if you need a gift for a friend [...] and you’re not sure what to get, buy a book. new, old, used, whatever. a world filled with books is a better place for all of us. (new school/old school, "school daze")
it's happened to me, too. people are meant to connect, to empathize. sharing openly has made me a real person in other people’s eyes. i’m no longer just a picture of a cute looking cake. of course, you always lose followers. i remember posting a photo of myself on instagram during my first chemo and i think i lost a few hundred followers. which was totally fine, because they were only there to see the cakes — more cakes, dammit! ha. but the comments on that photo were very meaningful for me. i really felt the support of people all over the world.” (eat my words, "reality bites," 45)
i have a complicated relationship with food — or, maybe, it’s more accurate to say, i have a complicated relationship with my body.
i’ve hated my body for over fifteen years, which is half my life. for years, i wanted to disappear my body, wished it would shrink into itself, and i wanted my body to be something no one would see because, in the world i was raised, i was taught that my body was directly connected to any potential — any future, any relationship, any career would be determined by my body, by the size of it.
koreans have one standard of beauty, and it is one in which a woman must be thin and pale with double-lidded eyes, a straight nose, and a v-line jaw. it’s one in which she must wear makeup and dress a certain way, and, if she does not conform, she is shamed for it, openly and without remorse, by family and strangers both. this is the society in which i was raised (despite having been born and raised in the states), relentlessly made aware of the fact that i wasn’t skinny, told over and over again that i would be pretty if only i’d lose weight, made to feel like my body was a direct reflection of my character and ought to be judged accordingly.
no one escapes from such constant judgment unscathed, and, in that regard, i am no unicorn.
i’ve been in a reading slump as far as fiction goes, so i’ve been reading a lot of food writing instead. part of it is an endeavor to learn more about what food writing is, what i respond to, what i don’t, and another part of it is an endeavor to figure out what kind of writer i am outside of fiction.
another part of it, though, is an attempt to work through my relationship with food, with this mess that it became over years and years of being torn down over my body. it’s an attempt to articulate why i love food, the aspects of food culture (and, specifically, korean food culture) i respond to, and it’s an attempt to allow myself to love what i love and to be bold and unashamed of it.
this is not sponsored, endorsed, whatever by cherry bombe. if you haven’t noticed yet, i have a compulsion to share things i like and am reading — plus, this is sort of like closure. i kicked off this summer reading cherry bombe (issue number 4) and baking a sponge cake, and i’m closing this summer reading cherry bombe (issues number 3 and 6) and baking a sponge cake. it’s been a good summer of sponge cakes.
i cringe inwardly when dining companions use terms like "guilty pleasure" and "indulgent" to describe food. this cultural dialogue pushes women to feel like they’re either eating too much or too little. i try hard to ignore the "good" versus "bad" dichotomy concerning food, and dining alone gives me the space to focus on the visceral experience of eating, and not what anyone else thinks about my choices and cravings. (girl crush, "table for one," 56)
in june, i went to an event where the writer wei tchou read from a piece in which she talked about how she never felt comfortable saying she loved food because she didn’t want to be cast into the chinese stereotype. i didn’t even know such a stereotype existed, but i could understand where she was coming from — for so long, i felt so self-conscious about the fact that i loved food because i felt like people would judge me for it, like, oh, she’s fat; of course she likes to eat.
i used to wonder if maybe my love for food was a reaction to the body shaming. was it because i wasn’t allowed certain foods while on stupid diets like jenny craig or while counting calories? was it because i was denied the desserts and pastries that i found so beautiful and intricate, that i wished i could create? was it because of the way i would be openly shamed, given dirty looks, made to feel guilty for the pall that would settle over the room when i displayed any kind of enjoyment of food?
do i love food because i wanted more of it, or do i love food because i love food, because i love the craft of it, the discipline, the artistry, the way food says so much about us?
for my whole life people have asked me*, “why aren’t you fat?” and i’ve just responded, “i have a good metabolism.” but the truth is i was a really fat teenager and people always said to me, “you’d be so pretty if you’d just lose some weight.” then i had the really good fortune to meet my first husband, a man who likes large women. he looked at my large body and thought it was great. it was the first time i didn’t hear that voice in my head telling me i couldn’t eat. we moved in together and i lost 35 pounds. i was cooking fresh food for him. i’m convinced that when we don’t eat good food we’re so unsatisfied we keep eating more. (girl crush, "turning the page," 66)
* ruth reichl
as it turns out, unsurprisingly, the food writing i love best places food in the world. it’s more about where the food is coming from, who is creating it, how it’s being consumed, with whom, in what way, than it is about the food itself. food becomes almost a detail in a bigger picture, which isn’t a diminishing of food and those who create it — i have huge amounts of respect for chefs, bakers, cooks, like i do for all artists, for all of us who dedicate ourselves to passion, obsession, and craft in pursuit of something worth pursuing.
however, like books, food doesn’t exist in a vacuum. everyone must eat, and we all bring our own habits and preferences to what we eat, the way we eat. we have our own attitudes toward food, whether it’s purely utilitarian or a marker of status or taste-driven, and, in the same ways, we bring our own damage, our brokenness, our hurts to our kitchens and our tables.
food, for me, has been a way of healing and recalibrating. i’ve always been that cliché of a writer who escapes into her kitchen when she needs to work things out in her head — or, maybe, is it a cliché of a human being who loves to work with her hands, who loves how tactile and methodical baking is, how it forces you to slow down, take deep breaths, and think things through? baking is an exercise in discipline, in patience, though my love for baking is never one that’s been recognized as such — people hear baking, and they think indulgence, they think fat, they think lack of control. people hear, i like to cook, and they think, but of course.
to me, though, the kitchen is a place where bodies disappear, where they become things of utility, not things to be catalogued by societal labels. it’s not about what you look like, whether in gender, size, race, but what you can create and why, for whom. by extension, the table, too, becomes a place where bodies disappear, where they become participants in relationships, in community, in culture — and all this sounds so obvious to me, but, at the same time, it’s been a long time getting here, to this place where i can appreciate my body for what it can do, not hate it for what it doesn’t look like.
and this is what i love about the food writing i’ve been reading, whether in cherry bombe or lucky peach or the new yorker — that there is this acknowledgment that food plays a part in everyday life, that food is culture, reacts to culture, shapes culture. that we all approach food in different ways with different needs, whether as professional chefs or home cooks or people who eat and cook and share on social media. that there isn’t just one way to think about food but many because it is an essential part of our lives and, as such, we should think about it, and we should embrace it. we shouldn’t be ashamed to love it.
some books that i’ve loved that discuss food and/or bodies:
- alexandra kleeman, you too can have a body like mine (harper, 2015)
- park min-gyu, pavane for a dead princess(dalkey archive press, 2014)
- han kang, the vegetarian (hogarth, 2015)
- esmé weijun wang, the border of paradise (unnamed press, 2016)
- lee seung-u, the private life of plants (dalkey archive press, 2015)
four years ago, i moved back to new york city from los angeles, essentially fleeing the place i’d grown up. i needed space to shed the ghost i’d become, space to grow and expand and fit into my own skin again, and it’s been four years of slow, painful progress. sometimes, i look in the mirror and see a monster, but, other times, i look in the mirror and see someone who’s just fine as she is, who has her fears and insecurities and flaws but who also has a heart of her own, a mind of her own, a body of her own.
like i said, it’s been a long time coming, and there’s still a long ways to go, but i’m happy to say i’m getting there.
… donuts, or doughnuts as they were once spelled, are another thing entirely. they’re not baked, they’re deep-fried — crisp and just greasy enough and, at their best, not too sweet. they’re nuggety bombs of decadent toothsome animal deliciousness; they stick to your ribs and give you a zingy kick and don’t make you crash. (new school/old school, "hot potato," 108)