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August 11, 2004

Comfort food

An interesting effect of my recent cat bite: each day I need to make sure to eat at least two good-sized meals. This is a cushion against the unpleasant effects of the giant, equine-veterinary-sized amoxicillin/clavulinate pills I'm taking. The less said about those effects the better, though I'll admit I'm enjoying the excuse to eat large amounts of Brown Cow yogurt.

And eating a full meal first thing in the morning compels me to realize that I don't like doing so. Don't get me wrong: I like to eat, as a recent step onto the hospital scale confirms. As is true of many Americans, my body mass index is uncomfortably close to my age. (And I'm not particularly worried about that: I enjoy weighing in at more than 200 pounds, if only for my ability to move large appliances.)

But there's something about that morning hunger. It's familiar; an odd comfort, enough so that when something upsets me deeply, my first response is to lose my appetite. In major life crises, I can dwindle perilously close to 190 pounds.

I published an article on genetically engineered food crops about ten years ago, and shortly thereafter got a phone call from former California governor and then talk-radio host Jerry Brown, who wanted to learn more. At his home a few days later, I more or less patiently waited to speak without luck. Jerry would ask me a question, I'd get a few words in, and then Brown's longtime associate Jacques Barzhagi, obviously put out at the notion that someone else had Brown's momentary attention, would interrupt to rebut everything I'd said, or to spin a complicated web of non sequitur.

It was a mildly unpleasant and mostly forgettable day, redeemed mainly by Brown's desultory graciousness, but one thing Barzaghi said sticks with me. Jerry had asked me what the connection was between environmental activism and eating. Jacques answered nonsequituriously, saying that eating for any reason other than fueling the metabolism was a symptom of decadence.

This was, of course, a load of unmitigated bullshit. Black bears, with millions of years of carnivore ancestry behind them, prefer now to eat fruit and honey and the occasional stolen potato salad. Are they to be accused of decadence? (If they were, I suspect they'd claim the label proudly.) Raccoons love to break open and eat watermelons, which contain almost no nutritive value. Are raccoons decadent? Hummingbirds? Who is more decadent: the diet-obsessed American who carefully plans her meals for perfect nutritional balance, or the cuisine-obsessed Japanese sushi master who carefully plans her meals as minimally processed homage to the beings eaten?

I'm tempted to blame Barzhagi's nonsense on that odd mix of Catholicism and Zen Buddhism he shares with Brown. But the best refutation of Barzhagi I can find is Catholic to the core: eating is communion. We picture ourselves as separate from the environment, but every bit of us is fashioned from something we ate, drank, or breathed. Even the bad food. Carbon atoms cooked in the hearts of long-dead stars, riding to earth on chondrite meteors, built into polymers by giant ferns, cycled through dragonflies and dinosaurs, corn and cow; nitrogen fixed by the millions of tons by invisible beings beneath the soil; water off the backs of uintatheres and Unitarians; all of them make up the artery-clogging, prion-ridden burger you ate last night. One cell encounters another, engulfs it, and oozes off to find more. An entire biosphere based on eating. What could be a more central underpinning of this existence? What one process more worthy of reverence, of enjoyment for its own sake?

Well, yeah, other than THAT one. And just as sexual longing is the obverse face of rutting, hunger and satiety are meaningless each without the other. Morning satiety dulls me, and I'm looking forward to the last of those antibiotic tabs so that I can get back to that best of sauces, a craving for communion honed slowly and patiently until mid-afternoon.

Or that's how I rationalize it to myself.

At a point somewhere in the mid-1970s, my mother stopped feeding her children. It's hard to pinpoint when, exactly. When I was 14, she would give me 80 cents for round trip bus fare each school day; I'd hitchhike to school, panhandle another quarter, and eat lunch at an all-you-can-eat salad bar. The next year, she decided I should ride my bike to school each day and cut off the bus fare. Though the extra effort and fewer calories made staying awake in class tough, I usually managed to recoup at dinnertime. And then Mom stopped buying food for us at home. Weeks would pass with nothing in the refrigerator other than a head of iceberg lettuce and some industrial-strength blue cheese dressing, which we kids drank on the sly. It wasn't too long after that that I quit school, left home, and found that I could usually feed myself, more or less, on the odd and demeaning jobs available to a 17-year-old in Jimmy-Carter-Recession-Buffalo.

I'm the oldest of four kids, and I had it easier than the others. I had girlfriends whose mothers would feed me. I worked a couple mornings a week at the local collective bakery for credit: those dozen loaves of whole wheat bread every month were a godsend, as was the local organic restaurant, where I washed dishes, again for credit. Dumpsters behind supermarkets were an important resource, not only for the baked goods and potato chips that were a day past their expiration, but for the occasional cut of beef with one green edge. Shoplifting probably saved my life more than once. Cigarettes were seventy-five cents a pack; an extravagance in retrospect, but one that helped stave off hunger for a full day. Same for the free coffee in the lounge at the nearby college campus.

My siblings, on the other hand, had fewer tools at their disposal, and we acted toward one another as starved dogs over a single scrap of meat. My father did buy food, and one of my sisters - sensibly - moved in with him. The rest of us quickly learned that we should eat his food while he was gone, so as to avoid the lectures about eating his food. It wasn't until just a few years ago that I realized there was anything wrong with the situation. I was in my late teens, after all, and susceptible to the argument that I should be pulling my own weight at that point. (And it would have been easy: on my 19th birthday, standing 5'9", I weighed 117 pounds.)

In retrospect, I find it odd that I didn't protest. I'd visit friends, and knew full well the first question parents typically asked their kids when we'd walk in: "Are you hungry?" That was just something my family didn't do, like game night or group singing or sharing feelings.

After I moved to California and started eating regularly, people started talking about the concept of "comfort food" - meatloaf, mashed potatoes, fried chicken, the food of childhood to which you retreat for reassurance in times of minor crisis. I used to think of the stuff I started eating in California as my comfort food - deep fried squid, cha siu bao, black bean burritos and so forth.

But I wonder lately whether I'm not hiding something, ignoring the New York exoskeleton I've been trying to molt for two decades. This raw, empty feeling; this gnawing void in my gut I find so compelling: it's just like Mom used to make.

Posted by Chris Clarke at August 11, 2004 01:23 PM TrackBack URL for this entry:

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An amazing post, Chris. Thank you.

But now I want the whole autobiography --

Posted by: dale at August 11, 2004 04:01 PM
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Oh, Chris.

I understand now about your 'grocery store moment.' There is something that sustained hunger does to the soul, or at least to one's body at a deep cellular level. It's hard to even articulate that sense of reassurance I find in the quantities available in supermarkets here, or the deep-rooted (and irrational) panic I feel when my own supplies run low. Thank you for the story, and, as with Dale, you've made me hungry for more.

Posted by: Siona at August 11, 2004 09:22 PM
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This is wonderful writing! It delivers such a compelling sense of you. As well as bringing to my mind my own childhood and all of it that related to hunger and longing. I love reading you!

Posted by: Anne at August 12, 2004 08:47 AM
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Once again, I am reminded of the fact that, even though two or more people can live together in one house for many years, their experiences during that time are quite different. In other words, "that's not how I remember it!!!" I don't remember bleu cheese, I remember Cheerios with no milk!!!
If I have those gnawing hunger pains, (I say "IF" because I make it a point to AVOID those feelings)I become hellbent on getting me some cereal WITH MILK. Hmmmm... I never really thought about it that way - do I experience a PSYCHOLOGICAL/EMOTIONAL fullness when I drink the last drop out of my cereal bowl???....

Posted by: Carrie at August 12, 2004 01:43 PM
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Heh. Whereas I can't stand cereal with milk after being deprived of it during those years. When Allison* was visiting, she was horrified to watch me pour granola into a bowl, moisten it with tap water, and start eating.

* niece.

Posted by: Chris Clarke at August 12, 2004 01:57 PM
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Oh gosh, I just read your post on a very full tummy, filled with meat loaf, mashed potatos, and some sickly brocolli.

And now I feel like such a pig.

(But you know what? I enjoyed them...both the meal and your post.)

Posted by: Robert at August 12, 2004 04:52 PM
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Is this where I tell you to go get some acidophilus culture in a bottle and knock back a shotglass of it three times a day? It helps _more_.

(I don't have a maternal bone in my body. But you knew that.)

Posted by: Ron at August 12, 2004 10:11 PM
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An amazing post, Chris. It's like something out of This American Life, only better, because it's written by someone I know. It also reminds me of my dad, who utterly loathes breakfast (except on road trips) and typically refuses to eat until noon or later.

Good luck with the amoxicillan -- I hate that stuff, for all the good that it does. (What Ron says about the acidophilous culture/caplets is a good point -- there's not really all that much in yogurt, tasty though it is.)

Posted by: Rana at August 13, 2004 09:22 AM
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sneaky timing there with this post. gee thanks.

Posted by: yourbrother at August 14, 2004 07:23 PM
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Chris: what an incredible story. Thanks for telling it. Like others, more please...

Is the amoxicillin for the catbite? I have a bottle of it on the counter here, a gift from one of my wildlife vet friends who thinks I should have treated the kittens' sniffles with it (I decided not to, as being incommensurately strong to their apparent ailment; sounds like I was right! I *am* feeding them yoghurt, though).

Posted by: Pica at August 15, 2004 06:56 AM
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Hey Chris! Mom was just sitting at my computer reading this and telling me that you all (Chris, Carrie, Craig) were trashing her for not feeding us. Not having read this, from the other room I called "Mom, I can't tell you how many times I ate Cheerios with water, because there was no milk. And I distinctly remember opening the refrigerator door and finding half a head of iceberg lettuce and a partial bottle of bleu cheese dressing, and NOTHING ELSE." How funny (sad)is that? Like Carrie, I too avoid being hungry. I eat almost constantly. Interesting how differently we have responded to our teenage years....

Posted by: Coral at August 16, 2004 06:05 PM
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But I never drank (or ate) the bleu cheese. Yuck.

Posted by: Coral at August 16, 2004 06:12 PM
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