Gourmets: Handling Emotions with Food Obsessions

Oedipus complex is best served well-done.

| Winter 2015

  • Steak Sauce
    “The best I could make out, very dimly, was that our family was in some kind of deep and subtle trouble and our only hope was to eat complicated, delicate foods amid the hushed clink of heavy silverware.”
    Photo by Flickr/Ludovic Bertron
  • Strawberries and Ice Cream
    “I went to Paris for the first time right after finishing law school,” she said to me. “And the first thing I did was sit down in a café and eat a little bowl of wild strawberries in cream. They tasted like perfume, and I knew then that I would never live in Brooklyn again. Your father doesn’t understand that.”
    Photo by Flickr/JeffreyW
  • Snails
    “While my mother thought that fine dining would save us from the suspicion that we were worthless, my father believed that eating would protect us from sorrow—that we just needed to do more and more of it, a physical deluge, an orgy of gnawing and chomping.”
    Photo by Flickr/Christian Mange

  • Steak Sauce
  • Strawberries and Ice Cream
  • Snails

We were the kind of family that ate out a lot, because home was too rancorous and depressing, and we tended to be a little nicer to each other in public. We went to the Hong Fat Company on Mott Street, where the roast pork was a succulent red I’ve only seen in a Rothko canvas, and to the Automat, with its banks of little windows that  made you feel as if the building itself knew what you wanted to eat. We went to cheesy places like Luchow’s and posh places like Peter Luger. We wanted to find the perfect example of crabs in black bean sauce, of kugel with raisins; we wanted to be filled and transported, understood and made content. Typically, we just ate too much and left dazed. And yet we never stopped believing in the transformative power of food, even as we understood, deep down, that it was an illusion. “I’ll have one of those,” my father would say to the waiter, pointing to an insanely large dessert, “and a dose of insulin.” It was his standard joke, and it always got wary laughter because he was scarily heavy.

We spent a lot of time discussing my father’s weight, usually over dinner. The conceit was that he was the only one with an eating problem because he was the only one who was obese—the rest of us were just a little husky. “Your father eats to soothe his anxieties,” my mother explained one night in Sammy’s Roumanian, drizzling clear chicken fat from a dispenser onto a big hunk of rye.

He nodded, chewing. “I eat because I’m depressed.”

“That’s the problem,” said my mother. “Food should be a form of sensual enjoyment, not a tranquilizer.”

My mother liked to contrast herself with my father whenever possible: He was crazy and she was sane; he was a slob and she was cultured; he watched TV and she went to the theater, the symphony, and the ballet. In the arena of food this pattern played out through a very simple opposition: He liked steak and she preferred haute cuisine, usually French and expensive. She kept trying to get him to take us to Lutèce or another of the great restaurants, but he resisted—and not solely because of the money. Dinner was a fraught endeavor for him, so loaded with desire that he couldn’t compromise very much. He needed to eat, not dine.

Utne Uplifter

And then she hit on a different strategy. When I turned 10 she asked me if I’d like to celebrate my birthday at a fancy French restaurant. “I know a good place,” she said. “It’s very elegant and expensive. We’ll get all dressed up and it will be a big splurge.”

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