Trail Mix and Tea
The first time I really thought about food, it was because it made me uncomfortable.
All through my early childhood, I remember going to school, playing with friends, pillow fights, and taking over the jukebox at this pool hall my moms would go to. I remember sledding and jumping in the hot tub afterwards. I remember driving up to my dad’s house listening to Pearl Jam and talking about what we would do if we won the lottery. I never remember a lot of the food moment in my life, let alone think about food.
But then as I got a little older, probably around early high school, food starts to be a part of my thought process. I started to take note of family dinners. Chicken and Dumplings. Pumpkin Pie. Pork Chops. Spaghetti and homemade meatballs. When I drove up to my dad's house, I knew we would eat a Steak on Saturday night, and cinnamon rolls on Sunday morning. All of these comforting foods that I’m sure people drool over. For me, though, they all started to come with a huge sense of anxiety and discomfort. I now started to have to rationalize why I would eat a steak on Saturday night after only watching a movie. Why would I eat a slice of pumpkin pie on a Wednesday? It's not a holiday, or birthday, or really anything. It's Wednesday.
While I started to become more aware of the foods themselves, as they sat in front of me, I also started to work in restaurants, and picked up baking (quick breads and cookies and scones). I became obsessed, you might say; I went from never thinking about food to always always thinking about food. I asked in the morning what we were having for dinner as I ate a light yogurt, knowing there were 110 calories per cup. I ran cross country after school, before going to my restaurant job. And when I got home at night I started to bake something that I would ultimately give away at school the next day.
That’s the kicker: I never hated food. I actually LOVED food. Most of my waking moments were spent thinking about food, just in different ways. I loved giving food away, more than anything. I would bake for people. I would serve people and tell them “oh that’s my FAVORITE dish, you just have to get it. I don’t know how I do it but I always finish that and the coconut sticky rice for dessert.” I worked at a Thai Restaurant and I lied a lot.
And the obsession grew.
I obsessed over what other people ate — or didn’t eat. I watched at restaurants as people took down whole fish by themselves with a cup of rice. I wondered if I could do it. At school, one woman consistently just had chicken broth for lunch. I talked about it constantly in a gossipy way for two reasons: one was to get a temperature as to how everyone else felt about it and the other was to talk about someone else’s misguided understanding of nutrition, and not my own. The others at my lunch table put away burgers and fries and cheesecake on a regular basis, didn’t work out, or play sports — how were they immune to the discomfort of food when I sat here calculating how many calories that meal was (if I was estimating, probably around 1,300). I would slip in jokes like "oh my god I can't even finish a bagel anymore! How can anyone eat a full bagel?" to see what people might say, how they might react. In the morning, I would have a large latte, comparing it in volume to a regular meal.
I was always comparing. I was always wondering what other people thought of food, and how they thought about food. There was no way everyone else was okay with eating a breakfast, lunch, and dinner like they did in the sitcoms, novels, or at holidays. No way.
There weren’t ten minutes that went by when I wasn’t thinking about food, and how I could eliminate it from my day. If ran twice that day, I could have that cliff bar. Or even the opposite -- if I accidentally let myself eat full dinner that night, how many miles would I sneak out at 10pm to run? If I waited another thirty minutes, I would just be two hours from dinner, and could just wait. If I ate slow, I’d fill up more. They say that most of your hunger is just dehydration, so I’ll just have another glass of water, or tea. Instead of being overwhelmed with options at the lunch line, I would just always go for a trail mix, because I knew it. I still don't know what that trail mix was, I knew it would get me through the rest of the school day.
My comfort from food came in the form of the light-headed feeling I would get around 4pm, knowing that my body had gone through everything I had given it that day, and I was doing well. It was never comfortable to be full -- that was the most uncomfortable thing I could have done to myself. My comfort came in stepping on the scale and seeing the numbers drop. My comfort came in wrapping my hands around my waist and only having six, five, four inches difference between my hand's reach and the circumference of my frame. My comfort came in surprising people that I was strong even though I was so small. In running 16 miles a day. My comfort came in me striving to what I perceived as perfection, my perfection.
I became a vegetarian at one point, for two years, to give me yet another reason to think about food. I started to not only think about the production, cooking, and consuming of food, but now on a molecular level: how could I get enough protein not through animal product. It also gave me an excuse to talk about food with other people, but never calling attention to myself. I felt at home saying things like "humans were never meant to consume cow's milk" and "when you eat meat, you're digesting rotting proteins, it's much better to eat beans and tofu." It allowed people to see me as health conscious and not concerning.
My friends let it slide, for the most part. They would insert "Josh we need to get some meat on those bones" every now and then. I laughed and took it as a sign of success. Those veiled thoughts of concern were more comforting than any compliment about my academic abilities. My family would ask why I woulnd't just have another piece of bread, or bowl of pasta. "I'm just so full." I was confronted by my friends and family in coffee shop parking lots (with a bag full of healthy food to eat) and in dining rooms by friend’s family members. Which, if you might guess, was just even more discomfort: now I had to worry about both my thinking of food and other people’s watching me around food.
There was a moment, though, when the obsession shifted, when I started to feel comfortable only around food. It was my safe haven — to be purchasing, preparing, and cooking food gave me a sense of identity.
When I moved to New York, confronted with so many options of what to do, who to be friends with, what job to take up, what coffee shop, diner, restaurant, bar, party to go to, I again retreated into my high school lunch-line routine: do[eat] what you know. I dove –again– into working in restaurants, searching for the newest, best opening. I did freelance food writing, kept a blog going from my time in Korea, organized a CSA in Fort Greene back in 2011. I became consumed by the food world. That's where I was comfortable.
And, thanks to my perfectionist mind, I wanted to be great in the food industry. I wanted to be a lead captain. I wanted to work at the best restaurants. I wanted to be a manager. I wanted to be a general manager. I wanted to own my own place.
And guess what? I couldn't be great at something unless I knew it, I lived it, I ate it all. And that's where my comfort started to resettle. I needed to be a regular at the bar, eating that endive salad every Thursday night, and finishing it. I had to know what the fried chicken tasted like so I could sell the hell out of it on a Sunday Morning. I tried new recipes for new events I'd be cooking for. I started to be more comfortable when I could articulate a taste, a wine, how a plate was built.
My obsession still lies with food, obviously. But now, it no longer is something I'm trying to stay a safe distance from, but rather something I'm trying to be around constantly. I want to be around good people, gathering around a table or bar sharing an experience. I want to meet people who cook honest food made with integrity.
When I think of food now, it is what gets me excited. "What restaurant should we go to in Bushwick / London / Reykjavík / Berlin / Seoul" gets me riled up and my mind racing, not fearful. Can I answer "What changed" clearly? Apparently not, but it did.