We Should Feast.
Art by Katie Rejto
Content Warning: Disordered eating, complex relationship with food, and body image
The secret to a good salad is to finely chop mint, basil, or any herbs you can get your hands on to use as lettuce greens. Adding a bitter leaf such as radish or carrot greens can do wonders in an oily vinaigrette. Kale can be made edible by ribboning it and soaking it in lemon juice or another acid and giving it a good olive oil massage. Don’t skimp out on cheese. A mixture of hot and cold adds complexity. Try crisping some chickpeas as a crunchy garnish, or starching it up with some chilled pesto pasta. When in doubt, aim for more alliums and spices, not less. I’ve never known a guest to complain about a dish having too much flavor.
There was a long period in my life where sections of the above would deeply terrify me. “Massage in some olive oil.” How much? A tablespoon of olive oil is 119 calories. That’s 10 minutes on the treadmill. “Don’t skimp out on cheese.” But cheese makes me so bloated. Maybe I can swap it with some tahini. “Starching it up.” Absolutely not. I have a performance tomorrow.
These are the woes of a person I only half-recognize now, like a face in an overexposed Polaroid or a murmur in the background of an old home video. Of course, sometimes she creeps back up behind me to adjust the fall of a new dress, jut out her chin in the mirror with a dash of angst and dismissal, or pinch and prod at the pores on my chin and nose and thicken the hand of cream contour that hollows my full cheeks. She still sleeps at the foot of my bed, sometimes to suggest I stay in my oversized sleep shirt on the days I feel least myself. She follows me into the bathroom and won’t leave me alone for hours at a time, when the work begins to pile up and I see my friends and family less.
I used to love how good I was at scarcity. I was so skilled at refusal; I would reward myself for being good at saying no by saying no even more often.
In my last year of boarding high school, I got really into going to the gym. I carefully crafted a very specific workout routine that coupled perfectly with three playlists, comprised of songs for which the beat and tempo corresponded with a deliberately selected rep in my abs routine or with oscillating high intensity intervals on the treadmill. The gym had a row of treadmills facing the grand bay windows, and I would run until all the air had evacuated my body, leaving me hollow. I’d watch from behind the glass as my friends went on evening walks, slowly skateboarded to and fro, laughed and joked and did homework. I’d grimly gloat to myself about how I would never be so childish as to indulge in a moment of rest. One time in a theater class, one of my teachers said in front of all of my peers that my performance work was not worth his time. I walked out of class and straight to the gym, where I ran for two hours straight. I had never felt more powerful and more empty. The only person I could count on was myself, and I was slowly letting that person atrophy.
It was fine because everyone was doing it. My friend Jamie had developed a diet of exclusively pineapples chunks, cinnamon, and cottage cheese; my friend Lisa joked about my new celery fixation because Jamie’s boyfriend had told me it was negative calories; we all got really into making these low-calorie tofu and rice bowls on the cafeteria hot plate that semester. I made imitation cookie dough out of peanut butter, greek yogurt, and sugar-free chocolate chips, a recipe I had seen on Instagram, and lied through my teeth about how great it tasted.
After a high school career spent getting better and better at feeling bad, I arrived at college and was assigned to live in a single. Everyone congratulated me and told me how jealous they were, while I mourned the loss of a built-in lunch buddy. It was exhausting to text a new person you met six days ago every time you needed to go to the dining hall, so you didn’t have to sit alone. I decided I’d rather just sit and watch Bojack Horseman in the dark under my weighted blanket. I wished for something to rescue me from the loneliness and figured I could kill the feeling by giving it less of a body to feed on. I shrank into myself. I sent mirror selfies in crop tops I’d never worn in high school to my old friends because I was too self-conscious; they’d send back “omg, you look so good!” I was disappearing in front of them and it was a major slay.
Every once in a while, I worry that I wished a little too hard for a lifeline out of that Carmichael single, because right when I was getting to the point of seeing sparkling silver fish flash across my vision every time I stood up, school was evacuated and the world transformed around me. Two months of a projected pandemic homestay turned into over a year of dinners with my dad, and only my dad. My dad and I decided to make the most of New Hampshire’s stunning summer and abundant outdoor dining, and sought out the best (and most pandemic-safe) lobster rolls in New England. On weeknights, he churned out recipe after recipe, putting a hot and delicious meal in front of me every night when I logged off from my remote jobs at various political nonprofits like I was the Queen of England. I started to remember how good it felt to chew, how lovely garlic and onions smelled, and how much I enjoyed the oscillation between flaming hot sauce and the soothing starch of bread and potatoes. I filled my plate with pasta and homemade red sauce and our quiet and isolated home with chatter. I was making up for lost time, for a childhood I stole from myself by focusing on the singular goal of slimness. In hindsight, I think my father was also making up for missing out on my descent into self-induced starvation, a tactic of control I learned from my mother.
When it was finally time to come back to Somerville, I found a house with robin’s egg walls, big windows that caught the mid-afternoon light, and an unusually large kitchen. I love my dad and his cooking, but I longed to try my own hand. I also had a lot of friends to catch up with after a year of separation, so I invited everyone to my oversized kitchen table. I demanded everyone’s presence on Friday and Saturday nights and planned elaborate meals that began with decadent cheese boards and experimental cocktails and rounded out with hearty stews and spicy stir-fried noodles. Of course, I also demanded feedback. I learned to replace the satisfaction of being the best at starving with the smugness of being the best at feeding others. I knew my food tasted good, but what I wanted more than to be a good cook was to be a good caretaker. I wanted my friends to be able to count on me to care for them. For the first time in my life, I wanted to be solid, full, and stable. Feeding my friends became my form of community care, and through my desire to help others feel full, I filled my own plate.
Lately, I’ve been trying to choose a mindset of abundance. It’s not easy. I find ways to cheat myself regularly. I have to pause when I find a new recipe to fixate on—do I love the way it tastes, or do I love the way the TikTok influencer who taught it to me pitched it calorically? Do I want to bike to work because the weather is lovely or because I feel like I haven’t met my goal? Can I peel my eyes away from my Apple Watch step count? Do I really feel the health benefits of drinking psyllium husk powder? And I do enjoy simple vegetative recipes, and I do feel better when I get some movement in my day, and perhaps I don’t enjoy the taste of psyllium but I certainly feel the effects of a plentiful fiber intake. It really is a constant balancing act—like crafting a perfect meal.
I had to stop waiting for the day to finally come when I liked my body and instead choose every day to love my life enough to fill it with community, memories, and delicious food. My friend Celia texted me last month asking for my perfect summer salad recipe, a meal I shared with her in July that she referred to as “life-changing.” There’s a few more steps I forgot to mention—sundried tomatoes can bring dressing to life and pickled veggies add a tangy twist. But the real secret to a good salad is someone to share it with.