Top | First Person

Eating again

(article, Ruth Tobias)

A slice of chocolate cake saved my life. 

No, I didn’t use it to distract a circling shark, leave a trail of crumbs to find my way through a forest, or smash it in the face of an attacker. 

Not literally, anyway — although as metaphors for the threat posed by my bout with anorexia go, those scenarios aren’t far off. Instead I just . . . took a bite. A frightened, then determined, then relieved, then bliss-filled bite. 

It was 1991, on my 21st birthday. I weighed 81 pounds.

For two years, I had subsisted on diet Coke, frozen yogurt, dry cereal, gum, and the occasional baked potato, while exercising for upwards of three hours a day. 

[%image reference-image float=right width=400 caption="A piece of cake."]

No wonder old college acquaintances respond with eyebrows raised to the news that I’m now a food writer.

And yet, from where I stand, the line leading from point A to point G — Anorexic to Gastronome, that is — looks not crooked but perfectly straight, not ironic at all but inevitable. 

After all, while anorexia translates etymologically as “lack of appetite,” the disorder entails anything but. It isn’t the absence of desire for food, but the compulsive fear of being utterly consumed by desire that drives one’s refusal to eat. 

And though the explanations for its development range from psychological (see: Electra complex) to sociological (see: Vogue magazine) to biological (i.e., genetic predisposition), you don’t have to have a degree in any science to surmise the odds were stacked against me. 

My parents were a former model and the much-older college professor she married. Among thin, athletic, popular, all-American types, I came of age in Oklahoma as a mousy, bookish klutz with broad hips and a broader palate. Do you count three strikes yet?

Brussels sprouts, anchovies, prune juice, corned beef and cabbage, sandwiches made with cream cheese and green olives — the horrified reactions of my friends to the stuff I loved eating convinced me early on that my eating habits were all wrong, shameful, to be indulged only in secret. Or, better yet, not at all. 

Mind you, I don’t have a degree in any science myself; after high school, I left home for Los Angeles (strike four!) to get my BA in English literature. For all the ways in which I found myself even more physically wanting in the land of bikinis and bike shorts, my intellectual confidence was such that I worked toward becoming a poet without so much as an inkling of a Plan B. 

Besides, with my newly discovered ability to squelch hunger, what could be more alluring than the mystique of the starving artist? I studied Sylvia Plath and Anne Sexton. I jogged until I dropped. I did hundreds of sit-ups. And then I studied some more, alone in my dorm room while my roommates came and went to dinner, to parties, on dates.

And then, suddenly, it was my 21st birthday and there was no one around. Friends and boyfriends had given up, slipped away. My father flew in to keep me company. 

And finally, I agreed to go out to eat.

We drove to a popular seafood joint on the Malibu waterfront. Though I lived not five miles away, I hadn’t been to the beach in ages — hadn’t heard the gulls calling, or smelled the salt air, or felt the sand between my toes. I hadn’t watched the sun set over the Pacific. 

Why had I come here? I could have attended my hometown university, but instead I’d moved a thousand miles away. Wasn’t it to see new places, meet new people, experience new things — wasn’t it to start a life? 

I ordered a dinner salad, no dressing, vinegar and mustard on the side. My father ordered cioppino. How I’d loved cioppino as a child, visiting San Francisco for the first time. I bit my lip. And then, before the waitress could turn away, I said it: “And a slice of chocolate cake.”

She gave me a look. “It’s huge,” she said. “Seven layers.” I just nodded. Watching her back as she moved toward the kitchen, I felt the tears spill hot down my cheeks. My father put his hand over mine. 

Eventually, she brought the cake. I took a bite.

This is what chocolate cake tastes like, I thought. Moist and dark and sugary and . . . wonderful. I remember now.

Oh, my struggle wasn’t over — on the contrary, it was still to come. My twenties are a blur of reading, writing, and working to take a bite of this and try a sip of that among new friends in new surroundings — Iowa City, Boulder, Boston. 

Often good meals end with dessert. But on that particular day, in that moment of my life, dessert was just the beginning.

p(bio). Ruth Tobias is a Denver-based food writer; her portfolio and blog, Denveater, can be found at her website.

reference-image, l