My father tells me the man who first shaped tortellini sculpted his lover’s belly button into pasta dough. He stuffed her with cheese, folded her edges down, and created the meal I languish over daily, weekly. Tortellini becomes my password for everything: email, instant messenger, iTunes. When my father asks what I want for dinner, again, it is the only word on my tongue.
Every Wednesday, his court-approved night to feed me, I sing on the bus home from school. In my head I have written an opera to tortellini. I sing each syllable louder and louder, with more gusto, raising my arms and making my friends laugh. You are ridiculous, they say. It’s my favorite, I respond. In lieu of pasta dough, opera is the only appropriate reaction to love.
My mother misses the years I was our family chef. She has never loved cooking; now, her meals come preplanned, boxed up, shipped out weekly. Take away the guesswork and the surprise and you have something easy and tasteless. In another word: passionless.
I stuffed beef to impress our local priest. I baked brownies to convince my babysitting clients of my maternal instincts. I sautéed scallops to prove to my visiting father how I had taken after him, could still be his daughter thousands of miles away.
My mother does not remember, or has conveniently forgotten, how it all went to waste on my plate. I preferred to ingest her magazines, ripping out the recipes I thought would be most difficult, licking the paper to smooth it before being glued into my makeshift cookbook.
My therapist tells me I confuse food with love.
I deprive myself. Make a whole meal, take three bites, throw the rest out to prevent catastrophe. Cover it up with a napkin and pretend it doesn’t exist until it’s taken away. Choose the most complex recipe from the cookbook and devote hours in the kitchen for someone that’s never me. Eat three bowls of pasta and pesto and tomatoes and then nothing else for days. Drink a bottle of wine and pretend this is sustenance, true food. Stock the pantry with sunflower seeds because they are nothing but they expand in the body just enough to fill me.
A man created a whole form of pasta to show his love for the female body. Did he lament not being able to consume the original? If he could eat a woman whole would he have done it? Did he just want her to be easily digestible? Did he just want this one part of her in him? Is that love? Is that obsession? Is that hunger? Is there a difference?
To love myself, I had a ritual.
Home from school, I set up shop in our dining room—not the regular kitchen table, but the real dining table, reserved for luxury—with my crackers, my peanut butter, my chocolate, my knife. While my family savored the meals I painstakingly created each night, this one meal, my one meal of the day, was perfect in its simplicity. My mother watched me from the kitchen, a small machine, assembling what I allowed myself.
Take one Ritz cracker. Coat with enough peanut butter to balance the cracker with the creamy. Take the chocolate chips, preferably dark. Press a few down into the peanut butter, securing them. Eat in three bites even though you could consume it whole. Practice restraint. Repeat again and again and again and again.
A man cooks with me and my brain leaves my body. It’s visceral; it’s a dance; it’s a preview for everything else. I touch the small of his back to get to the fridge while he cracks an egg while I get the milk while he waits for me to pour while we hardly say anything until we are eating and congratulating ourselves.
A man makes me breakfast tacos at two in the morning to soak up all the wine that’s preventing me from standing. I yell for more potatoes. It’s too hard to lift my arms and hold the tortilla without its contents falling around me. He feeds me with hands so used to my throat and this is the only moment I am sure he loves me.
A man cooks with me while playing only music from the 1950’s and when I ask him to chop the vegetables so I can take over on the stove he is shocked. I am the better cook, though he is considering culinary school. More often than not I chop because it is easier and my submission is such a tried and true way to dote.
A man makes me grilled cheese and I want to cry but I can’t and I want him to love me but he can’t. My father taught me how to perfect bread and cheese and sometimes ranch dressing—trust me, try it. With everything else, I eat toast. Magazines tell me that removing the top slice of bread from a sandwich decreases the sin and so I allow myself only uncontained sandwiches. Except the grilled cheese, because it is comfort, and I crave. I take it from him and I eat it and I take it as a sign of something greater.
It’s just fucking grilled cheese.
For years, historians believed Eleanor Roosevelt was perhaps born without taste, as if maybe the pleasures of food completely escaped her. For the years she and her husband occupied the White House it became common knowledge: eat before you go to dinner. The dishes Eleanor requested—broiled kidneys on toast, creamed celery, all manner of sweetbreads—were eaten without joy by her guests or not eaten at all. Most importantly, Eleanor’s husband could never stomach his food. He complained, often, about the sweetbreads.
In her letters, Eleanor describes the food she consumed when she traveled. It is nothing like the meals at home. At home, her husband continues his affairs. At home, she continues to tell the chef, ignore my husband when he asks for something tastier. At home, she punishes both him and herself by taking away what once brought them comfort. At home, they both swallow their loss, their loveless marriage, their passionless contact, their tasteless food.
I was wrong before. The tortellini is shaped not as a show of love, but lust. Popular synonyms: to be consumed with desire for, crave, covet, ache for, burn for. More obsessive than love. More propelled by need. By what you’re deprived of. By what you can’t allow yourself to take.
There is a brand of specialty chocolate that contains a love poem in each bar. The packaging resembles a letter: the flavor is the address; they are covered in depictions of stamps; the wrapping is a color that invokes regality. They are almost three dollars each. I pick one up every time I see them at the grocery store. Sometimes I put it in the cart, walk around the store, return it before checking out. It feels like too much—a gift I can’t justify. I’ve obsessed over these chocolate bars for at least a decade now. I have never eaten one. At this point, I’m not sure I ever will.
With love, without love. With lust, without lust. I was disappointed by sex. I thought somehow you actually entered the other person, that if you held them close enough your bodies could absorb each other and it was magical—because this is what all girls believe to be true, isn’t it—when instead it’s all carnal. It’s stretching your mouth wide enough to fit a whole cartoon sandwich in for a single bite. It’s the way I sometimes catch myself enjoying my food without restraint, shoveling it in when there are other people in the room and all of a sudden I’m an animal and I’m screaming but I want to sew my mouth shut. I thought sex would be a simple devouring, controllable, a form of consumption I could trust. But it’s food all over.
Picture: a girl, age ten, wearing a thrift store wedding dress, holding the American flag. She is standing perfectly still. She is pretending to be a wax figure. She is pretending to be Eleanor Roosevelt.
Two nights before, she tried on the dress she was originally meant to wear: blue, velvet, shorter, sleeveless. She was trying to make the boy pretending to be a dead Civil War soldier love her. But the dress is too tight. Her mother can’t zip it, she blames the fries her daughter got from Wendy’s the night before, says she should have got the salad, why does she never get the salad, they have good salads, they’re good for you. The fries have made her too fat for the dress, apparently.
Picture: a girl, age ten, wearing a thrift store wedding dress, strands falling out of the braid her mother thrust into her hair, trying not to cry, trying not to move, forgetting the shape of her stomach without sucking in, thinking about food, thinking sometimes you give up food for love and she wants her mother, her father, the dead Civil War soldier to love her, thinking sometimes you give up food as a punishment and she wants to deserve the fries. Even more than that: she wants to wear the velvet dress.
I tell my therapist she’s wrong. I confuse food with everything. She tells me this is a learned compulsion. I tell her, of course it is. You can’t control who loves you, who wants you, the insecurity, the body. But I can close my mouth more.
I tell my therapist she’s missed the point. I confuse food and lust. I confuse love with lust. I confuse food and obsession. I confuse love with obsession. All are a kind of burning, craving, aching, desire. They consume me all the same.