Eating with my Mouth Open: on memories of food and family

Sam van Zweden is interested in the complex relationship between food, memory, and the ones we love. 'I can’t remember food without thinking of my family,' she writes. 'I can’t remember my family without thinking of food.' In this lyric essay, produced as part of her Hot Desk fellowship, Sam explores our emotional associations with food – and the stories food is used to tell.

1.

My father was a chef for 25 years. My mother is morbidly obese.

Food forms a chain around us: connecting, binding and tethering.

These are perhaps the most factual statements I can make as a beginning. They’re not tainted by my worldview, or the love I feel for my parents; these two facts exist and are true. Independent of me, or life, or anything else.

Even so, the desire to apologise is strong.

I am the daughter of people who inhabit these two facts, and I struggle to know what this means. My own relationship with food feels like a knot worth unpicking, or at least attempting to. The not-knowing is a fact as real as the others.

This is our cast. These are the stakes. I fear that I’ve written us into a corner already.

2.

If asked to pinpoint what brings my family together, I would say that it’s food.

Food forms a chain around us: connecting, binding and tethering. My memories form chains, linking remembrances, one to another, which I hadn’t realised were connected. But memory is like that, isn’t it? Entwined, even circular. Everything we know is in there, and it comes back eventually, bound to something - everything - else.

‘I’m eating rainbow popcorn; I’m in the pool; I’m in Lake Eildon; I’m holding Dad’s shoulders’ - I’ve witnessed others in the free-fall of memory provoked by food. A food and a concept go hand-in-hand. A moment and a flavour. When we eat, memories rush back. Our bodies harbour so much without our even knowing it. I’m trying to unpack this question that mystifies me entirely - why are we so very tangled up over something that’s just meant to provide fuel? Isn’t it simple? Aren’t we over-complicating this?

At the same time, food is essential. We live in bodies - our realities are lived - which means that we can’t just stop eating. If we do, our bodies give out and we die. How could there be such a thing as over-complication when food is so important?

Dad and I bond over what, how and why we’ve been eating - an echo of when I was young and he let me find recipes we could make together, or gave me something to try for the first time. Those precious moments together blaze in my memory, and we attempt to recreate them now, shuffling close to that fire.

Mum and I talk about what we’re not eating. We compare our efforts at suppression, at prodding our overweight bodies into more acceptable shapes. Mum and I swap recipes and ask about weight loss, then say nothing when we inevitably fail to change our habits. We view those habits as stubborn, unchangeable, and we give each other permission to do so. In their own way, these connections are precious moments, too. Mum’s schizoaffective disorder means that we lean away from difficult topics. ‘What’s for dinner?’ is a safe question to ask; it can’t drag in trauma or confusion - and besides, food is nourishment, right? To eat well is to be well. Presenting a balance between appetite and the controlled body is a marker of health - apart from when it’s not. All that aside, for the most part, like so many other kids and their mums, I’ve watched Mum diet on and off since I was young. Food, here, has become something worthy of suspicion.

Food experiences build happy memories: a shared recipe, a shared taste experience, a food gift. And so the stories we tell are often food stories.

I have both Mum and Dad’s attitudes inside me: I love food and I hate it. It nurtures me and it is dangerous. I feel the pull between these two influences, and I yearn for the two halves to make a whole. I wonder if this is the order of things - if, as the child of these two particular people, that’s what my attitudes have to be. Is inheritence direct, or patchwork? I wonder whether, for my brother - also a chef - these halves exist at all.

It’s nobody’s responsibility. It just, so curiously, is.

Food experiences build happy memories: a shared recipe, a shared taste experience, a food gift. And so the stories we tell are often food stories. These stories are warmth and home; reliable and exciting. 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.

We focus on the tasty things - and there have been so many tasty things. This is what we all do, as a society - we fawn over delicious and theatrical food. We wow over skill and finesse. The language we create around food - the metaphors we have built - skew to the positive. The way to a man’s heart is through his stomach. Chicken soup is for the soul. Cooking and feeding are seen as acts of nourishment, nurturing, and care. What of hunger? What of fullness? What of craving, and bingeing, and refusal?

We home-cook meals and celebrate with food, we give impressive food gifts (my colourful food, my clever food, the food I made especially for you). Food fills a gap. And those taste memories come back to me, constantly, until I’ve kicked my body down with the memory of it all.

My parents separated over ten years ago. Mum moved out, and I lived with Dad during my final years at home, before moving to the city. Dad remarried, Mum moved on. Our family are now scattered across two states and there’s a strait between us, but food is still the chain.

Food is also a battle-ground. It’s a place I can be fiercely myself, by eating differently from my family. I rebel by eating, by not eating, by eating in ways they don’t know about - ways new, foreign, novel. Dangerous or excessive. Hidden.

I can’t remember food without thinking of my family. I can’t remember my family without thinking of food. 

3.

Catholics believe that during mass the communion bread and wine ‘transubstatiate’. That is, the bread and wine’s substance becomes the body and blood of Christ.

As a non-believer I might find this puzzling - it could fade into the inconceivable noise of a culture I’m not part of, as many religious rituals do. But this one doesn’t. I think of shared meals and food gifts, reaching for snacks on sadness or stress, and I understand how food might be anything but what it is.

4.

My first memory of food is of strawberry crème chocolates. In fact, this is my first memory of anything.

Memory can serve as a kind of tally - a scorecard which assures us of who we are. We know our own identities, and can be sure of them because memory stacks up in corroboration. Imbued with great importance, our first memory becomes the prime mover.

We lived out of town. The floor was made of cork. It was my third Easter, but the first where I was aware of it being a special occasion.

Sam van Zweden, reading from Eating with my Mouth Open at Next Big Thing.

I remember standing in the hall near the kitchen, the cork cool under my feet. I wore a thin nightgown, and the cat pawed at my bare ankles. In my hands I held the chocolates, which came from my brother. They were arranged in a heart-shaped box, and were wrapped in bright pink foil. I felt precious and loved.

There are some stories that my family tell again and again - like any family, we have stories that we recognise from their very first words. There’s a Dutch word, gezellig, which English fails to translate. Gezellig sits somewhere between cosy and comfortable, and it’s related to keeping warm, friendly company. My family’s stories are gezellig - they are about where we have come from and where we are going. They are the legends that everything else balances upon - and like all legends, they exist to explain how the world works.

The unspoken contract within my family is that a story that makes any family member uncomfortable is best left untold. When this works in my favour, perhaps I am relieved. We are what we repeatedly do, and I lean towards silence when things hurt or confuse me.

Instead, we focus on the tasty things. In his 1825 essay titled ‘The Foundations of Pleasure’, Jean-Anthelme Brillat-Savarin (the guy who came up with, ‘You are what you eat’ - though, in my translation, I have ‘Tell me what you eat: I will tell you what you are’) said that ‘Gourmandism is an act of judgement, by which we give preference to things which are agreeable to our taste over those which are not’. Discomfort is disagreeable to my family’s taste; it is bitter and difficult to swallow. So we don’t: we spit it out. Naturally, it doesn’t make the menu.

I have written before, in another project, about my mother and her mental illness. I meant for that to be a book-length story, but after showing it to my family, shame stilled my pen. I had written about family I’ve never met, and half-stories I had heard whispered through doors. I wondered what I had inherited and how, from whom. Mum said, ‘Don’t publish this while your grandparents are still alive’ and then not much more. Dad was unsettled by how much I didn’t know, and struggled to make room for my ragged understanding.

I’ve asked about the strawberry crèmes, to be safe, but nobody else in the family remembers them. Does that make this an unsafe story? It doesn’t feel unsafe, it feels gezellig.

I took the foil off the chocolate as carefully as my three-year-old motor skills allowed, leaving only small tears in it.

The smallness of the chocolates from my brother made them more special. I remember holding the box and the smell of the chocolates, but not the moment when the chocolates were gone. Such a moment must have come, because I don’t still own the chocolates. As soon as I put a sweet, all-mine chocolate into my mouth I began to lose that gift from my brother. Is this what they mean when they say that you can’t have your cake and eat it too? My body mulched and processed until the chocolate was gone. I was left only with the reflex that kicks at my memory when I smell strawberry flavouring, and the fondness I still have for smoothing out chocolate foils.

There’s a Dutch word, gezellig, which English fails to translate. Gezellig sits somewhere between cosy and comfortable, and it’s related to keeping warm, friendly company. My family’s stories are gezellig - they are about where we have come from and where we are going.

These chocolates are the first present I remember receiving, the first thing I’m conscious of owning all for myself - a gift of food from my brother. We repeat this action again and again, he and I, until our adult relationship is almost entirely based around the giving and receiving of food, tasting and critiquing, trying novel things. He wants me to taste his duck ravioli; to tell him I enjoy it; to acknowledge that he has made this for me. I watch as he fusses the rocket around my plate and positions the pasta with sculptural flourish. I know that he’s been more particular with my plate than he has with the others. I am cared-for.

The story of those strawberry chocolates isn’t a story about chocolate. It’s a story told through chocolate - it’s a definition of self and place that leans on the chocolate experience. It could’ve been anything - and it was chocolate.

Virginia Woolf said that ‘if life has a base that it stands upon, if it is a bowl that one fills and fills and fills - then my bowl without a doubt stands upon this memory’. I imagine my life as a marble bowl, hefty and wide, which teeters on a tiny, pink foil-wrapped chocolate.

5.

On the Greek Island of Kalymnos, food, family and memory are tied inextricably together. Common parlance urges residents and visitors to ‘eat, in order to remember Kalymnos.’ Food is something for Kalymnian families to gather around - as it is for so many families all over the world - but it’s also the centrepiece of religious and social rituals, giving food weighty significance.

Food-giving acts symbolically for Kalymnians, atoning for their ancestors’ sins. Food gifts must be accepted, and when the gift is eaten, debt (between the giver and the recipient) is internalised. ‘I owe you’ sits in the belly. I wonder whether the Kalymnians feel weighed down or comfortably anchored.

But I know what this feels like, really. It feels like setting the agenda - not in a cynical or calculated way; more like a charter of measures which assure security. The establishment of a safety net. It feels like stating, ‘I owe you’, on the most basic level, because a family is primarily a survival unit - it provides and shares food. If we were penguins or lions it would be just the same.

Food gifts must be accepted, and when the gift is eaten, debt (between the giver and the recipient) is internalised. ‘I owe you’ sits in the belly.

But then we add the human elements. We pass down recipes, we build relationships in our kitchens. We are human and we love stories, so we build our narratives around the foods that are important to us.

In his long essay Salad Days, Ronnie Scott looks at the ways we use food to communicate, and what kinds of messages we might be sending through our consumption of food. After eating a once-in-a-lifetime, $500 meal at Danish gastronomical destination Noma, Scott wonders whether he can justify this kind of spending on food, and what the ethical implications are of spending his limited income in this way. Placing his own story among broader social concerns, he wonders why the young middle class are so willing to spend comparatively large amounts of money on expensive fare instead of investing in housing or other, more enduring purchases. One of the reasons Scott suggests for this behaviour is that ‘our engagements with food can be powerfully expressive of other things we love and want.’ In this, he echoes MFK Fisher’s musing in the preface to her food memoir, Gastronomical Me, where she says:

It seems to me that our three basic needs, for food and security and love, are so mixed and mingled and entwined that we cannot straightly think of one without the others. So it happens that when I write of hunger, I am really writing about love and the hunger for it, and warmth and the love of it and the hunger for it.

For MFK Fisher, food is a vehicle for metaphor - a mode of storytelling. For both Scott and Fisher, food is so much more than just fuel for the body. It’s also a statement about our terms of engaging with the world, and a method of emotional expression. Food is what we pile our stories onto.

Portrait of Sam van Zweden

Discussion

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