Mythic Appetites: On Meta-Desires, Marriage, and Meals in the Personal Essay

Kristen Malone Poli examines the true hunger at the heart of the divorce plot.

Mythic Appetites: On Meta-Desires, Marriage, and Meals in the Personal Essay

HOW DO YOU end a marriage? According to Nora Ephron’s autobiographical novel Heartburn, you’ll need six egg yolks, two cans of condensed milk, a tablespoon of lime rind, a pie shell, graham cracker crust, and whipped cream. Serving suggestion: Throw it in your husband’s face.

Heartburn, originally published in 1983, revitalized the divorce plot and infused it with the lexicon of the cookbook. Its protagonist, food writer Rachel Samstat, advises readers that men are dogs, revenge is a dish best served cold, and pie crusts should never be made from scratch. The novel (and its subsequent film adaptation) prompted a generation of women to reconsider the objects of their appetites, and for all of its plucky wit, it contained a warning: things get complicated when food and love become “hopelessly tangled.”

Around the same time that a 40th anniversary edition of Heartburn was released by Vintage Contemporaries, two essays about failing marriages—and, more subtly, food—went viral: Emily Gould’s “The Lure of Divorce” and Leslie Jamison’s “The Birth of My Daughter, the Death of My Marriage.” The latter is an excerpt from Jamison’s new memoir, Splinters: Another Kind of Love Story. The former is an amuse-bouche for Gould’s new advice column for The Cut, aptly named Going Through It.

On the level of plot, both of these essays hinge on an Ephron-inflected will-they-or-won’t-they tension, produced by a duo of protagonist-authors who flirt with the possibility of separation rather than union. As Jamison and Gould equivocate, there are flashbacks to their relationships’ bonny beginnings, aphoristic takedowns of marriage, and dalliances with new and old lovers. Ultimately, they lead us to different endings. But to harp on Jamison’s eventual decision to leave, or on Gould’s to stay, feels like missing the point.

Why have these stories struck such a chord with readers? Perhaps their genre simply hasn’t gone out of style. After all, first-person accounts of women struggling with the material and metaphysical aspects of married life have long captured the popular imagination. Jamison and Gould, at least in their self-portrayals, owe a great deal to the likes of Emma Bovary and Isabel Archer, the beleaguered wives of 19th-century literary realism. With a lineage like that, some might conclude that the divorce plot will remain relevant for as long as marriage constitutes a social destiny for like-minded readers. Others might suggest that these essays simply repackage voguish heteropessimist themes in status tote bags. If men are trash, it’s fun to watch the trash get taken out. If heterosexuality is a gimmick, reading and writing prose about (straight) divorce can feel refreshing, if not outright redemptive. But one major clue as to why these essays have been so popular—and polarizing—lies in the pantries of their protagonists.

In “The Lure of Divorce,” Gould tells us about her habits concerning “breakfast, lunch, and dinner” before the 200-word mark. When we meet Jamison in paragraph two of her essay, settling into a postdivorce bachelorette pad cheekily nicknamed the “birth canal,” we are quickly introduced to her family’s most essential sundries: raspberries, crackers, Cheerios, and instant oatmeal. As she unpacks her things, Jamison examines the illustrations of scrambled eggs and bacon on her baby’s diapers, wondering about the significance of the pattern. At this moment, she wonders—and so do we—What do these foods mean, and why are they here?

In these essays, certain meals leap off the page with the literary equivalent of a food stylist’s glycerin gloss. Jamison’s early exploits with her ex-husband “C” are served alongside romantic descriptions of “big juicy” steaks and boulangerie-fresh “oozing almond croissants,” described with the same wondrous melancholy that Maurice Bendrix reserves for onions in Graham Greene’s The End of The Affair (1951). For Jamison, the high price tags and glycemic indices of occasion are ever apparent. Where Jamison shows, Gould tells. As the possibility of divorce approaches, Gould makes a meal that her family eats “without looking at each other.” This scene stands in contrast to her early memories of marriage, in which she “did all the cooking because [she] liked cooking.” In these worlds, better days are accompanied by even better meals.

Conversely, once their courtships are over, crumbs cleared from the table, we find our authors wanting, hungry. In the postpartum ward, Jamison reminds us that female sharks experience a temporary loss of appetite after giving birth, a biological mechanism that wards off filial cannibalism. She can’t relate. Jamison’s hunger, in this moment, is not a physical sensation or an evolutionary flaw—it’s a result of languished creativity: “I was still hungry. I longed to write.” Later in the essay, she styles herself as an “art shark” whose migrations take her to some of the Five Boroughs’ best museums.

After leaving a wedding where her allergies prevent her from eating, Gould’s hunger quickly warps into anger, and she accuses her husband of “denying [her] food, basic sustenance.” This feeling leads to her prompt request for separation. Gould doesn’t locate her hunger within a stunted artistic drive until later in the essay, when, through a series of therapy sessions, she uncovers a sense of jealousy towards her husband Keith’s artistic success: “I blamed his job, his book, his ambition and workaholism, which always surpassed my own efforts.” Later on, she admits resenting his new memoir, lamenting that she “might have written a better book.” In these essays, feelings of hunger directly precede Jamison’s and Gould’s attempts to understand—and dissolve—their marriages, and these feelings neatly correspond with a desire to engage in creative work.

During her walks around the Brooklyn Museum, Jamison often finds herself circling around Judy Chicago’s The Dinner Party, which takes the form of a 500-foot dining table. Completed in 1979, Chicago’s installation uses embroidery, ceramics, and china paint to commemorate women footnoted by the historical record and confined to food service. The conviction that women belong to a rapidly modernizing, self-replicating tradition of domestic servitude is reflected by contemporary philosophers such as Susan Bordo, Naomi Wolf, and Kate Manne. In her 1993 book Unbearable Weight: Feminism, Western Culture, and the Body, Bordo writes: “[W]omen learn to feed others, not the self, and to construe any desires for self-nurturance and self-feeding as greedy and excessive.”

There is much to be said about women’s writing, hunger, and contemporary morality. Plenty of prose and scholarship has appeared on the rhetoric of eating disorders in recent years. Leslie Jamison herself has made major contributions to these discussions by chronicling her eating disorder in her 2019 essay collection Make It Scream, Make It Burn, and female pain appears as a major theme across her work. She, of all people, is wary of lyric prose’s ability to romanticize the very suffering it promises, through the catharsis of creation, to relieve. Yet her commitment to hunger as a literary aesthetic betrays a connection to the plate, which limits her ability to describe her desires in less uncertain terms.

In addition to chronicling divorce and its portents, these essays examine the artistic development of their authors. Unlike Ephron’s book, they both crucially draw on elements of the Künstlerroman, or “artist’s novel.” In this context, sustaining the well-worn linkage between chronic hunger and creative ambition is a deliberate syntactical choice. Some critics might wonder if these semiotics, which combine the “starving artist” of myth with the self-depriving mother of materiality, contribute to a collective inclination toward disordered eating and thought. After all, if the deep-thinking, MFA-earning, chart-topping literary stars Leslie Jamison and Emily Gould are continually hungry, what does that mean for the rest of us? An image emerges of the archetypal, permanently striving female artist, whose blithe hunger toes the line between pathology and presentation. Will we ever, to borrow the language of Judy Chicago, “escape the plate,” even in prose?

If we take a closer look at who is satiating our authors’ appetites and how, a pattern emerges. As their stories progress, Jamison and Gould turn their noses up at the foods that they’ve prepared and speak with loving admiration about those that have been made on their behalf. As Gould describes her marriage’s slow rehabilitation, she tells us that “Keith learned to make spaghetti with meat sauce” before admitting that, in the postlapsarian present, she has “mostly given up on making dinner.” It’s not so much that Jamison and Gould dislike cooking (though the latter makes a case for it), but that they love being cooked for, a sentiment that builds as Gould edges away from divorce and Jamison edges towards it.

Remember Jamison and her ex’s incredible steaks? They were ordered from room service. Before their nuptials, C auditions for the role of chef himself: “[H]e was a man frying little disks of sausage on a hot plate in a Paris garret, a man asking me to marry him.” As her fiancé, C is shown offering the dual delights of food and long-term commitment. After the birth of their baby, C stops cooking, or at least Jamison stops telling us about it. Instead, she prefers to describe meals made by her mother or provided for by her publisher through accounts payable. As the story progresses, a chain of care develops between herself, her mother, and her baby: “I kept feeding my baby. My mother kept feeding me.” Jamison’s writing about her mother, who taught her how to cook, is some of the most deeply felt work in the essay.

Though they deploy the aesthetics of appetite in traditional ways, Jamison’s and Gould’s relative distaste for food preparation reveals a lack of interest in the sort of nurturing that women, especially wives, are acculturated to provide. Gould, for her part, locates this struggle in her prior willingness to take on traditionally feminine care work despite never being explicitly asked to perform it. Jamison doesn’t follow suit, but she recruits another woman—her mother—to help with care work while on tour. In this way, female responsibility towards care is not questioned so much as it is lamented and, ultimately, reinforced. Seen through this lens, care in these essays is at once a private negotiation and a gendered inevitability—an idea that feels more at home in the wine mom–heteropessimism of Lyz Lenz and Lori Gottlieb than it does in the politics of mutual aid or family abolition.

So, if the act of eating is on par with receiving care, exploring Jamison’s and Gould’s appetites can propel us towards a more meaningful investigation of their needs as protagonist-authors. But the trouble (and the allure) of these essays lies in their authors’ inability to locate their desires cataphatically. They want loving care, they want pasta, they want more and better book deals—they don’t want to have to ask. These are highly relatable and deeply human desires, but they’re also reactive, originating out of jealousy, scarcity, and self-doubt. These essays don’t dare to imagine alternative futures of care outside of dominant models of marriage or heterosexuality. Jamison and Gould don’t take their desires seriously enough for that.

After reading these essays, one gets a sense that the real objects of appetite for these authors are hidden somewhere out of sight. When describing what they consciously want, Jamison and Gould often rely on the language of metaphor and mythopoetics. Gould, in particular, has an affinity for the epic mode, quoting a passage from Rachel Cusk’s 2012 memoir Aftermath: On Marriage and Separation that describes divorce in Homeric terms, positioning children as totems given from a husband to a wife “for her to hold so that he can return to the world. And he does, he leaves her, returning to work, setting sail for Troy.” In one particular passage of Gould’s essay, her husband sets off, not to fight in a war but to cover one for a magazine, and his journey incites rage in Gould for placing himself in harm’s way and, crucially, for “going out into the greater world while [she] tend[s] to lunches, homework, and laundry.” On a material level, it’s unclear what “going out into the […] world” means to Gould, and why it inspires so much envy—she could be interested in travel, journalism, politics, or something else entirely.

On a book tour spanning 18 cities over four weeks, Jamison gets the mileage that Gould craves. Instead of assessing her likes and dislikes of people and places, or otherwise indulging her curiosity, Jamison spends these trips fashioning herself as Schrödinger’s bigender parent—“the father who goes away, and the mother who stays.” In wanting to be both present and absent, she feels guilty about her travels while desiring them at the same time. In her professing to want everything, it often feels as though Jamison wants nothing, or nothing in particular. Readers might assume that she enjoys her travels because they remove her from C’s temper, or because they commemorate her artistic achievements—but it’s unclear why exactly she’s drawn to them. Amid a series of references to wandering fathers and flighty ex-boyfriends, one thing is clear: Jamison and Gould want to join a lineage of wandering men. But where do they want to go?

Part of what makes these essays so engaging is their cautious approach to the chronicling of desire. Jamison and Gould point to the places where their wants should be, feeling around their edges without ever really engaging with them. At times, they appear to want what their husbands have or have to offer, but even these targets feel precarious. Jamison is up-front about this. When describing her response to C’s proposal, she writes: “I wanted my whole self to want something, no questions asked.” The specter of shame runs rampant through these essays: their authors are unreliable narrators, unable to define where, exactly, they want to go or for what reason. Jamison describes her desire as a point on a circle, moving backwards and forwards—she craves the “solidity” of a permanent identity while dating C, only to crave its undoing later. In their denouement, both essays appraise this pattern of making and remaking: Jamison’s ultimate dismissal and Gould’s reluctant embrace of it seem only to confirm its importance.

In what might otherwise be revealing passages about the source of their discontent, the authors employ the passive voice (Gould: “Our marriage had been built on a flaw”; Jamison: “[A]nother woman’s death was nestled inside every moment between us.”) For Gould, therapy sessions are described only insofar as they confirm and accommodate her total incompatibility with her husband, a concept on which she does not elaborate. For Jamison, teaching is when she feels most “ferociously present,” surrounded by students who are incidentally described as “full of desire.” It’s in these places that our authors’ wants begin to be realized, but readers aren’t able to remain in them for long. If we lingered a little longer in these rooms, what would we find?

In her essay’s final scene, Jamison ventures into town to buy baby food. As she walks through the snowy mountains to finish her errand, she describes her ideal life as one that is “ninety per cent thinking about the complexities of consciousness, and just ten per cent buying pouches of purée.” But what does the first half of this sentence mean, exactly? We can interpret “thinking about […] consciousness” as a signifier for undertaking creative work, but the clarity of its articulation pales in comparison to the purée—its wholeness, its specificity, its certainty. Gould might find a way into understanding her desires through her extramarital affair, but even this potentially revealing expression is handled like a footnote, appearing two paragraphs before the essay’s conclusion in language that feels like the written equivalent of slamming a door shut in the reader’s face. “Sometime post–Last Fight and pre-hospitalization, I had managed to cheat on my husband,” she writes. “There aren’t many more details anyone needs to know.” Instead of investigating their appetites with curiosity, they turn to a chorus of similarly disenchanted wives who offer variations on the same theme: Isn’t marriage the worst?

If marriage is used as a metonym for misogyny, and hunger for desire, the actions of individuals who create and reproduce these states are obfuscated entirely. After thousands of words, thousands of dollars, and dozens of hours spent in couples therapy, we are left at the ends of these essays with two women who have committed themselves to doing a little less care work. It is likely that they will feel a little less guilty about doing a little less mothering. Admittedly, in writing these essays, they have taken major steps forward in pursuit of their artistic ambitions, and to no small effect. I have no doubt that Splinters will be a bestseller, and that Gould’s new advice column for The Cut will earn her legions of new fans. That said, the final image of these authors within the context of their essays does not appear to be that of Odysseus, the heroic “man of exploits” they both so revere, but rather of Penelope, granting herself a few extra days of PTO.

There is an opportunity, I think, for female artists to write into and through their real appetites, to regard them as wise and serious catalysts for social change, implied or demanded. They could banish shame so as to get ever closer to their desires, the bright, glimmering things that light these pieces from within, even as their owners refuse to bring them to the surface. As the feminist Hélène Cixous writes in The Laugh of the Medusa (1976): “By writing herself, woman will return to the body which has been more than confiscated from her.” Transforming the historically oppressive institutions of marriage and heterosexuality—much maligned by these gifted authors and many of their contemporaries—requires all the honesty we can muster, and all the imagination we are capable of.

While preparing to write this piece, I looked back on The Chronology of Water, a memoir published in 2010 by Lidia Yuknavitch (herself a divorcée twice over). In one of its most memorable chapters, also excerpted as an essay, she recounts a trip taken to the Oregon Coast while in graduate school. In it, she and two female friends spend a weekend cooking, hiking, and (mostly) fucking. She writes:

We ate each other we ate pickled herring we ate gruyere cheese. We ate the animal out of each other’s bodies we ate steak we ate chocolate two women my chocolate. We drank each other we drank all the beer we drank all the wine we peed outside. We got high on skin and cum and sweat we got high on pot. We came in waves we ran out and into the waves.

Here, Yuknavitch unselfconsciously locates her desires in the aisles of the grocery store, the ocean, and between her lovers’ legs, laying it all out for us to see and daring us to do the same. At the end of the piece, the group returns to the town (Eugene) from whence they came, back to class, to work, and to boyfriends. On the way, a male police officer gives them a speeding ticket, as if to conclude their exploration, but for a few precious days, all appetites—carnal, romantic, physical—have been sated. For a brief moment, the curtain has lifted on their curiosity and their desire. In Yuknavitch’s words, “a new myth” has been created.

LARB Contributor

Kristen Malone Poli is a writer and PhD candidate at Trinity College Dublin.


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