1. The parent of all industries is Hunger.
– Henry Drummond, The Lowell Lectures on the Ascent of Man, 1894
Herr Doktor told me to arrive at nine, Sunday morning. Eat only lightly in the evening. Nothing after. That night Paul and I ate bowls of bean soup at the Formica table in our two-room pension, and after I packed a bag: flannel robe, American toothpaste, Austrian shampoo, Boccherini CD, small orange outfit donated by beautiful Iris, a secretary at the institute where Paul studied.
At eight-thirty, we walked along wet cobblestones, six blocks, to the Goldenes Kreuz hospital. At ten they put a suppository in me and by ten-fifteen I was doubled over in pain, the kind that makes you see your body from the outside. We have to slow them down, someone said, first in German then in English, although I could only half hear. The Boccherini was playing on a borrowed boom box, and even though the strains were familiar, Paul looked afraid and I didn’t want to be touched. At some point it was no longer one long line of pain, just waves, and a little later they told me to push, and I did. Push. Do you want to feel the head? No, I said. Here, and the midwife grabbed my hand because I wouldn’t do it and pressed the flat of my palm to the sticky surface pressing back. It was real then, that first moment of touching. So I held my hand there and bore down when she said, and the synapses fired and the colors in my head exploded orange, yellow, white, red, and there was no one’s face, just light. Herr Doktor was behind me, supporting my back as I pressed hard into the place where my hand had touched (the head was now out so I could no longer reach). I broke apart then, as dying as I had ever been, but I wanted it actually, wanted to fall into the colors in my head and the open pain, so I pushed once more until I was empty and the pain slipped out of me and into the room. The midwife caught him and Paul cut him away. The baby was quiet but Paul was crying in that funny way he has that is nearly laughter. Herr Doktor put the baby on my belly and I ripped off the gown although it wasn’t spoiled. Paul later told me that I called the baby by his name, although we hadn’t decided for sure. We stayed like that for some time, belly to belly, eyes open. I asked for food, but all they brought was a tiny bowl of fruit from a can, which I licked clean like an animal might.
Later, at six, I was in a different room when a young nurse brought me a pot of good tea with cream and a sandwich of thick brown bread, bologna, and butter. I still remember that meal, how it made me alive again, and how I brushed the crumbs from where they fell on his soft, wrinkled head as I tickled his lips so he might open wider.
Hunger is the fundamental cry, and yet feeding must be learned, by both mother and child. It takes, perhaps, a young nurse, chomping improbably on Juicy Fruit, to cup the breast, pinch the nipple into something long and slender, and shove the whole thing in his mouth until he clamps on tight.
2. The hungry sheep look up, and are not fed.
– John Milton, Lycidas, 1637
As Presbyterians we did not gaze upon the emaciated form of Christ. That was strictly for the Catholics. Our icons were few. This made us feel better when, after the service, we allowed the ladies to ladle cups of sherbet punch and dole out slabs of pastry.
3. …La Motte and his family, encircling the fire, partook of a repast which hunger and fatigue made delicious.
– Ann Radcliffe, The Romance of the Forest, 1791
In high school the thing to do was not eat lunch, except maybe a waxy apple, maybe an ice cream sandwich, never breakfast. Then, 1984, it was about slipping into zipper-tapered stonewashed jeans that tucked into short suede boots. So we counted calories, aimed for 1000 a day or fewer. Apples were nearly 100.
The problem was that school was over before 2:00, and when I came home to an uninhabited house the freezer hummed like a siren. Inevitably I’d land in my father’s recliner, TV tuned to “One Life to Live.” When I finished one heaping mug of Light ‘n Lively Mint Chip Ice Milk (the stuff my mother bought, the stuff I would buy myself for years until I went back to the real thing, thank God, when my children were small), I’d usually fill another.
So it was a constant give and take of hollow and solid, empty and bloated. When I think of this time, it is marked by that 2:00 hunger and how, as I crossed the threshold, it was like that moment just before you are allowed to drop your arms to your sides after holding them, shoulder height, for what seems like eternity.
4. I started giving the three witches at the next table the eye again. That is, the blonde one. The other two were strictly from hunger.
– J.D. Salinger, The Catcher in the Rye, 1951
If you are hungry enough for love, you can believe anything, that he will leave his wife, that she is the incarnation of the redhead who lived next door when you were a child, that you could learn to love a car salesman, a former cheerleader, a picky eater. You can believe that he/she/you will never stop loving. My step-cousin Kevin is like this, a new “the one” every couple of months, averaging three a year until she beats him in a race or falls into shards from the pedestal. He has been through three fathers, my step-cousin, his sister two husbands, and when we gather at the holidays, they seem like they are starving despite the bounty.
5. There was Mr. Cheeseman…admid a presence of hungrifying goods.
– Richard D. Blackmore, Springhaven, 1887
Most people see Thanksgiving in terms of ritual, celery casserole, green beans with fried onions, stuffing passed down from a dead aunt, cranberry with can ridges. But in my parents’ house it is always a competition in outdoing the previous year, one my father has with himself, one we are not allowed to enter. And if I am lucky, he lets me make the shiitake-Madeira gravy, as long as I don’t improvise.
My father plans at least a month in advance. On sheets of legal pad, he scrawls in indecipherable handwriting the choice for each category: herb and porcini rubbed turkey, butternut squash gratin with rosemary breadcrumbs, cornbread, apricot and toasted pumpkin seed stuffing. He tags recipes in Gourmet with Post-its (targeting the ones with the best pictures). My aunt sometimes surprises him by bringing Jello salad or sweet potatoes baked with miniature marshmallows. This is what my children like.
We start drinking well in advance of the guests’ arrival, our only real tradition.
6. Hungry dogs will eat dirty puddings.
– John. Heywood, Proverbs, 1546
During my junior year of college, I grew nauseated and wan for no apparent reason. I only craved white food. After all the barium enemas and endoscopies and pregnancy tests (it would be another twenty years before I learned I was intolerant to gluten), my mother took me to Manhattan for recovery. At Bloomingdales, she bought each of us a slim suit and bright lipstick. As we walked to dinner, a bag lady with Medusa hair jumped into our path and screamed about the audacity of our clothes. My mother and I didn’t speak of it. Later,
we stopped to give our foil swan leftovers to a man sitting on a blanket and holding a sign that said, “AIDS – please help.” He looked up at me with kind eyes, thanked me graciously, and took the ridiculous swans.
7. She has hunger-struck in prison. She submitted herself for more than five weeks to the horrible ordeal of feeding by force.
– Emmeline Pankhurst, My Own Story, 1914
In magazines, they advise pulling a Scarlet O’Hara before a party if you are trying to lose weight. Eat before you leave home, fill up on carrot sticks. This way, you will forego scallops wrapped in bacon and chocolate fondue. Mammy did not force Scarlet to eat because of any diet, though. It just wasn’t ladylike to be seen with fork in hand.
When I am cooking for a party, I eat as I go. I feast on the pieces, spears of asparagus, strips of pancetta, parmesan shavings, gingersnap crumbs. It is the privilege of the cook to rip freshly roasted skin from the chicken, to run the finger around the rim of the just frosted cake before anyone else has a taste. Once at the table I do not want to be Scarlet, a belle who does not eat, so I load up my plate. But I often consume so many parts that I cannot fully enjoy the whole.
8. For seldom did she go to chapel-shrift;
And seldom felt she any hunger-pain.
– John Keats, Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil, 1820
The anorexia mirabilis (miraculous lack of appetite) endured by women and girls in the middle ages is notably different from anorexia nervosa. This privation was in the name of God. It was desire for the delicious banquet of the afterlife. It was rebellion against convention, renunciation of the larger world. Angela of Foligno refused food but drank pus from the sores of the sick and called the taste as sweet as the Eucharist. Catherine of Siena only nibbled herbs, and Saint Veronica gnawed on five orange seeds during her three-day fasts, one for each of Christ’s wounds. Sometimes these women lactated even though they were chaste. But there were no babies, so the milk dried up in due time.
9. We have known swarms starved out of their hives. Having made a few pieces of comb, and being without food, no eggs were set in them and the bees, through sheer want, cast themselves on the wide world. These are called hunger-swarms.
– A. Pettigrew, The Handy Book of Bees, 1870
When she showed up we hugged by the hostess stand, and I told her she looked fantastic, and she took the compliment with equanimity.
But later, as she picked at her penne, she confessed the truth, that she hated everything that three pregnancies had done to her body. It didn’t matter when I told her again that she was beautiful, complimented her new hair color, the antique silver pendant against her chest. It didn’t matter that her husband thought she was beautiful too.
What I really want is time, she said. Is that too much to ask? And Max is just a baby still – seventeen years at least before I get any.
Time, she repeated, taking a bite at last. That or a boob job, and maybe a young guy to flirt with.
10. The Word was made Flesh; which consequently is to be hungered after for the sake of Life.
– Daniel Waterland, Review of the Doctrine of the Eucharist, 1737
Presbyterians interpret body and blood as cubed Pepperidge Farm bread and vials of grape juice. My first communion was when I was two and able to hold the vial with minimal spilling. There was no ceremony, no bride dress, and no sense at all of mystery or meaning. For my son, baptized Catholic, there was ritual when the time came. In one of the classes, he pasted cut-out goblets and hosts to note cards and invited everyone he knew. Many showed up. It only occurred to us as we watched him at the altar that we had forgotten to teach him to put it in his mouth. Back in the pew, he still held it in his crossed hands.
11. Being well hunger-pincht…[he] ran away from the rest of the Christians.
– Thomas Fuller, The History of the Holy War, 1639
The mountain fire leaped into angry tongues, splintering the logs and backlighting counselors strumming guitars. Over the hillcrest, behind the trees, was the log cabin my grandfather had built. When my father had been here in the fifties, the camp didn’t have the born again slant it did now. I kept from my parents the knowledge that Jesus saved.
They lay down their guitars and passed out scraps of paper and tiny pencils like from miniature golf. Write down your sins, my counselor said. All I could think of was pale Dave who washed dishes and was heading for Bible college, how I wished there was something to confess. Instead I wrote that I called Sheila Schaeffer a bitch. Now put them in the fire, the counselor whispered, and we walked up to where the heat made our cheeks flush, sins folded tightly in our fists, and threw them in to turn to ash. Blessed are they who hunger and thirst for righteousness, the camp director called out, holding her worn bible aloft. She recited Matthew’s version of the Sermon on the Mount rather than Luke who just said plain hunger and thirst, nothing at all about righteousness.
None of us here were hungry. Back in the cabins, we hid shoeboxes of Jolly Ranchers and Slim Jims under our beds. After taps, while our counselors snuck into the woods with the night watchmen, we gossiped about damnation and dug into our stashes.
12. Young hawks should be plentifully fed, for if they are left one day without food, the hunger-traces will appear.
– Sir John S. Sebright, Observations on Hawking, 1828
Conversion takes over a child of mine who has gone too long without eating. As the blood sugar plummets, the face drains, and the child becomes a wrathful version of her regular self. When she is bad she is horrid. And then the revival: rice pudding from a plastic cup, wedges of apple, a dish of kalamata olives, whatever it takes. In minutes she is herself again, just like Sylvester as he wishes himself back into a donkey when his mother, there for a picnic, unwittingly lays the magic pebble upon the rock he had been.
13. It is a wonderful subduer, this need of love,—this hunger of the heart,—as peremptory as that other hunger by which Nature forces us to submit to the yoke, and change the face of the world.
– George Eliot, Mill on the Floss, 1860
In my grandmother’s hundredth year, her last, she lost interest in food. But my uncle was not ready and asked the nursing home doctor to prescribe appetite enhancers. After several days on the medication, she was ravenous although her body still couldn’t handle the actual task of eating. She smuggled hard rolls out of the dining room even though her jaw was too weak to chew. She begged us to sneak a hot plate into her room so she could fry eggs. She hoarded vending machine crackers in her nightstand alongside her Bible. In her life she had abstained from all excess. Libation, fashion, language, flesh. Her only vice had been a small daily dose of chocolate. Now, she couldn’t think about anything other than sating her desire. Eventually, my uncle recognized her misery and called off the drugs. Her death left him reeling.
On her last birthday, well before the appetite enhancer episode, we brought her to my parents’ house for the party. But it was two days after Christmas, and she was too tired to do more than lie on the couch in her tidy suit. My three-year-old daughter tended to her like an undersized nurse. She covered my grandmother with a chenille throw and nestled a pillow behind her back. Here, she said, handing her a plate of cake. At first, my grandmother waved her away, but my daughter was insistent. It’s your birthday. Like this, and my daughter showed her the way to break off a bite with the fork and bring it to her mouth. They took it one purposeful forkful at a time. And when the feeding was over, my daughter told her how well she had done.