FOOD AS EUCHARIST! THE SHARED MEAL AS THE HIGHEST FORM OF HUMAN CONNECTION!
In a series of loosely-related, loosely narrative essays, I tell my story—one of eight kids in a blue-collar family in which one overriding emotion was financial anxiety; twenty years of hard-core drinking; a move from Boston to L.A.; a marriage that bore fruit but didn’t last; the lawyering job I quit to embark on the perilous vocation of writing; my conversion to Catholicism; cancer; divorce; cross-country road trips; unrequited love. With food the connecting thread, I write of the discovery that the human condition is not a sickness to be healed but a paradox to be pondered, mystified by, patiently endured, and rejoiced over.
Through the essays runs the story of my love affair with food: foraged food, street food, my tendency to hoard food, dinner parties I’ve thrown, the shared meal as perhaps the highest form of human communion.
FAMISHED features several color plates of my Pasadena apartment, garden, and tchotchkes.
Plus, folks, there are recipes!
INA’S GRILLED GRUYÈRE, RED CABBAGE AND APPLE SANDWICH
JEFF DIETRICH’S BREAD PUDDING WITH WHISKEY SAUCE
CHEWY CHOCOLATE GINGERBREAD COOKIES
CHICKEN LEGS WITH KUMQUATS, GREEN OLIVES AND PRUNES
SLOW-ROASTED SHOULDER OF PORK
PASTA WITH GOAT CHEESE, RADICCHIO, KALE AND PINE NUTS
AND MUCH, MUCH MORE!
So come into my kitchen and pull up a chair.
Here’s how FAMISHED begins:
OUR HOLY HUNGER
“Oh! Those who don’t believe in the sun…are real infidels! The sun, light in the darkness, light that brightens nature and people, light that calls the dead from their graves. Those who have eyes to see will recognize that all light comes from the same sun.”
–Vincent van Gogh, Letters to Theo
I’ve always been drawn to books about people in mental institutions, prisons, death camps: Genie, the feral child who, after rescue, would line up fifteen glasses of water by her bed; Shin Dong-hyuk, the only known person to have been born in a North Korean starvation camp, escaped and survived; Marthe Robin, the French “holy anorexic,” who reputedly subsisted for decades on the Host alone (and no sleep).
I grew up on the coast of New Hampshire, one of eight kids. My father, a bricklayer, and my mother, a housewife, both came from want of various kinds. Dad’s version of their financial backstory ran, “We started out with twenty-five dollars and Mother’s sewing machine.” They were married by a Justice of the Peace (weddings cost). My father spoke, often, of a place called “the poorhouse.”
We had everything we needed—books, a piano, a love of nature—but emotionally and financially, a sense of scarcity reigned. Having as few needs, and taking up as little room, as possible seemed a sane psychic strategy to ward off the angst.
That worked—up to a point. Then, in my case, the angst segued into self-deprivation, neurotic guilt and co-dependence. Even today, against the threat of abandonment, I have no psychic cartilage, no cushion: just bone scraping against bone; flooding pain. I’ve never been able to bear wasting food. Even today, I have a tendency to hoard food.
That in my early forties I converted to Catholicism is no accident. A God who, out of love, took on our humanity, pitched his tent among us, and left us his very Body to eat and Blood to drink is my kind of God. “[Jesus] did not need anyone to testify about human nature. He himself understood it well” [John 2:25]. He understood our terrible hunger: for connection, for love, to know we’re not alone. He understood what we will do to each other when our hungers are unfulfilled.
We ate what was put in front of us in my house and we were grateful for it. We rarely went to the doctor as kids: that, too, has shaped me. I love food but I’m not fussy about it. Eat what you want and take a walk is my theory. I don’t own a pair of bathroom scales and weigh pretty much the same as I did in high school. Nonfat anything depresses me. I adore gluten. I’m almost never sick. At 65, I take no medications. I rarely, and don’t really know how to, cook meat—not because meat is bad for me or to make a political statement, but because for much of my life I haven’t been much able to afford meat.
On the other hand, when a friend sent me half a dozen Royal Riviera pears last Christmas, I was touched to the core. Another friend who owns her own home, several rental properties, a car, a pickup truck, a motorcycle and an advertising business happened to see the shipping charges on the Harry and David box and sniffed at “the extravagance.” She was confusing shrewd business practices with generosity of spirit, as Judas did before betraying Christ. She mentioned the people in “sub-Sahara Africa,” but what she really meant was: “You and your friends will never get ahead if you exchange such profligate gifts.” With all her possessions, she was poor, and she was blind. I gave five of the pears away–including one to her—and kept the sixth, nestled in grass-green tissue paper, gold foil, and a fluted white nest, to savor for myself.
For much of the writing of this book, I lived in the hipster L.A. neighborhood of Silver Lake. I’ve since moved to Pasadena, but wherever I lay my head at night, I am in the world, but not quite of it. My days are monk-like: prayer, writing, answering emails, cleaning my room, walking to Mass, pondering.
And always and forever, eating. Food: the sacrament in which we are made to partake three times a day! Hunger: the incarnate reality and the inexhaustible metaphor. “We are conscious of the insufficiency and inadequacy of our explanations,” observed John Paul II. That hardly have we eaten before we’re hungry again is its own kind of insufficiency. Then again, how God must love us to want to be so ceaselessly and so often near!
The world tells us to tamp down our hungers—to become health-conscious, effective and neat. Christ says go for broke. Christ says make a fool of yourself, wear your heart on your sleeve, be a pest. Eat with your fingers, wipe your hands on your pants, let juice run down your chin. Climb up the sycamore tree and wave your arms. Throw yourself on the ground and give thanks. Set out on a long journey without knowing the destination.
Weep for the hungry, the war-torn, the poor. Order your life around them. Our hungers are our ticket to paradise. Our wounds make us more useful, more compassionate, and more complex than we could ever be sanitized and scarless.