“And I urge you to please notice when you are happy, and exclaim or murmur or think at some point, ‘If this isn’t nice, I don’t know what is.” Kurt Vonnegut
In my single decade of life I’d never had a plate of rice so spicy and bright — the yellow grains, red and green peppers, black flakes of ground pepper, a rogue dusting of paprika. It was a bed for the red snapper my grandpa caught on a fluke (no pun intended) while fishing a school of bland porgies. The fish’s pink and silver skin still shone after it was baked — probably the first time I hadn’t eaten fish fried — and had to be peeled back, the sweet white meat a present, the same as the glass tupperware my grandma’s neighbor from Honduras brought it over in.
Then there was the venison stew my dad made in a big pot, that we ate for two meals a day, for three days after, and it hadn’t been better than on that second day, served with egg noodles and broken ShopRite “French” bread to wipe the remnant sauce from the bottom of our bowls. After two days, the seasoning had finally seeped into the beef overpowering it’s gaminess, and it became tender, if stringy, to the touch.
Perhaps I considered these meals better than the rest because I’d looked in the eyes of both animals to preceding their bodily sacrifice. Ugh, that buck, especially. I’d seen him dead dead, bleeding out on the forest floor before my dad sliced him open to cut out the insides and present a clean sacrifice like he was Abraham at the altar after the Lord spared Isaac. God looked down on the good work that had been done and said: Let my child eat!
I thought I would never eat again driving home after dropping our sacrifice off at the butcher’s shop (really just a little house for the owner and behind it a hollowed-out wooden barn reeking with the piercing smell of blood and raw muscles and souring flesh) our dead deer — amongst others — was hung inside out, it turned my stomach inside out, the butcher’s demon dog a man-beast possessed, foamed at the mouth, barked ferociously, Fuck you, Little bitch, I’ll eat you alive!
Beef or fish. Those were the two dinner options presented for the attendees and the choice was to be made weeks in advance. I had liked both, historically, so was apathetic between the two, not having a stomach for either. By time this is all over, I thought, I will have cured myself. I shunned the low-carb fish option: Beef, I decided, ruefully optimistic.
When I made my lunch, I would count the chicken nuggets obsessively. In theory, six (6) was the magic number — seven (7) or eight (8) were too many, five (5) was not enough, four (4) was too few that, if noticed, would raise suspicion, get people asking questions… Are you eating enough?
In practice, I usually did hit the six (6) mark but with some variation — more if I happened to be absolutely starving that morning (7) or had a soccer game the following afternoon (8), less if I was feeling fat the prior evening (4). By the time I realized the strength of my obsession’s stronghold, it was already too late…it’s poison had already leeched its way into my self-esteem, my body perception, my will to eat…
I don’t remember at what point it transformed into this. Maybe when the prom stopped being a simple dinner-dance, and became proxy for desirability and self-worth. Perhaps it was around the time we started reading The Scarlet Letter and everyday analyzed Rev. Dimmesdale’s corrosive guilt and the physical symptoms of the scarlet “A” he hid branded on his chest. The guilt that fueled the self-flagellation in his late-night vigils, the debilitating fasts he thought would restore his “sanctity,” the troubling fact that the admiration of his congregation only grew stronger when he admits that he, too, was a sinner that needed to be punished before he could be saved.
I was afraid to give name to the scarlet “A”s of my own. If I embraced my new habit, gave it intention, no one could say anything at all. As we got closer to prom, my obsession got worse. I tried on my dress, a size 0, nearly every day after I bought it. Each time I put it on, I’d sigh in relief. Ah, that’s right, I’m dieting. I need to be skinny to fit into my dress, I convinced myself. I started sharing this mission to other people in an effort to make my rationalization real. I can’t not fit in my dress…it’s a zero, I said, watching the weight melt off.
In the best prom pictures, my dress is stunning, as am I in it. Although I was vehemently against white dresses, I ended up finding a dress with a white silk base, a mermaid hemline bolstered by tulle, the bodice dripping with silver sequins like someone had poured the molten metal from the top of my head and it followed a route directed by the remaining curves of my body. In the best pictures, it captures the light misleadingly perfectly, and in my ridiculous SIX-inch heels I look tall and slim, even full-figured in some. In the worst, it hangs loosely off my skeletal frame of, at the time, barely 110 pounds.
At the dinner, I enviously watched my friends and their dates thoughtlessly eat their food. In the moment, I couldn’t remember the last time I had enjoyed liberally eating without obligation or shame. I still remember my plate in front of me: the tenderloin cut of steak covered in the creamy gravy that poured over a mountain of buttery, chunky mashed potatoes sprinkled with green chives, it all corralled by a small pile of mixed vegetables. I get hungry just thinking of it. That night I desired it just as strongly as looking at it disgusted me. I pushed it all around my plate, carefully rearranged it so it looked as if I had more than two or three bites, then slide my plate over to my date and told him to eat whatever he wants off it while I went to the bathroom.
Outside the bathroom stalls, there is a room made of all mirrors, and that’s where I stand to, again, look at myself. At the right angle, perfect, the wrong, my collar bone sticks out so much that looking at it makes me sick enough to throw up, had I eaten something to vomit.
Bahian cuisine was like nothing I had ever tasted. It was this explosive blend of African cooking traditions, Portuguese sweets and desserts, the ancestral cooking and agricultural techniques of the indigenous people, Amazonas. The Portuguese pastéis de nata are sold in bakeries, but are just as good when bought from a woman carrying a styrofoam cooler on the beach. The aggressively spicy pepper, paprika, chili powder, cumin, turmeric, ginger infused in African slaves’ cooking were softened for the Portuguese palette, then infused with coconut oil and Amazonian palm oil, this blend the foundation of the milhoes de moqueca, arroz de huaca, frigideira de maturi. All locally-adorned versions of the heavily spiced, thick, West African stew. Asking for abacaxi, carimã, or aipim (mandioca), Tupí, Karíb, and Tupari were forced off our tongues. There was no choice but to try it all. There was so much to be loved about Bahian food beyond eating it.
In my two decades of life, I had never consistently eaten so much or so well. On one day, I’m having a moqueca de peixe for one. I never drink Coca Cola but for some reason, the moquecas, the carne de sol, escondidinho all demand it. I’m eating thinking I could drown in a pool of this orange stew, creamy and thick, dressing the perfectly-textured yellow rice, served in adobe clay pots so smooth and new they might have been cooked shortly before the meal in the same oven, just turned up 600 degrees. I like the sound of my fork scratching the pots’ bottom, it’s the first time here metal against stone doesn’t sound like work. The farinha flour I sprinkle over the pirão is so fine it must have been ground for two hours between two two-ton stones, by two mules, walking round and round in the hot, northern sun. The heat is different here, I eat different here.
It is strictly hedonism that fuels my personal mission to polish off the two fillets and one back-cut of the white hake, suck its bones clean, drink the stew from the bowl’s rim, wash it down with, of course, Coca Cola that, here, tastes electric with gas and on ice, like before it was served in my glass, the Pope lifted it before God with the Eucharist and…
Is this what liking food feels like?