Ravenous: Book Excerpt
I’m in a gourmet food store near my Berkeley, California, home. White serving dishes, filled with a dozen kinds of olives, gleam behind the counter. The variety is dazzling—bright green Cerignolas, pinkish-brown Hondroelias, and almost-black dry-cured Moroccans.
The olives are for a dinner party I’m giving later in the week. I choose several varieties, scooping them into a container. When it’s filled to the brim, I pay and leave.
I love olives. But I tell myself not to eat any: They’re for the party. Also, they are little caloric bundles. And at 48, 5’6″ and a size 18, I shouldn’t binge.
I get in the car to drive home. I try to ignore the container on the seat next to me. But I can’t resist. I taste a Cerignola first—it’s large and piquant. I eat a Hondroelia next—meaty and satisfying. And the Moroccan? The salt bomb of my dreams. I eat a couple, then a few more, and then a few more.
By the time I get home, the olives are gone.
* * *
For as long as I can remember, I’ve turned to food for comfort.
I am ten. My parents have had another fight. My father packs his bag and says he’s leaving.
“Where?” I ask, crying.
“Anywhere but here,” he replies.
He grabs his suitcase and walks toward the door. Terror overrides my pride and I grab onto his pants leg and scream, “Don’t go! Don’t leave us!”
He continues walking, dragging me with him, the burnt-orange shag carpet chafing my arms. He gives his leg a final shake. I lose my grip, and he walks out the door.
I lie on the floor for a few moments. Then I pick myself up and make my way to the kitchen. I open a can of black olives and put one on each finger of my left hand. One by one I eat them off each fingertip. When all five are gone, I pop another five onto my fingers, and repeat the process until I’ve eaten them all.
But I’m not done. Next I heat up a package of 15 frozen assorted mini-pizzas in the oven. I eat the plain cheese, my least favorite, first; then the sausage; then the pepperoni. I’m stuffed, and I finally feel safe.
* * *
It’s five years later, and I’m 15, babysitting for the nice family around the corner from my house. The kids are sleeping, and I start trolling around their refrigerator for something to eat. Then I spot it, the Holy Grail: a package of ham, which, because it’s pork, I’m not allowed to eat at home.
I take out a slice of white bread, slather it with mustard, and throw on two pieces of ham. I gobble it quickly, as if expecting to be caught at any moment. When I’m done, I clean up, go back into the living room, and try to read a magazine. Two minutes later, I again hear the siren call. I go back to the kitchen and eat another sandwich.
Hoping they don’t discover my crime for at least a few days, I finish the last of my neighbors’ ham.
* * *
From 18 to 26, my weight stays a stable size ten. Through college, where I fall in love with a long-haired boy, and during which time my brother has a mental breakdown and my father has a heart transplant; through graduate school, through a move to Switzerland for a romance, through my father’s death at age 56, and through several years of living in New York before moving to California. Still not the size four of my skinny, flat-chested sister, but good enough.
* * *
I’m 28 and eating lunch at the iconic Chez Panisse restaurant, in Berkeley. I moved from New York to California earlier that year, ostensibly for a guy, but really for the freedom that a new place promises. New York felt too choked with expectations of who I was supposed to be and who I was allowed to become. Many people come to New York to write. I left.
I order a dish of melon wrapped in prosciutto and sliced figs. It’s served with a small mound of arugula topped with shaved Parmesan.
I have not yet heard the words “organic” or “sustainable agriculture.” I only know that this food, which dances in my mouth, tastes vibrant and alive, and I want to eat more of it in the future.
* * *
It’s love. We lie in his bedroom in San Francisco and watch the fog hovering low, like some soft, downy blanket. I’m now 30. I know one day we’ll marry. I can’t quite accept that I am meant to be this happy, and though I don’t understand it, I’m willing to take a leap of faith.
We celebrate our happiness with much food and drink. When we get married, I’m 33 and wear a size 12. If Scott notices, he doesn’t say anything.
At our wedding reception in Napa, I eat the gorgeous roasted chicken and vegetables the restaurant has prepared. I wash it down with some great Cabernet—silk wedding dress be damned.
We cut our wedding cake: apricot eau-de-vie with buttercream frosting. It’s perfect. And though brides’ appetites are often depicted as demure, I eat the entire slice.
* * *
While I work in book publishing by day, I begin writing essays for Salon.com and other magazines. In my spare time, I also take up yoga, which I find so difficult I hate it for the first six months of my practice. As my body begins to open, I get my first glimpse of its innate intelligence and begin to understand that it will tell me what it needs if I learn to listen.
From a co-worker, I hear about a Community Supported Agriculture project run by Full Belly Farm in Guinda, California. For ten bucks a week I get a box of buoyant organic produce, usually picked the day before delivery.
I begin eating organic vegetables—kale, fennel, rutabaga, and more. Something in me gets happy when I eat this food.
I am 35 and wear a size 14.
* * *
It’s the call I’ve been anticipating but also dreading, because I don’t know what the news will be. “You’re pregnant,” the kind nurse says. “Twin boys, both healthy.”
After I call Scott at work, I put on Dusty Springfield and start dancing around our living room.
I gain only 30 pounds during pregnancy—perhaps the result of being on bed rest for almost two months and delivering my sons at 32 weeks. When they are born, one weighs 5 pounds 3 ounces, the other 4 pounds 13 ounces.
“Linebackers,” the neonatal nurse says.
“It’s all that meat you ate,” my doctor tells me.
After delivery, I’m 39 and wear a size 16.
* * *
I’m 41, and Matthew and Jack are almost two. I leave my job as head of publicity for Salon.com because I’m having a hard time juggling a heavy workload and raising small children.
I get a job at Yoga Journal magazine, running the communications department, and have the good fortune to be hired on the threshold of yoga’s American renaissance.
While at one of the Yoga Journal conferences, I have the opportunity to practice with Patricia Walden, a master teacher. As she helps me move into a backbend, she asks, “Why are you in this body? What does your body have to teach you?” I wonder if she senses that this will become a defining question for me, one that I will wrestle with for much of the next decade.
I begin writing about food and spirituality for “Eating Wisely,” the magazine’s food column. I write on topics such as heirloom seeds, foraging, and Zen eating practices.
Over the next few years, I keep writing about eating wisely, but I can’t help noticing the irony: while I am beginning to eat more wisely myself, I still eat too much and weigh too much.
* * *
I’m now 48. My husband Scott and I have been together for nearly 20 years. Our children are nine. I’m a size 18.
My relationship with food still doesn’t work. Now I overeat daily, and overeating has become a habit.
In many ways, I have an addictive nature. In the past, I’ve dealt with my addictions by quitting them cold turkey: when I was 18, I put down my last cigarette. All or nothing always seems to have worked for me.
But I can’t just give up food. And that makes things more complicated.
What should I eat? How should I eat it? How much should I eat? What does it mean to be nourished? How can I, a food lover, learn to eat in a balanced way?
I need to lose weight, and that usually means going on a diet. But I’m not going to do that. For starters, I’ve never wanted someone else telling me what to eat and when to eat it. But even more important, diets have always felt temporary to me. We talk about “going on” them, and that means we go off them, too. There’s no middle ground. I want to find a balanced way of eating that I can live with for the rest of my life. If I can find that, my body will find the weight it wants to be. Balance, by its nature, cannot be all or nothing. Balance is not something you switch on or off. Balance is something you discover through experience—and continue to discover and hone as you move through life.
I’m not looking for a perfect body or a perfect way to eat. I am searching for a relationship with food that brings me greater health, peace of mind, and ease in my skin.
At midlife, I’m ravenous for something more than food. I’m hungry for freedom.
CHAPTER 1: SAUSAGE
My father’s haphazard “kosher” rules went something like this: Cheeseburgers? Yes. Shrimp? Okay, but only in Chinese restaurants. Pork? Forget about it. God would not only strike you dead for eating pig, he’d spit on you for good measure.
Naturally, then, I ate pork whenever possible—sometimes even with my mother.
Almost every Sunday while I was growing up, she’d take me to our local luncheonette, where we’d sit at the counter on brown Naugahyde-topped swivel stools. My mother ordered a buttered roll and coffee, and I got a ham sandwich on a kaiser roll with spicy mustard. I loved having not only my mother’s full attention for an hour, but also her silent complicity in my crime.
This is what I’m remembering as I make my way to Berkeley’s famed Café Rouge restaurant and meat market to make sausage with Scott Brennan, their charcutier.
Twenty pounds of Berkshire hog pork shoulder sit in a large metal vat, waiting to be ground into sausage. Brennan picks up a hunk, pointing out the glistening veins of well-marbled fat, which he says will make for an especially fine sausage.
Brennan pours several cups of sauvignon blanc over the meat, then adds a couple of tablespoons of chili flakes. He pulverizes a few heads of peeled garlic with a stone mortar and pestle and tosses them in. He retrieves a pan of toasted fennel seeds from the oven and starts to chop them with quick, efficient strokes.
He grabs some fresh herbs from the cooler, and before he rounds the corner, I already know he’s got oregano—the herb’s acrid, pungent scent precedes him. He flicks the oregano off the stem and begins to chop it together with some Italian parsley. He tosses the herbs into the meat vat along with a handful of coarse kosher salt.
“Why do you enjoy making sausage?” I ask as I watch him don latex gloves and begin mixing the meat, wine, and spices together.
He pauses and looks up. “It’s so satisfying,” he says. “It’s such an old food.” He dips his hands back into the meat. “What about you?”
I give him only half an answer. I tell him that I love this salty, fatty food. I tell him I want to learn how it’s made so I can write more knowledgeably about a food I love.
I don’t tell him about sneaking pork as a girl. Or that the spice-laden fat coating the roof of my mouth excites me. Or that I still think of sausage and its porcine cousins—ham and salami—as forbidden, which makes them all the more alluring.
Sausage is a food that seduces me. It’s not the only one. There are a handful of foods that I long for—foods that, once I start eating them, I have a hard time stopping: Cheese. Olives. Chocolate. And sausage. They are my go-to foods, my fill-me-up-and-stuff-me foods. They all involve some combination of salt, fat, and sugar. They hold me captive.
If I’m ever going to regain my balance, I’m going to have to break the hold these foods have on me. I think I know how to do that: I will discover everything I can about them. I’ll learn to make sausage. See how cheese is made and how the goats whose milk goes into the cheese are raised. Watch how chocolate confections are created. And see how olives, my favorite food in the world, are grown and then cured. Once I demystify the origins of these foods, perhaps I’ll no longer be in their thrall.
* * *
It’s a hot summer day in Montvale, New Jersey, circa 1970. I am ten years old, sitting on a curb outside Coiffures by Gigi, the salon where my mother is getting her blond hair teased into a flip by Tom the hairdresser. The summer air is dense and muggy. Maple trees and weeping willows stand still in the stifling heat.
My ritual rarely varies. While my mother gets her hair done, I go to the nearby stationery store and buy a few Betty and Veronica comic books. Then I buy a five-pack of Slim Jims at the A&P supermarket. I sit on the curb outside the salon, open the red-and-yellow box, and take out the first stick. I open the comic book and begin to read, synchronizing bites with the words.
Bite. The outer skin pops as my teeth perforate the first layer. “Oh, Betty, you’re not wearing that?” says the mean-spirited Veronica. Chew. A wad of grease explodes in my mouth. “Veronica, you are such a bitch!” says Betty. She actually doesn’t say this, of course, but I wish she would. Veronica is a vain, petty tyrant, and I want Betty to knock her on her ass.
Bite. Greasy pulp again fills my mouth. “All the boys love me, Betty, me!” screams Veronica. I swallow. I wish Betty would slug Veronica, but instead she just looks crestfallen. “Buck up, girl!” I want to yell. I can’t bear to see her belittled by that shrew. I want her to learn to stand up for herself and to the bullies of the world. As I read on, I eat one Slim Jim after another, envisioning a different life for Betty.
As I do for me…