In the stories my parents tell about our early years, my brother always appears wielding a chicken thigh in his hand (a polke, as it is called in the language of Jewish mothers), swallowing wedges of grapefruit whole without puckering, calling for more brisket, deboning fish with one arm behind his back—all before the age of nine months. And then, a year later, I arrive on the scene, the hunger artist in a hair-shirt onesie, refusing, with a gleam in her eye, to eat. My mother became so worried that she took me to the doctor, who prescribed a course of pickles to stimulate my desire for food. (The remedy backfired: I still didn’t eat, but 20 years later, once I was all grown up and living on my own, I would survive for many days on jars of pickles alone.)
Of the anecdotes my parents tell about me as a child, most concern my legendary lack of appetite; the rest involve my stubbornness. My unwillingness to eat baffled them—I’d like to think that in some way it even impressed them. Whatever the case, from the start they didn’t know quite what to do with me, and this refusal became the first story in the story of my life.
The standoff between me and food continued for many years, at many tables, in many countries. My parents, both of whom love good food, took me and my brother to fine restaurants around the world. We traveled with a jar of peanut butter in protective bubble wrap, which was surreptitiously spread on restaurant rolls for me, and sometimes augmented by a bowl of plain pasta and a dessert. My parents pleaded with me, cajoled me, and sometimes even tricked me into eating. On one infamous occasion, a forkful presented as chicken was revealed, a moment after I’d gotten it down my throat, to be frog’s legs, a betrayal that rocked the foundations of my childlike trust and lent my little campaign a new, special air of martyrdom.
Like every aspiring saint, I even performed a miracle: At a sophisticated hotel in Cap d’Antibes, following a wary bite of three-star Michelin plain spaghetti, I reached a finger into my mouth and—as my omnivorous brother’s fork froze in midair, and my mother hissed at me to just swallow it, for God’s sake, and the waiters in gilded epaulets let out a collective gasp—located the offending matter, which turned out, fantastically, to be a piece of white cotton thread. The more I pulled, the longer it became. I pulled and pulled, and as the thread spilled forth, a waiter, in a low growl, insisted, “Ce n’est pas possible,” and my speechless parents laid down their knives and forks (had the restaurant held only two stars, they might even have gotten down on their knees) in surrender to the knowledge that whatever force I had on my side was greater than they.
Greater than they? Who or what, I wonder now, was I trying to overcome? The truth is, I don’t remember waging a battle against anyone or anything in particular. If I was hungry, I ate—always the same preapproved foods, and in small portions, because I filled up quickly. By eating so selectively, I must have been trying to assert myself. I wanted my independence, I suppose, and the power to control at least this one small corner of a life in which so little was up to me. But however much it looked like stubbornness, my refusal wasn’t ideological. It was something deep and reflexive.
From that long period in my life, the feeling that has stayed with me most strongly is the disgust I had for the many strange and at times frightening things that adults desired and consumed. Even now, after all these years, I can feel it creep back into the pit of my stomach: repulsion tinged with fear.
If my parents were mystified by my lack of hunger, I was equally mystified by their seemingly insatiable appetites. How could they possibly crave not just the escargot and the foie gras, but the prehistoric-looking asparagus, the salad leaves, and the tomatoes with their viscous insides and slimy seeds? Where was the pleasure in them? I would look at a piece of meat and find so many disturbing things about it that by the time I cut away all the parts I found offensive, there was very little left.
At age eight, I became a vegetarian. It was a relief to reject outright a whole category of food that others deemed edible, to give up the struggle of trying to deal with it. From the start, I had refused to eat anything from the sea: It was incomprehensible to me that a person could feast upon something as alien as a lobster or a mussel or even a fish, which belonged to a different world, one as foreign and mysterious as another planet. Looking back, I think my refusal to eat had less to do with a battle for control than wariness of the unknown.
And then, at some point, I learned to read.
Perhaps that sentence seems like a non sequitur here, midway through a story about being a picky eater. It’s not, though, and here’s why. Once I learned to read, I became addicted to reading, and soon enough I began to bring my books along with me to the kitchen table. Other parents might have objected to that, in order to instill the value of family conversation—and they wouldn’t have been wrong to do so. My parents, however, allowed it. Meals had always felt like a trial for me, and it’s possible they understood that being absorbed in a book, which gave me such obvious pleasure, relieved that feeling. They might even have sensed that those books were a kind of porthole through which I could escape one world, with its threatening unknowns, and enter another, where all that was unknown could be thrillingly, yet safely, discovered.
But it’s more likely, I think, that just as it was impossible for my parents to stifle their concerns about whether I was eating enough, so too was it impossible for them to take a book out of my hands, to discourage me, even the slightest bit, from reading and learning. Here were two kinds of needs, two kinds of health, that were equally important, and my parents could no more choose between them than they could between my right arm and my left.
Very quickly, the long, sullen meals during which I sat pushing food around on my plate were transformed. My imagination, which until then had been fully engaged at the dinner table in imagining the cow from which the piece of meat came, or the inner organs of fish, now became distracted by other worlds, equally exotic but, to me, much more filling. Only now that I have two children of my own do I understand how hard and yet how necessary it is to let one’s children be. And my parents let me be. I ate whatever I was going to eat, and I read constantly.
In the years that followed, my tastes changed, and slowly I began to try new things. I never became a big eater. Some ambivalence about food has stayed with me. I’m no longer picky, exactly, but I still have little interest in what’s on my plate. I remain somewhat baffled by people who go far out of their way to seek out excellent cuisine, or who dedicate long hours to preparing it. Although I find great sensual pleasure in other aspects of life, I do not want to cook. When I got married, that job fell to my husband, who wasn’t satisfied to survive on pickles. When he travels, he makes plenty for our children to eat while he’s gone, and I go back to my old ways, getting along on fruit, toast, and novels.
I can’t say that my parents had any sense that the reader at their dinner table would one day become a writer, or that I would choose a profession that asks me daily to try to confront the unknown. Perhaps it was enough for them to know that an appetite of sorts had been awakened in me. Looking back, what seems most significant, and touching too, is that my mother and father were able to resist pushing their own yearnings on me. That act of generosity allowed me to feel that I had my own place at the table and was free to sate my own hungers—regardless of the forms in which they came.