WHEN I TELL STRANGERS that I’m a food writer, they tell me I’m lucky, and then — looking at my belly — ask, “How do you eat all that food?” I like to say that I only eat three bites of any dish I taste, but that’s hooey: I got the idea from a novel, and though its restraint appeals to me, I’ve never been able to do it. I rarely tell them that I don’t write reviews anymore because eating all that food started to make me sick. I never tell them that at the peak of my short eating career I ran 15 to 20 miles a week so that I could tuck into my meals with careless abandon. As a “foodie,” being free of such worries is part of my street cred and, as a woman, I’m supposed to have some control. People like the three-bite secret, and the question deserves a false answer: after all, no one asks my male colleagues how they keep from getting fat.
So why am I being honest now? I’ve just read Feast: True Love in and out of the Kitchen, food writer Hannah Howard’s book about coming of age in the New York food scene with an eating disorder. It’s honest and funny and full of her love of food — and the conflict between her insatiable hunger with her desire to be thin. I’ve come away from it thinking she is very brave. And that I, and maybe all women, have to be more honest about our relationship to food — if only to take some of the pressure off and let each other know that we get it.
Feast opens with Howard’s last binge. She has just moved to New York, and her parents have invited her to dinner at the Upper East Side apartment of some old family friends. The evening is casual: Howard is snuggled up with her parents on a silk-covered couch, a glass of wine in hand, a puppy in her lap, a spread of sushi, gyoza, and edamame on the coffee table. The friends are kind, they ask about her life, and she has good stories to tell — a new apartment, a new job as a cheesemonger.
The scene couldn’t be warmer or easier, but she can’t enjoy the shared meal because she has an eating disorder. Along with all the soft words are the harsh ones she uses to describe her hunger for the sushi, “a foreign, malicious force curled up in my stomach and reaching its monster limbs into my mouth,” and the “sideways glare” from her mother when she can’t stop eating: “I know that look, the same one from when I was a kid. It means, You are eating a lot and I am noticing and it is not okay. It means You are not a skinny girl and you are not okay.” As a daughter, I felt that moment keenly. Why do mothers do that? We know when we’re eating “too much,” and we’re already heaping judgment on ourselves — we don’t need their help. As Howard writes: “I hate myself for my lack of self-control, my irrepressible gluttony. I hate the bulk of my body, and I hate that I am failing to shrink it.”
I must confess: I’m not a mother, but at dinner parties I will sometimes raise an eyebrow at my partner when, it seems to me, he’s had more than enough, and he’s headed for an upset stomach and a sleepless night. (But again it’s different for men, isn’t it? Everyone loves him when he eats big, “Get it on garbage mouth!” they cheer.) And of course, it never works — shame never works. We see that when a gigantic platter of cookies appears in front of Howard. She deconstructs the mouthfeel of a cookie with aplomb — “crunchy but with give, buttery and dense” — but also her further slide into a binge, a process that reads like a peak experience, thrilling and ungovernable and, even as she does the very thing she doesn’t want to do, momentarily empowering.
The rush vibrates and surges to my stomach, my temples. My fat thighs disappear […] I feel the sugar and the butter surge to my toes, as if I have been switched on. I transform. My mom’s eyes say cease and desist, but more cookies are the only answer to the problem of her embarrassment, and of my own. I willfully lose track of how many cookies I eat.
It doesn’t stop there. When she gets home, there are grapes, leftover pasta, chocolate chips, a box of cereal, a half jar of almond butter, dried figs — and she eats until she is sweaty, distended, shaky, and flooded with nausea but unable to throw up. She eats because, aside from the pain, it used to work: “Often, post-binge, I feel a sweet relief, a stillness. Instead, tonight, my brain taunts me: You fat piece of shit. […] My trusty companion has let me down. All that food has done nothing to quiet my demons. I cannot escape myself.” But we know she can because this is the last binge, and she has survived to write down the hard stuff for us. We know there must be healing, and the rest of the book will step back in time to tell us how she got to this moment — and how she moved past it.
By coincidence, around the time I started reading this book, I stumbled onto a copy of Food and Femininity, Kate Cairns and Josée Johnston’s 2015 study of the emotional role food plays in women’s lives. For the study, they talked to women who were deeply interested in food, both consumers and activists — including 47 mothers. And as I read about Howard’s childhood in Baltimore, Maryland, I thought her mother could have been among them.
Cairns and Johnston write that, even in this postfeminist age, women are still largely responsible for the foodwork of shopping, cooking, and feeding children. While the women in the study recognized these activities as gendered, many of them also saw them as emotionally rewarding — as an act of discovery, as an escape from the stress of their workaday lives, and as the feminine ideal of “bringing home a healthy, tasty, nutritionally satisfying bounty.” In Feast, Howard writes about how, as a child, she spent her Saturdays taking long-winded grocery shopping tours with her mother, and the language she uses to describe them echoes the study: “My mom and I bid my dad adieu and off we go on a magical, mystical, grocery-procuring adventure. It is coveted time with my mom, who is always busy with a stressful job and a beeper.”
They go to farmer’s market, a Middle Eastern bakery, and then an Italian specialty foods store gathering goodies: warm mozzarella, fresh noodles, bread stuffed with fava beans, palmier cookies the size of Howard’s face, and fat, wrinkly black olives. The olives are her dad’s favorites. “I am proud to like them, too,” she writes, and it feels like we are witnessing the birth of a foodie. Her tastes are adventurous, clearly way off the standard kid’s menu — few would delight in the mushroom lady’s grilled portabello and pita: “Plumes of ’shroom smoke fill the morning sky. The pitas get stuffed with the hot mushrooms, a handful of milky feta, greens, and a dousing of hot sauce. This is an awesome breakfast.”
At home, Howard’s mother cooks dinner every night, and the food is no less special: chicken marsala, garlicky shrimp, cod over smoky chickpeas. “It’s my therapy,” her mother says. But in her commitment, she’s also “doing gender,” as Cairns and Johnston would say. The mothers in their study talked about both the anticipation of success and the fear of failure they felt as they cared for their children through food: a good mother teaches her children healthy habits and cultivates their palate, “fostering an appreciation for ‘good food,’ as well as an openness to new things.”
Clearly, Howard has a smashing palate and she enjoys eating. Yet, on the page, she uses the fava bean pie, a flag of her young foodie status — so exotic next to her grade-school classmates’ PB-and-Js — to pivot to a section on how she feels like an outsider. She is too tall, she is the only Jew, the only girl with dark hair, but most importantly she is not thin enough. “I fantasize about lopping off whole parts,” she writes. “The flesh of my preteen thighs, inches of height.”
She has not yet begun to diet, but she writes about her mother’s dieting. She gives up bagels for the Atkins diet, and takes Howard with her to Weight Watchers meetings. She tells Howard about her own mother, who had “reed thin wrists,” and panicked if her daughter ever gained weight. Reading this, I thought back on both the aforementioned glare and this passage from Cairns and Johnston:
[W]ithin these tales of success is the implicit understanding that mothers are personally responsible for children’s eating. In this formulation, the child is a figurative extension of the self — their (un)healthy choices a direct reflection of mothering practices — leading to intense feelings of pride, guilt, and responsibility.
I felt compassion for Howard’s mother, whose sense of pride and guilt might be so entwined that she could see her daughter’s affinity for food as a success — and her daughter’s binging as a personal failure.
Howard faces the same double bind. At the end of high school, she is accepted to Columbia University in New York City — her dream. In anticipation of her grand, new college life, she diets: “I am going to be a whole new Hannah,” she writes. “Like myself, but immensely better. Skinnier, of course.” She applies all the energy she has been spending on “doing-everything-right-so-as-to-get-into-college” to the project of dieting, and by the time she leaves she has lost 25 pounds — yet still has 30 to go. What does that mean? As readers, we know Howard is a tall girl, but not how tall, we know she feels heavy, but we don’t know what she weighs. These numbers are intentionally vague because, for Howard, there’s not a right number, she can’t lose enough: “I feel light, a new gap between my thighs, my bras are baggy around my boobs. And I feel heavy too: monstrous, not worthy of my new and shiny life. Trapped, still, inside myself.”
And so she keeps going, losing two or three pounds a week on a diet of Pink Lady apples, skim milk, and coffee. Howard knows, on some level, that it’s not healthy — her best friend gently talks about recovering from her own eating disorder, her boyfriend tells her to be careful. (The same one who said she could be a 10 if she just lost some weight.) But Howard is buying tiny jeans, watching the changes in her body: “I am fascinated by the emergence of my own pointy hipbones, the concave scoop above my clavicle. I keep fingering my shoulder, where I can make out the indentations of muscles and bones I never knew I had before.”
Even though Howard stops eating food, she doesn’t stop loving it. She becomes even more of a foodie. She takes a job hosting at Picholine, a Michelin-starred restaurant, where her enthusiasm for cheese blossoms. (At one point, she gets so excited about a Portuguese azeitão that she talks directly to the reader, saying, “Do you know this cheese? You should […]. It’s sheepy, feety, savory, and revelatory.”) She reads food blogs, food magazines, and cookbooks. And when she travels to Portugal with her high school girlfriends, she meticulously researches the restaurants where they’ll dine — only when she gets there, she can’t eat because she is too afraid of gaining weight.
In fact, Howard eats so little that when she returns from Portugal, her traveling companions get a message to her mother: they’re worried she has an eating disorder. But when her mother confronts her, Howard says no, bucking at the idea — in part because it doesn’t fit her idea of herself as a feminist. Cairns and Johnston echo the same sentiment: in the postfeminist climate, women aren’t supposed to fuss about food: “She needs to make healthy choices without becoming a health ‘fanatic.’ She must be in control without denying herself pleasure. She should be thin, but not on a diet.”
For the women in their study, it’s all about balance. “I’m careful of what I eat,” one woman said, “but I don’t diet.” Oh my, I thought, that’s the same line I use (as I record all my calories in a food diary). Howard’s take reflects that same not me approach:
I am too cool, of course for this whole anorexia thing. Too smart. Eating disorders seem cheesy, predictable. […] Also, I was in my mom’s belly in 1986 in Washington, D.C., at my first march for women’s right to choose. […] Gloria Steinem and Betty Friedan adorn my parents’ bookshelves. […] I know that my body is a source of both vulnerability and power and that navigating this is and will continue to be impossible. […] I want to be a badass and free from the patriarchy and skinny.
Hard, but maybe not impossible. We spend a lot of Feast worrying about Howard as she learns how to navigate her vulnerability and power, but it is not all harrowing. Along the way there are wonderful friendships, boyfriends to love and let go of, and lots of good food. It’s not easy being a dame in food, and Howard writes about not only the warmth and generosity of the people who help her along in her career, but also the sexism she encounters. Although women now make up more than half the restaurant industry, the boys club culture persists, especially in fine dining. Howard contends with general managers who refuse to promote her and a male chef who yells in the kitchen and throws food at her head — but she perseveres and makes a place for herself in food and food writing. And eventually, she does find her way to a recovery meeting for compulsive eaters. She introduces herself and listens as people talk about things she too has done: hiding food, throwing away food and then digging in the trash to get it, trying to puke, starving, binging, raging. “And then something miraculous happens […] they do not hang their heads low in shame. They smile, nod knowingly. Their nods say, ‘I get it.’ They laugh and laugh.”
For me, the kinship contained in this quote is the point of Feast, and perhaps even of Food and Femininity. Howard offers food experiences that are, even in their individual details and extremes, so familiar to my own — and in that way they are as comforting as they are illuminating. For Howard, that kinship is the sense of belonging she’s been looking for, the beginning of healing: “I feel the sweet unfurling of relief. We are in this ugly room because of pain, not strength. And yet I feel stronger than I have in a long time, as if I’m swimming in a dense sea of power and love. These are my people. I raise my hand to share.”
Susan Pagani is a Minneapolis-based editor and writer. Her work has previously appeared in newspapers and magazines in Minneapolis, San Antonio, San Francisco, and Berkeley. She is also the co-author of two books, Minnesota Lunch and The Secret Atlas of North Coast Food.