The differing ways people look at food tell me a lot about who they are and sometimes how they grew up. Do they look at food as fuel, comfort, or something else? In my experience people who think of food only as fuel have probably never been in a state of want. Because of my personal experience, and having been in a state of want, I think of food in a much more complicated fashion and that’s not necessarily a good thing.
Safety – Comfort
When you are hungry – truly hungry – food takes on a whole different meaning. Have you ever looked in your fridge and saw empty shelves? Or gone into your pantry or cupboard and not find anything to eat? No one should ever have to experience that. I have. I have looked in the fridge and saw nothing but condiments and I’ve looked in the cupboards and saw nothing to make an entire meal.
The first time it happens, there is a certain low-level panic that starts to bubble up in your throat and wants to come out as a scream, but you don’t let it. You shove it down inside as if it was edible. You chew on that panic until it all but consumes you. Then you move on. It becomes less panic inducing each time until it feels normal. But is it normal? What is normal? Normal is a setting on the dryer; it shouldn’t be a feeling of hunger or panic.
Even now, as an adult, in an upper middle-class bracket, I start to get a little edgy if I can see the shelves in my fridge. I KNOW where my next meal is coming from. We can afford groceries and I KNOW I don’t have to hoard food, but this little part in my core is still afraid of empty shelves. I feel safe when I have a lot of food in the house. Food is comfort for me. Not fuel, comfort. A full fridge means I am safe. It means I don’t have to panic. But I do. I joke, telling myself and others that I am prepared for the Zombie Apocalypse. But I am not kidding. Not really. I am ready. And I still panic a little. Every now and then.
Then I feel absurd and clean out the fridge, like I am doing this morning. Organizing everything. Checking dates on condiments and tossing stuff out that I simply “had to have” and yet let spoil or go to waste. Because a full fridge meant wealth. Stability. Safety. Comfort.
Wealth – Status
I have a confession to make. In a way, it’s embarrassing, in a way it’s prideful. I have three fridges. Yes, three. And an upright freezer. And they are all full. There is one just for drinks. The one in my kitchen is the primary and has the most food. The one in the garage is the “overflow” fridge. There are two legs of prosciutto, a bag of limes, and extra produce. Who the fuck has two legs of prosciutto?
Occasionally, I use the overflow fridge to cure bacon or fish before it goes on the smoker. Frequently I store pots of stock for a couple of days until I am ready to skim fat off and can it. The freezer is similarly full. One drawer each for chicken, beef, pork, and fish. And shelves with phyllo, puff pastry, wonton wrappers, the bowl for my ice cream maker, and leftovers that are waiting for mealtime. The leftovers don’t always get eaten. Sometimes they are forgotten and become freezer burnt and must be tossed out.
Obviously, having the space and the funds to fill that food storage space, is a luxury and I know it. It’s the definition of “an embarrassment of riches”. I am acutely aware that I have more than most. It is baldly transparent to me that I should be ashamed to have such abundance, but it makes me feel safe. It makes me feel like I have finally achieved some level of status, never mind the wealth. Because a full fridge meant wealth. Stability. Safety. Comfort.
Additionally, sadly, I use food as a reward, an excuse, and a celebration. For myself and for my son when he was growing up.
- “Get an A in Math and we’ll go for ice cream.”
- “If you behave in the store, you can have a candy bar.”
- “Wow! You did a great job on that project kiddo. Let’s have a celebration dinner. Where do you want to go?”
- “I got the job! Let’s go out to eat.”
- “It’s too hot to cook, let’s go out to eat.”
- Or the most ironic one… “I lost 10 pounds! I’m going to get some fried chicken!”
You will notice that all the above involve going somewhere to eat. Not using the abundance of my fridge, freezer, and pantry. Because having the income to celebrate meant we didn’t have to do it at home.
The Offspring and I had “The See’s Ritual” when we went to the mall. At See’s Candy Store, you can go in any time of day, and they will give you a free sample of their choosing. When we went to the mall, if he behaved, we would go to See’s. He would get a free piece of candy, and because I felt guilty for walking in just for free candy, I would buy him a Scotch Mallow for later. How fucking toxic is that?
I rewarded good behavior with something unhealthy and celebrated it as a good thing! WTF?! C’mon, admit it. You’ve done the same thing. We all do. The one thing I have never done, is used meals as a punishment. “Behave or go to bed with no supper,” is cruel in my mind. To be fair, I have said, “This is not a restaurant. This is what’s for dinner. You can eat this or not. Your choice.”
Oh yes, and speaking of mealtimes, I am also a member of the “clean the plate club”. You know, “Eat everything on your plate. There are starving children in China!” I tried NOT to do that to my son. I have the rule that you must TRY everything on your plate, but you don’t have to finish it. It’s weird that I was able to exorcise THAT demon in a fashion, but still used food as a reward…
Comfort – Safety – Addiction
The reason certain foods are called “comfort food” is multi-faceted. You want to eat it because it makes you feel good, and you reach for comfort food when you are feeling low. Comfort foods recall memories of safety, happiness, family, and well…comfort. But when reaching for food becomes the norm and not the exception, and you are self-medicating with food to make yourself feel better, you have a problem. You may have an addiction. I know I do. More on that in the next installment.