I did diet in those years (less than I had at home) I went for the least expensive possible: brown rice, tofu, canned spinach and cottage cheese. Watching friends cook taught me some new things: Who knew that fresh mushrooms rather than canned could be used in spaghetti sauce or that other vegetables beside iceberg lettuce could go in salads?

I made a serious effort to learn to cook when I moved in with my late husband, Charlie.  Ironically, I met Charlie’s friends the day after I met him. He asked me to lunch the day we met. The lunch involved hummus (he was a starving law student but he had a coupon). When he learned where I lived, he invited me to dinner the following night at his friends Keith and Peggy’s place, a few blocks away. I didn’t learn till years later that he never warned them that he had asked me. It was typical of Charlie’s charm and unshakable confidence in the Vickers’ Southern hospitality that he could rest serene in the knowledge that they would welcome me and Peggy would be able to stretch whatever delicacy she was preparing to fit another guest.

Peggy’s cooking was a revelation. I had never before tasted fettuccini Alfredo. I watched her make it from scratch. Eating it was an ecstatic, almost religious experience. When I started living with Charlie, I sought out books and learned from Peggy’s high level cooking.

Over the years, I’ve been to a few delightful restaurants as a guest of generous friends, but never come close to being foodie or even a skilled cook. I’ve changed the ingredients in what I eat in response to variable income situations and different sorts of illness. Later as I discovered fat acceptance and intuitive eating, I began to focus on listening to exactly what my body wanted and giving it as much as possible of that. This was a long process, with much self-doubt: Could my body could be trusted? Was I doing the wrong thing?

Tovar concludes her Foodie post:

For me my “special” or “fancy” food means a lot of things. Sometimes it’s the momentary respite, the unabated pleasure of a delicious, perfectly made thing that makes me feel completely in my body and free and special and safe. Sometimes it is the myth that I am better than the people who hate me. Sometimes it is the pure bravado of eating a treat that people who look like me were never meant to enjoy.

The wounds of body hatred heal slowly and the body-hostile atmosphere we live in makes it a challenge to keep them from getting re-infected.  But I can say with confidence that my relationship with food has been reclaimed and transformed into a respectful, healing, loving one.

I hope you’ll share your food history recollection sequence in the comments.

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Laurie Toby Edison by Carol Squires

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