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On Food Writing

presented at the Vermillion Literary Project’s September LiTrash reading

“When you wake up in the morning, Pooh,” said Piglet at last, “what’s the first thing you say to yourself?”

“What’s for breakfast?” said Pooh. “What do you say, Piglet?”

“I say, I wonder what’s going to happen exciting today,” said Piglet.

Pooh nodded thoughtfully. “It’s the same thing,” he said.

What do I mean when I say this reading is themed around “Food Writing”? Outside of the description included in our advertisements, when I talk about food writing, I am usually talking about the sensual experience of eating written down. But food writing, like food studies, encompasses much more than just the act of eating. Food unites us. It is no coincidence that in Christian religious movements, to eat the body of Christ (however symbolically or literally your denomination takes that) is called communion. When we gather to share a meal, we are a community at that table. Food also divides us. There are socioeconomic stigmas attached to what one eats, and how often. I look to Gwendolyn Brooks’ poem “The Bean Eaters.” The first time I was taught this poem, my professor said that the “old yellow pair” on whom the poem’s speaker focuses “eat beans mostly” because they are poor.

In the summer of 2016, I worked at a military academy in Virginia, and one of my cadets was an international student from China. She came to me after dinner one evening, her right hand closed tight around something very small. She slowly opened her hand to reveal that it was one of her back teeth. She said, “I was eating a Starburst and my tooth just came out.” I asked her if I could look at her mouth, where the tooth had been. It was a clean hole. No blood. No parts of tooth still stuck in the gum. Her tooth had just…rotted out. When I told my father later that night, he nodded slowly and said, “She’s probably malnourished.”

We are what we eat, and we eat what we are. And it is assumed that if one eats poorly, then one is poor. And vice versa.

Women are also stigmatized, even ridiculed, for their relationships to food. In her first Netflix special, War Paint, comedienne Iliza Shlesinger says that women cannot eat the way they want to eat in front of men, and that it is only after a man is deeply in love with a woman that she is free to reveal “the twelve-foot man-eating lizard [she] really [is]” (53:13). All joking aside, every encounter a woman has with food in a public space is performative. Every bite is scrutinized. Every portion size is judged by strangers. If she is perceived to be eating too much, she is shamed for her gluttony. She is called fat, pig-like, and she is set in society’s mind as someone embarrassing or pitiful. However, if she is perceived to have eaten too little, or that she is too skinny, too fit, she is policed just as quickly and ordered to eat a burger, put meat on her bones. Food, in relation to women, is a means of bodily control.

Food nourishes us, of course, but food also complicates us. Lisa Heldke describes her experimentation with multicultural cuisine as “cultural food colonialism,” writing that her enthusiasm for trying ethnic recipes

bore an uncomfortable resemblance to the attitude of various nineteenth- and early twentieth-century European painters, anthropologists, and explorers who set out in search of ever “newer,” ever more “remote” cultures they could co-opt, borrow from freely and out of context, and use as the raw materials for their own efforts at creation and discovery. (328)

Upon deeper reflection about what might lie behind a seemingly-innocuous phrase like, “Let’s cook Thai,” Heldke became “seriously uncomfortable about…the tenacity with which [she collects] eating adventures—as one might collect ritual artifacts from another culture without thinking about the appropriateness of removing them from their cultural setting” (328). Think of it this way: how many recipes in the quintessentially American cookbook actually come from America? How much culinary art do we beg, borrow, and steal from other persons?

When creative writers enter the field of food studies, we tend to not only push the field further along, but we tend to problematize it as it develops. By bringing personal writing into the ring, there is a clash between what role those anthropologists, historians, etc. determine that food has in a certain culture, and voices from that culture taking to task their relationships to, encounters with, and memories of food. And that, I hope, is what tonight will do. We are here to read personal narratives, poetic narratives, creative narratives that will enhance our understanding of food’s role in our lives, in our culture…and perhaps even complicate it, too.

References

Brooks, Gwendolyn. “The Bean Eaters.” The Poetry Foundation, 2017, https://www.poetryfoundation.org/poetrymagazine/poems/28110/the-bean-eaters

Heldke, Lisa. “Let’s Cook Thai: Recipes for Colonialism.” Food and Culture: A Reader. Edited by Carole Counihan and Penny Van Esterik. Routledge, 2008. pp. 327-341.

Shlesinger, Iliza. War Paint. Directed by Jay Chapman. 2013. Netflix, https://www.netflix.com/watch/70278877?trackId=13752289&tctx=0%2C0%2Ca3a00f98bcd4d67c12d52da76e6ae9d93474f9ee%3A296316019eda2afee7c3908aaa56b0dd5d2bae2b

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On Turning 23

I’ve come to enjoy the knowledge that I am still young. That I have so much time. But I am, on occasion, painfully aware of how quickly a single day goes by. 

Today was my 23rd birthday, and it felt over as soon as it began.

This is not to say that it is not special to age. I have now seen more birthdays than I once thought I would, and though birthdays become less of an elaborate, celebratory occasion as one gets older, I see each new year of my life as a tremendous gift.

I’ve begun to think harder about how I want to use this gift. “Something in the world forces [me] to think,” but I sense something else, quite a different thing, forces me to act.

This fall, I started teaching on my own for the first time. I’ve won an award for my playwriting. I’m working on creative submissions for several out-of-state conferences. At the end of this month, I’m set to host the first reading in the Vermillion Literary Project’s LiTrash series. I’ve always loved academia, but now I feel that academia loves me back.

How fortunate am I that my passion and my talent happen to be the same thing.

But I want to do more.

John Patrick Shanley writes: “I’m looking for love. But if I can’t get love, I can get pizza. In short: I can get a lot, and still hope for more.”

It is my sense that this year will be about that kind of hope. Recognizing that, yes, I’ve gotten quite a lot already. But I can still hope for, pursue, and get more.

And I do want more.

More time, more art, more love. (More pizza.)

I rise with the sun and hope that will make each day seem longer. I leave my cubicle and walk over to the English Department offices and hope that I will see someone I know, and have a chance to tell them how much I value our relationship. I select readings for my students and hope that they will be moved. (They sometimes aren’t.) I slowly expand my thesis project and hope that it will find the middle ground between what I’ve told people it will be and what it actually wants to be. I read complicated texts and hope that they will challenge me to grow. (They do.)

I am moved. I am frequently, pleasantly unsettled. Stubborn me, I am moved every day, especially by the patience, generosity, and supportiveness of my peers, my colleagues.

I am moved to more.

That, I believe, is the value of aging: being moved to hope for more.

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IT: a moment

I went to see IT (round three!) with my friend Dillon this evening. Some Guy in front of us had been making little comments throughout the movie. A few times, he looked over his shoulder and sent some of these comments in my direction. Annoying, sure, but mostly harmless. Until the last scene.

Bill kisses Beverly. Guy says “aww.” Most in the audience do. Then, Beverly kisses Bill. Guy turns to all his buddies, some are in our row, and he says, “What a fucking slut! Fucking whore!” We make eye contact. I snap: “Hey, shut the fuck up, asshole.”

And then I have a moment in which I am more afraid of what this guy will say or do than I am of anything that happened during the movie.

The few seconds it took us all to process the exchange had stretched long. I watch Guy’s face. He seems more surprised than anything else. Time rushes forward again and Guy’s buddies start smacking his arms and saying, “Yeah, shut up, asshole!” I see a girl in their group clap her hands. Dillon says something like, “You tell him.”

The movie ends. Dillon and I are two of the first people out of the theater. As we leave, I say, “I can’t believe it took me so long to tell that guy to shut the fuck up.”

But I do believe it. And I know why I waited, and why I was so afraid. Because the unpredictability of how that man would react was something real that could hurt me. And there is no screeching crescendo in my life’s soundtrack to warn me that danger is coming. There is no red balloon that precedes the potential violence of a man’s reaction to a woman telling him to shut the fuck up. In front of his friends. In public.

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On Waiting

Waiting is an enchantment: I have received orders not to move.

Roland Barthes, A Lover’s Discourse (38).

Of late I dream of finality. Closing doors. Shuttered windows. Latched fence-gates. Ends of conversations.

I wonder: with how many people have I already had my last conversation?

I dream in this way because I have tired of waiting. Waiting, as Barthes writes, is an enchantment. An order not to move. I also think of waiting as a passionate exercise. Waiting is like doubting. To be certain is to shut the door. To doubt is to leave it indeterminately open. It requires daily effort and attention, it requires your commitment. Commitment. Now there’s a funny word. In waiting, one commits to a noncommittal. To an indefatigable uncertainty.

I dream in this way because I waited for a person for almost three years. I waited because our many near-misses strung me along with an unspoken promise that one day we might catch one another. When we finally were in the same place and the same time, I realized that he was telling me (without explicitly telling me) the exact same reasons for not wanting to be with me that he said in 2014. Back then, it sounded mature. On the recent evening in question, though, it sounded like a recitation. A script. A prefabricated request that I continue to wait.

But I cannot wait. I will not.

It is easy to believe that our problem was timing. But timing is for figure skaters and standup comics. You either want to be with someone, or you don’t. I wanted to be with him, to make a go of it, to at least try. But he did not want that. He did not want me.

And that’s okay.

I dream of finality because its arrival here was strange. I expected finality to come from him, for him to be the one to close the door, to end the conversation. For whatever reason, he could not do it. He would not do it. It had to be me. And I am trying now to recover from that.

To be the one who ends the passionate exercise of waiting is to be the one who must navigate a now-empty room. I shut the door on the room I made in my life for him, a room which he never intended to occupy. And now I have this empty space. How does one move forward? With what might one fill this space? Should one even try to fill it? Or should one simply tear it back down?

To wait is to receive orders not to move. But I have finally given myself instruction to forward march on feet that have fallen asleep and on legs that cannot remember which muscles are used to go on.

How does one recover? How does one locate happiness again, how does one’s theory of happiness have to change to accommodate this uninhabited room? I dream in this way because in shutting the door, in ending the conversation, in giving orders to move, I have freed myself from a prolonged enchantment. And I am uncertain what I want to do with my freedom first.

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On Promises

Neitzsche wrote in On the Genealogy of Morals that to make a promise is to make a prediction regarding one’s own future. To make a promise to someone else, if we follow that idea from Nietzsche, is to make a prediction regarding the couple’s entangled future. When that promise is broken, not only is it a betrayal of the trust it founded, but it also nullifies that future. It prevents it from ever coming to fruition.

I believe this is why breakups hurt the way they do. The person doing the leaving had promised something to the person being left. He promised her a future, and now he is taking that away after he made her wait for it. She planned for it, prepared for it, altered the course of her life for it. And when he recants, he undoes all of that hope. He takes her future away. How swiftly he can destroy a life she built but did not yet have the chance to live.

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Friendship, Favors, and Toxic Influence

The summer before my junior year of college, I was in therapy. Again. I was seeing this counselor for a number of reasons, and the help I received was incredible, but the thing I remember most is the only time she ever interrupted me. I’d been telling her about a person I knew from my freshman dorm, and I said, “I have this friend–well, he’s not really a friend–” She stopped me to ask: “If you two aren’t friends anymore, why do you still call him one? I was surprised because I’d never thought of my relationship to that person having ended, even though I never saw him anymore and we hadn’t spoken in two years at that point. I mean, I sometimes refer to complete strangers on Tumblr as my “friend,” so it’s safe to say my definition of the word is a bit warped.

I’m coming up on the one year “anniversary” of my leaving Virginia and moving to South Dakota. In this past year, I’ve thought a lot about what friendship actually means to me. Do I like this person, or do I just like things about them? Do I not really like them, but like that they care about me? Do I like how liking them makes me feel about my own emotional capacities (because sometimes I worry I’m slightly sociopathic)? The truth is, I am still working on it. But I’ve made a lot of progress, and I’m proud of that. I’ve become better at recognizing when a friendship sours, when an attachment withers. And I’ve become better about leaving.

I only have one friend from middle/high school. I think I actively stay in touch with, at most, four people from college. And now I’m making new friends in grad school, but I can tell that only a couple will last. How many of these people have I already had my last conversation with?

A turning point was reached today. I saw on Facebook that a person I was very close with in college was upset that she didn’t win a photo contest held by our alumni association. I wasn’t surprised by my complete lack of sympathy, because the first time I’d heard from her in over a year was when she messaged me to tell me (not ask me) to get people to vote for her photo. She only reached out because she wanted me to do something for her. And now, reading her post where she rails against the contest result (her cat photo had the most likes, but the alumni association specifically stated it was a contest for dog photos), I realized that if I still lived in Virginia, still had an active presence and entanglement in this person’s life, I would be upset, too. But I don’t. So I’m not. Honestly, I thought the whole thing was ridiculous. Maybe I just didn’t get why her participation was so important to begin with. Maybe I just don’t have the energy today.
Or maybe, just maybe, we aren’t friends anymore.

My brain immediately jumped to: “Well, I love M and I love her cat, so I should be irked, I guess.” I felt ashamed that I didn’t care about this person being upset, ashamed that I called my mom to vent about it and ended up laughing and saying, “It’s literally the stupidest thing.” Once the guilt of my initial reaction wore off, I realized something. I don’t love her. I may love the way I remember her, but she’s a totally different person now. I do not know her, and we are not friends. I suddenly felt relieved.

There are so many instances in popular culture that depict friendship as something that must last forever. Some of these depictions are ones that are dangerously codependent and frightfully unhealthy. Someone that is important to you today will not be important to you forever, and coming to terms with that is the most valuable emotional step a person can make. We hold on to toxic people who only reach out when it benefits them, who don’t really care about us, who actually may not even like us anymore but feel obligated to hold on to us too, because we are constantly told that for a friendship to be great and legitimate, it has to last. Be unbreakable. Be permanent and unchanging, even when the individuals change. This static perception of friendship is dangerous. Our attachments need room to be nuanced, to be fluid, and yes, even to be broken off.