I’ve always been semi-hedonistic. Growing up, I had to attend P.M. kindergarten because I couldn’t get out of bed before 10 a.m. As a baby, my mom told me that I would sleep 9 hours throughout the night, take 2, 3 hour naps throughout the day, then go to sleep around 9 p.m. for the night. I must have been a godsend.
In between the hours of blissful shut-eye, there was another pass-time I enjoyed immensely. To this day, it proves to be one of the driving forces behind my life decisions: food. I love to eat. I always have and I always will.
I spent mornings sitting, watching cartoons, messy-haired and happy to be devouring white toast slathered in real butter. In was so sweet, salty and perfect. The best way to ease into a day. I’d “help” my mom bake, bemoaning to lick the spoon after she was done mixing.
Lunch was, and still is, the best part of the day. Nothing bad could happen between the hours of 11-2, and I’m still beholden to that. Why would world leaders wage war when they could so easily suggest, “How ’bout lunch?”
Lunch for me was a time to sit in my yellow chair watching Teenage Ninja Mutant Turtles and eat my beloved lunch: a peanut butter and jelly sandwich, a slice of American yellow cheese, potato chips and french onion dip. Day after day I would look forward to this lunch. I STILL look forward to this lunch if I have the ingredients lying around. Some people have fried chicken and waffles, some Afghan kabobs with yogurt sauce, some a hot bowl of lentils, or dried cuttlefish candy. Me? I had Jay’s potato chips and Dean’s French Onion Dip. And all was always right with the world.
I’ve always been chubby. Recently, I said to my boyfriend, a bit playfully, but still exasperated, “Baby, there’s something you have to know. No matter what I do, how much I work out or watch what I eat, I will always be a little chubby.”
“You’ll always be a little sexy,” he replied.
It made me feel better. I can’t say that I’ve necessarily resigned to having a little junk in the trunk. I COULD eat nothing but clean and work out hardcore 6 days a week. But that’s not me. I’m more of a sloth, kicked into high gear occasionally by an oppressive predator. Once my psyche gets to me, I’m more conscious, making good food decisions, running miles on the treadmill. But the whole time, I must say, I’m wondering about the new restaurant across the street’s small plates menu. Could an amuse-bouche be the end of all my hard work?
It wasn’t until I moved to Hawaii that I truly realized all the food offerings out there. Suddenly I wasn’t in the land of sausages, hot dogs, roast beef, fried chicken and popcorn (Chicago). I was eating fresh fruit off the tree. Not that I hadn’t eaten fruit before, but there’s something deliciously sinful about living in the Garden of Eden, more or less, and sucking down a ripe Papaya or Pineapple. “Forbidden Fruit,” I thought to myself.
I met traveller’s from all over the world. We would cook and concoct for hours in the open-air kitchen with whatever anyone had in their pantry or could forage from the property. It was a much more authentic version of the cooking show “Chopped” except we didn’t know any time limit. In fact, the cooking sessions would downright become the staple of the better part of the evening. From the hours of 4-8 p.m, we would build menus, source ingredients, blend, chop, add some kava or maca for a little VA-VA-VROOM, taste, dance, smoke, laugh, then serve up an amazing meal.
We’d make vegetable curry, wild boar pulled pork sandwiches with homemade pineapple chutney, Molokai sweet potato hash with truly free-range chicken eggs. I remember the first time I cracked open a chicken egg from one of the chickens living on our property. Holding it in my hand, the egg was relatively smaller than the ones I was used to. I had a carton of eggs in the fridge from the grocery store, imported from the mainland. After cracking our free-range chicken’s egg into a bowl, I was delighted: The yolk was a magnificent shade of orange. It was like the rising sun in my bowl. No wonder it had become a staple of the American breakfast. Out of curiosity, I cracked open a store-bought egg into a bowl and compared then. Gone was the deep, beautiful hue of the yolk. It was replaced by a dull, barely yellow yolk. If it could stand up-right, it would be flaccid and defeated, like a punch-drunk boxer.
It was these experiences and more than made me consider food’s role in my world. It was, I decided, the love of my life. Before moving to Hawaii, my first real foray into a city’s foodie scene was Philadelphia. Living on the east coast was a chance for me to sample eclectic, traditional and ethnic cuisines from all over the world, with a regional flare.
My first job in Philadelphia was working at a French-inspired bruncherie in center city. Everything was home made from scratch, down to the pork sausage. The owner Marshall was a young, determined and skillful chef. He like to get his hands dirty and do things his own way. Afterall, it was HIS restaurant. This was my first experience working in a chef owned and operated restaurant. Things were fun, chaotic and reminiscent of a family.
One day I clocked in for my shift. It was my turn to juice the oranges, a job in which I despised. It was always a sticky mess and it seemed a very big waste. Not much juice comes from one orange, mind you. The machine we had made the job relatively easy, but contributed to a lot of waste and took a good hour to scrub clean. Before rolling up my sleeves and getting the sticky mess on with, I went to the back to say hello to the kitchen as I normally did to start my shift.
After making my way past the dishwashers, I wanted to say Hi to Marshall. I rounded the corner and there it was: a full, dead pig. Marshall had a crazed, but gleeful look in his eye, as he was butchering the animal right before my eyes.
“How are ya, Jill?”, he asked casually.
As Marshall and I explained pleasantries, the pig’s eyes stared lifelessly up at the ceiling.
“How long is this going to take?,” I asked, nodding toward the dead swine.
“A few hours, at least. It takes a long time to properly butcher a pig. This guy right here will supply all the meat for our restaurant for the next month,” Marshall said.
I was shocked. A month? I imagined someone in the dining room ordering a side of bacon. Marshall would be in the back, a mad-scientist, his knife glimmering and say, “Coming right up!” He would hack here, hack there, and suddenly, a side of glistening, greasy, delicious bacon would appear. The brunch guest would be appeased, if only for a moment. And it would continue on like this. A side of scrapple? “2 minutes!” Marshall would cry, and he would slice and dice, and the pig would just lie there and produce pork products for the masses. All month long, a sadistic turn and burn.
Of course it didn’t happen like that. Marshall would butcher the pig, package and prepare the meats for smoking outside if necessary, label them and put them in the walk-in freezer, or fridge. He would send us waitresses occasionally in the walk-in for more items for the line.
I consider myself pretty tough, but watching that pink-skinned animal in its entirety being made into pork products seemed like massacre. But, a deliciously intriguing massacre. I remember stopping to snap a photo of Marshall holding the pigs head next to his own, knife in one hand. He had done it. I had witnessed it. Now I could get back to juicing oranges.
On and on like this, throughout my years. Food coming and going. Things I had to try. Samples that demanded I pop into my mouth. Working shifts at restaurants when I would be starving and staff meal was the saving grace, besides hopefully walking with $200 and having a shift drink.
So how could I imagine that I would stay thin? The only thing that would and could stay was food. Food was always with me. I will always be hungry, physically and emotionally for food. I salivate when I look at restaurants’ Yelp pages. I make lists of all the new places I want to try. I have to read all the chefs’ memoirs, of their cruel and demented accounts of the food industry. It’s like passing a car accident without looking. You can’t help but get sucked into it.
I have accepted that I will never be skinny. I made a vow to stay healthy, though. If food and I could walk hand and hand into the sunset, never to be seen again, we would. And we will. But I will have control, even if it’s recognizing food’s role in my life and respecting it. It’s not all about taste and texture. Ultimately, it’s nourishment. Eating is something we essentially have to do everyday to survive. It’s a blessing, and a curse for some who struggle with weight management. Nourishment is the first instinct we seek upon birth. We seek nourishment from our mother’s bosom. As we grow older, we seek nourishment from Mother Earth’s bounty. And we do, as we continue, on the circle of life.
Just like the sweet massacre of the pig, so has been the role of food in my life. I have hated and loved eating simultaneously. I have enjoyed a meal so much, I never wanted it to end. I have hated the way certain meals had made me feel. In the end though, my amazing body would process the nourishment, and I would forge on. The food had done its job to sustain me. Now it was my turn to psychologically process what had just happened. Should I do it again? Would I eat that again? Will I spend my hard-earned money at this restaurant again?
People are picky about what they eat, and for good reason. The old adage rings true, “You are what you eat.” I guess it means I eat a little chubby, sometimes. And that’s okay, because the extra meat on ribs springs forth a conversation, evokes a thought. My food produces food for thought. It springs forth a litany of conversations, arguments, essays. It’s role has met and exceeded all of my expectations, like a humble, gracious, long-term employee. All it asks in return is a little respect. And that will take me a long way.