By Tulio Resende
All of us, whether we care to admit it or not, have a relationship with food.
It nourishes us, it keeps us alive. These relationships go so much deeper than sustenance, food evolves in tandem with our own development. It becomes four course meals, desserts, finger foods. It’s all around us.
We have our likes and our dislikes, our favorites and our list of foods we avoid religiously. At first, I laughed at the absurdity that I would have some kind of “relationship” with calories; after all, I am a practical person. The very idea of it brought only to mind extremes; eating disorders like anorexia or bulimia or even gluttony.
My Mother would tell me this story about when she was a young girl in a Catholic School in Brazil. In those days it was considered morally wrong and wasteful if you didn’t eat everything that was on your plate, so the Sisters made sure you did. They were stern women with a short list of kitchen ingredients. I imagined this colorless, bland medley of tasteless matter wriggling on a plate, my mother’s curious eyes studying it while a Nun watched scornfully. Maybe it was considered a sin to enjoy food; they had a motto: “no praise in life other than the one who deserved all praise.”
When I was little, come Christmas time, my paternal Grandmother would cook “for Santa”. She would leave a plate of rice, beans, homemade fries, skirt steak and veggies. Even now, I can conjure the smell of that woman’s cooking and it still makes my mouth water. I never believed in Santa Claus, so I was jealous that a plate of hot piping food would sit unattended until it got cold. I felt like the only rational person in the room, hell bent on proving he didn’t exist so I could show them just how crazy they all were to go through all that trouble—and food. Ironically, this is the same lesson the Sisters tried to instill in my Mother, the importance of not being wasteful, that excess is double wasted—first in the present moment, and then in hindsight, like that plate for Santa.
We were poor folk; my parents wanted to take my brother and I out of Brazil, so that specific memory also happened to be the very last time I would ever be in the same room as that plate of hearty-goodness. Strange how memories can be so finite; you never know when it’ll be your last time. One minute, it’s there in front of you, enveloping your senses, a product of generations and dedication and warm fuzzy feelings—and the next, the moment fades and it is now rather more like a secret, a thing never spoken out loud by the survivors but observed only in the memory.
Mother’s favorite phrase, “When you know hunger you’ll eat anything, even boiled rocks” is perhaps the best way I could describe her cooking. Thankfully, she never boiled any rocks; but some things sure tasted that way. I’d never have the heart to tell her that though, so I can understand how putting food off to the side for Santa might have felt justified; sometimes you want to keep that tiny smile on someone’s face, despite the lessons the Sisters taught. In 1994 we found ourselves in the States, and boy, did food taste different…I mean, Americans were out here eating Mac and Cheese and Big Macs, while I was used to homemade food built from scratch, the likes of which wouldn’t clog out your arteries by thirty.
Well, now I’m a year shy of thirty, looking back on a lifetime of food analyzing how all those experiences created a relationship through and around food.
In the United States, we had to make new traditions for Christmas; my family made plans with other Brazilian immigrants. We would get together and cook until the sun went down. It was a big event, there were plates and plates of rice, different styles of beans, pastas, salads, chickens and steaks…even seafood, although you could still never pay me to eat it. It’s been years since those days, and maybe because they were the last of my family’s attempts at tradition, that makes me feel cynical towards them.
Like the man who builds a city on a fault line; but how could we have known?
My Father died a few short years later. He was kind of like the rock of our community. When he got sick, things changed for a lot of people. By this time, my parents had divorced; it was a very public ordeal, made worse by my Mother’s inability to deal with her issues in a constructive, adult way. It quickly got ugly as my Mother played the victim with the executioner’s finger.
She would make fanatical accusations against my Father in public places and air our dirty laundry out for people to hear while my brother and I just wanted to sleep through one night without hearing her breaking his laptop or guitar.
There would be no more Christmas parties; I was left wondering, when did my family become the plate for Santa? The lie you pretend is working just to keep the tiny smile on naïve faces? I watched my parents attempt to work through it and not only fail, but then one of them died, leaving the other a sad echo of the girl who had her heart broken because she let some dusty old Nuns trick her into believing that it was better to try and fail spectacularly than to move on in a mature way.
Of course, nobody knew that about my Mom. I didn’t sympathize with her either. I had been on the receiving end of her public humiliations and wrathful bullying one too many times to even let my mind wander down that street at the time.
One rainy day in late Fall, just a year before my Father’s death, a storm caused a power surge and she kicked me out because somehow it was my fault. It wasn’t enough that I had all my books and clothes tossed out the second floor window, but as I was struggling to come to terms with my sexuality she screamed loud enough for the neighbors to hear that I was a “faggot”. When my dad came to get me, I wanted the memory of her standing alone in the rain watching half her family walk out on her to last a thousand years.
My Father’s friends would bring over different plates of food each night for months before he died. I guess they thought someone who had developed Astrocytoma and was living with his teenage son needed all the help he could get. I just saw it as a testament to his popularity, especially in contrast to my Mother’s community persona, the winter witch. I was sure no one was bringing her anything.
As horrible as her cooking was, there was one thing she was even better at than making food taste bad: alienating herself. Sometimes it seemed my Mother was desperately trying to earn the gold star in making enemies. She would cross people all day long, while my brother, who was living with her, got thinner and thinner and I got chubbier and chubbier.
Now, my brother was by no means malnourished; he always ate and got himself a job here and there before he left for the army. I, on the other hand had a mini-fridge in my room, and Dad and I would always eat dinner together, or stop to eat somewhere on the way back from night classes at the University. When I think about that time, a lot of my warm memories had their origins in a kitchen, or a restaurant. Across the steam of our soup or a hearty meal I’d see his smile; even though he was on death’s door step and I had no inkling how soon his time would come, I think of those days as the best of my life.
In retrospect, there was one sliver of truth in my Mother’s otherwise senseless paranoid accusations: that community didn’t give a fuck about her, my brother, or even me. They just loved my Dad. Nobody came by after he died; he became like Santa’s plate too, a sweet memory about an innocent lie.
After he was gone, I went back to live with my Mother, and it feels like the fridge has been bare ever since. I see her work hard to make ends meet and I respect that. I am not happy that her hard work in earning loneliness paid off, but what are we if not the product of our choices? As much as she has cut into me, and as vile as she can be, I know it’s because she is alone, and she’s hurting.
This duality between bare fridge and full fridge, parsimonious parent and magnanimous parent wasn’t as obvious to me while I was living it—it was a perennial fact, like winter and summer. Death and life. My father died a long time ago, but my mother, the Ice Queen, lives on. Regardless of the relationships, these archetypes reign over their kingdoms in my memories; the feast of my father’s love and attention and the famine of my mother’s fear and withholding.
But I am an adult now. No one is bringing me food from the community, no one is going to tell me I need to create a tradition…no one but my Mother. It makes me realize that like the food we eat, it’ll never be perfect all the time but I can tell she is trying. Maybe we both have learned from the casualties taken from this family that it’s wisest to move on—and also, maybe order take out?
My responsibility as an adult is to forge a new relationship with food, one that I define, rather than the one that was defined for me. I am aware now of things I wasn’t back then, of unspoken truths hiding under the plates on the tables—that my parents tried their best, and I cannot hold them responsible for not having been able to achieve everything they wanted. That the only expectations you should have are the ones you set for yourself.
This is my truth now, this is my relationship with food, and it is the relationship that I have with myself. It isn’t the shiny, warm memories and foods that celebrated more innocent times, a time when promises made to a child might as well have been facts; except they would never come to pass. My relationship with food is directing control over what goes into my body and when.
It is telling my Mother no thank you, I will not eat right now, despite her yelling for me to come to the dinner table while I am pouring over my Anatomy and Physiology text book, despite her sometimes saying I’m doing nothing with my life even though I have been in the military, and I am in school and working. It is me not eating chocolate until I puke, or choosing salads over steak.
I’d like to leave off on this note: that no matter what your relationship or tradition with food is, make sure that it’s not the only reason your family is brought together. It took me ten years of watching my family be broken before I attempted to pick up pieces and start again. In this life, we never know what will happen tomorrow, so even if the beans are undercooked, it sure beats eating them alone baked just right.
Preserve those memories and make sure to smile because the little ones are always watching. If you’re eating alone this year on Thanksgiving, remember, you don’t have to! Invite a friend over or make your own tradition to volunteer at a food kitchen and give back; you never know who you might meet or how you might brighten up somebody else’s day.
I say, spite the Nuns in your life; go ahead and leave a plate out for Santa.