the broken-heart diet
On Cooking When You're Too Enraged to Eat
We know this: that the act of cooking is both metaphysically and physically sustaining.
We know that food is metaphor for peace, for history, family, comfort, stability, instability, nurturing. At its most fundamental, it’s fuel. The entire process —- the shopping or harvesting, chopping, boiling, peeling, poaching —- can be meditational, or it can be utterly discombobulating. It can be focusing and calming, or it can be dangerous. Let your attention wander while you have a sharp knife in your hand, and you have a sharp knife in your hand. For me, the danger part is irrelevant, because when I am undone —- distracted, furious —- I have zero interest in food. Not cooking it; not eating it; not feeding it to anyone else.
I’ve completely lost my appetite over these recent weeks (apart from the mammoth handfuls of popcorn I’ve mindlessly jammed into my mouth while walking through the kitchen to get to the other side of the house, where my wife works). This is a thing with me: when I am upset, I don’t eat. When the bottom is pulled out from under me, I can’t, and don’t, and won’t sustain myself. When I’m so unmoored that I feel like I’m living on one of those amusement park rides that spins forward and forward and then backward and then tilts as centrifugal force plasters everyone to its insides while the floor literally drops out until the riders are physically ill: I don’t want to look at food. When my father dropped me off at college for the start of my freshman year at Boston University, I did the opposite of gain the Freshman 15: I lost so much weight during my first month at school that my jeans hung off me like a burlap sack. I hadn’t even noticed that I wasn’t eating until my dormitory neighbor and closest friend, concerned that I might be unwell when I stopped having the energy to get out of bed in the morning, dragged me to meals with her, three times a day.
Over the years, I have become well-acquainted with the acronym HALT. My hands shake when I’m HUNGRY or ANGRY or LONELY or TIRED. I try and identify HALT long before it happens, and although H is for HUNGRY, HALT hunger doesn’t actually hit me as hunger, per se, but as a sort of dizzying lightheadedness associated with anxiety, fear, fury, or the kind of quiet panic that is the precursor to fight/flight/freeze. It’s not a stomach-rumbling hungry, but an existential one, and if you give it a little push —- the merest nudge —- it lists over into full-bore self-loathing, and this is when I stop cooking and eating. Because, if I am as awful as I think I am, as everyone else tells me I am, as undeserving of the rights that are due me as a taxpaying citizen (of a modern democracy that my father and uncle fought against the Nazis for) are under siege, why bother to care for myself. I mean, really. What’s the point?
My paternal grandmother —- an elfin woman/badass Brooklyn cardshark to whom I was not particularly close after my mother helpfully turned her into a pariah (the story is in Poor Man’s Feast-the-book, and in Motherland) — used to call me when I wasn’t feeling well and say Can you take sustenance? It always struck me as an odd thing to ask —- it had such an antiquated feel to it.
Can you take sustenance? Can you accept that which will sustain you? Will you accept it when the world says you are undeserving?
So all these years later, when the bottom drops out and I’m shaking with rage, or fear, or withering sadness, or all of the above, I ask myself this question while in the throes of HALT and the self-loathing it engenders in me. Can I accept sustenance. And if I can, what will it be?
Assuming I have enough energy to cook at all, I learned the hard way: nothing fancy, nothing complicated, nothing acidic, nothing sweet. Essentially, I am describing what Elizabeth David would have called nursery food, and that’s fine. Diets can wait; clean eating is a wonderful idea, but not necessarily in moments like this. When I can’t get out of bed, I don’t crave a smoothie with a shot of wheatgrass (if you do, more power to you).
Here is my list of what to cook on my Broken-Heart Diet, in no particular order, and based on the contents of my pantry: