Monday, July 10, 2017

The Tyranny of Free Food

I'm pleased to share an essay by novelist JoAnna Novak.  She is the author of I Must Have You (Skyhorse Publishing, 2017) and also Noirmania (forthcoming from Inside the Castle 2018).  I’m thrilled that she has contributed to Make Peace With Food.  Here's a peek into our conversation about her work.

Dr. Nina:  JoAnna, can you share what inspired you to write this essay?

JoAnna: I attended an orientation recently--it was a morning thing--and the host brought bagels. That reminded me how much pressure even the presence of food can create for someone with an eating disorder.

The more I thought about this, the more I realized that I'd skipped many, many, many orientations just to avoid negotiating this particular stress.

It's a stress that always makes me feel guilty, too, because of course many people would be grateful to be given food; that guilt sort of exacerbates the stress, which is really what I was trying to capture in this essay. 

Dr. Nina:  I think a lot of readers on this blog can relate to those feelings of guilt and stress over food.  Please tell us about your new book.

JoAnna:  I Must Have You is a novel, a coming-of-age story set in 1999, in the aftermath of the heroin chic craze, long before anyone was talking body positivity.

Chronicling three women's interconnected eating disorders, the book is about middle school, girl crushes, anorexia, drugs, first kisses, and hunger--hunger for friendship, hunger for solvency, hunger for a firm grasp of one's self.

Dr. Nina:  Thanks, JoAnna.   That hunger for connection to self and others is something that so many people try to fill or express with food.  What I appreciate about your essay is that it’s a rare glimpse into the actual experience of dealing with food:  thinking about it, ruminating, obsessing and perseverating.   It’s a powerful piece and I think it will resonate with lots of people.

TRIGGER WARNING!  This essay describes food in detail and may be triggering.

The Tyranny Of Free Food 
by JoAnna Novak

I don’t want the mini Danish with its gluey bull’s eye. The bready, pre-sliced bagel, cut-side shining its hole up at the fluorescent lights, ringing a tub of cream cheese flanked by plastic knives.
I don’t want to do communal fruit, a spree of honeydew, the jelly packets, Welch’s or Smuckers or Sysco, the butter bonnets, the honey sticks, even the coffee poses questions: decaf or regular, the organic regular or the fair trade regular, cream or milk or soy, sugar, raw sugar, splenda, the green one, the blue one, the stirrer, the scald of exposure when there are no lids and the person standing next to me, a familiar face who, in this context, wobbles like a hologram of a visitor from another dimension, remarks, “Huh. You take it black.”
 You warrior, you, I tell myself. You tough.
 But are you ninja enough to navigate free lunch? More pinwheels than a 1950s block party, wrap after wrap, salmon pink means tomato and mossy green means spinach and that undercooked graham cracker tone is whole wheat, a matte wrap rainbow to distract you from the fact that, whole, every one of those tortillas is calories-enough for a decent meal, and now here they are, the wraps, halved or quartered, or maybe they’re in thirds, and they sprout toothpicks wearing Christmas-light bright cellophane, which makes the whole affair a little trippy, not to mention fatty, what with the roast beef and the ham and the American and Swiss, slices thin as blotting papers in the roll-ups, which you must pick up with indelicate, ineffective, ridiculously gilt silver serving tongs. 
The iceberg salad. The spinach salad, dicey with turds of goat cheese. The fun-size chips and their fun-size bags and their fun-size crunch, an aural tattoo, marking you as a chip-eater, indulgent, fun, when they’re the only thing with a nutrition label in the room. 
You could take a brownie, but it would need salt, and if you salt your brownie you call attention to yourself, the incongruity of your meal, which, if it includes a brownie can’t include “real food.” You could take a cookie and pick out the chocolate chips or the macadamia nuts, but see “you could take a brownie.” See “coffee: you take it black.”
 Free food is supposed to be a gift, a grace, a sign that the world is not all business. It’s in the classroom, the boardroom, the backroom at funerals, at picnic tables, served poolside, in homes and offices.
You are supposed to be thankful. You are supposed to be tickled. You are an employee or a poor grad student subsisting on the myth of subsisting on ramen or a mourner or a daughter or a son or a boss or a volunteer at the literacy center downtown or an idle shopper at Whole Foods on Local Foods Friday.
 “Wanna try Spicy Mo’s Jalapeno Jack on a cracker?”
The only thing lonelier than navigating the minefield of free food is overhearing the way eaters demonstrate they are pleased by it. Their voices bounce with the enthusiasm of precocious child actors. “Mm, this is actually delicious!” “The vegetarian wrap is really good!” “I do love pesto!” “I have to have a cookie—ok, one more! It’s here, so I’m eating!”
You are supposed to appreciate the gesture. Have seconds. Take home leftovers. Fill up. If the food is free, it’s also over-ordered.
Because isn’t there always someone like you, like me? Someone who hears that the first hour of an event is going to be group breakfast—and skips that first hour? Someone who invents conference calls or urgent emails so they can postpone grabbing a plate? Someone with jumpy eyes, whose smile keeps wobbling into a frown? What’s the worst part? Skipping the meal and being alone as you sit and watch people eat? Taking the plunge and eating yourself?
That’s what no one tells you about free food: it’s not free. It’s not free of calories and, if you’ve had an eating disorder, it’s not free of stress. Because free food asks the eater to perform their diet. Who do you want to be to your colleagues, your new classmates, your fellow grievers? You eat nothing and stamp your hungry foot, plead some unseen meal that’s filling you up, say you’re not hungry. 
 You gobble a heap, the whole spread, and field comments about your appetite, your metabolism, your body, where do you put it, your sweet tooth. 
  You build a plate by meal plan, feel the hollowness of scant portions at a table of the ravenous, the regular, the relaxed. 
  You excuse yourself after and puke even if you haven’t puked after anything in years. You try to meditate in plain sight. 
  You make space for your mind to run laps around the dining room while everyone doubles up on dessert.

JoAnna Novak is the author of I Must Have You (Skyhorse Publishing 2017) and Noirmania (forthcoming from Inside the Castle 2018). She has written fiction, essays, poetry, and criticism for publications including SalonGuernicaBOMBThe RumpusConjunctions, and Joyland. She received her MFA in fiction from Washington University and her MFA in poetry from University of Massachusetts Amherst. She is a co-founder of the literary journal and chapbook publisher, Tammy. She lives in Los Angeles.   Find out more at

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