My father made us breakfast every day, whether or not we wanted it. I always wanted it. I had two favorite things for breakfast—French toast with maple syrup and egg in a hat. I liked my food to have character.
For my father, cooking was love. He’s close to deaf so he misses a lot of conversational cues. I don’t think he ever felt really comfortable with the words “I love you.” Words dissipate, lost to the ether. Not food. Food sticks.
As a kid, I always helped him in the kitchen. I was his little sous chef, chopping carrots and peeling potatoes. He would stand behind me, holding my small hands in his fleshy fingers, teaching me how to slice or dice. When he tucked me in at night, I would fold into his large, soft form and inhale the smells that seeped into his t-shirts. He always smelled of garlic or oil or coffee mixed with Irish Spring soap. Then he’d go downstairs where he’d be making chicken stock—he was always making chicken stock. The smells would drift through the house as I drifted off to sleep.
Whenever I was sick, my father would make me soup. He’d start with the chicken stock, then add whatever vegetables were in the fridge. Sometimes he’d add noodles, sometimes an egg. It was different every time—he’s never been big on recipes. He would carry the whole steaming pot to wherever I was sitting and watch television with me. We’d eat with the subtitles on.
My favorite thing to watch with him was The French Chef. My father was a true student of Julia—he has signed copies of all of her cookbooks. He was on a first name basis with her. Whenever anyone had a question about food, he would turn to Julia. Julia taught him that anything could be said through food.
I would sit with my soup in front of the television watching Julia poach an egg or bone a turkey. My father would provide running commentary, little extra things he’d picked up from many years of attentive eating. He’d done the same thing with his mother, who taught him how to cook. He wanted to pass everything on and I ate it up eagerly. My brother would never sit through it but I loved Julia. My favorite episodes were the ones with Jacques Pepin. Those were from later, when Julia was older. They’d cook the same thing in variations and squabble over the recipe. They’d be making omelets and Julia would be stirring in cream.
Jacques: And, if you don’t want the cream, you can use milk.
Julia: Yes, but you’ll be sorry.
It was with my father and Jacques and Julia that I learned how to eat, then how to cook. You use cream and butter and that will make you happy, because cooking is love.
I was never good at moderation. I was a nervous eater, an aggressive eater, a constant eater. I learned to cook early so I didn’t have to ask permission. One of the first things I learned to cook by myself was French toast. It was a good snack during middle school; perfect for when your friends are busy hanging out without you. Three slices would usually do the trick for early afternoon, with powdered sugar and a scoop or four of strawberry ice cream. Dishes away before my brother got home. No one would ever know.
I remember early trips to the doctor’s office. They’d weigh me—always bad news, especially when the cute male nurse was on duty. I’d close my eyes before the number registered, then sit through the nods and scribbles before getting ushered to see the doctor. Sucking in my gut never changed anything, but I always tried.
“So, what do you do for fun?” she would ask. I would sit uncomfortably on the gurney. I eat. That’s all I ever really do.,
“I like to sing. I’m in a choir at school.”
“That’s nice! My daughter loves to sing too…” she would always drift off here before making eye contact again. “Any sports or anything like that?” I had a prepared response for these questions.
“I like to consider myself ‘indoorsy,’” I would say with a huge grin and a little laugh. I might’ve been chunky, but she had to admit I was adorable.
She laughed. They always did.
“Me too—my husband can barely pull me away from the TV.” I remember looking at her. She was thin, blonde, attractive, a doctor. I couldn’t see her watching any TV that wasn’t attached to a treadmill. Still, she might let me get away with it. I smiled again.
“But,” she said, getting serious again. Crap. “It would probably be good to spend some time doing something active. Maybe yoga or Zumba—something fun.” I nodded along, sweating at the mere thought of exercise.
“I could try doing something like that,” I replied. Please stop.
“I’m glad! It’s a good way to make friends and find some new hobbies. So, what do your eating habits look like?” Double crap.
“Pretty normal, I guess. My parents cook for me—we eat most of our meals at home together.”
“It’s always good when families eat together,” she would say, making notes on my chart. “Do you mind if I go talk to your mom for a minute?”
I would always say it was ok. My mother never told me what was said.
My father drove me to Rhode Island to drop me off for camp. I was 14 and it was the first time I spent more than a night away from home. We stopped at a tex-mex place for lunch. My dad always let me order whatever I wanted. I ordered fajitas—I’d learned long ago that fajitas were the most food you could get without looking like you’re ordering more than one meal. But, you have to get over the embarrassment of the sizzling plate.
I never stopped being embarrassed by the sizzling plate, but I still ordered them every time.
My father is big on leftovers. I think it comes from his mother and the Depression era mentality of “finish what’s on your plate or you are an ungrateful wretch who does not deserve the food I put in front of you.” This has manifested in his favorite activity, which is carrying leftovers around and trying to guilt other people into eating them. His favorite place to do this is on airplanes, where he will take the contents of our fridge and put them into a plastic bag that will be shuttled from car park to airport to plane and eventually forgotten in the connecting flight.
When I was 15, my father, brother, and I went back to California to go to a family friend’s Bat Mitzvah. We’d had pizza the night before and had packed the leftovers. They went uneaten.
A few days later, I was alone in the hotel room. Simon and dad were off doing something and I was hungry. There were family rules against eating from the mini-bar, so I was trapped. But then, there was pizza.
I poked it. It looked fine, smelled fine, appeared fine for my purposes. I was alone. No one could see me. I ate the pizza.
Things were fine for a while. We went out to dinner, ate dessert, dropped my brother off at his friend’s house, came back to the room, got ready for bed. Then, things started to churn.
I remember the bathroom was painted a garish orange with blue tiling on the floor and shower. I spent the night sweating, sprawled on the floor, cheek pressed to the tile.
My brother was gone. My father didn’t hear anything happen.
I don’t even like pizza.
The next day was the Bat Mitzvah. After the speeches, there was a huge buffet—general Jewish sentiment is “We aren’t dead yet; let’s eat.” I was still feeling ill and didn’t want to eat anything. My dad made me a plate anyway, then frowned when I didn’t touch it.
My father has dinner table rules. If we go out to eat, we cannot get the same thing. We must try everything that gets ordered, even if it seems icky. There are a few places in which these rules are not in play but, when traveling, these rules were ironclad. Everyone had to order something different and everyone had to try everything. It is acceptable to take a choice piece from someone else’s plate. No need to ask because these are the rules.
During my senior year of high school, my father began to lament that he had not taken us to more cultural centers. So, in February, we touched down in Paris. On our first night, my father took us to a restaurant his father had taken him to, Au Pied de Cochon. My father ordered the foot, then joked that with saturated fat like that, he was only allowed to have it once every 25 years. I didn’t want to eat it, but I took a bite to avoid criticism.
In his rudimentary French, my father ordered almost everything on the menu. For him, the crowning glory was the platter of raw oysters. I hate oysters, but I knew had to have one. I picked up the smallest one. It quivered in its juices, swimming around in its own sea of brine. I grimaced and went for it.
Once, as a child, I got caught in a riptide off of the coast of San Diego. Waved crashed over my head as I flutter kicked back to the beach. If you swim in a diagonal, you get there eventually. I threw up a bunch of seawater when I got to shore but I was fine, just a little shaken up. I didn’t go in past my hips for the rest of the vacation.
That’s what oysters taste like.
I choked down the last bits of membrane and slime, then walked to the bathroom to try to rinse some of the salt from my mouth. As I gurgled and spit, I looked at myself in the mirror. Sweaty, flushed, round.
I gagged, then filled my mouth with water again.
As I was walking back to the table, I watched my father point to a young Parisian boy effortlessly slipping oysters down his throat. He was blonde and thin, a French version of my brother.
“Maybe I should’ve raised you guys here,” my father said.
There are only two women who have ever called me fat to my face. The first is my Aunt Ellen, who likes to pinch my stomach and comment on my fluctuating weight at every opportunity. Her favorite place to do this is at holiday celebrations when she thinks I’ve eaten too many latkes. She will saunter up and say, “Zoe, should you really be eating that? You’re getting older and around your age, things start to stick.” I will continue to eat the latke, talk shit with my mother, then cry in the bathroom.
The second is the mother of one of my friends from high school. It was the morning after senior prom and I was helping clean up the house after the after-party, despite a night of puking up Mike’s Hard Lemonade. The mother came in wearing her tennis whites. She didn’t thank me. Instead, she said:
“Oh, Zoe, I loved your prom dress. It was so flattering on your figure.”
When I was 18, I became a vegetarian. It was the fall of my sophomore year and I just couldn’t eat like that anymore. My mother knew, my father didn’t.
I finally told him eight months later. We were in a restaurant driving home from college. I told him that I didn’t eat meat anymore. He said it was probably a good idea not to eat as much meat as most Americans did. Then, he ordered a burger.
We never really talked about it again. I tried to get him to watch Food Inc. and he ordered short ribs and asked if I wanted to try them. To him, that was close enough to balance.
It was difficult for him to understand how I could say no—to meat, to dessert, to meals. “Not hungry” was not a phrase that existed in his vocabulary because he only speaks the language of consumption. For him, food is not for survival but for enjoyment. Food is what makes us human. Food is how we define ourselves.
He has not learned that I define myself in the absence of food.
After I told him, it was hard for us to talk about food. It was hard for him to talk through food. My favorite beef stew no longer meant “I love you” because I wouldn’t eat that anymore. He wasn’t sure how to react when I asked him not to put bacon in the stuffing on Thanksgiving. I started eating fish just to make him feel better, but I’m not sure how much it helped.
I have broken the chain of love in our house, from his grandmother to his mother to him to me. He’d never gotten my brother to love food but he caught me. And, now, I had left him adrift.
When I was 19, I got back from the gym and started stretching. My roommate Sam always liked to make fun of my foam roller—I couldn’t have a single workout without a crappy innuendo.
She was looking at me funny this time.
“What’s up?” I asked, moving into a forward bend. She took a breath, then put down her book.
“I don’t know how to say this,” she said, playing with the pen between her fingers. It’s a nervous habit of hers, to always be playing with a pen. Drove me crazy.
“Well, just spit it out.”
“I’m…I’m worried about you,” she said. I stood up and looked at her. Crap.
“Why would you be worried about me?” I said.
“It’s just…you spend so much time at the gym,” she replied. Double crap.
“I like to run. It’s a stress relief thing.”
“Six times a week?”
“I’m really stressed. I need the endorphins.”
“I just worry that something’s wrong.”
“Like what?” I said, bristling.
“I don’t know. Not that you have…like, a medical something or anything—”
“—And I’m not saying you do—”
“I just…” she put down her pen. “You know you can talk to me if you need anything, right?”
“I don’t need anything, but thank you,” I said, smiling through teeth that were suddenly too big for my mouth. “I’m gonna go shower. Dinner at 6?” She nodded.
She didn’t trust me, I could tell. She couldn’t understand why anyone would run six times a week and not eat meat and leave French Fries on their plate and stay away from cake because they had already brushed their teeth. After all, one could always brush their teeth again.
She didn’t understand that to eat was to admit failure, that every mile run was a mile closer to the body that I’d never have because it was always one more mile away. She didn’t understand that on bad days I don’t eat anything and that on worse days I eat too much.
When I was in Israel, I got a ring inscribed with seven words for health and well being.
How many synonyms for health must I go through before I find one that works for me?
Passover is always hard for me. It is harder at college. This is a holiday rooted in going without and at school, no one makes sure that I eat. I eat with the rabbi, but he is too busy to check in on me or to even know to check in on me.
I shouldn’t expect him to check in on me.
On the Seder plate, each food has its own meaning—the horseradish is the pain of our ancestors, the lamb shank is the sacrifice, the egg is rebirth. To eat is to participate in our heritage, to acknowledge what we have survived.
The story goes that we fled from Egypt too quickly for the bread to rise, so we eat unleavened bread to remember the suffering of our ancestors. We eat to remember what we suffered and to remember the suffering of others. The rabbi told me that our ancestors were freed from Egypt but that each of us still carries our own Egypt within us. Everyone has bonds and chains that weigh them down. Our job as Jews is to think about all of these Egypts and help each other to freedom.
But then there is the celebratory feast. I can pass the plates to others but I cannot help myself.
When I moved into my apartment last September, I went to Trader Joe’s and bought a basil plant. I named him Basil and made a Margherita pizza for my housemates.
My father said he was proud of me.
In October, I went at the doctor’s office for a checkup.
“Well, your height and weight are good enough. Vision and hearing are good, and most everything looks pretty normal. Your blood pressure’s a little high, but—”
“How can my blood pressure be high?” I snapped. I get bitchy when I’m cold, and I’m always cold these days.
“It’s within normal range, so it’s nothing to be worried about. It’s just a little high.”
“Is it something I should be worried about?”
“Not now, but it’s something to keep an eye on.”
“Is there something I should do now?”
The doctor looked at me. “You could work out a little more, change your diet, little things like that.”
I’d had this conversation many times before, but I couldn’t stop my heart from quickening.
“I already run five days a week. I don’t eat meat, and I lead a pretty active life style. What else could I possibly be doing?” I asked, voice trembling only slightly.
The doctor looked at her chart, eyebrows quirked.
“Must be bad genes, I guess.” She paused. “I wouldn’t worry about this.”
Emily was nervous because she thought she was getting fat. She said she was going to start going to the gym. She and Sam were sitting at the counter while I made dinner for all of us.
“And I think I can really do it this time,” she said. I smiled sadly. We will always do better the next time.
“Well, what are your goals?” I asked, chopping onions. She hesitated. The housemates do not like it when I ask about their goals.
“Em, honey” I said, “You are not allowed to say you are only going to lose weight.”
“But that’s why I’m going.”
“It doesn’t work.”
“It worked for you.”
Sam looked at me, just briefly. She’s seen it before, this thing I carry. She knows it’s there.
“That might have been why I started going, but that isn’t why I kept going. You need to have some reachable goal, and thinner is never a reachable goal.”
“Maybe for you, but that doesn’t mean it’s true for me,” Emily replied, looking at a fingernail. Sam looked at me, silent.
“Emily, that’s true for everybody,” I murmured. “No one ever reaches that goal because that goal is always one mile, one pound away.”
I paused to pull something from the fridge. “I just don’t want to see you fall down the same traps that I fell down when I was younger.”
I could see it in her eyes. She didn’t quite know what I was talking about.
“I mean,” I said, taking a breath, “You know I really struggled with eating when I was a kid, right?” She didn’t know. I’d never told her. How could she know?
How could she see what no one ever saw? I’d been crafty enough to keep them out. They almost never ask questions, but if they do, I admit it in the past tense, stopping the conversation before it starts. They are big so they will never see me as too small because, for them, too small doesn’t exist and if it does it certainly doesn’t look like me.
“No, I didn’t know.”
“I don’t talk about it a lot, but it was messy. And I’ve figured it out, most of it, but I know how easy things can turn away from health.”
“But that won’t happen to me.”
“Maybe you’re right. Just be careful, that’s all.” She left the room and Sam looked at me. I tasted dinner and looked back.
“Good for you to tell her the truth,” Sam said, playing with a pen.
“What do you mean?”
“Nothing. I don’t mean anything.”
They never brought it up again. I’m not sure they ever thought there was anything to bring up. It doesn’t count, not for girls like me. Too small to worry about their weight, too big for something to be wrong.
No one has told me that what I am doing is wrong.
Aunt Ellen: Doesn’t Zoe look so thin these days?
At home, Dad needs me to eat because he does not want to be alone in his flesh. He cooks the foods his mother cooked for him, but I don’t eat those foods now so he eats my servings and grows. I pick at my plate and watch him grow big while my mother grows small, mincing portions with slender wrists. She has fought for her body for too long to give up now.
There is a past I will never leave behind. I am the flesh, the bones, the beating heart my parents gave me. I am what my parents fed me. I am years of beef stews and potatoes dauphinoise and French toast. I am years of pilfered Kit-Kat bars and taking two cookies when mom said I could only have one. I am a collection of stolen atoms. My body is scarred with years of ill treatment, thighs littered with the chicken scratch marks of weight too quickly gained and lost. This is how girls like me keep score.
But there is no way to win, not for girls like me, because victory is being small enough that people believe you when you say that you are sick. Victory is people seeing that you have gone as far as you can go, but my eastern European Jewish bones are too thick to let that truth be seen. No, I will carry my truth in my flesh and my thighs and I will not tell a soul. But someday, someone will cut me open and see the lies that I have held for years, the tender ribbons of fat snaking through my muscles and thighs and stomach. Someday, I will be small enough and then maybe, someone will see the truth my bones carry.
A few weeks ago, I finally told Sam. All of it, in the present tense. She listened. She fidgeted. She asked why. I told her.
“It’s a little textbook, don’t you think?” she said, clicking at her pen.
Here it is, this unwieldy thing that I have carried for too many years. In retrospect, I have poisoned my body, my mind, my memories.
Affirmation: I was sick. I am sick. I will be sick.
I am allowed to be sick.
But soon I will be better. This is a step in that road. This is the knowing how far I have come and knowing how far I can still fall. But someday, I will shake my Egypt from my bones. Today is not that day and tomorrow will not be that day either, but I will march towards it, every mile a movement in the right direction.
I am learning to love myself. Step by step I will learn how to inhabit the body I have been given. The first step is this assertion:
I am allowed to be sick.
I do not know the steps in between, but the final step is this:
I am allowed to be well.
Zoe Ginsberg is a college student, writer, runner, and coffee drinker. She currently lives in Connecticut.