The Daily

On Food

The Gift of Hunger

January 25, 2013 | by

The first time I cooked for him, it was the height of August. The meal was very simple: a salad; a pasta; some peaches I roasted and served with ice cream. Nothing special. And he seemed to like it okay. But the writing was on the wall: this was a man who ate to live, and not the other way round.

For some of us, this is unthinkable. I am always plotting my next meal, mulling over my last, calculating my degree of appetite. Those days when illness robs me of hunger are among my most hopeless. I remember food scenes in movies and books better than others. The city is mentally mapped by cookies and hamburgers; noodle stands are my landmarks; a trip is an opportunity to eat new things, and work up an appetite, and try more.

Iris Murdoch, one of the few serious writers to unabashedly march on her stomach, was right on the money when she wrote the following:

Of course reading and thinking are important but, my God, food is important too. How fortunate we are to be food-consuming animals. Every meal should be a treat and one ought to bless every day which brings with it a good digestion and the precious gift of hunger.

My brother once depressed me unutterably by declaring that if he could take a pill and never have to eat, he would. I pitied him his joyless existence, although in fairness he seems jolly enough. My father, too, is indifferent to pleasures of the table; left to his own devices, he subsists entirely on Chef Boyardee, smoked oysters, and (judging from the empty containers arrayed on the counter) the occasional jar of baby food.

The above-mentioned gentleman, who would come to play a big role in my life, is not, at least, one of those dreary “food-is-fuel” types. He’s game to try most things. He’s nice about my cooking. He likes a good fish taco as much as the next guy. But he doesn’t really care.

This is, of course, a small thing, really. The literature of food is filled with long-suffering gourmets and the men who love them, from Ruth Reichl’s Reluctant Gourmet (detailed in Comfort Me with Apples) to Amanda Hesser and Mr. Latte (Cooking for Mr. Latte) to Julie Powell and her husband (Julie and Julia) to Tamasin Day-Lewis and beau in Where Shall We Go for Dinner? When a couple is otherwise compatible and happy, what are a few meals between them?

And yet. A part of me has always fetishized those relationships in which a couple was joined in their pursuit of all things sybaritic. I fantasized about finding someone who would be the Michael to my Jane Stern, so we could, like them, devote our lives to tracking down blue-ribbon pies and oyster shacks. (I cried when I learned that they were divorcing.) I pored over those parts of Julia Child’s memoirs devoted to her relationship with the supportive gourmet, Paul. I swooned over cookbook editor Judith Jones’s tales in The Tenth Muse of cranking out boudin with her husband, Evan, and traveling the French countryside in search of authentic regional cuisine.

People have occasionally asked me why an old boyfriend and I stayed together past the point of all logic. There are, of course, many complex reasons, but I don’t think appetite is incidental. He was my partner in barbecue. And Grandma slices. And apple pie. And, yes, brussels sprouts. (The most heartfelt declaration of love I can remember occurred in 2004 when I set before him a plate containing a miniature meat loaf and a twice-baked potato.) Even at the worst point of our breakup we came together to share ribs he had brought me from Leon’s, in Chicago, and homemade spaghetti from Mrs. Robino’s, in Wilmington. Not sharing them was unthinkable.

There is no romance there now. And of course there is occasional strife. But there is also a remembered thrill when we make plans, and start shooting e-mails back and forth about just where we will eat, or what I will cook, and then when I get to experience the pleasure of cooking for someone who really appreciates it. People wax eloquent about food as love, food as community, food as sociology. Conversely, we hear about food as an avoidance mechanism, or a crutch. But sometimes a crutch helps you walk when you wouldn’t otherwise be able to.

The other evening, bitter cold, I decided on the spur of the moment to attend one of the Robert Burns dinners taking place around the city. Would anyone want to join me? I hesitated for only a moment before calling my old boyfriend; there have been times when we have both been prickly and we know how to set the other off. But when we were seated in the restaurant, and they bore in the haggis to the strains of a bagpipe, and read Burns’s “Address to a Haggis,” and it was all bizarre and savory and perfect, there was no one else with whom, in that moment, I wanted to be.

17 COMMENTS

Next:

‹ Previous:

15 Comments

  1. Edwina Wright | January 25, 2013 at 4:15 pm

    What a beautifully written, gorgeous story. A salute to your courage for staying true to yourself.

  2. Sadie Stein | January 25, 2013 at 4:22 pm

    Thank you, Edwina! That makes my day!

  3. TM | January 25, 2013 at 4:36 pm

    Many Africans need to learn more about the gift of hunger, I reckon. Let’s hope they find a way to read this blog.

  4. Lily Burana | January 25, 2013 at 4:36 pm

    Firing on all thrusters, per usual, my dear. I could taste every word. Sadie Stein 4Ever.

  5. Mary Lee | January 25, 2013 at 4:36 pm

    I loved this. The next time Mark and I are driving down Route 1 from Philadelphia to Washington, looking keenly for a new diner or BBQ joint, I’ll be thinking of you and this wonderful piece! I can’t believe the Sterns divorced!!

  6. brian cullman | January 25, 2013 at 4:43 pm

    Lovely piece. Hunger, they say, is the very best sauce!

  7. PaulR | January 25, 2013 at 8:43 pm

    Never understood people who take no joy in food. I stopped taking a particular friend out to dinner after watching him shrug at my suggestions, and asking for ketchup with almost every dish. I felt like I was watching the messy birth of some grotesque, alien life form.

  8. kidist | January 26, 2013 at 1:44 am

    Wonderful story Sadie, Carl and I liked it a lot. And I miss that kind of food. See you soon I hope!

  9. Tiffany | January 27, 2013 at 10:35 pm

    Yesterday, over a deliciously satisfying helping of curry and garlic naan, I contemplated this very same topic (while eating on my own, of course).

    I was taken back to my ex boyfriend who, despite our incompatibility in many areas, I could always share my love of food with. He was the first person who explained to me that eating is an experience: an experience to done slowly, enjoying each bite, and stopping occasionally to take in that experience fully. We had many nights where we would spend the little money we did have on our favorite meals. Some couples go out to movies, but we would just go out to dinner, making it an experience that nothing could top. He would sit across from me, eyes genuinely watching, enjoying, as I took the first few bites. Then, with gentle excitement, he would begin eating as well.

    We would sometimes stop, put our forks down, take each other’s hand, and absorb each other’s smile and warmth. At that moment, we exchanged an mutual love and enjoyment of our meal together. THAT is something that may sound crazy to some people, but is one of my fondest memories of that relationship.

    I sometimes wonder, as I did over my curry, if I am capable of making a future relationship work with someone who does not share my love and respect for food. Could I possibly be happy with someone who refuses to spend money on a good meal, or someone who shovels in food as if it’s merely a necessity rather than an experience? I don’t know the answer to that as of now, but what I do know is that I’m happy sitting alone at a table enjoying each and every bite.

  10. shweta | January 28, 2013 at 2:32 am

    i can relate to this article. Infact i can relate to anything which is related to food.

    Reminded me of my ex-boyfriend, where we stuck in a relationship and compatible when it came only to food. The rice pudding laced with cardomom flavor and cashewnuts every monday , the biryani he made for me & a bit of an intimate session while watching a Nigella lawson program, where i remember the recipe but i dont remember what he was doing.

    Great article. Rekindled old memories and makes me want to rush to the kitchen and cook something warm and spicy.

  11. Irene | January 28, 2013 at 8:15 am

    Wonderful. In The Gastronomical Me, MFK Fisher is in a restaurant with her uncle and his intimidating son. When he asks what she’ll have, she’s flustered and says, “Oh, anything.” At which (I’m sure I remember this) he gives her “a cold and somewhat disgusted look” and she realizes she’s been gauche and ungrateful. I’m not saying it as well as she did, of course.

  12. DW | January 28, 2013 at 9:12 pm

    One of my girlfriend’s mom was an extraordinary cook. She had a fondness for new food experiences. She could eat at a new restaurant and while savoring her dish, breakdown the ingredients of the meal. Thanks to her I mastered Tea Smoked Duck, Dobos Torte, Quiche Lorraine and Boeuf Bourguignon. She persuaded me to try my first ingestion of snails. The Importance of butter and garlic were etched on my mind forever. I actually remember our shared meals more than the sex I had with daughter, which was remarkable. I often wake thinking about the possibilities of the day’s meal. Ah, food…

  13. Vivian | January 29, 2013 at 7:03 pm

    This was the most beautiful writing I’ve read in a long, long time. Thank you! It struck me down to the core.

  14. Sadie Stein | January 30, 2013 at 10:36 am

    Thank you for the kind words – I feel that I am in wonderful company!

  15. Peggy | February 18, 2013 at 8:14 pm

    I loved this story – perfectly written!

2 Pingbacks

  1. […] A lovely essay about the real value of food. […]

  2. […] Stein is obsessed with food, a fascination which she documents in a lovely essay entitled The Gift of Hunger in the Paris Review. And it is not just food that is her quest but the activity of sharing food […]

Leave a Comment