Gourmets: Handling Emotions with Food Obsessions

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“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.”
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“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.”
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“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.”

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.”

My mother looked at me with such excitement that I conceived the ambition, then and there, of becoming an especially elegant 10-year-old, of the sort to inspire love in distracted parents. I would become a gourmet.

But doing so turned out to be far more complicated than I expected. At home, getting ready to leave for the restaurant, my father threw a blue blazer over a plaid shirt and old chinos and then stood in the middle of the living room, showing off his bare ankles and beat-up boat shoes.

“What do you think?” he asked my mother, looking pleased with himself.

My mother, in a silk dress and heavy jewelry, checked her watch. “What exactly are you trying to prove?”

“Nothing, except that I make enough money I don’t have to care what other people think. Their petty judgments and cheap snobberies mean nothing to me. Nothing!”

“I’m more interested in why you want to ruin the child’s birthday.”

“That’s not the point! The point is comfort!”

Even after my father put on socks, the evening felt like a fragile enterprise, teetering on the edge of sorrow and humiliation. The restaurant was an old chestnut called the Forum of the Twelve Caesars, and it was lined with marble columns on which sat the busts of noble Romans, watching the patrons feed. It looked incredibly grand to me, and the very fact of our presence there, at a little table toward the back, seemed to imply some hope that we weren’t merely gluttonous and self-absorbed, and that I wasn’t in danger of weeping. We were a family of elegant gastronomes who ate among Caesars. We would prosper and be loved.

“Wasn’t that fun?” my mother said later that night, back at home. “We should make a tradition of it, don’t you think?”

“Yes,” I said, confused.

Fun didn’t seem to be the point, exactly: Something beyond my understanding was the point. 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. That my father didn’t understand this, that he resisted it, made it all the more urgent.

Every year after that, on my birthday, we went to another dizzyingly expensive restaurant picked by my mother; my father tried to wear (or not wear) something that would disrupt the occasion; and I attempted to make elegant dinner conversation while vibrating with nearly religious levels of hope, self-consciousness, and disappointment. We ate duck with figs at the Four Seasons, caviar and blinis at the Russian Tea Room. And then the year I was to turn 14, my mother said, “I was thinking it might be fun to do this one in France.”


She explained that her friend Eleanor was going with a friend from work in the summer; we could join up with them for a three-week trip across the country, going from restaurant to restaurant, sightseeing during the day and eating at night.

“What about everyone else?” I asked, meaning the rest of the family.

“Your father hates to travel, and David and Perrin are too little for this kind of trip.”

Even better, I thought. Elegant restaurants in France without my brother and sister, who were always crowding my act and stealing applause, without my father, who made our attempts at fine dining look ridiculous and doomed.

My mother and I would go and join the tribe of sophisticated, happy gourmets without them.

In 1976 Paris had no air-conditioning and was thus unequipped for the worst heat wave in a hundred years. We spent our nights staring at the ceiling, unable to sleep, and our days drifting through the Louvre in a dreamlike confusion. Out on the street, the city was like a gorgeous cake baking in some kind of weird blue oven—hotter and hotter, about to burn. We sat listlessly in cafés, drinking Cokes, too tired to get up.

But as the dinner hour approached, a change would come over us: back at the hotel, my mother would open her huge suitcase and get herself into one of her many heavily beaded outfits; I would put on the only pair of dressy pants I’d remembered to pack, which happened to be thick wool; and we would go down to the lobby to meet Eleanor and her friend Mary, two large, pale figures in polyester slacks, burdened with enormous tote bags and gigantic purses. The four of us would then head off to the next Michelin-starred restaurant on our list.

For once our food obsession really managed to transport us beyond rancor. Seated at a table in a velvet-walled dining room in which not a breeze stirred, we would eat four or five courses with insane gusto, the discontented and panicked parts of us appeased and quieted. Stumbling out into the steamy Parisian evening, we were at peace.

Our last night before leaving the city for the countryside, it was so hot that I stripped to my underwear, wrapped myself in wet towels, and lay on my bed in the dark, trying to cool down enough to sleep. My mother spoke from her bed across the room.

“Those snails,” she said.

“That seafood thing,” I said.

That evening we had eaten in a nouvelle seafood place that seemed to be inspired by Japanese cuisine: things were raw or lightly cooked, absolutely fresh, served with varieties of seaweeds. My dish was a sort of bouillabaisse without broth, a collection of shellfish and
other sea creatures piled in a big bowl like a floral arrangement.

“I think you’re starting to understand the true beauty of food,” she said.

“I think I am,” I answered, rearranging my towels.

“Your father will never understand.”

That was because he basically treated food like an alcoholic treats whiskey, as a form of solace and forgetting. A fight with my mother would send him wandering across the city all night, eating inhuman amounts of falafel and shawarma, cheesecake and cannoli. We would find him passed out on the couch in the morning, surrounded by empty takeout containers.

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.

“He eats because he’s sad,” I said to her.

“Yes, but it’s so much better to eat because you’re happy.”

I’d come to France because I wanted my mother’s attention free of competition from my siblings and my father, but sharing a room with her felt a little odd—a little too much. She was in a nightgown, I was in my underwear and some wet towels, and I remember having to ignore the weirdness of the situation, the suspicion that I was actually too old for such unbounded intimacy, even if I still wanted it.

For her part, she seemed simply delighted to have a roommate, someone to talk to. She was always incurably lonely, the kind of person who would talk till dawn, night after night, if you were willing to listen. She wanted to explain herself.

“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.”

“But we don’t live in Brooklyn.”

“That’s because of me. If it were up to him we’d still be living next to his relatives on Brown Street like peasants in a shtetl.”

The truth was that I liked my father’s relatives, liked the rolled cabbage and cholent they served, the way they all sat on their porches and talked across the low brick walls to each other. My own family seemed isolated and sad in comparison. “They always look so happy,” I said.

“Because they’re so limited.” “Limited” was the worst thing my mother could say about somebody, implying ignorance, blindness, stupidity, lack of sophistication, and a resistance to the enlarging powers of culture. “They don’t know there’s a world beyond Sheepshead Bay.”

“Sheepshead Bay is part of the world too.”

“Yes, but it’s a very boring part.”

My mother talked often about the frustration of living among people who collected porcelain figurines of shepherds and shepherdesses and sheathed their furniture in clear plastic to keep it clean, who had never been to the Museum of Modern Art, even though it was just a subway ride away, and didn’t see why she had to go, either. My response was usually a studied blandness, the only method I knew to avoid the fact that she was talking about our relatives and, by extension, my father.

“Well, nothing beats Paris,” I said blandly.

“Yes, the city of art and cathedrals,” she said, “and strawberries in crème fraîche.”

The next morning, we got our rental car and left the city. Eleanor drove; my mother and I sat in back, Mary in the passenger seat up front. We were on our way to a series of great restaurants, including Troigros in Roanne, Bocuse in Lyon, La Pyramide in Vienne. The mood in the car was ebullient, hungry.

“Somewhere out there is the perfect meal,” said my mother.

Eleanor laughed. “And we are going to find it.”

Like my mother, Eleanor had emerged from her childhood in Brooklyn ravenous for culture. But otherwise the two women were inside-out versions of each other. My mother wanted to dress up in something splendid and prove herself worthy of joining the secret society of the urbane and the beautiful. Eleanor didn’t need to dress up because she had no illusion of ever being allowed to join anything: She weighed 200 pounds, worked at the welfare department and still lived in Flatbush with her mother, Bobby, in a house I remember as perpetually dark because they kept the lights off to save money. She reused wax paper and tinfoil, saved rubber bands, took her lunch to work in a paper bag, and kept a little notebook in her purse in which she wrote down everything she spent as soon as she spent it. She did all this so she could afford three weeks in France in the summer, eating in the best restaurants in the world.

Conflict was inevitable, I guess, but the form it took was odd. Eleanor had made all the reservations and plotted the route, and had done so with near-military precision, budgeting just enough time to leave the chateau or castle we were touring, park the car, and run into the restaurant before we would lose our table. In Paris my mother and I had been on our own most of the day; we’d always been able to go back to the hotel and dress for dinner. But now we couldn’t even wash the day’s sweat from our faces because we were trapped in the backseat of the rental car as we raced to make our reservation.

At La Pyramide we walked across the parking lot to a restaurant that looked like a magical fairy castle lit up in the gloaming. We were grimy, dressed in shorts. As we made our way to our table in the garden, I could see my mother examining the other diners, carefully assessing the Frenchwomen in their silks and jewelry. These people would never know that she had a load of beautiful clothes in her suitcase, that she was a lawyer by training, one of only two women in her class at Brooklyn Law. They would think she was a tourist from Sheepshead Bay.

“I don’t care about the money,” she said in our hotel room later, after an argument with Eleanor over who had ordered the second bottle of mineral water, “but I don’t like to be cheated.”

“She’s not cheating you.”

“I think she is.” She was standing at her open suitcase, running her hands through her neatly folded dinner outfits, the silks and satins. What she meant was that she had been cheated out of the chance to be beautiful and admired, but she couldn’t say it so directly. “I can’t let her ruin your birthday trip,” she said.

It took me a moment to remember that all of this was supposedly for my birthday. Suddenly I was full of the same incoherent mixture of yearning and disappointment that I’d experienced at the Forum of the Twelve Caesars, sitting under the gaze of Roman senators as my parents bickered. Instead of being elegant and refined we were boorish and petty, doomed to frustration and bafflement.

I could never win an argument with my mother, but my response had a certain primitive integrity to it: I went to bed and fell violently ill during the night, and the  next morning I rode in the car, feverish and shivering, wrapped in a blanket stolen from the hotel we’d just left.

In the afternoon, I slept in the backseat of the parked car as the three women explored a medieval town and a famous cathedral. That night, I wore a sweater into the stiflingly hot restaurant. I still managed to gobble down four courses, the flavors intensified, made almost visual, by the fever: pork rillettes that tasted of the forest shade, thinly sliced duck breast with fresh apricots … by the end, I was light, floating, certain that all would be well if I could only sleep for a long, long time.

Then, through some kind of karmic algorithm, Eleanor fell sick. It started with a thin, accordion-like wheeze and soon became a terrible hacking cough. In the days that followed she drove many hundreds of kilometers of winding country roads, forced herself up the stone steps of every ancient castle and medieval hill town on the itinerary, then ate a gigantic dinner late into the night, in spite of being ferociously ill. It sounds almost comical now—tourism as a sort of insane endurance sport—but it was awful to watch. In churches and museums, she leaned against the walls as if she was going to slip to her knees. During dinner she dozed between courses, snoring.

It’s only now, older than she was then, that I understand. She’d spent the entire year saving for that trip, skimping so she could splurge on foie gras and truffles for three weeks in France—so she could be cultured, a gourmet. She didn’t have to enjoy it, but she had to have it. If not, she was left with nothing but the house in Brooklyn she shared with Bobby, her desk at the welfare department, and her hunger for something more.

One afternoon, full of decongestants, she fell asleep at the wheel. We careened into a guardrail at full speed and ricocheted back into traffic; all these years later I can still summon up the impossible feeling of sliding sideways, the sound of my mother’s high scream trailing above us. Awake, Eleanor swerved left and then right, struggling to regain control of the car, and maybe the oddest thing about that incredible, dreamlike interlude was that we were all unhurt at the end of it—even the car got by with just a single long scrape down the side.

That night in our hotel room, a little giddy, my mother and I ran over the details of the accident, leaching out the strangeness and the fear. “That scream of yours,” I said. “My ears are still ringing.”

“I was trying to wake her up.”

“I think the guardrail did that.”

The one thing we didn’t want to talk about was the next morning. If we didn’t go with Eleanor, we would have to figure out how to get back to Paris by ourselves, and as people of refined sensibilities we could not be bothered with bus tickets and train schedules, which is to say that we were secretly afraid of getting lost and looking like fools. So we made jokes till we fell asleep, and the next day climbed into the slightly scarred rental car as if nothing had happened.

I’m still struck, so many years later, by the blithe denial involved in that choice. Then again, what was Eleanor but a stand-in for my father, the philistine we depended upon for our cultural pursuits? At home, my father did all the driving, while my mother, who had never learned to drive, sat in the passenger seat, reading a book, and I sat in back. He would drive us to a museum or to a theater and then sleep in the parked car until it was time to drive us back home. Being chauffeured had become such a fundamental part of our relationship to the world that we couldn’t imagine an alternative—even as we huddled in our seats in the little rental car, gasping with fear at each bump in the road.

Weirdly, the days that followed the accident were the best of the trip: We were just so glad to be among the living. Buttering a piece of bread now felt like a form of prayer, and cutting meat from the bone a benediction. In the little town of Mougins, at a restaurant called Moulin de Mougins (“Picasso’s favorite,” my mother told me), I had fish quenelles that left me in a state of wordless gratitude. It wasn’t that we were finally elegant, because we weren’t and probably never would be. But each mouthful of fish made me happier to be who I actually was, and when I stepped out of the restaurant the beauty of our surroundings was almost heartbreaking: the delicate white light, the flash of red bougainvillea overflowing a whitewashed wall. I remember being so full of joy that I simply began running down the road as fast as I could, starving for the whole world and all the gorgeous things in it.

 My father and siblings met us at the airport. During the car ride home, my mother talked in a giddy rush, as she did whenever she was nervous or uncertain. Maybe she had mixed feelings about being back, or was disappointed by the trip itself. Maybe that’s why she expounded in such relentless detail how excellent it was, what a huge educational experience, how I’d become an international traveler, a lover of beauty, a discerning gourmet. Maybe that’s why she left out all the bad parts, including the crash. While she talked I nodded, listening carefully so I’d know what to think about the confusing mess of events that had happened to us.

My father must have had his own complicated feelings after three weeks spent parenting two children alone, but he responded as he did to any emotional situation: “You must be hungry,” he said.

It was in fact dinnertime by the look of the light outside the car window, the row houses by the highway turning golden as we sped by. Instead of going home he drove us to a restaurant in Chinatown, where we ate till we could hardly move, the plates piling up, black bean sauce sloshing on the table. Butterfish, razor clams, salted squid, crabs in ginger—the dishes kept on coming.

“More?” asked my father.

“More,” I said, knowing instinctively that this was the right answer to the question we were circling. Across the table, my mother assiduously twisted snails from their shells with a long thin fork, then threw the shells in a bowl. We ate in order to wipe away the confusion of whatever mission we had just returned from, to knit ourselves back together, to be a family again. And then we paused, out of breath, stunned.

My father leaned back in his seat, giving space to his huge belly. “Does anyone have a stretcher? I think I just injured myself.”

We talked woozily about plans for the weekend, as if trying to wake up and figure out where we were. We could have lunch at the Second Avenue Deli and dinner at Victor’s Cuban. Or we could try that new Ethiopian place, where you got to eat with your hands.

“What about a French restaurant?” asked my mother, ever hopeful. “Robert and I will show you what to order.”

But I didn’t want to show anyone what to order; it was too hard, too confusing. “Air,” I said, pushing myself up from the table.

Outside, the street was hot and sticky. The light was a dark blue, and the atmosphere was luminous, full of people and cars and big signs in Chinese: the exact opposite of Mougins, but just as beautiful. I stood for a while, taking it all in, feeling the sense of possibility, and then I turned and looked through the restaurant window. There was our table, and there was my family. My mother was feeding my father a chunk of pineapple, and he was laughing.

Robert Anthony Siegel is the author of two novels, All Will Be Revealed and All the Money in the World. “Gourmets” is from his book Criminals, forthcoming from Counterpoint Press. Reprinted from Tin House (Number 61), an American literary magazine published quarterly.

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