The Meaning of Food
The idea that a group of people could be of like-mind on a small scale defined by their eating habits was never a thought for me until I moved to into my adopted brother’s house in Washington state and got to know my sister-in-law. I’ve had the impulse control of a preschooler ever since hitting adulthood when it comes to food. The struggle that was my childhood dining room table was reminiscent of Julie Alvarez’s experiences that she wrote about in “Picky Eater”. Alvarez’s essay touches on the way that food was a thing to be endured when she was a child, accompanied with rules and strict enforcement of them. As it was in my house, Julie writes about how “childhood meals at home were battlegrounds” (145). Growing up poor, the only “luxury” we had in my home was food, and my dad was insistent that we had a lot of it. My eating habits were a product of fierce battle over who would get more than one helping each night at dinner. I hadn’t met anyone else like myself in all of this time, outside of my own biological family. It made me feel lonely and I knew then, as I know now, that there was some sort of psychology behind my relationship with food that wasn’t common among others, but I didn’t want to address it.
Moving to Washington, I fell into a fast, close friendship with my adopted brother’s wife. We’ll call her Jen. We were partners in crime, enabling our bad food choices and going on “food runs” This involved packing into the car on a whim and seeking out good tasting munchies at all hours. Living on Fort Lewis, there was an exit from the I-5 freeway that had an Eden of garish neon lights, plastic backlit signs, and drive thru hours posted conveniently on the front windows. Exit 122 was like the Mecca for those addicted to fast food. She and I would go along this road in the dead of night when we were craving French fries, chicken nuggets, tacos or egg rolls, and most of the establishments were open 24 hours. It was a bonding moment. Tucking away in the car, driving out to that stretch of road, picking out what we wanted in between listening to Breaking Benjamin or talking about the most recent drama in my niece’s school life. Sometimes, we’d go to more than one place, getting one or two things from each place. Then, we’d pull into an empty parking lot and people watch or we’d tuck back home and dive into our goodies. It was a blissful passage of time that involved the saltiness of French fries, the creamy chocolate milkshakes and deeply satisfying burgers or tacos. She was just as much an enabler and just as enthusiastic as I was. Her lifestyle was more active, so she wasn’t dealing with the same physical issues that I have that are tied with my food habits. Regardless of whether she was able to maintain the lifestyle, she shared the same food hygiene that I did, and our food runs quickly became a weekly event.
It never occurred to me that we were bonding over food runs, or that incorporating them into our lives could be somehow deviated from by anyone else. I never gave the deeper implications much thought, until her friend from Texas was visiting us. Tara was a high maintenance woman, but most people in her life gave her a wide margin of accommodation due to her losing her husband in Afghanistan. Her toes were perfectly pedicured, her jeans were pre-washed, pre-ripped and fit her shape with the type of control that comes from a Catholic school proctor. Jen was very close to her since my brother and Tara’s husband were both deployed together, and they had a tight knit bond that forms between Army wives when their husbands are deployed. Jen also had the benefit of being able to befriend nearly anyone, and so she handled Tara’s high maintenance ways even before Tara lost her husband, during the grieving process, and was her friend still, a year or so after the event had occurred. Tara had planned to visit Jen while she was in town for a widow’s conference, and even though money was a little tight, Jen was happy to welcome Tara into her home for the week. She couldn’t have been more different if she had been a visiting iguana.
Tara arrived and a whirlwind of activity occurred. I was working a lot of hours at the time, and so I was spared the majority of Tara’s personality. I know that I have a low tolerance for some, so Tara and I probably would not have been very tight friends. However, I was and still am close friends with Jen, and both she and my brother were friends with Tara, so I did my best to be polite and friendly while she was there. Tara had plenty of financial resources, and found it hard to handle the idea that Jen couldn’t constantly go out to eat, purchase specific groceries for family meals, or drive to random sightseeing places because of gas budgeting, so by the end of the week tensions were slightly strained. Added to this was the fact that Tara had an emergency at her home while she was away that she really needed to be back in Texas for, and it was getting downright intense at times. Jen was a damn good cook, and did things in very specific ways. She reminded me of how Julie Dash described her family cooking habits in “Rice Culture”. Dash talks about how rice is so embedded in her family’s food culture that they’re very specific about how it’s handled and cooked. As she puts it, “Uncle Ben was never invited to dinner”. (138) Even though Jen and I enjoyed our food runs, when she cooked it was never from a box. Her skills were amazing. I found myself rubbing my temples and counting to ten whenever Tara was subtly critical of Jen’s cooking.
It was during the end of this week, on one of my nights off, when I came out of my room in my sweat pants and tank-top, bedecked with flip-flops and told Jen, “If you want to get some grub with me, I’ll buy and drive.” I’d just gotten paid. Halleluiah.
As was our custom, just the slightest mention of a food run between us was nearly always jumped on, and within a few minutes, she was getting herself at least acceptable enough to leave the house. Tara, sitting on the couch, declared she’d like to go, too. I didn’t see any problem with this. The more, the merrier, right? So, we all piled into the car and headed to our favorite block to see what was open, and decide what we wanted.
Jen had told me that Tara was a picky eater, but I hadn’t really committed that fact to memory. After showing her what was on the block to choose from, we finally had to settle on McDonald’s, since they were the only place to offer vanilla milkshakes that Tara trusted and that’s the only thing she could think to stomach at that hour. Jen and I were flexible, and we pulled into the drive thru while discussing Tara’s upcoming widow’s conference. We ordered, paid at the first window, and picked up our goodies at the last, a ritual of bonding that we had cemented with practice. It was as we were pulling away from the last window that Tara, in a nauseated tone, proclaimed that there was a strawberry seed in her milkshake, so they obviously didn’t clean the milkshake machine. I’ve worked in fast food, and I know how unlikely that the mistake was due to that specific error. I bit my bottom lip to keep my retort caged behind my teeth. Instead of mouthing off, I pulled into the parking lot so she could run inside and tell them how upset she was with the strawberry seed in her milkshake.
When she was out of the car, all I could do was look at Jen, and she smiled and shook her head, “It happens all the time,” she explained, and then proceeded to tell me of examples with Tara had turned back food at restaurants if it wasn’t specifically how she liked. It didn’t matter where they went, or what she ordered, she consistently found fault with what she was eating. She was critical to the highest degree, and Jen had never once had a good experience with food and Tara in the same room. I was astounded. Since I’d been an adult and allowed to make my own food choices, the only times I had bad food experiences is when I allowed someone else to call the shots. The majority of people I knew called the shots very well when it was their turn to. This was an epiphany for me. Not only that I had somehow stumbled on a niche of people who were like-minded in their food habits, but also that a group of people this small could be held to the same standards. I’d known that food in cultures and families played roles both positive and negative, but I’d never realized that the food runs that Jen and I took were as deep as they were, and additionally, that I could feel as though someone didn’t belong to “my group” by something as small as their own food habits. I’d never thought of myself as belonging to any group in particular before, let alone one defined by food hygiene. It may have only been another symptom of how different Tara’s personality was from others that were in our family, but it could also be argued that it was a telling factor that she had such a different perspective on food than most in our family do.
Tara and Jen had a falling out shortly after that. It had nothing to do with food, but I still feel as though Tara’s opinions and attitudes toward food were an indication of her opinions and attitudes toward life in general. She was a deeply unsatisfied woman who was very critical, but under that, she was pretty hurt, too. It makes me wonder if there’s a lot more psychology than previously though regarding food, and whether it could be harnessed to turn some towards healing.
Alvarez, Julia. “Picky Eater.” Mirror on America: Essays and Images from Popular Culture. Eds. Joan T.
Mims and Elizabeth M. Nollen. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2012. 143–149. Print.
Dash, Julie. “Rice Culture.” Mirror on America: Essays and Images from Popular Culture. Eds. Joan T.
Mims and Elizabeth M. Nollen. Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 2012. 138-140. Print.