OK so here’s the deal: I come from a family whose emotional well-being and sense of community are deeply tied to and centered around food. There’s been a birth? Here’s a casserole. There’s been a death? Here’s a casserole. We’re throwing you a graduation/housewarming/baby shower? Here’s a casserole, lots of finger sandwiches, and about fifteen types of desserts. This is certainly a southern thing and not a trait found in my family alone. It’s Easter or Christmas or a made up holiday like Mother’s Day? There will be refreshments following the service. It’s Gameday? Rusty has been slow roasting since Thursday and Granny started the chili last night. It’s Memorial Day/Independence Day/Labor Day? We’ll commemorate with pigs in a blanket, deviled eggs, and barbecue. Don’t come at us with pious memorials reflecting on those who’ve served - pass the paper plates and start the fireworks show already.
This equation of service + food = love is borne especially by women. Sorry gentleman. Unless it’s a smoked meat we need, you can get back to watching the game. How many among us were asked constantly by our grandmothers if we were hungry? General hunger queries were then replaced by offers. “Would you like a grilled cheese? How about a candy bar? A glass of milk?” You learned at a young age to just accept the offer because #1 the line of questioning wouldn’t cease until you acquiesced and #2 you knew the meal would always be the best of your life.
It wasn’t until much later in life I realized that satisfying a basic need of hunger (even if that need wasn’t really present in the moment) was a vehicle for showing care or concern and love. My grandmother loved me and wanted to make sure I was nourished because that was a basic need and she knew she could fill it. My mother always had a snack cabinet that we children could access at any time - without asking permission - because she never wanted us to know hunger, never wanted to leverage lunch or dinner as something we got or didn’t. Access to food was our right and it pleased her to see us eat well. My grandmother was literally on her deathbed in my aunt’s study and she made sure we had spreads of chicken, fried pickles, fresh rolls, and desserts at the ready. My aunt was running back and forth between the study and the kitchen, making sure her mother and all the family were taken care of. Granny: morphine. The family: snacks. Both were her outpouring of love even in a time of grief. It’s just what we women do.
I think in some other cultures this love expresses itself as constant attention to your marriage status (they just want you be happy and financially secure), constant attention to your school/work advancement (they just want you to have a better life than they have) or constant attention to your beauty (they see it as an asset you can leverage for success in life and love). Whatever the hang up, they just want you to be full.
Earlier this year I was discussing food as fuel vs. food as comfort with my sister, and I had a bit of a self-realization. Nothing satisfies me more or makes me feel more like a provider than when I come home from the grocery store with an abundance of food. Rearranging my fridge to accommodate the new fruits and veggies and spreads and dips brings me pure joy. Preparing a nourishing meal that my husband devours makes me feel so accomplished.
Please note my husband could eat mangoes and drink ginger ale at every meal, so this is a self-imposed construct and not a result of marriage to a demanding person.
I dug into this sentiment and tried to find the right word to describe the feeling I get when my fridge is full and here is what I landed on: security. I feel safe when I know there’s a bevy of options in the fridge. I feel like my job is worth it when it gives me $$ to nourish our little family. I feel provided for when I can whip up any old thing because all the things are in my fridge or pantry. I never went hungry as a child (see anecdotes above regarding force feeding) and have never experienced poverty as an adult. Hell I’ve never purchased ramen noodles, not even in college. This impulse doesn’t stem from lack. I think it stems from love.
So here’s where things get tricky. We’re experiencing a global pandemic. I cannot go to the grocery store every week to gather my organic vegetables, soy substitutes, and vegan sundries unless I just want to bathe in COVID-19. Even though there are only two of us, I still go to the grocery store weekly because fresh foods do not last longer than a week and I typically have only ice in my freezer and dried beans and pasta in my pantry. I know - insert your eye rolls here - but it’s a lifestyle I’ve enjoyed because #1 it’s healthy and #2 it reinforces my up-until-two-months-ago-not-realized dependency on food as security.
Suddenly my weekly reinforced codependent structures have been interrupted by a freaking virus. Every time I go to the grocery store I feel the need to quarantine for another two weeks. Both of our jobs are not guaranteed, so there’s also this low hum of fear that says maybe I need dollars more than hummus at the moment. My anxiety is high not because I am afraid of infection or that I’ll run out of toilet paper (insert my own eye roll here) but because the shelves in my refrigerator are more bare with each passing day.
Don’t worry. I don’t pity myself. I am in no way having a woe-is-me moment. I am, however, rattled by my discovery that food serves as a security to me the way food has served as love to my family. In my conscious effort to not marry nourishment to love I inadvertently and accidentally married it to safety. Dammit.
So what do we do when met with insight about ourselves that is less than savory? Do we acknowledge it and validate it? Do we ignore it? Do we work through it? If you’re a hard three on the Ennegram like me, you develop a difficult challenge for yourself a la Jen Hatmaker’s Seven in order to bend your will and then post it publicly for accountability’s sake. I honestly don’t know what the rest of you would do in this case. I have tunnel vision and a significant need to beat myself at my own game.
So here’s the challenge I created for myself in this time of quarantine: no grocery purchases for two weeks. From April 7th to April 21st I will not purchase anything food or beverage related to attempt to break the hold abundance has on my life, even if this means eating SPAM by day nine. I will just have to make do. Who am I kidding? I don’t have SPAM. The sodium content alone…
It’s May 2020 and I’m posting this so obviously I made it through the two week challenge in one piece. I know — you’re as shocked as I am. I made it a point to briefly jot down my thoughts throughout the experience and have created a little captain’s log of how each week went:
April 7th. I can do this. I’ll start with the fresh veggies first so nothing goes to ruin. This will be a cake walk.
April 10th. It’s day four of week one and we’ve run out of booze. I did not plan accordingly and believe the next ten days will be exponentially harder than I anticipated.
April 11th. Today I needed a chocolate fix and decided to make goblins (a non-Halloween treat that’s a Williams family favorite) but didn’t have any milk chocolate morsels. Did I break down and go to the grocery store? No ma’am. I substituted Nutella and made the best dessert OF. MY. LIFE.
April 12th. Happy Easter! We celebrated in our pajamas, zoomed with family, and ate frozen pizza.
April 14th. I made 42 meals last week. This should’ve been a one-week challenge. All I have left are lemons and paprika. Looks like we’ll be on a juice cleanse for the next week.
April 15th. I had to order dog food and ginger ale. Since none of these food items apply to me I feel like I have not broken any rules, but have saved my dog’s life and my marriage.
April 16th. We’ve eaten pasta prepared three different ways this week. If you’ve never had aglio e olio spaghetti you haven’t lived.
April 17th. The only things left in the refrigerator are iced coffee and creamer. Miraculously I have not died from want or from bare fridge syndrome. I have eaten more carbs than I did in all of 2019, but the heart disease has gotten to me yet.
April 18th. An ad for $6 Papa John’s pizzas just popped up in my feed. The deep state wants me to reinvest my stimulus check into the economy. I do not give in, though the cheese sticks make my tummy growl.
April 21st. My friend texted me about her instacart delivery guy shaming her excessive cheese purchases. We eat our feelings, Shawn.
April 22nd. When quarantine ends I’m having an epic charcuterie board and a nice glass of Pinot. Haters hate.
If this essay feels all over the place, it is. It’s a month-long process smashed into one post because I truly didn’t think you’d want weekly installments on my silly food challenge. I ramble from realization of my family’s passed-on traits to self-discovery of limiting beliefs to dumb rules I created for myself to have something to do. This, my friends, is life in quarantine. Please grade me on a curve here. This was just a fun little challenge I gave myself in the middle of quarantine to test my determination and hopefully give you a little laugh or two. I think we’ll all have bushels of “what I learned about myself in quarantine” to fill volumes of books. You don’t need to hear mine. But I do hope that - however you’re coping or whatever you’re feeling - you allow yourself to recognize where your security lies and really examine it. Lord knows we’ve got the free time.