a strong feeling of wanting to have something or wishing for something to happen
Photo by Pablo Merchán Montes
Desire is finite. We only have so much on any given day. It can motivate us towards our life’s purpose or lead us into a persistent cycle of self-soothing. For forty years I burned through my desire pursuing the next best thing to eat. It was my life’s work until my body could no longer sustain it.Now I am a weight loss coach, but I used to be an executive chef. From a very young age, food was my best friend.
I grew up in a family where food was the center of attention. My Italian father often finished breakfast by asking “what’s for dinner?” and my mother spent a good portion of the day procuring the best ingredients to cook with. I hovered on the outskirts of the kitchen absorbing the scent of onions, garlic and tomatoes wafting from a pan and learning to set the table each night with crushed red pepper, Tellicherry peppercorns, and Parmigiana-Reggiano stamped in black print along the rind. My father used these ingredients religiously to season plates placed before him.I learned that food was important.
My father praised, analyzed and critiqued his meals, so I started paying attention, too. The difference between standard red wine vinegar, and one with 7% acidity, was a subtle depth of flavor that still lingered from the wine and a distinct sharpness on the tongue. The crust of a multi-seeded loaf of bread determined its quality, and the best extra virgin olive oil was both peppery and fruity. Intrinsically, I equated eating with care.
When my mother made me a vanilla birthday cake frosted in the perfect shade of pastel pink, I knew she loved me.I could tell food loved me, too, by the way it tasted. It took care of me. A bite of cake made me feel happy. The surge of dopamine that hit me from a sugar rush rolled over me in euphoric waves, and all was right with the world. Even if just for a moment.
If the problem was always how to experience more love, then I discovered the perfect solution. Food. We became fast friends. It made sense. I felt good while I was eating. Except one bite was usually not enough, especially when it was something delicious. Except that people sometimes teased me about having a potbelly. Except that sometimes I felt physically ill from overeating. Food did not always treat me well.
When I turned eleven, my father was diagnosed with heart disease, and his relationship with food changed. The pantry was restocked overnight with superfoods and my culinary vocabulary expanded to include things like goji berries, oat bran, and flaxseed. Dad became religious about exercise and lost an easy thirty pounds over a few months. The mug of chocolate ice cream he ate after dinner was replaced with a sugar-free, low-fat fudgesicle. He was fanatical about this new regime, for the sake of his health and out of love for his family. My paternal grandfather died of a heart attack at the age of fifty, and it became my dad’s goal to outlive him.
The dynamic shifted in our home from an attitude of indulgence around food to one of vigilance. My father’s hyper-awareness of nutrition spilled over onto his children, and I started to feel scrutinized for what I ate. I started to associate food not just with a sense of love, but also a sense of shame. Instead of delight, I felt guilt rush over me as I inhaled a cheeseburger with fries in front of my father. But my love of food, and desire to overeat, didn’t change with his diagnosis, it only amplified. It became the forbidden fruit. So when we finished a meal together, I snuck around looking for more. I stashed a bag of chips or candy bar in my room and hid behind my door to scarf it down. I swiped a few more spoonfuls of pasta from the pot on the stove when no one was looking. Where no one could judge me. Food was there waiting for me.
I followed it everywhere, even to London where I enrolled in culinary school to become a chef. There I discovered proper chocolate mousse is made with heavy cream and eggs, and that gateau St. Honoré is a towering confection of cream puffs painstakingly dipped in hot caramel. Food was a labor of love. It led me back to the United States where I worked in fine dining restaurants, perfecting the slow method of risotto, each rice kernel growing creamier with the stir of a wooden spoon. Food brought me to the homes of businessmen, where I diligently perfected their meals as a private chef. I drove through the boroughs of New York to find the right hand-rolled mozzarella and Italian sausage requested by my employer and spent hours recreating childhood recipes for veal cutlets, manhattan clam chowder, and butterscotch pudding.
Finally, food brought me to my husband, who I decided was the most important person, other than myself, to cook for. Our first Valentine’s day together I surprised him with the ultimate gift. A six-course, homemade dinner paired with wine. We still talk about the chilled lobster and passionfruit salad, and grapefruit sorbet intermezzo.
By the time I turned thirty, I still believed food was the one thing I had, just for me. When I became a parent to my own three children, I relished my late afternoon snack before school pick-up. I found relief in cheese and crackers as I made dinner. And a bowl of chocolate marshmallow ice cream always took the edge off a long day.Food was easy. Food was a pleasure. And my desire for it never ceased. In between meals I devoured cooking shows and plotted what I would prepare for dinner. I read cookbooks as if they were novels, fantasizing about how the ingredients would manifest on a plate and taste on my tongue.
I read restaurant reviews as if they were the daily news.Thoughts and images of food swirled constantly through my mind, like a tantalizing feed of what I would consume if I had the chance. There was not time for much else. I cooked, I ate. It was never enough. I could not find the stop button. Food was just too good.
That was the story I told myself until I turned forty. It was then I realized food was not a true friend. It did not care about my well being. Actually, it could not care less about me.I was thirty pounds overweight with chronic ingestion and a stomach ulcer. I slept fitfully and depended on a nap every afternoon before I picked the kids up. A low-level depression descended, for no apparent reason, and I walked through each day in a brain fog.
One afternoon I caught myself zoning out on the couch before dinner with a bowl of popcorn and a glass of Cabernet, while the kids watched television in the background.It was a moment of awareness. This was not the way I wanted my life to look.
I knew my relationship with food had to change, so gradually I began to peel back the layers. Comfort, desire, love, shame. They were all there, at the core of how I felt. And I realized I did not need food to deal with them. I learned that my desire could be repurposed and used for something else. Something bigger, something more meaningful. Something that generated love and energy in my life in a sustainable way.
These days my old friend, food, still hangs around. But I no longer follow it. I let it do its own thing.And I, now, do mine.