I was fifteen years old, and there I sat, right next to my new boyfriend of three days at his family’s dinner table. I think I had choked down about two bites of his older sister’s savory London broil, and even that was a struggle. I had to take small sips from my room temperature glass of water to get it to slide down, and it took everything I had to keep it down, while feeling obligated to chime into conversation about how cute her 2 year old daughter was and how great our huge meal tasted. The air was thick, it felt like it was about 75 degrees in that small and cluttered kitchen. There were so many different sounds going on all at once; his mom and oldest sister talking about her daughter, his dad talking to his brother-in-law about the economy and about how terrible our president is. So much going on, and yet, I felt like all eyes were on me. While making googly eyes back at my first real boyfriend from across the dinner table, I cut my London broil into small pieces, hoping this might make it easier to chew and swallow, and also hoping it might make it look like I’m eating more than I actually am.
Why is this happening?! I thought to myself.
I was finally okay looking since I had gotten those awful, metal braces taken out of my mouth, and my pizza face had finally cleared up. My small 5 feet tall frame didn’t qualify me for a spot on America’s Next Top Model, but my light coat of mascara really made my big brown eyes pop, and my fashionable printed tee and jeaned skirt from American Eagle gave me confidence. I didn’t feel nervous, I loved spending time with a boy who wanted to share his family with me, but they were all going to think I was either suffering from an eating disorder, or I really hated his sister’s decent cooking! And the worst part was…I was actually hungry! I could hear and feel the tiny earthquake of grumbles my stomach is making, but at the same time, it was like the gate to my esophagus was closed and locked up for the day.
What is wrong with me?
Well, I’ve come to realize now, that nothing was wrong with me. Food plays such a significant role in all of our lives, even if we don’t realize it on a daily basis. It has the ability to define us, and tell us more about ourselves than we recognize. Recipes that are passed down can tell us about our family history, different types of food we eat tell us about the culture we’re born and raised in, and so many bonds are constantly made while dining over shared meals. For me, food is an important indicator that tells me who I feel comfortable around, and who I don’t. It tells me who I trust, and who I have my doubts about. Even when my mind isn’t anywhere close to thinking about the meal I’m having, my subconscious steps up to the plate and makes me aware of how I really feel about who I’m dining with, even if my heart won’t admit it.
Looking back on it now, I can see that this food indicator started at around the age of 7 or 8. My parents divorced when I was young, and my mom had us a lot of the time. This meant that every other weekend, my brother and I would have to spend three days, and two nights, at my dad’s house…if one of us hadn’t thrown a big enough hissy fit to get out of it.
Friday nights usually weren’t so bad. My brother, Anthony, and I would eat a quick meal with my mom, usually consisting of a McDonald’s hamburger and small fries (my mom was obviously a big healthy food advocate, that’s why we stuck with the SMALL fries), and then we would be shipped off to Fleetwood. Saturday mornings, though, the war between my stomach and food would start. At the time, my dad lived in a cute little house that was attached to his neighbor’s by the garage. He wasn’t anywhere near being chosen for HGTV’s show “Design Star”, so the walls were stark white, with one or two pictures of some random farm, or some other nice little piece of scenery. My brother and I would be perched onto my dad’s bar stools at the island in his fairly kitchen, still in our pajamas, hair a mess. The mini 20 inch television that was placed on the counter diagonally from the island was always blaring, usually cartoons or Sports Center. Anthony would be chowing down on his four pieces of toast, covered in butter with strawberry jelly swirled into the mix.
He was like a human garbage disposal. Just looking at my plate of the same mush repulsed me. I would take the smallest little baby bites so that I could try to swallow my food without gagging. After about an hour of this nonsense, I would sneak my plate of toast into the trash can, covered in napkins so that my dad wouldn’t see.
Saturday afternoons and nights usually consisted of some sort of sandwich: turkey sandwich, ham sandwich, salami sandwich. Yes, I know, my dad was practically a professional chef. He could add that to his resume, along with interior decorator. So, once again, Anthony and I found ourselves perched on the same bar stools, eating our gourmet lunchmeat feast. I’d look over at Anthony, gobbling down his turkey on white bread, sometimes even asking for seconds, and then crunchy potato chips to top it off.
And there I sat, picking at my crust, taking a swig of my Turkey Hill icy tea after every sad little bite to assist my meal down my throat. I’d sit there for an hour, sometimes two, slowly trying to eat enough of my meal to meet my dad’s approval so that I could go watch Spongebob Squarepants. The whole weekend, all I could think about was how I don’t understand what is wrong with me. Why am I able to eat so carelessly at my mom’s house, but yet, it is the world’s biggest struggle when I’m at my dad’s? Years later, as I sat at my puppy crush’s family dinner table, choking down that London broil, I should’ve been able to put two and two together. I didn’t, though. I don’t know if it was naivety, or me being in denial that my first boyfriend of three days might not turn out to be my husband, but it just didn’t click; until I was 18.
After about 3 years of short little relationships that never seemed to amount to anything, while suffering through countless meals of forcing myself to eat Applebee’s crunchy chicken fingers with their flavorful, and slightly spicy fries and big juicy bacon burger’s from Texas Roadhouse, I had pretty much accepted that I would never be able to eat like a normal human being in front of any of my boyfriends. I would grow up alone, talking to my twenty cats in my one bedroom apartment, and eat every meal effortlessly, by myself, and then eventually die with no one to miss me…except my cats, of course. Then, one day during my first semester as a freshman at Kutztown, a friend at school introduced me to his friend who actually didn’t go there, but I knew of him from my home town. For this story’s purposes, we will call him Chase. Chase and I hit it off immediately. We joked around, laughed, and just enjoyed each other’s company. After talking to him for a few days, I had the biggest crush on him. One day after hanging out with some mutual friends, I was on my way home, when Chase called me, asking if I wanted to stop and grab something at McDonald’s so we could hang out a little more. Ha, I should’ve known this boy was a keeper from the moment he asked me to dinner at the local McDonald’s.
Me being the cheap date that I am, of course I accepted the invitation…but then it dawned on me. Here we go again. Another boy who’s going to think I’m some weird picky eater and just a waste of time and money. I finally pull up at the McDonald’s, and see Chase already there to meet me. We go inside, I order a number one medium, which is a big mac, fries, and a coke. He orders the same, but a large. We get our food and sit down at a booth, and the conversation just starts to flow. Without even noticing, I unbox my greasy slop of a burger and begin to ingest it, while talking and laughing in between bites. Before I know it, I finish my burger and I’m on to the fries. Then, it hits me.
Oh my gosh, I’m doing it! I’m a normal human being, enjoying a meal while enjoying someone else’s company who I really like!
It sounds like the dumbest thing in the world, but it was the biggest deal for me. I was normal, I wasn’t going to die alone.
Chase and I dated for about a year, enjoying many dining experiences together. They ranged from his mother’s homemade farmer’s pie with soggy green beans that went so well with the warm and buttery mashed potatoes and salty pieces of corn, to tender and juicy steaks at Texas Roadhouse, to greasy and fattening big macs at McDonald’s. Although we are not together anymore, because not all of life’s chapters can end in rainbows and unicorns, I can honestly say that he helped uncover more about myself that I knew existed. I realized that I wasn’t some freak who was just unable to eat around boys, and I wasn’t going to have to go to therapy for some hidden disorder or fear I had involving food. It was just my body’s way of warning me. It was my body telling me who I truly felt comfortable with, and who I honestly felt I could trust. It was also my body telling myself when I felt comfortable in my own skin, and didn’t feel like I had to hide anything, and I could just be myself.
I’m sure my experiences with food throughout my life are unique compared to others, but food has helped me realize that I should pay more attention to my gut feelings about people and situations. I should listen to my own body when it’s telling me I feel uncomfortable or I feel like trust just isn’t there. It sounds silly, but my food indicator has actually come in handy, now that I understand why my body has reacted to these food experiences in the way that it has. It helps me understand myself, and my true feelings.