Eating With My Mouth Open
by Sam Van Zweden
Content note: discusses appetite loss, mental illness.
I take that first bite of dinner – the food somehow pushing my slack body upright, into itself – and realise I haven’t eaten all day. How could this have happened? I never used to be a person who forgot meals. I couldn’t understand what that was, so eager was I to eat. When my hunger goes, I realise what it is to eat: a reprieve from the day filled with tasks; a necessary moment to myself; an experience shared with family, friends.
Over a year ago, I lost my hunger. Now it’s gone, I ask myself what hunger and desire are.
It’s the lazy end of the festive season and I am reading Eating With My Mouth Open. As I read, I think of its author Sam Van Zweden. We’ve worked together on short essays to be published online – her editing my work, me hers. We met for the first time over drinks just before COVID hit Australia; almost a year before I read the book. I was in Melbourne, visiting to secure a work visa to the US.
That was the last trip I would take for a long while. A small getaway with Mum tagging along. A bit of an inconvenience, as there’s no US consulate in Adelaide. Mum and I walk through the CBD. Streets are blocked off and we follow the noise and see it’s the Greek Festival. We laugh with one another at the strangeness of stumbling upon our culture like this. Mum dips pita bread into ztatziki, I down hot chips covered in salt, oregano.
Van Zweden writes: ‘There is a surprising thingness of memory. This is where it lives: here, and here, and here.’
I used to think hunger was a constant. That waves of hunger and fullness were reliable, if not always intense. Then, an illness altered my perception of the world. Within that, food. Textures felt unnatural. When I was eighteen, having just finished high school, I would delight at being at home for lunch each day. I could prepare whatever I wanted, taking care to arrange a meal in my parents’ yellow rimmed bowls. Steamed broccoli – still crunchy. Olive oil, lemon, pepper. Half an avocado. I ate it every day for six months.
The thought of this now turns my stomach. I stick to brittle, starchy foods. Baked frozen chips with glugs of olive oil. Chili flakes. Mi-goreng flavoured crisps. My partner has taken to slicing cucumber, bringing it to me on a small plate in the afternoon. Encouraging me to eat green.
Emily Nunn writes in The Comfort Food Diaries that cooking is ‘your responsibility to make something good, which you must then attempt to parlay into something better, never knowing exactly how things will turn out.’
Eating With My Mouth Open builds upon itself in a series of thematically connected essays that blend lived experience with research. The mix of memoir and reportage is appropriate to Van Zweden’s multidisciplinary view of food and culture. What does it mean to eat and live in a body? Van Zweden tracks the ways food has offered her comfort, a connection to home (‘I can picture my growing-up as a montage of kitchens’) and culture. Food can also be a prompt to memory, an expression of mental health and a vessel for shame within ‘wellness’ culture. Van Zweden is not making one argument about food and eating, but following many threads.
Reading the book, I appreciate Van Zweden’s attentiveness to what food can be and mean. Food is written with care, as if Van Zweden herself was assembling a delicate meal for her readers to savour on a drawn-out Sunday afternoon. I learn I hadn’t yet been able to understand what a loss of hunger meant. If to be hungry is to desire, then to eat is to fulfil (fill?). I’m empty of hunger. Reading Eating With My Mouth Open, I realise how profound this loss is.
Van Zweden writes, ‘Hunger is proof that our brilliant bodies work hard to keep us safe… also signalling the need for self-care’. This line, she goes on to argue, is but one of the many complex narratives around food. Hunger, too, is often seen as greed. ‘The nasty children in Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.’ ‘The ultimate: Eve ate the forbidden apple.’
It’s early morning and I’m in front of the pantry, ready to throw up from pain. I decide on a jar of salted peanuts. Grab a handful and shoot them into my mouth. I chew and chew, trying not to feel the texture crumbling down my throat. I swallow, sick but triumphant. I can now take pain meds.
Here, I’m having trouble writing about absence. I’m used to writing about what I have gained, even if it’s a painful addition: illness, hallucinations of sparkling white dots and shapes. How can I word loss? Especially when it comes to something as amorphous as hunger. I see hunger as an absence of food matched by the presence of desire. Hunger is not so much loss but a seeking, pulling me towards something.
I am not used to writing this body – the eating body, which of course is what my body is. I write the sick body. My book, Hysteria, is about my experience of an illness and how it altered my life within a body. I wrote my lived experience alongside women who came before me – who lived the same illness. So, I am used to the body that exists in that liminal space of waiting rooms (I write this in a waiting room where the boundaries of my body feel blurry after being looked through by doctors who are looking for other patients). I wonder if these two bodies are opposed. The sick body is seen as emaciated, weakened. I’ve lost my hunger but still I know this is not the full story.
In Eating With My Mouth Open, Van Zweden taps into what it is to live within a body and the realisation that the (writing) mind and body are not separate:
I notice – with a certain sense of horror – my body, sudden and undeniable… This writing comes from my body (a body of work, a body of words, a body of writing, the body of the text). This writing is my body – it lives and breathes, taking on life. It has hands and feet and a beating heart.
I find myself thinking of this some nights before sleep. Sensing my limbs under layers of blankets, I think this is my body. Yet still, in the depths of writing, the presence and weight of my body feels far away.
There’s a plum tree in my garden and as January breaks, the branches droop with dusky purple fruit. When I wash them, they shine and the bags of plums help to bring me back to myself from the depressive episode that has swallowed my days. I make pie and sorbet and sauce and crumble and syrup to pour into iced tea. My chopping board turns purple. Mum makes cake and jam. I feel the weight of this abundance as I carry plums into the house. We leave bags and notes on neighbours’ doorsteps when they do not answer the bell. I hand over bags to friends, keeping one by the front door as a reminder.
I am not hungry but the plums and the acts associated with them – picking, bagging, cutting, cooking, freezing – bring me out of a disembodied numbness. My body, worn from the year before, one where I spent much of my time talking and being asked and thinking about an illness, felt the movements of slicing as a return to something. A way of moving without thinking and feeling. Just a repetitive thud of the knife hitting wood, fruit giving way. Fingers stained purple.
Van Zweden connects the threads of food and mental health – and illness. The ‘sneaker waves’ of depression build seasonally: ‘Another fucking apple… and I haven’t left the house in four days,’ then ‘eventually… the arrival of nectarines and the lifting of the veil.’ Food as a way to mark time through the drumbeat of illness. Food as comfort, relief.
Eating With My Mouth Open conveys connection and patience in understanding food and culture, and how to relate to a body. As if eating and tending to a body aren’t to be rushed. The process of care itself is as important as a full belly. Care, too, emerges in Van Zweden’s perseverance in moving through the messy and damaging social narratives around food and weight and health.
Lur Algurabi writes in ‘On Food’ about the ways food creates comfort and connection. A meal is not just an event but a reflection of the relationships around us. She writes: ‘When I left my partner of five years, I suddenly found myself without anyone to eat my food on a daily basis. Someone I could go to at lunch time to say “how does a little pesto pasta sound?”’ The essay reflects on love as well as inhabiting the lushness of meals made with garlic and goats cheese, and black sesame and sage oil. After reading Algurabi’s words, I feel a little fuller.
When I book a surgery months in advance, I text Mum the date. She replies by asking me to pick a menu. Two main dishes, two desserts. She’ll bring them to my house while I recover. Eyes closed, drifting to sleep, I think about what I’d like. Spanakopita. The taste of home and comfort and celebration.
Another memory: my partner takes me to the specialist for an invasive test. I’m so nervous that beforehand I take a diazepam, which has no effect. When I’m there, tears pooling in the corner of my eyes, Mathew drives to Chatime. He orders the bubble tea I picked out – not one, but two. My usual order and a wild card – and when he picks me up, I’m jittery. In the car, I am soothed by the sugar and ice hitting my tongue. Weeks later, my specialist suggests I re-do the test in three months’ time and my first thought is which flavour I will choose.
In addressing the act of eating as family connection, Van Zweden reflects on her Dutch heritage through food. She literally tastes her culture: ‘Where you come from is inherited because it is fed to you’. Van Zweden is ‘most Dutch when eating’. Her father recreates patatje flip, stroopwafels for them both. A sign of reaching for home. When in Amsterdam together, Van Zweden’s father finds that his memory is not the same as the stoopwafel he is handed. The food that exists in memory is always out of reach, ‘the satisfaction of his cravings an impossibility’. Van Zweden finds that her father’s cooking has ‘shaped my own palate for Dutch foods’; she calls this a ‘third space’ that exists as a ‘home for us’.
Van Zweden writes:
The stories my family tell are often food stories. These stories are warmth and home; reliable and exciting at once. In a way, we have agreed that to feed is to care. To eat is to build upon our collective story. I remember. We remember. We use food to say, again and again, who we are.
During the time I’m writing this, I make κουλούρια with mum for orthodox Easter. We roll the dough into logs, twisting them into the braids and pretzel shapes Yia yia used to make. I make a ‘K’ as she used to do for me, brushing on an egg wash and pink and white sprinkles. I laugh, saying, ‘Lucky she can’t see us making these gluten free.’ Mum keeps rolling. ‘Maybe she can.’
I realise that our food, like Van Zweden’s family’s, is an approximation. I make Yia yia’s recipes gluten free. I flip through the Greek cookbook passed through my family and switch out chicken broth for vegetable stock. I make αβγολέμονο from a recipe I find online, written in both Greek and English (I am at my best speaking and reading Greek when it’s related to food). The soup comes out too yellow and rich. Mum explains Yia yia had made her own changes to αβγολέμονο – using only egg whites, not yolk. Months later, my aunt shows me how Yia yia measured the rice out with her hands. I realise that I am not, as I had thought, corrupting ‘traditional’ recipes and moving away from my cultural tastebuds. I am building upon them, altering and accommodating them to fit my pantry. I am doing what we’ve always done.
Food and family. So intertwined that the threads of them feel like a knot. In the past year, mum and I have rolled and packed ντολμάδες into pots until our backs ached. Our fingers move in new ways, mine growing confident at making shapes I’d watched the older women in my family make. I teach my partner to salt the pasta water, how to cut the acid of tinned tomatoes with raw sugar. Mathew texts me during the day: This eggplant is so good! He’d taken in leftovers for lunch and hearing that he’s enjoying it, I feel a little bit more nourished. Later, as he comes home and places his empty lunch box in the dishwasher, I realise I haven’t eaten.
I read Long Litt Woon’s The Way Through the Woods, a meditation on grief that chronicles the author’s newfound interest in mushrooming. I learn that mushrooms are not all alike; they do not only ‘smack of earth, leaves, and moss, as wine connoisseurs would have it.’ Long’s acquisition of knowledge about mushrooms is punctuated by her daily grief; ‘the fridge is another reminder of our life together.’ Grief is felt through meals – Long and her partner, who died unexpectedly, loved to cook together – and she writes, after he dies that ‘I almost had to force myself to eat’. When she regains her appetite, Long realises that she is ‘making my way back to my old weight… and to life.’
Grief is shaped by food. I feel the tenderness in the meals Long includes in the book. I screengrab recipes for pickled mushrooms and roasted mushrooms with sesame oil and soy sauce. I tell myself that unlike the many recipes I have saved in the last year, these I will make.
I am not hungry but food still structures my day. I grow cucumbers, tomatoes, capsicum, beetroot, cabbage, and spinach. Walking through my garden, I press mint and sage in between my fingers to release their rich aroma. I trim the yellowing shoots on my tomato plants, wrap the apricot tree in fruit fly netting (still, the birds find their way in. I am left with a yield of one apricot). I cook and freeze and preserve.
I find that my connection to food remains. Transforming into something else, but there nonetheless. Joy becomes grief becomes joy.
Eating With My Mouth Open shows that voicing food is complex. Shame is foisted upon eating and bodies – what Van Zweden calls the moral weight of food. Language like ‘guilty pleasure’, ‘naughty foods’ and even, ‘treats’ connect food to morality. Size to worth. Van Zweden rummages through the shame and morality, seeking a different and thoughtful view of food. She writes:
I try to pin down and interrogate. These words work hard, now that my jaw moves freely. They are intentional and they earn their space in the world.
Writing this – finding words for absence – is hard. Reading Eating With My Mouth Open and following Van Zweden’s understanding of food both nourishes and leaves me feeling an ache to, once again, hunger. I type these words and feel the weight of them. Yet, at the same time, I’m buoyed. From Van Zweden’s work, I’m pulled into another narrative: my own. Questioning – always questioning – what hunger means.
Emily Nunn, The Comfort Food Diaries: My Quest for the Perfect Dish to Mend a Broken Heart (Atria Books: 2017)
Long Litt Woon, The Way Through the Woods: On Mushrooms and Mourning (Spiegel & Grau: 2017)
Sam Van Zweden, Eating with My Mouth Open (NewSouth: 2021)