Fried: Chow Bella Writers Tell Stories of Food and Heat

by Katie Johnson
"Welcome to McDonald's. May I take your order?"

I'm 7 years old and I'm kneeling behind a low wooden chest in my parent's cookie-cutter home in Ahwatukee. My stepfather, Jim, is on the floor with me. Hunched over in wilted work clothes, he studies a nonexistent drive-thru menu at the far end of my bedroom.

"Yeah, can I get . . . a Big Mac with large fries and a Coke, and . . ." he says, leaning in to get a better look at the invisible menu, "a Happy Meal, please."


Fried: Chow Bella Writers Tell Stories of Food and Heat

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As he gives his order, I immediately begin sorting through my eclectic collection of plastic fruit, meat patties, bread slices, and pea-pile molds. I package them into brown paper lunch bags and hand them to my all-too-familiar customer, exchanging pleasantries about our families, the weather, and the never-ending workweek.

We finish our transaction and Jim crawls out of my unmarked drive-thru, dropping the bags subtly behind the door so that I can retrieve them, dump them out, and start this whole game over again — and again and again.

At 7, my life goals are simple. I want to look just like Cindy Crawford, I want to drive a pink Corvette like Barbie, and I want to be the drive-thru girl at McDonald's.

When I disclose these dreams to my mom, she informs me that Cindy Crawford is not really human but rather a goddess among women, that Corvettes are only for strippers and men, and that being the drive-thru girl at McDonald's is a rather lackluster ambition for a girl who can work the TV like a pro.

But I love it.

I love the simplicity of it. People drive up, they order, you deliver, they pay, you both smile, the end. There is a routine to the drive-thru and I am a child who needs routine.

I am what my family describes as "intense." As a child, I will focus to the point of not being able to let go. I will be late to even the most important days at school because I insist on completing the hopscotch before I enter the building. I will watch feature-length films all the way through to the credits, rewind them, and watch them again without distraction. And I will make my stepdad crawl on his knees through my makeshift McDonald's to the point of rug burn because I am a child who does not like change.

Of course, at 7 years old, the irony of my fry-girl fantasy is lost on me, because in the real world, nothing about the drive-thru is permanent. People roll out of your life just as easily as they roll into it. Exchanges are quick, insubstantial, and with no guarantee of happening with the same person twice.

But this daily real-world change is something I simply cannot grasp as a child. I cannot grasp it on the days that Jim is not in the mood to play drive-thru. I cannot grasp it on the nights when I wake up to sounds of him and my mom yelling. And I really cannot grasp it on the day she packs up her Honda and drives me and my sister out of Ahwatukee.

But the nice thing about change, I will learn, is that though I may not perfect the art of embracing it, I will nonetheless encounter it — encounter it so often that other changes will get eventually get pushed aside. Big changes will eclipse smaller ones, the new will replace the old, until one day, 21 years later, I'm lost and wandering in Ahwatukee. But rather than stop and mourn what could have been and kept being, I'll simply just drive through.

by Amy Young
Somehow, I still feel disappointed and cheated that the memory of the first time I ate deep-fried jumbo shrimp is a reflection that is bittersweet. To me, bittersweet food memories that are twisted up with another person should be ones in which at least a modicum of affection was part of the equation. Like in the neighborhood of feeling dizzy as you pull a slice of Brie away from its wedge, recalling the first time it hit your lips, fed to you by an amazing lover, who, of course, later destroyed the fuck out of your heart. Or, maybe, getting a bit choked up opening a jar of pickles and thinking about the late nights spent as a teenager laughing at your sister as she made her favorite cheese-and-pickle sandwiches which you devoured while laughing ridiculously at the overwhelming general dysfunction of your family.

Instead, when I first tried the crispy crustaceans, it was with my gramps. My nana, also known as his only saving grace, was there, too, but that didn't matter; the mere presence of my grumpy grandfather was enough to put a cloud of crap over any decent moment. Clad in his version of shorts — plaid pants hand-cut to just below the knee, the bottom trimmed in a triangular pattern to give them a "design," as if to somehow disguise that he was the man behind the scissors, he informed my nana and me that we were going with him to "look at a piece of land in Orlando."

I never got why he spent so much time doing this — he never actually purchased property that I can remember. Certainly no Donald Trump. In those shorts, Donald Frump, at best. This jaunt actually took on some appeal when he said we would go, on the way back, to a waterfront seafood restaurant that was on an old boat. Bigger than the excitement of eating on an old sea vessel was the surprise that old Andy was going to splurge on dining out. Making his own aforementioned summer shorts was one way he held onto the self-made fortune that he continuously attempted to lord over the family; not dining out was another. The mere suggestion of going out to eat generally sent him into an annoying rant about restaurant kitchens serving nothing but "poison." In turn, the word "poison" in our family became a funny way of referring to cheapskate behavior.

In any case, Gramps was driving, and there wasn't much I could do as a 9-year-old but go along for the ride. We saw the empty lot. I sat in the car with my book as he dragged my grandmother around the empty parcel that he would never own. True to his promise, we hit the pirate-y family seafood spot on the way home, my curiosity piqued by this all-you-can-eat golden fried jumbo shrimp. I had a kid's metabolism — back then, the promise of all-you-can-eat was a challenge, not something you knew you'd be lamenting in next week's therapy session. I figured, too, that it was the bang-for-your-buck type of deal that the old man couldn't say no to.

And I was right. A plate soon came, loaded with a dozen or so plump ocean critters. My nana squeezed lemon over those fat boys and told me to dig in. And I did. It was love at first crunch. I felt, at that moment, if fried shrimp were the only food I'd eat again, it wouldn't be the worst thing ever. Juicy, delicious, lemony, and spicy from the cocktail sauce — I was in seafood heaven. I wolfed those guys down, mentally preparing for plate number two. When the waitress came to take away my tail-laden plate away and ask if "such a little girl was ready for plate number two," my mouth opened to say yes, but all I heard was the voice of my gramps: "No, thank you, she has had enough."

I wanted to cry. I wanted more. I didn't understand. As always, my grandmother came to my defense, but he wouldn't bend. Much like using his money to manipulate, it was just another move from his playbook of ways to try to control the people in his life. And making it supremely, ultimately worse was his capping the conversation with an attempt at humor: "You had enough shrimp. You know, just because you seafood, doesn't mean you have to eat it."

The one time this curmudgeon cracks a joke and it is at the expense of me and my appetite. I seethed as he chuckled, clacking his ancient false teeth together, ones so old we'd say he probably made them himself to save money, cursing him internally the whole drive home. I still love to seafood and eat it, and though I don't order much fried shrimp these days, when I do, that first bite still tastes just like Grandpa.

by Troy Farah
She said, It's a surprise.

With the blindfold removed, I could see she'd driven me to the zoo. She smiled and said, Isn't this better than another dumb dinner and a movie date? I said, Sure, but inside, I grumbled about the heat.

We wandered from prison cell to prison cell and gawked at the endangered animals forcefully migrated here. The guilt was meant to invigorate empathy for flaming rain forests and lagoons leached with oil spills and defrosting ice drifts, but it was too hot for me to concentrate.

Ice cream, I muttered. And, soon, we nursed Rocket Pops until brain freeze settled in as we squinted at an aviary filled with peach-faced lovebirds.

Those things are native here, you know. I told her. Now, at least.

She nodded. Didn't know it would be such a scorcher. Sorry.

Weather dude says 105 is the high. I'm used to it, I lied.

We wandered toward the rhino pen and, in the bushes, I noticed two eggs snuggled against the fence in fistfuls of straw. I pointed and she grinned and leaned over the fence, balanced with both feet in the air, skirt blowing in the wind, but she didn't care, returning to me, lifting one of the eggs up to my face.

Whaddya think they are?

They were dusty, smudged with opal and flaked with paprika.

I shrugged.

They're so exquisite.

She grabbed the other one and looked around. Then, she stuck both eggs in her purse. I didn't question her. We walked out and no one stopped us and we drove home and I fixed myself a summer shandy, slipped into the pool and held my head underwater for as long as I could. I thought about drowning myself, but knew it wasn't possible. It had to be an accident.

When I came up for air, The Girl was holding a plate and a refill out to me. It was an omelet.

You didn't, I said. Fried, just like that?

I did, she said.

I shook my head. She shook hers. She stabbed her fork and cut out a section and held it out to me. Close your eyes, she said and I did. Mouth open, then closed, then chewing, then swallowing.

What's it taste like? she asked.

I smiled and didn't open my eyes. Exquisite, I said.

by JK Grence
You can have your 8-to-5 desk job. I've been there, done that, and I don't know how all of you people do it. Your career is exactly the same mundane deskwork day in, day out? I'll pass. Give me the endless variety of things that happen in a restaurant or bar. You truly never know what's going to happen next. Some nights, I've had to ask a lady to not accompany her boyfriend to the restroom. Others, I've had to play janitor for unspeakable messes. But nothing will compare to the time I had to put out a guest.

I know what you're probably thinking: Bartenders have to 86 guests all the time, what's such a big deal about that? I didn't say 86; I said put out. There's a big difference; let me explain. No shit, there I was . . .

It was a lovely Scottsdale evening, with a good number of people socializing on the patio at the now-shuttered Trader Vic's. The dinner rush was over, so I had a chance to step out from behind the bar and ask guests how they were enjoying their cocktails. At the piece of bar countertop that extended on to the patio, there was a tiki aficionado. Those guests, of course, were my favorites. They'd come in looking like they just got off the plane from Honolulu, with huge grins and wearing their finest aloha shirts. And they were the most appreciative of the alchemic art of tiki bartending.

He and I were casually leaning on the bar top, exchanging tales of making and drinking various libations. Then, he shifted positions a little bit. He moved just enough that the loose sleeve of his shirt dipped into one of our numerous votive candles. Within seconds, the top half of his sleeve was alight in a most impressive fashion.

Due to the fact that heat rises, the only clues he had that something was wrong were: A) Everyone else in the bar suddenly got really quiet, and B) My eyes were now open as wide as saucers. Since I was the closest staff member to the mini-blaze, I had to do something about it. But what? Since there was a cocktail tray right next to me, my first instinct was to grab it and beat out the flames. It's probably a good thing that I stopped myself before actually doing that. I can only imagine the disaster that would have been. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw a water pitcher that was much better suited to the task. I turned, grabbed the pitcher, asked him to hold out his arm, and doused the flames.

The whole thing from start to finish couldn't have been more than three seconds. To me, it felt like at least 10 times that much. To him, I was the hero who saved the day. In my eyes, it was just another day at one hell of an office.

by Eric Schaefer
Thank you, Bluegrass State
For birthing Colonel Sanders.
KFC, my muse.

My guilty pleasure.
I want to run for cover,
Shameful, embarrassed.

Golden brown, crispy.
You entice me like a drug.
Salty, delicious.

Eating it alone,
In my pajamas I gorge,
Thankful for drive-thru.

My PJs covered
In crumbs, grease, and some coleslaw.
Mashed potatoes, too.

Solo late-night run.
I eat alone, in my car.
The night cloaks my shame.

Forgo the white meat.
Chicken thighs are heaven-sent.
Healthy? Kiss my ass.

Wings, extra-crispy.
This chicken never could fly.
Higher calling, now.

I've lost my street cred
With the foodie elitists.
This is who I am.

Red and white bucket,
My lifespan is now cut short —
Arteries closing.

Grilled, roasted, or baked
A complete waste of my time.
Chicken should be fried.

Bloated from the salt,
Call my cardiologist.
KFC, worth it.

by Elizabeth Maria Naranjo
To me, summer begins the June night I wake to slide my window open for a few hours of cool air and find there is no more cool air. Not at midnight, not at dawn. Not until October. That's about the time I go on a cooking strike. I am sweaty and crabby, and I just can't bring myself to bake lasagna. My kids can survive for a few months on yogurt pops and sliced turkey. If my husband wants a burger, he can fire up the grill. And me? I need to eat more salad anyway.

Last summer during my exile from the stove, I was molded to the couch watching a Diamondbacks game, in as little clothing as possible, when my husband came home from work carrying fistfuls of grocery bags. "Did we run out of cheese sticks?" I asked.

"Not that I know of. Nice outfit, by the way." He grinned and headed for the kitchen. Curious, I peeled myself off the couch and followed him, watching him swing the bags onto the counter. His face was bright with anticipation — or maybe it was just sweat. While he washed his hands, I peeked inside the bags.

Uh-oh. A jumbo sack of flour and a tub of lard.

"I was thinking," my husband said as he dried his hands and gave me a quick kiss, "that I should be using good old-fashioned pork fat instead of butter. That's the key."

Alex has been trying to make the perfect tortilla for years. Every few months, he comes up with a new theory of why this fails, and then he tries again. It's not like the man can't cook. He ran a popular Mexican restaurant for two decades. His posole is to die for. But the recipe for flawless homemade tortillas — the way his mother used to make them — eludes him. It torments him. It's the reason he apparently can get excited at the prospect of lingering over a hot stove in his work clothes in the middle of the day when it's 110 degrees out.

"Seriously?" I asked him. "Are you frying those up now? Come watch the game with me. Have some lemonade." But he'd already whipped out the rolling pin. There was no stopping him. "I'm not frying anything," he explained. "I'm making soft tortillas."

"You're coating them in lard, right?"

He didn't answer me; he was in his own world. I watched him dust the counter and ready his workspace. Into a large bowl, he shook flour straight from the bag because real cooks don't use measuring cups. He scooped out a hunk of lard and added it to the flour. Then he placed the bowl in the sink and ran a thin stream of water. As he began kneading the dough, I had to wonder at this obsession of his. Alex is not a sentimental man, but he seems intent on recapturing this one piece of his childhood, when a mother dutifully cooked up soft, flaky tortillas, smothered in butter, for her husband and five sons. Every day. Before air conditioning.

I started to slink away, feeling a bit pathetic, but Alex looked up with a fervent smile. He'd shaped his masterpiece into a glistening dome and tossed a kitchen towel over the bowl. "These are going to be perfect," he promised. "I don't know why I didn't think of it before."

"That's great."

"And the last time? I kneaded that batch too long. Overworked the dough."

"Okay." After a while, I added, "So maybe if you wrote down what you did different . . ."

"No, no, it's all up here." He tapped his head and then lifted the towel from the bowl, where the dough had puffed up nicely. He pulled off a small piece, rolled it in his palms, then set it gently aside. I kept him company while he continued to work, smoothing the little globes into thin precise circles, but when he flipped on the burner, I returned to my baseball game. I said a quick blessing in remembrance of his mother and crossed my fingers that his quest for the perfect tortilla would be fulfilled, although I believe what's wrapped in my husband's memory can't be found in a recipe. Still, as the warm smell of dough wafted through our home, I was glad he kept trying. I closed my eyes and pictured his mother working her griddle in the dead of summer, dreaming of October.

by Deborah Sussman
When I was 13, my parents sent me to Spain with my maternal grandmother. Her name was Maisie, but the grandchildren called her "Caia." It was a name she'd picked for herself because she didn't want to be called "Granny." Caia had bought an apartment in Mallorca, sight unseen, which was not out of character. Now she was inviting the grandchildren, individually, to spend time with her there. I was the first.

It began well. I had bought a diary especially for the trip, and my first few entries are surprisingly chipper. I was glad to be there, the weather was beautiful, the beach was lovely, and I met a German girl my age who taught me how to say "sea urchin" in German. Instead of dwelling on the deserted, half-finished building in which we found my grandmother's new "flat," or on the many days my grandmother and I spent trying to track down a mysteriously elusive lawyer in the city of Palma (looking back, I think it may have been to talk about said flat), I wrote about the espadrilles I wanted to buy, the books I was reading, and the food we ate.

The Spaniards ate dinner very late — past what was usually my bedtime — which was both frightening and wonderful. The frightening part was being out at a restaurant with Caia, who was not the kind of reliable adult I was used to having in charge of me. For one thing, she drank. And when she drank, she got even bossier than usual.

One beautiful evening out by the pool, where the handsome Spanish boy I had a crush on was serving cocktails to the people who'd gathered to listen to music and maybe dance a little, Caia insisted that I waltz with her. Around the pool. To Abba's "Fernando." Caia was not a small woman, and she tended to wear drapey, colorful caftans when she was lounging. I, on the other hand, was small and pale, with stick-like limbs. So the two of us must have been something to look at, especially since I had never waltzed before. Luckily, Caia didn't like the way I was waltzing, and our mortifying dance ended quickly.

The wonderful part of being out to dinner at a restaurant with Caia at 10 o'clock at night thousands of miles from home was the sense that there was much less padding between me and the world than there was when I was with my parents. It meant I had to pay more attention, because the adult with me was not necessarily going to be capable of looking out for both of us. It was exhilarating. Colors were brighter, and I suddenly felt taller. I ate calamari for the first time — calamari a la romana, which sounded impossibly exotic to me but really just meant fried squid in tomato sauce — and it tasted like freedom. Delicious freedom. That may have been my first "grown-up" meal.

And then, about two-thirds of the way through the vacation, I got a sunburn. because as much as I was paying attention, pointing my grandmother the right way every morning when she set off for the beach in the wrong direction yet again, I was only 13. And I'd never experienced anything like the strong Spanish sun. A wimpy bottle of Coppertone was no match for it. My pale skin turned bright red, hot and angry and painful. That night, back in the cramped one-room "apartment," the sunburn hurt like hell. Caia wanted to slather me in suntan lotion before I went to bed, but I didn't want to stick to the sheets, so I said no thanks. Looking back, I'm guessing she'd already had a few drinks, because her anger with me seemed to be about something more than just my being sunburned and not wanting lotion on. Maybe it's because I was beginning to show signs of homesickness, of wanting to be safely back with my parents, where bedtime was predictable and nobody was drunk. Maybe I really was being a brat. Whatever the reason, my grandmother slapped me, which no one had done before. "You're just like your aunt," she said. "You're nothing like your mother."

I don't remember much after that. I must have managed to go to sleep. A week or so later, I flew home, back to my parents, who met me at the airport. My mother still talks about how healthy I looked when I got off the plane, all glowing and nut-brown.

by Tania Katan
There are a few ingredients that most homes, regardless of take-home pay, have: sugar, flour, and butter. And if you're lucky, like we were, cinnamon.

It was 1984 and I was a seventh-grader at Mohave Middle School in Scottsdale. This was a time when Home Ec was required and the lesbian P.E. teacher taught it. Home Ec was more than just a class. It was a way of life, a way to live, practical lessons in living on your own, grown-up stuff you would need in order to survive, like sewing a pillow in the likeness of the first letter of your first name (T), creating cleaning products using vinegar and baking soda, and ultimately learning the biggest lesson of all: how to bake Alaska.

Maybe it was the promise of ice cream going into an oven and coming out unscathed, or the fact that I was a latchkey kid, which meant Poor and Unsupervised, but for some unknown reason I loved Home Ec. Home Ec is where I learned not to wear white pants when getting your first period, like the sad girl in the educational film about menstruation. And even when I did get my first period while wearing white pants, I felt better knowing that the sad girl from the Home Ec educational film got it first.

Home Ec is where I learned that if you have difficulty threading a needle, sewing a straight line might not be the right goal for you.

Home Ec is where I learned that even if you are poor, and your mother's not home because she's working two jobs and finishing her degree in social work, and nobody is ever home to make you a hot, cold, or lukewarm meal, and the only families you know that eat together are the ones on TV, as long as you have flour, sugar, butter, and cinnamon, you can create a sense of home.

In the pink painted Home Ec room, surrounded by sewing machines and ovens, 13 seventh-graders clapped flour in our hands and giggled like little kids when the light, white mist kissed our noses and cheeks. We smoothed out the semi-solid flour and butter mixture onto the linoleum fake-kitchen countertops, sprinkling cinnamon and brown sugar until the once-écru pastry was brown. We rolled the sheet into a telescope, cut it into equal parts, and placed each round world onto a greased cookie sheet. Through the greasy oven window we watched our worlds inflate.

Before I learned how to bake Alaska, I got stuck on sticky buns, those doughy odes to flesh, of which my family and I already had more than our share, but this was the '80s, a time when indulgence was King and the pop-rock group Queen sang about Fat Bottomed Girls.

At home, I tried to re-create that carbohydrate magic in our modest apartment kitchen without the supervision of a teacher or mother; the first batch baked as my brother and sister waited to see if this mythical pastry was really as magnificent as I claimed it was. And it was! It was even better than when we made it in Home Ec! My cinnamon buns were more raw in the middle, less gooey on the outside, more sophisticated and dense, like some pastry hybrid between a buttermilk bar and a pretzel. They were perfect! Before there was Cinnabon there was Taniakatanabon.

Every night, while my siblings and I waited for our mother to return home from one of her jobs or school or both, I would make sticky buns for our immediate family, for our immediate needs. Something sweet and shared, something warm, something that made us feel rich and full, something that required the only ingredients that we had.

by Kathy West
Ana caught me off guard. In the hall, at a church I was visiting for the first time with my brand-new husband. Ana had heard that he once lived in Finland. And she snagged us after the service to invite us to sauna that weekend.

You need to know, we are authentic, she said. We sauna the Finnish way.

My husband smiled and nodded. He understood. My face must have shown that I did not, because she moved in close and spoke softly. So softly that no other churchgoers in the hall could hear. You know — in the nude. She stepped back and announced with a vast smile and lovely accent: We are family, no?

I tried to smile like it was the most normal thing I'd heard that afternoon.

As a child, I covered up: I wore shorts a size too big, I never changed into PJs in my friends' presence at slumber parties, and I closed my eyes nearly all five minutes of dressing for middle-school gym. Even in language, Little Kathy was prim. I had hated the word body. It seemed to disrobe everyone in a room. Whenever I got sick and my mother asked where my body hurt, I shuddered and gave vague answers.

For three days, I noticed myself — in the shower, after exercise, every time I passed a mirror. I repainted chipped polish on my toenails. I spread bronzer over freckles on my winter calves. All that nervous week, I pictured myself in a muggy wooden gazebo, conversing with crowds of strangers, wearing nothing but my body, as if I were comfortable in it.

My husband had told me that men and women took turns in the sauna. Unless they're family, he had said, in which case, they all just go in together.

We were family, no?

Friday night. My husband couldn't wait to eat makkara, asked me to please, stop vacuuming and organizing drawers and alphabetizing our bookshelves, and just put on my shoes. On our way out, I stuck a hopeful swimsuit in my purse.

Ana read my mind when we arrived: You did not bring a swimsuit, I hope? Someone tried that once. I said, Of course not.

Down carpeted stairs to the basement, Ana showed me towels stacked in the bathroom. Down the hall, Ana and two other women — all decades older than me — shed shirts and unzipped jeans without ceremony. I took off my shoes.

After they hurried to the sauna, I stripped, wrapped a towel tight, and followed. The sauna was paneled in dark wood, veiled in steam, with two wide levels to sit on. I climbed to the top, near the low ceiling. After five minutes of waiting, I concluded that we were not-family enough that the girls had the sauna to themselves.

I will admit that I noticed bodies that the women themselves seemed unconcerned about, glancing at rolls and lines they didn't cover or turn away from me. I had planned to suck in my stomach the entire time. But when they started talking, I forgot to. These women scooped me up — this nervous, inhibited newlywed — and fitted me into their conversation of art, teaching, parenting, and creativity. I unwrapped my towel. We sat together in the thick air, uncovering our lives, as if all normal people spent their Friday evenings this way — sitting nude together in a wood-paneled room, discussing struggles and good books, while ladles of water sizzled on steaming rocks.

After the men's turn, 11 of us sat (clothed) around a table and ate more food than possible: rye potato bread with homemade mustard, roasted eggplant, makkara, cardamom cake. Then we sang a round of the song, "I'm an Old Cowhand" — which is not Finnish, but is Ana's family tradition.

Ana's sons leapt in a barefoot dance so lively the room shook. Two friends swayed on the piano bench. Another laughed, open-mouthed, from a chair. My husband tapped his toe and leaned in to read the lyrics. Clean-skinned and happy, I wished I could invite the whole world to sauna — to sit and sweat and tell the truth, to let down our guard, to become family enough to sing together, "I'm an Old Cowhand," without any of us worrying about the tune.

by Julie Peterson
The United States is at least as fucked up about food as it is about sex. This is not news. Any animal that evolved to survive scarcity is going to be confused and self-sabotaging when confronted with abundance. But this spring, a psychiatrist speaking at the Canadian Obesity Summit suggested that if food is important to you, if it fills a role beyond fuel, if it's the key element of your social interaction, that it's a fetish-style problem.

I have a different word for that attitude toward food: hospitality. And I don't think there's anything pathological about centuries of offering food and beverages to people on special occasions, both happy and sad, and getting people to sit down and have something to eat when you know they're exhausted or sad or — fried.

I also think I'd put a Canadian psychiatrist at a disadvantage if I tried to talk to her about stress. So I'll share with you people.

Since I moved in with the man who would become my husband, God bless him, I have rarely perceived a moment of free time, let alone boredom. He is not demanding per se, not at all, but something about feeling partially responsible for his wellbeing keeps my mind perpetually active. And while, like a proper 21st-century woman, I say "no" to many things, I rarely decline to do things I want to do, of which there are too many. And that was before the addition of a marriage and, what I consider key to any relationship, not letting the other person starve to death, though I did renounce that responsibility some time back and he seems to be doing fine. Then there is my own food.

I eat less when I'm freaking out over something. Not phenomenally less, but I will postpone or forget a meal until the caffeine rush or blood sugar irregularity physically reminds me. And if I happen to be traumatized or profoundly depressed as well, I lose my appetite. I also lose my appetite for most normal food in summer, but my metabolism seems to compensate by inducing a craving for ice cream and bar snacks, one of which is generally available via drive-thru. My summers would go much more smoothly if someone stayed at my elbow with a platter of tempura, potato skins, or a Middle Eastern appetizer sampler. Or tacos. Or dim sum.

The morning my mother died, I was at home sleeping after having spent most of the previous two days with my family. The night before, my husband, who is a nurse, had stayed over with her and my dad and called to wake me with the news. When I arrived at my dad's that early morning, I assessed the situation and shifted to nurturing mode, possibly distributing mind-altering substances inappropriately. I interacted with the nice funeral-home lady, called our brother, and took a self-nurturing nap.

When I woke up, a terrifying level of activity filled the building — furniture moving, cleaning, laundry, and preparation for a large homemade spaghetti dinner. (We are Swedish on one side and German on the other.) It was the first of several therapeutic meals at which, in a variety of configurations, we came together over the next few months. I was not the only one strung out on grief and stress; but in my own way, I was drained and overwhelmed not just by ordinary activity but by chores I silently, mentally referred to alternately as "estate crap" and "dead lady stuff" — that was a defense mechanism; we were very, very close — and I supplemented my diet with pie, wine, and a back seat full of movie theater candy from the dollar store. The actual back seat. Of the car.

I knew I could not go on like this, that it was a temporary thing. In fact, for the benefit of people who, in their own food-obsessed fashion, find this story deeply concerning, I will point out that I had drastically reduced my routine intake of simple carbohydrates beginning the previous year. Even in summer. Anyway, when I was ready to settle down, I stepped on the scale, just to see what I'd gotten into. I weighed exactly the same. Thank you, old woman.

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