In her memoir Wasted, detailing her struggle with anorexia, author Marya Hornbacher wrote that people obsessed with food often went one of two ways: they became chefs or gourmets; or, they developed eating disorders. Ever the over-achiever, by thirteen or so, I knew as I read this that I had one foot firmly planted in each camp.
For as long as I can remember, I have loved food, and really understood it. At events, I was most concerned with when exactly the meal would come out. Weaving in and out of my parent’s social lives, my friend’s houses, my family’s gatherings, I quickly understood how much meaning and personality could be expressed through food, and the ways that people enjoyed it. Looking through the lens of what each person put on the table, I developed an understanding of who they were- how I felt about them, how they reflected their own experiences, and how they participated in the world. Cracking lobsters with my father on the shores of Maine, I tasted his hard work and his love of a good project shared with every briny, cushiony bite. I tasted my grandmother’s journey through Europe, escaping Nazi-invaded Russia, through the roast chickens and borscht on her ancient, delicate china. Each bite, informed with the patina of her cast iron and enamel pans, felt like a history lesson of love and wealth in many different forms. And when I learned to cook at the age of nine, mostly with these two people, it felt like a natural extension of the way I had learned to love. I had absorbed the ways others showed it, and now I had this incredible way of offering back that richness to others. I began cooking elaborate meals, dreaming about new ways to prepare familiar ingredients, and began a long career in many areas of cooking and hospitality.
At the same time as this education was happening, I was feeling tormented by the development of my body, as it was living out its own story. I knew, however, that I couldn’t live a life without the joy that food brought me. In the naivete of youth, I felt I had hit a necessary balance in my life through binging and purging—I could take in all of the joy and abundance that food and cooking provided, and then, just as quickly, send it away. I would plan abundant feasts for my family while simultaneously planning my nightly binges. Fifteen years later, I see the err of my ways. In creating abundance for others, and neglecting what nurtured me, my love of food, and my own happiness, is stunted.
What my complicated relationship with food has taught me, is that the desire to care for and nourish others can often be born from some deficiency in caring for oneself. Like many foodies, a definitive moment in my cooking and restaurant career was finding Anthony Bourdain’s writing. He spoke with humor and passion, and, more than anything, spoke eloquently about the deep knowledge and inspiration that exists in every facet of the food world. From the roadside stand to the four-star restaurant (more often the former), Bourdain found limitless opportunity to find connection with others and share that passion and joy, boundlessly. Most importantly, he acknowledged his demons, and those of the world around him, but he also saw food, and the connections around it, as the ultimate equalizer. While much in his life brought him pain, as evidenced in his abrupt end, food and communion were solaces to him, and one that he leaves behind. The same connection and history that I tasted in my grandmother’s food was exactly what Bourdain aimed to find in every country, every doorway: finding that union and bringing it outward to share with others.
The death of Bourdain was shocking, and deeply saddening, but when I thought about my own relationship to life, and the fraught ways I try to wring as much joy as possible from it, some of it made more sense. Statistically, suicide rates are higher than ever, with almost every U.S state reporting an increase between 1996 and 2017 (Nutt, 2018). Within this time frame, it seems there are millions more ways to enjoy and embellish life. Each time we turn on our phones, there are countless examples of lives that look better lived than our own. Bourdain himself acknowledged that he was living the dream- traveling and tasting endlessly. What also accompanied him on his journey, however, was years of addiction and depression. The deaths of these two public figures serves as a reminder that those who encourage us to enjoy life, and live more beautifully, as Bourdain and Spade did, can often be hiding their struggle. An adorned life is not necessarily a happy one, but, as these two figures showed us, it is these little pockets of joy that often reveal bigger truths about the world.
My passionate struggle with food remains for the time being, as my greatest expression and a source of my hardest pain and work. Each day I carry it with me as I try to nourish myself and those around me. Some days, I struggle much more than others. On the day I woke up to the news of Anthony Bourdain’s passing, however, I tried to fight the heaviness. I walked to my local Asian market, moving through the dusty bottles, picking up a few new things, and sharing familiar, wordless smiles with the employees. I got home with my bounty and started moving with my ingredients. I thought of my grandmother as I dropped greens, hopeful and ever-bright, into her cast iron to char. When I swirled in the pungent, salty oyster sauce, I smelled the Maine nights where I hunched over cracked shells with my father. And when I finally laid the bowls of noodles out before myself and my boyfriend, I tried to offer thanks for all the people, time and places that had gone into this very moment. I took a bite and thought of how sweetly, heartbreakingly full life can be.