The Best Things I Ate This Year
When is a meal more than a meal?
Content warning: Discussions of weight, bodies, fatphobia, eating disorders
The duck rillettes at Maison Yaki in Brooklyn come whipped in a small jar and served with crusty, buttery bread slices of which there are simply not enough. The dish is unctuous and umami, rich and soft, like a good paté but smoother, served warm with a topping of wasabi-ginger foam that adds the tiniest kick of heat and evens out the whole bite. If I ate the whole pot by myself I’d get a bellyache, but I’m tempted to anyway.
When we come here for our goodbye dinner with Nathan and Meghan, the duck is an obvious favorite, at least among the 3/4 of us who eat duck. We order a little bit of everything: pork belly skewers, milk bread with yuzu butter, blistered shishito peppers, fried chicken sliders, matcha profiteroles. Everything is delicious and a little bit complicated. We are stuffed.
We finish the night at a bar across the street, and we take as long as we can to sip our sad cocktails, and we hug each other and cry when the Ubers come, even though we’ll see each other again in only a couple of months. When Kaitlyn and I go back to Maison Yaki two weeks later by ourselves, two nights before we move to Chicago, we order all the same things again.
In 2021 I gained weight.
I am practicing reciting this as a value-neutral statement, like saying that I got a haircut or wore brown shoes. I gained weight. So what?
The so what is that until recently I did not allow myself to eat when I was hungry, and so I weighed a lot less. I used exercise as punishment. I counted calories obsessively. I withheld, ached, hungered. But it didn’t last forever; over time and therapy and years of building new habits, I put back on the weight I lost during my illness.
Then the pandemic came, and my body changed even more. I stopped going to the gym because I had to, canceled my steady membership, even, and then became too depressed to exercise at all. We cooked less and ordered in more. For over a year my days consisted of moving from the bed to the couch to the bed again, a 20-foot round trip that required a whole night’s worth of energy to complete. I don’t know how I used to work in an office five days a week.
My body looks very different today than it did in March of 2020, and my brain is very different too. I am, so far, surviving a pandemic, as well as my usual slate of depression, anxiety, and bipolar disorder. And recovery, of course, though it doesn’t feel like I’m doing a very good job of it. I am dragging my body down the fine line between dysmorphia and fatphobia, knowing too that they’re borne of the same beast, trying to unlearn my own biases while taking care of myself, wanting to create a safer and more accepting world for fat people while also berating myself for going up a size or two. Two things can be true, my therapist says. Still, I’m worried about what my disease says about my morals, my personality. I’m worried about causing harm.
I gained weight this year, and that’s neither good nor bad. I’m struggling with it anyway.
Arthur cooks us an appetizer of acorn squash stuffed with shiitake mushrooms, kohlrabi, onion, and little rounds of goat cheese sprinkled with dill. All the produce is fresh from the farmers market, about a half-hour walk from our new place but well worth the trip. It’s beginning to get cold outside here in Chicago and my zest for going out is dwindling, but Arthur is such a good cook, and it’s so refreshing to eat a home-cooked meal for which you’ve done no work. The squash is cooked perfectly, soft and earthy, and the textural contrast between the bite of the veggies and the creamy goat cheese is delightful. I love the mushrooms so much I buy a bag the following week at the market and add them to my breakfast burritos. I finish Kaitlyn’s plate.
At home, we talk about loving food as an asset: to our relationship, to our family, to our identities.
My dad works in the food industry and radiates passion for it; at any given moment, food is most of what he wants to talk about. Now I work at a food education nonprofit, where we champion fruits and veggies but also work hard not to label food as “good” or “bad.” I grew up knowing it was important to cherish our food, to savor a nourishing meal, to break bread with people we love. Kaitlyn and I both have lots of treasured memories revolving around food. The people we come from — Cubans, Jews, immigrants writ large — hold their food traditions sacred. When I am celebrating, I make something special to eat. When I want to welcome someone into my fold, I bring a homemade dish. “Food is more than fuel,” we say at work.
But at the height of my eating disorder, food was the first thing I sacrificed, and willingly so. The joy I used to feel when eating something delicious was utterly stifled, swapped out for panic, fear, and shame. For years I hardly ate anything I liked; when I did, it was in portions small enough for a taste and nothing more. I have a chronic stomach illness, and sometimes I would intentionally eat foods my body doesn’t tolerate in order to make myself sick. Purge, purge, purge. Skinny, skinny, skinny. In the moment it felt like it was worth it. Was it worth it? I’m still asking myself, just to be sure.
I missed food desperately when I was ill, even though it’s taking some real adjustment to repair our relationship. As it turns out, letting yourself eat does not come naturally when you’ve spent years convincing yourself you don’t need to. Kaitlyn and I have adopted some new habits to get me comfortable with food again. When I particularly enjoy a meal, I journal about it. Every couple of days, we check in and chit chat about the best things we’ve eaten recently.
Still, though, something is missing. There is an invisible barrier keeping me from participating in a world where I simply am the size that I am, where I eat what I want to eat and it’s not such a big fucking deal. I can’t get comfortable in my new body, can’t accept that this is what I look like now, and it’s devastating and maddening at the same time. Why does this still bother me? I ask myself over and over. Why am I not better than this? Why is this so hard?
The menu says “Big Ole Mozzarella Sticks.”
“How big are we talkin’?” my sister-in-law Beka asks our friendly waiter.
We are celebrating Kaitlyn’s 29th birthday with her parents in Baltimore, about a month and a half before our big move across the country. We’re at a trendy restaurant with an eclectic small plates menu. We brought a rainbow-frosted dulce de leche cake. I have a stomachache.
“Each one is a foot long,” says the waiter, “and it comes with three sticks, so you’re looking at about a yard of cheese.”
He is not kidding. We giggle at how unsightly they are, these baton-sized cheese sticks, and then we devour them, licking the remains off our greasy fingers. Later I panic in the bathroom about how much I’ve eaten, but that doesn’t stop me from having a few bites of cake.
In therapy we talk about living my values. My therapist asks me to write them down in the journal I bring to sessions: Justice. Kindness. Compassion. Equity. The list goes on.
“When you speak negatively to yourself about your body,” she asks me, “is that justice? Is that kindness?”
I don’t need her to run down the list because the answer is obvious. This much is true: I cannot live my values and also say unkind things to myself about my body, what it looks like now or what it might look like in the future, because that harms people living in bodies that are similar to and bigger than mine, and all bodies, really, because we are all so much more than the size of our bodies and there is nothing objectively good or bad about a larger body or a smaller body, and I should know that by now, really, I should. All of it is made up. All of it. Is made up.
I know, too, that I still experience thin privilege in many ways, which my therapist also makes a point of saying, and that makes me wonder if I’m even allowed to feel this way at all. Stores usually carry my size (except for one time at Madewell that I haven’t forgotten). I am able to fit in airplane seats and restaurant chairs. TikTok says I’m a mid-size queen, which, okay, sure.
So when it comes to living my values, well, I am conflicted. I am committed to making the world a more just place, and right now, in this moment, I want to be thinner. Can both those things be true? Or have I simply failed myself and my community at the same time?
If you ask me what my favorite food is, I will always say my mom’s cheese soufflé. She prepares individual portions, two per person, with pillowy eggs and melty Swiss cheese that fluffs out of the ramekin tops like perfect eggy snow globes. I tend to devour the whole thing before it’s cooled down properly, but burning my tongue is worth it for that rich, gooey, melt-in-your-mouth bite hot from the oven. We usually eat soufflé with some heavily buttered baguette on the side, and a little bit of green salad with house vinaigrette. It’s good to be French.
So when I visit home in Florida for Mother’s Day after not seeing my parents for 16 months, vaccinated and finally ready to fly again, it is a given that we will eat soufflé, a meal of celebration if there ever was one. Within minutes of arriving home from the airport, we are drinking champagne and my mom is beating egg whites and I’m dressing salad and my dad is picking the playlist we’ll listen to in the background, and everything feels good and right.
I talk about myself as if I don’t have an eating disorder anymore, but I know that’s not true.
Everything we eat at Tail Up Goat — we are spending our anniversary weekend in Washington, D.C. — is perfect. The puff-pastry-spring-pea appetizer is bright and lovely. The scallops are the perfect texture. The fish is buttery-soft with crispy skin. But the parmesan cake I eat for dessert? It is like nothing I’ve ever eaten before. I expected the texture to be softer, closer to a cheesecake with maybe some parmesan accent over the top, but no. It is crumbly. It is savory. It is parmesan cheese baked into a cake, literally, drizzled with berry coulis and topped with sesame seeds and a quenelle of whipped cream on the side. It is absolutely surreal. I could eat it every day and my needs would be met.
When I first thought about writing this essay, I imagined a joyful list of all the delicious things I ate this year with little to no mention of my eating disorder. For once! But that wouldn’t be true to how I experienced those meals, or most anything I ate this year, really. I can’t eat without being reminded of my eating disorder; it is always with me. It watched me eat the duck rillettes and the giant mozzarella stick. It laughs at me when I fill my plate. I am never not negotiating my relationship with food and my body, my size and my shape, my wants and my needs. Everything in my life points to food as joy, as love, as music, practically. And yet.
I have not fully unlearned the pangs of anxiety that accompany a complete helping of anything, or the need to ask someone’s permission to order what I really want at a restaurant, or the feeling of dread when a recipe calls for butter and cream, even if I know it will taste delicious. These things will take some time; after all, here I am nearly nine years out from the worst of it, still learning. But a new year is coming, and we’re meant to believe that’s an opportunity for something new, right? I am hopeful that in 2022, I will leave some of these ghosts behind, finally. Even if I don’t know how. Even if I don’t feel ready to let them go.
The garlic bread at Little Nonna’s in Philadelphia comes with an entire head of roasted garlic, darkened from the oven and heavy with olive oil. The bread has already been garlicked, to be clear. The soft, roasted cloves on the side are just a bonus. In this house we are garlic lovers, so we spread the aromatic cloves thickly on the crusty bread, squeezing the oily skins between our fingers to get out every last drop.
We have lived in Chicago for three months just about to the day, and we are here in Philly this weekend for a longtime friend’s wedding, which was last night and lots of fun. This restaurant is in the gayborhood, so we spend the evening people-watching as hot men cycle in and out of the bars behind us, and our server is probably queer too but we can’t say for sure. After the garlic bread we get our entrees and lovingly dip our forks into each other’s meals, savoring the bites of tomato, pasta, cream, even more garlic. We wish we could take home the leftovers, but we fly back tomorrow. For dessert we split a deconstructed tiramisu that comes in a sweet little cup, and I finish the night with the last sip of my Prosecco, and we agree: this was a perfect meal.
Honorable mentions for The Best Things I Ate This Year: Fried cauliflower with hot honey at Pizza Lobo at Max and Josie’s wedding, so good we recreated it at home two days later, Chicago, IL; homemade baked ziti cooked with friends in an Airbnb the weekend of my 30th birthday, upstate NY; crispy kataifi cheese pie from Andros Taverna with Arthur and Rachel after they came home from their Alaskan honeymoon, Chicago, IL; the Bagel Pub bacon, egg, and cheese bagel I devoured in the car the morning of our big move after three frantic hours of cleaning out the apartment, Brooklyn, NY; grilled salmon with macaroni and cheese and kale salad prepared by chef Wood Porter the night after my brother’s wedding, Chicago, IL; raspberry-currant donuts from Fan Fan eaten with coworkers at my going-away party in Prospect Park on a rainy day, Brooklyn, NY; farmers market cherry tomatoes and chopped peaches mixed into panzanella with some cucumbers and stale baguette for a working lunch, Chicago, IL.