*Content warning: This article mentions eating disorders*
Do you remember your first food love? Mine was chocolate spread, Nutella specifically. Every now and then as a child I would unwrap my cling-film-covered sandwiches at school and grin when the scent of hazelnuts, cocoa and sugar hit my nostrils. Today is a good day, I would think to myself before taking that first bite.
Our relationships with food are often complicated and mine is no different. Food is a difficult thing, after all. We must have it in our lives, whether we want to or not. There’s no getting away from it, no matter how hard one may try. This is why we so often talk about the ‘relationship’ between ourselves and food. How healthy or unhealthy it is. Because, like it or not, we all have one.
In her article, Our strained relationship with food, writer Kris Gage uses the same terms used in psychology for interpersonal attachment styles to describe eating habits — anxious-attached eaters, avoidant eaters, anxious-avoidant eaters and secure eaters. Reading through the descriptions Kris outlines, and looking back at my own checkered history with food, I can relate to almost all of them at some point.
Something I find missing from this narrative however is the romance. What about the spectacular moments you have with food? The impassioned arguments, the making up, the love and security it can give you if you let it?
Strawberries in disguise, Sunday sweets and first love
My earliest memory of food was one of deceit. I was sitting at the dinner table, faced with any child’s nemesis — broccoli. My mum told me to close my eyes and imagine they were strawberries and cream. So I did. I closed my eyes, ate a piece and tried to taste the sharp tang of strawberry being soothed by cream. But alas, this was no strawberry — all I tasted was bitterness and disappointment.
Like most kids, I had a sweet tooth. This is biological, children are programmed to like sweet tastes because it “fills a biological need by pushing them towards energy sources,” according to Monell geneticist Danielle Reed, PhD. Sweet often means calorific, and calories are what we need to grow.
So of course, when my parents introduced ‘Sunday sweets’ to our family’s routine, I was beyond thrilled. One day a week where we could go to the shop and pick any pack of sweets we wanted (I favoured fizzy cola Chewits or Rolos). The ultimate treat.
Not all sweets were created equal of course. I vividly remember attending friends’ birthday parties and being presented with the classic pairing of ice cream and jelly. The ice cream was wonderful, a heavenly combination of sweetness and creaminess that I longed for often. But the jelly, with its menacing wobble, wasn’t to be trusted. When it slithered down my throat it made my entire body shudder with disgust. The taste itself was pleasant, but the texture made my skin crawl; it was the first food I remember outrightly refusing.
As beautiful as my relationship with sweet treats were, it wasn’t until I started my relationship with chocolate spread that I understood what true love was.
In those early days it was an on-and-off casual relationship, when I was lucky to see it once a week hiding between two slices of bread in my lunchbox.
As I grew older and moved onto secondary school, I gained more control over my diet and things got serious. Arriving home after a hard day of learning, I’d put a couple of pikelets into the toaster (a slightly thinner crumpet) and slather them with chocolate spread. Melting into the tiny holes, the spread found its way to my heart.
Which is why, I’m sure, it was the first snack to go when I became unwell.
Binned lunches, binged Rocky bars and breaking up with food
I was 13 when I first looked at food in a different light. Well, that’s not strictly true. It was when I first looked at myself in a different light. I was in German class, looking down and I happened to spot some cellulite on my crossed legs. Using my fingers to push and squeeze this new material, I was breathless with panic, silently screaming while trying to understand the foreign words being taught.
The truth is, I’d been feeling low for some time. Like I didn’t fit, like boys didn’t like me. Seeing this glimpse of cellulite felt like a message from above — this is the reason. This is why no one likes you. It was suddenly so obvious.
It was like my body had changed shape overnight and I needed to take immediate action. The first action I took was to say goodbye to my chocolate spread soaked pikelet snack. I loved it too much and now I was paying the price. The only solution, surely, was to go cold turkey. But of course, turkey was out of the picture too.
The turkey and tomato rolls I took for lunch each day found their way into bins as I slowly narrowed down my food intake. Shrinking myself became my sole objective and food, no matter how delicious, was now the enemy.
I looked at all food with disdain and yet it dominated my thoughts. I would imagine the pleasure of eating it, feel ashamed and then decide how to avoid that pleasure. Instead of food being the great love of my life, an aching hunger took its place. I welcomed hunger with open arms because hunger meant smaller.
There were days when food won me over though. I would be overcome with lust and binge-eat Rocky chocolate bars. After being together shame washed over me. Hiding the evidence I’d push their wrappers between armchair cushions, hoping the chair would somehow eat what I couldn’t.
The war between hunger and food, competing for my affection raged in my mind for what felt like an eternity but was, in reality, a handful of years.
Yoghurts, relapse and breaking up with hunger
After being marched to the doctor by worried parents, I started working with a therapist who diagnosed me with anorexia. I was poked, prodded, had blood taken (to decipher how much harm I’d done) and weighed with disturbing regularity.
I was asked to add a yoghurt into my daily eating routine. When my therapist said this, I remember thinking back to how much I used to love yoghurt. Trying my mum’s full-fat greek yoghurt, drizzled with honey and topped with berries, it was a taste I’ll never forget.
From that authentic nectar of the Gods to a humble Muller corner with chocolate balls, yoghurt was a food I always had fond feelings for. But now things were different. Yoghurt represented everything that frightened me. It represented my body changing, me losing control.
Over time, things changed. I left school and found a new freedom I hadn’t expected when starting college. Choosing my own clothes helped me see my body in a less harsh light. I settled into a group of friends, who ironically I was at school with but had never spent time with. I met my first boyfriend and fell in (human) love for the first time.
Anorexia faded into the background as I let myself taste again. Dipping mars bars into hot chocolate between lessons and biting burgers between kisses, I was flirting with food again and it felt great.
Anyone who’s experienced an eating disorder will know however that recovery isn’t linear. In my first year at university I took full control of my diet for the first time and felt all at once exhilarated and terrified. With that first love done and dusted, I fell for a friend I knew I could never have (unless he was spectacularly drunk) and old demons came to the surface. It was like I could only take so much romantic pain. The loneliness I felt transformed into a desire to shrink.
This time though, I fought back. Arguing with my eating disorder every time it suggested I skipped a meal, I made a game out of my recovery. Whenever hunger gnawed at me, trying to seduce me with promises of a smaller, happier life, I told it no. I ate bowls of pasta mixed with cheese, frozen burger packs and Pizza-Go-Go.
Eventually anorexia grew tired of me and gave up. I made a promise then and there to break up with hunger. It no longer held an allure of thinness, but instead became what it should be — a sign to eat.
Dining out, international food and finding myself
After slowly acclimatising myself to eating again, I allowed myself to feel the romance of it all over again. Falling back in love with food as an adult opened up a whole new world for me — dining out. Of course I went to restaurants in my childhood and teen years, but these were often venues catered towards families, with menus to colour in and refillable drinks. As an adult I saw the dining world with fresh, hungry eyes.
Without fear peering over my shoulder I could read a menu without panic, choosing dishes based on flavour, not potential calorie content.
One of my favourite dining experiences took place in my mid-twenties. My partner at the time loved food as much as I did and happened to have a chef friend who could often get us free meals. One night a group of us went to Duck & Waffle, a fancy restaurant in London. Letting our chef friend take control, he ordered a range of dishes for us all to share.
The low lighting, flowing wine and new tastes felt like an awakening. A big part of romance is the peripherals. The slow music in the background and dancing candlelight before that first kiss in a movie. And the romance of food is no different. Often what’s happening around the food is just as important as the food itself.
This is why restaurants go to such efforts to create an ambiance. They know how much this impacts the eating experience. And here, at Duck & Waffle, with the person I thought I’d be with forever, I couldn’t have felt more in love.
Of course, just like our relationship with food, human relationships can change. After a while, no amount of meals out could salvage that relationship. We broke up and I set my sights on travel. I had, unbeknownst to me, shrunken myself a little in that relationship (metaphorically this time) and needed to do something to discover my full self again.
So I travelled. I visited Berlin with my mum first, eating cake, pastries and bratwurst to keep us warm. We drank glühwein under Christmas lights and ordered room service (pasta for her, the biggest burger I’ve ever met for me). I drowned my sorrows in new experiences and sugar.
A couple of short months later I found myself in Dubai enjoying a birthday spent largely alone, with buffet lunches and leftover cheesecake for company before a decadent Thai meal out with a friend. This was where I started to feel more… full.
But I continued. A trip to Barcelona saw me sitting in a jamón shop, smiling, sipping wine and peeling strips of jamón ibérico off a fork with my teeth. And finally a trip to Costa Rica introduced me to fried plantain, really good iced coffee and the only time I’ve enjoyed drinking beer.
When I met my current partner, I was my full self.
Ramen stained T-shirts and life-long romance
On our second date we went to a Caribbean restaurant nestled at the top of a rather unhappy shopping outlet. The service was terrible and the food not much better, but thankfully the conversation sparkled enough for it not to leave a bad taste in our mouths.
I quickly learnt that food didn’t have quite as big a role in his life as it did mine, and I made it a secret mission of mine to change that. The more dates we had, the more we dined out. I asked him to take me to his favourite restaurant and we ended up in Ippudo in London, where we were presented with two steaming bowls of Ramen. Looking at the chopsticks and my white t-shirt, I smiled and wondered how I was going to do this.
As it turned out, I did it with zero grace and poise, dripping broth down my top between slurps (the sake didn’t help). I gave up before feeling totally satisfied because, quite frankly, I was a mess. But I loved that this was his happy place when it came to food. It was different, as unique as him.
He tells me now that he’s learnt to appreciate food more since being with me, no longer seeing it as fuel, but something to enjoy and be romanced by.
Five years later and as I write this, trips to restaurants feel like a faded dream. The pandemic has instead forced us to delight in home-cooking and marvel at the magic that is Deliveroo.
We cheer up dull working from home days by ordering tacos for lunch, or make it a date-night by ordering pizza and cookies. We’ve discovered recipes that comfort us and are slowly expanding our cooking repertoire, one dish at a time.
With optimism I now say my romance with food is a life-long one. I relish in the act of eating, letting fears and societal pressures fall by the wayside. I’m even filling my eyes with stories about food as my bookshelf heaves with food love stories. I want to take food in with every sense it seems — eyes, ears, mouth and mind.
It’s been a long road to get here and I won’t lie and say it’s always easy. Eating and living in this way, with no compromise on flavour and unreserved glee is unnerving to many. This is perhaps why I resonated so deeply with this passage in Tiny Moons by Nina Mingya Powels:
“It is tiring to be a woman who loves to eat in a society where hunger is something not to be satisfied but controlled. Where a long history of female hunger is associated with shame and madness. The body must be punished for every misstep; for every “indulgence” the balance of control must be restored. To enjoy food as a young woman, to opt out every day from the guilt expected of me, is a radical act, of love.”
It is tiring. But it is worth it. Having felt the sting of starvation, the way I shrunk when dancing with hunger, I know this is better. Keeping a pot of chocolate spread in the cupboard to dip my spoon into whenever the mood strikes, is better.
And so, as tiring as it may be, enjoying food and being swept up in the romance of it all is what I’ll continue to do.
Read more about me and my work at Blue Jay of Happiness.