Friday, February 25, 2011

The Emotional Pipeline of Food

Going down this very well traveled road of exploring food and emotions, I may as well start by saying that I was not a very happy child growing up. Or I could amend that to say that I was happy as a young child but went through a very dark time that lasted for years due to circumstances I couldn’t control. Tempers were unpredictable, confusing undercurrents influenced everything and most people couldn’t be trusted, so food became a source of consistency and reliability. When others failed, food was there for me. Coffee tables could easily be upturned in a fit of rage and my mother might have been pacing the house crying, but food was always a trusted companion. While life was uncertain, the top of a Hostess Cupcake would still always lift off in one piece, Wheat Thins would always taste exactly the same, one after the next. Food also helps to smooth over the edges, distract and numb us; it is an opportunity to feel better, or at least less bad, if only briefly.

Beyond the palliative effect food seems to have on most of us, the familiar tastes and scents of our childhood foods contain vivid memories and give us easy access to our emotional wiring. Jay’s potato chips will always make me think of my mother. Her favored snacks have always come from the salty-crunchy food group: sweets, she can take them or leave them, but popcorn, tortilla chips, corn chips and, most of all, potato chips make her feel instantly better. Potato chips bring to mind greasy paper plates and summertime, comfort and frustration fused together.

Catching a whiff of Hershey’s chocolate syrup instantly reminds me of my father, of drunkenly constructed sundaes at the kitchen table, of richness and bitterness swirled together. I remember the cans of Hershey’s syrup with triangles punctured into the lid, chocolate globs dried on top, always in our fridge. My father sought out sweet flavors like it was a genetic imperative: he had no interest in my mother’s bags of crunchy things, but if there was cake or brownies or ice cream in the house, he couldn’t help but devour the whole thing like a tornado. Whereas my mother has that enviable ability to eat ten potato chips and call it a day, my father was voracious in all matters and had no inner-mechanism for quitting once he started doing whatever it was that made him feel better. So when I smell Hershey’s syrup, I also think of desperation.

The influence of a Jewish grandmother who showered her family with love and home cooked meals probably cemented this merging of food and emotions together for me. Nothing will ever compare in quality to even her simplest grilled cheese sandwiches. I cannot think of my grandmother and not associate her with the smell of sizzling potatoes in vegetable oil, the intoxicating steam of matzo ball soup, perfectly crispy-and-chewy ruggelah, It is hard to think of her and not remember the comforting smells of her kitchen, of sitting at the kitchen table with my feet wrapped behind the chair legs, grating potatoes and onions, cracking eggs into flour and sugar. Her kitchen was a place to escape, a place where I was not simply accepted but adored. Even though her hands prepared it, her food was imbued somehow with my feelings toward her and my sweet grandfather: uncomplicated love and devotion, bites of gratitude and contentment that warmed me from a hollow place in my belly like a hot potato wrapped in foil. It’s no surprise that I have her photo up on my kitchen wall, along with her grater, rolling pin with the chipping red handles and ceramic set of containers. I’m not much of a collector of mementos, but one room in my house is different. Food is full of memories and emotions at times: my kitchen reflects that.

Not unexpectedly, when I became a vegetarian and later a vegan, I felt that schism from my past pretty profoundly. It was one thing to distance myself from unhappy times associated with food – I am glad to never eat a lamb chop again for many noble reasons, but self-centeredly, I’m glad because they remind me of Sundays, which remind me of when my father was home from work, which reminds me of tension, fights and tires peeling out of our driveway - but going vegetarian meant separating from comforting, warm memories as well. It meant saying goodbye to my grandmother’s Jell-O, always reliably ready for my brother and me. It was just Jell-O, a powder bought in a box, totally artificial but it was perfect because it was from my grandmother. The first thing we would do when we went to her condo was open her fridge and grab our cups of Jell-O: consistency, care and blessed predictability could be found in that wobbly gelatin. Giving up meat meant no more corned beef and meltingly tender potatoes that only my grandmother could make. Chicken noodle soup, kishke, raspberry jam dot cookies: gone, gone, gone.

I recognize missing my grandmother and the emotional connection with her is more significant than missing the specific foods she made us, though I’d be lying if I said that I didn’t miss that for a time, too. What she cooked for us felt sublime because it seemed to be infused with her spirit and the awareness that when I was eating it, I was happy: I was safe, away from my worries and I was with her.

I think we do a disservice to people struggling in their transition to veganism when we downplay or overlook how emotional food memories imprint themselves upon us and our psyches. I consider becoming a vegetarian at fifteen the best decision I ever made because it paved the way for so many other blessings in my life, but I have to acknowledge that there was a loss there, too. Just as giving birth to my son, the light of my life, was an incredible gift that I cannot overstate, there was a loss with it, too, of independence, of the freedoms I enjoyed before he come into my life. This is not to say that I ever for a moment regret having him but that things are not always so relentlessly upbeat.

Someone’s memory of fried chicken might be deeply intertwined with childhood and carefree summers at her grandparent’s farm. Another person might associate hamburgers and milkshakes with a particular restaurant, just him and his dad once a week, or, to someone else, chicken noodle soup with Ginger Ale was something her mother always gave her when she was home from school with a fever. Chicken salad sandwiches aren’t just chicken salad sandwiches: they are picnics with your cousins, a chance to see your parents smiling and turn your world upside-down by rolling down the hill. Corned beef sandwiches with mustard on rye are you and your papa sitting side by side at the lunch counter, him taking your cole slaw and giving you his potato chips, the way his breath always sounded, steady like an engine. Little Debbie snack cakes were you and your best friend, hiding out in your tree house every day that July: not as decadent as Hostess, but perfect for what they were because they were the food that transformed you into superheroes. When we eat these foods, we not only revisit familiar tastes that comfort us because we recognize them, we revisit familiar feelings that comfort us because of our memories.

A way out of the mental trap that our past is our destiny is to recreate the tastes and flavors you grew up loving. We are so fortunate to be living at a time that this is possible. There is a cookbook for every taste, from raw salads to comfort foods, as well as all manner of ethnic cookbooks within the vegan sphere. A trip to a well-stocked library is a great starting point. Asking an herbivore if he has any particular recipes will probably result in you getting a dozen variations – we vegans love to be helpful! – and I think that with an open mind, patience and a willingness to experiment, you could find a good staple of recipes that fulfill what you’ve been missing. Plus, there’s everything from egg-free mayonnaise to dairy-free melty cheese now to help you on your way, products not necessarily created for the vegan market but for people who have to cut down on animal products for health reasons. These are designed to taste as close as possible to what you grew up eating.

The first time I had matzo ball soup again after a twenty-year embargo, it was a revelation, like all those years melted away and I was with my grandmother again, sitting in her little yellow kitchen. The broth didn’t come from chickens and the matzo balls didn’t have eggs but that didn’t create any barrier to my grandmother. That place in my belly, no longer hollow but missing her sweet spirit, filled again, not with food so much as with her particular smile, voice, vibrant energy. I feel the same way when I use her rolling pin, creating things that nurture and nourish my family, make them smile. I hope that my son will grow up to continue the tradition, also feeding the people he loves delicious, nourishing, peaceful food.

Perhaps what is most important is that if we are craving the feeling of nurturance of long ago foods, we look inside and ask how we can create that sense in a more lasting, rooted way in ourselves beyond food. Veganism shouldn't be a barrier. When we think that we’re hungry for a specific thing – an omelet, a French dip sandwich, whatever - often we’re hungry for feelings and a time in our past. Can we cultivate an inner-source of nurturance, love and joyfulness that meets our deeper needs? If we can’t access that, nothing will fill ever us up.


  1. This is a great post, and something I've been thinking about lately. I've had a lot of cravings for comfort foods I ate as a kid, most likely because I'm trying to make some big decisions that I don't feel qualified to make for myself. It's important to understand that the cravings aren't just about the food -- they're more about security and comfort for me. Thank you for putting it down so well.

  2. i love everything about your post - it really spoke to me. growing up i used food for comfort often times and while i'm still struggling with it some days, it's getting so much better. food was my constant when things were rough in my home as well - and so many different dishes, snacks, and desserts were all tied to unique memories. some good, some bad. when i went vegan it was kinda tough because i missed those foods, but over time i have found ways to recreate them and i too have found that if i'm not hungry food won't fix the problem. we have to look inside ourselves and love ourselves and nurture ourselves. it's so true. you wrote this so eloquently and it makes even more sense now. thank you.

  3. Thank you for such a great thoughtful post. I've always struggled with food-it's much more than just what I eat. It's comfort, it's anxiety because I always worry about being hungry. As if being hungry is a bad thing. It's become this noxious circle of awful thoughts and I'm glad I"m not the only one struggling or having struggled with emotional eating.

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  5. Thank you, radioactivevegan! I have similar cravings when I'm stressed: it's the food equivalent of a hug. You are wise to be on top of what's happening because it forces you to face your decisions and not let food get in the way. Good luck with everything!

  6. Thank you, Jessy! I think so many women (in particular) have this issue. It can take a lot of discipline to put down the fork or the spoon and ask yourself, "Okay, am I really hungry? If not, why am I eating." Almost always with me, it's to escape feelings I don't want to feel. By any chance, have you read "Women, Food and God," by Geneen Roth? It's amazing. The "G-word" turns off a lot of people but it's not at all religious in orientation. I definitely recommend reading it. After a spate of recent emotional eating habits, I've broken it out to read again. It feels like every sentence should be highlighted! Good luck with everything, Jessy. Your gluten-free vegan website looks like a fantastic resource: I can't wait to explore it more!

  7. Thanks, Emily. I worry about being hungry a lot, too, and I'm really not sure where it comes from because I didn't grow up with food shortages or a ton of siblings competing for food. I get very anxious and cranky if I feel that I won't have enough food. The other day, my husband picked up groceries for dinner and he did not get enough for the four of us (we live with my son and mother as well) and I was just so crabby about it. We had a nice meal and I only realized later that I wasn't hungry and everything was fine. I wish I could always have this knowledge that everything's going to be okay. I'm guessing it's about trusting that everything will be okay.

  8. Hi Marla - sorry to leave a comment on your site, but I can't find an email address for you on the blog. I edit an online magazine and am interested in republishing this article. Could you email me to discuss?

    Thanks :)
    Katrina Fox
    Editor-in-chief, The Scavenger

  9. Great article as usual Marla. Hadn't thought about the emotional connections we have to certain foods before. Certainly will now!

  10. This was absolutely beautiful and brought a tear to my eye. Thank you!


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