I have learned to live with a low level of hunger, a slight gnaw, a pedal tone. It lets me know I’m human.
Sometimes the gnaw sharpens, I get ravenous.
Hunger spawns fantasies. Rice Krispy treats. Double-dipped chocolate peanuts. Chile con elote. Save-a-Lot graham crackers. My taste range is broad. When I’m hungry, I play no favorites.
Some psychologist wrote about choices in responding to hunger. One can simply ignore hunger. Or one can choose to eat. If one chooses to eat, one has choices about what: good food or bad food?
When I’m ravenous, reasoning escapes me.
Foraging in south Louisiana, circa 1950s:
Satsumas, late fall. A climbable tree, easily-peeled lumpy orange fruit.
Kumquats, I think December? You had to be taught to eat the skin, discard the bitter pulp.
Oxalis, rabbit grass in kid lingo, spring and summer. Stems, leaves, pink blossoms—tangy-sweet.
In late spring, mulberries from the tree in the woods next to the big brick house where my cousins lived with my grandmother. We licked our stained fingers.
Sometimes I eat when I am not hungry. A choice, obviously: just how do psychologists atomize behavior in the absence of stimulation?
I eat for taste: sweet, fresh, astringent.
I eat for comfort: mashed potatoes, scrambled eggs.
I eat for conformity, obedience: clean plate club.
The needs I read in the texts of my consumption do not always make me happy. Nor do my actions.
My friend Dave lost a hundred pounds when his wife was diagnosed with breast cancer. It was his way of companioning her, the only thing in their lives he had the power to fix.
Since he left his wife to teach in Eastern Europe and eventually marry a Lithuanian girlfriend, I don’t know whether he gained back the weight.
His ex-wife licked the cancer and is happily married to someone else.
The only time I ever seriously lost my appetite was after my father died. The sight of food turned my stomach; a bite of Margaret’s southern chicken salad caught in my throat. My father loved food and I loved him. How does my lack of appetite compute?
I was smart enough to realize I could capitalize on this particular loss. Twenty-plus years later, I’m still thirty pounds lighter.
When my mother died, I was six months pregnant. Pregnant women have to eat. I was eating barbequed chicken when my father phoned from the hospital.
In the photo my husband took of me, propped in bed a week before Gil’s birth, I am holding a book upright on the mound of my stomach.
I’m less hungry when I know food’s at hand. Hell for me is not no food, it’s no prospect of food. When my father traveled in the 1930s as a young assistant to some Louisiana politician named Sam, he carried a candy bar—a Baby Ruth? a Milky Way?—in the car’s glove compartment. Security food. He timed Sam’s speeches: always 43 minutes.
He did not say how often he had to replace the candy bar.
Bob and Phoebe Marr used to live in New Jersey where Bob was in sales. They had friends in Manhattan. After 9/11, their lives changed.
“What do you really want to do?” Phoebe asked Bob.
“I want to feed people,” Bob answered.
They moved to Cobourg, Ontario, her childhood hometown, and opened The Buttermilk Café, where after official closing time on a September evening almost exactly two years after 9/11, they dished up plates of Phoebe’s grandmother’s Canadian pot roast to two hungry, exhausted cyclists.
Growing up in south Louisiana, I waited all year for the August night of the Lions’ Club Crab Boil. I got to stay up until 10 p.m., already in my pajamas. Daddy brought home a pile of crabs on a round metal Jax Beer tray. He taught me how to peel them, how to tell (sweeter) female from male. He finished his crabs sooner than I, then watched me with hungry eyes until I broke down and shared from my small succulent bowl.
Mother supplied the newspaper to cover the table but kept her distance. A youth spent in Terrebonne Parish amidst the shrimpers and crabbers, air suffused with rotting shells, did not stimulate her appetite for seafood.
Late in her life, in a pure act of love, my mother made shrimp-stuffed mirlitons for my father.
Food memoirs are popular now. And cookbooks. And biographies of restaurants, like Galatoire’s, where people have been waiting in lines for more than a hundred years.
Food has become a new religion. Brother Juniper reveals more than simple bread-making. Not for nothing do we have such stories as the loaves and the fishes. The baguette as transubstantiation? If you’ve broken off the end of a warm crusty loaf at 7 a.m. outside a Paris boulangerie, you’ll likely become a believer.
Some are known to put baguettes through Atlanta airport x-ray security on flights home.
Hunger means deprivation. To be hungry is to be without.
Hunger means permission. To be hungry is to be allowed, even commanded, to eat.
Hunger means denial. To be hungry is to fence yourself in.
Hunger means abundance. To be hungry is to find a Saltine a feast.
Fasting is an art. Like any art, it can be taken to extremes. Kafka’s hunger artist is so perfect that his audiences lose interest, no longer bother to count the days, weeks of his fast. Fasting is the art of denial. At the end, almost indistinguishable from the straw on which he lies, the hunger artist whispers a truth. The food he was offered, he didn’t want.
To Chuang Tzu’s woodcarver, fasting initiates art. Only when his fast has blotted out the world—demands of the prince, distractions of the court, even claims of his own body—only then is the woodcarver able to see, in his mind, the bellstand he has been commanded to create, and to find, in the forest, the one tree from which it can be carved.
To be full is to be satiated. Oblivious. Fullness is absence of desire.
To be empty is to be seeking. Aware. Emptiness is space where desire might arise.
To be full is to be generous. And generative. So the bird shares her chewed worms with her brood, beak to beak.
To be empty is to be depleted. Stingy. Deprived. Thin Gollum consumed by desire.
To be full is to be overwhelmed. Bloated. Ashamed.
To be empty is to be free. Ungoverned. Pregnant with possibility.
Long before McDonald’s popularized thin fries, my mother made shoestring potatoes. To slice the potatoes, she used a special paddle-shaped implement with wire strings leading to a ridged blade at one end. I’ve never seen another. When you push the peeled and halved Idahoes along the strings and across the blade, thin perfect strings of potato—larger than grated carrots but smaller than French fries—fall to the sheet of waxed paper below. You have to be careful not to shave a finger.
Handfuls of shoestrings must be browned in hot Wesson oil in a small cast-iron skillet, the cooked chunks lifted in a slotted spoon to drain on paper towels. Shoestrings resemble hashbrowns, but since they are cooked raw, they stay firm, not mushy, inside their crisped surface. A perfect art: fusion of form and content. Not to mention heart.
On my wedding morning, sending off her only child into the rest of her life, Mother made me a plate of shoestrings. I ate them with my fingers, in my pink-striped nightshirt, the stretched Sunbeam hairdryer bonnet barely covering my big rollers.
In the photo my father snapped, I am grinning with love.
Libby Falk Jones’ poems and creative nonfiction have appeared in more than 25 journals and anthologies, including Ruminate, Still: the Journal, Blue Fifth Review, Appalachian Heritage, Literary Accents, The Heartland Review, I To I: Life Writing by Kentucky Feminists, and Women Speak, Volumes Five and Six (Women of Appalachia Project). She is author or co-author of two books of poems, including Above the Eastern Treetops, Blue (Finishing Line, 2010) and Balance of Five (Berea, 2015). Professor Emerita of English at Berea College and a member of Bluegrass Writers Studio (Eastern Kentucky University), she lives in Berea, KY, where she is co-leading a writing project for women over 60.