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You are what you eat
We learn who we are by the ways we nourish ourselves.
The email came out of the blue: a college student taking a food writing course was tasked with interviewing a food writer, and of all the people in the world, they picked me. At first I was flattered, and blushingly agreed. But almost immediately, it was followed by a tidal wave of imposter syndrome.
Trust me, kid, you don’t want to be like me.
Nothing in my creative process is something anyone should ever do. How could I possibly offer the class anything valuable? Almost every day I feel like I’m going insane, writing in circles, tossing off half-finished fragments to be swallowed forever by the eternal gaping maw of Google Drive. Doesn’t she know that there are so many writers who are actually successful? That almost every day, I want to quit? That this isn’t sustainable, I can’t support myself, I hate the hustle and the trauma this life is constantly triggering, and have seriously been considering leaving it all behind?
But then I talk to her, and something happens. Words are coming out of my mouth that sound personable and professional, intelligent and intentional, interesting and original. I sound like the kinds of people I listen to on podcasts and to whose newsletters I subscribe. I realize I do have a unique perspective that’s worth sharing, a journey that shaped me; the trauma is part of it, and there isn’t, actually, any part of it I’d take back.
In this conversation, I realized that my creative process isn’t just going crazy at my computer, trying to cram the infinitely interconnected universe into 2,000 words. It’s the whole thing: living as a nomad, going to the farmers market, befriending shop owners and stand proprietors, building bonds with others who can’t help but give themselves to creation and collective sustenance. It’s going to a new city and finding the psychedelic society, crystal shop, herbal apothecary, and organic store, but also the cheese, chocolate, sourdough bread, and bottle shop, because this is how I orient myself in an often overwhelming world.
We learn who we are through the ways in which we nourish ourselves, and mine has been a journey of comfort and solace, obsession and pilgrimage, binge and purge, too much and never enough. It’s flavors from the places I’ve loved and those, still untrodden, that call to my soul. After all, food is interwoven into every part of the human experience: it’s art and culture, politics and economics, the essence of environment; an area’s bountiful biodiversity captured in each bite. It’s historical and anthropological, reflecting what society values; who has been there and how they’ve interacted on the forking paths of the past.
Few things are more expressive of a people, yet its everyday nature has caused many to overlook its magic; its ephemeral, digestible, compostable character rendering it somehow inferior in broader culture than what is splashed across a canvas or etched in stone. But prepared with intention, it’s a form of self-expression like any other, perhaps all the more precious for its transience. It can be an act of resistance, reclaiming narratives about to whom experiences, spaces, and ingredients belong; rising up through celebration. (For example, the photo above is from Neng Jr.’s, an amazing restaurant in Asheville where chef and owner Silver Iocovozzi tells their story as a trans, nonbinary, Filipinx American through each masterful course.)
When I was miserable in Texas, cooking became my lifeline, something tangible in a world of shifting polarities and violent tides. It was a connection to who I was once, stirring and sautéing to alt-country, sharing sustenance with not just a partner but a self I had lost. Now, in each painstakingly layered cake or multi-course meal, I was searching for a marker that I was still that person, someone who could meal plan and stay home nights. Maybe by activating the sense memory stored in my hands and limbs, tickling the neurons and serotonin in my gut, I would find the way back to me.
During this time, I also created a food blog, having long since stopped writing about things that actually mattered, and in this way, food also became a conduit to creative and professional reinvention. While still married, I couldn’t share how I really felt, but I could veil all my sorrow and longing in metaphors of mushrooms and kale; bury that soul-vacantness in warm, layered salads; conceal a cry for help in heavily seasoned innuendo. Once I got free, I began sharing my journey of spiritual and psychological struggle and healing through recipe and prose, and it helped me remember that all this was going somewhere.
I think part of why food can feel so important to people who have lived through trauma is the connection to the sensory, a realm from which many of us tend to disconnect. We float through life high above the the meat suit, until something physical, tangible, tethers and pulls us back in. It’s the relief of finding those times where you know what your body actually needs; when you take a bite and it’s exactly right. It’s the deep knowing, after all those times you almost didn’t, that you still have a body; that you are alive.
The interviewer was interested in cheese, a gateway to connection. Nobody is more passionate than cheese people, the food and industry a celebration of all that is funky, misshapen, and strange. My path back to meaningful relationships came through the cheese pairing business I helped my friend start: putting two unlike things together to make something that adds to so much more. I learned how to work with another person, to compromise after years of digging in; how to open up after closing off to find the boundaries between where I ended and others began.
The business itself was my portal to the world. I could build things, meet people, make things happen; I could talk for hours to just about any artisanal producer about the beauty and bounty of soil and sea, forest and farm. We were teaching people where their food comes from, a legacy especially in America too long lost; I realized that knowing how to nourish ourselves and our communities is our birthright, robbed by the capitalist food-industrial complex, but waiting to be reclaimed.
You are what you eat, but you’re not. These things do matter, they shape our experience; they’re part of this human thing. But who we really are is so much more. Once again, food was a road back to remembering, and by embracing that I felt like an imposter, for a moment, I saw my worth.
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