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Refusing to eat in order to satisfy someone else's hunger

The other day, I had a mini-meltdown about cooking rice. Mind you, we’re in corona and we’re been shopping and cooking for three meals a day, more or less, for lots of people for nearly a year. It’s a lot of appetites to satiate, and food tensions are bound to happen. But still, like most meltdowns, this was not really about lunch but about of something else.

The trigger was the way the rice was being cooked. It sounds idiotic even as I write this, but our traumatized brains will do what they will do. FWIW, I have some strong opinions about correct rice cooking mostly since I studied Indian cooking among women in the Kalwa slum in Mumbai, and wrote a cookbook about it to raise money for their work. There are, culturally speaking, two competing opinions about the right way to cook rice. One tradition says boil like pasta and drain the excess water and use that water for things like washing your hair. Some communities swear by the health benefits rice water. The other tradition, on the other hand, says you have to measure the water precisely to the correct proportion of rice, and then simmer until all the water is drained. Having tried and tasted both methods, I am a very strong proponent the latter absorption method, since I find it comes out with more flavor. It also allows more easily for spicing -- even plain white rice -- which even Gordon Ramsey does (he obviously also picked up tips from Indian women). In fact, my rice dishes such as biryani and kitchari are full of great flavor, and it’s in large part because I spice the water and then let the grains absorb all the water.

The debate feeds into my itch about flavor and spices generally. I grew up in a home where salt and pepper were consider exotic spices, and soup broth was often indistinguishable from hot water with a bit of chicken fat. My expansive spice racks are part of my rebellion and taking ownership of my own palate. For me, spice is more than food; it is life. It is passion, color, sensuality. During my research for the Masala Mamas cookbook, I learned about the tradition of Indian women to pass along their ‘masala dabba’, their unique spice tins, from one generation to the next. Spice is love. I spice generously and thoughtfully because it reminds that I’m alive. I feel, I taste, I enjoy, I eat, I live.

And there's more. After many years of eating by calorie count, fat content, points, and whatever other dieting fad deprived me of permission to just eat what's on my plate, of trying to eat when people around you are policing your plate and interfering with your right to enjoy your food because they don't approve of the way you look or the way you make your life choices, I'm not doing that anymore. I’ve finally learned to eat for the food itself, and I live by that.

I eat via my tastebuds, and I'm not going back to the old way. The boiling method reminds me of my tasteless-food history, while the water-absorption method gives me freedom to introduce flavor in the rice itself. It took me years – decades – to get here, and I’m not willing to give that up.

Or so I thought. Actually, there is more.

One day last week, when a certain beloved family member offered to cook me lunch, I was excited. Until I saw that the rice was being boiled and not simmered.

I grumbled. I complained. I criticized. And the cook, rightfully, was offended. I was being obnoxious to the person who was cooking lunch for me. Not nice.

I knew I was being ungrateful, but I was still upset. I walked outside, upset at myself for my own behavior. But also irritated. About something.

The cook in this case, who has excellent kitchen skills, I should add, as well as a lot of love for me, followed me.

“I’m just tired of eating food that I don’t want just because someone cooked it for me.”

Those were the words that came out of my mouth. I had no idea they were in my brain, and suddenly they popped out.

It’s not easy living with a person who is recovering from being socialized into being a woman. So easily triggered. So. Many. Triggers.

But really, where did that idea come from? Who is forcing me to eat food I don’t want?

Well, you can chalk it up to corona lockdown. A lot of people living together and cooking three times a day.

But I started hearing the echoes of voices in my head. Old voices. Of women, mothers, telling me that I had to eat what was in front of me. “Because I made this for you.”

“I slaved over this for hours.”

This is the cultural baggage of Jewish mothers that I carry on my shoulders. Of women who were responsible for all the cooking for the entire family, and who had to anticipate the desires and whims of everyone in the family. She cooked, and everyone else was supposed to eat. Whether we liked it or not.

Sundays, for example, you weren’t allowed to eat anything at all because there were leftovers. There will be no cooking until the leftovers are finished. Sometimes we would eat leftover kugel or cold chicken through Thursday.

This is the twisted way our culture treated women. The mother did all the cooking but little of the sitting and eating. The family’s job was to finish the food because the mother “slaved over it”. But of course, don’t eat TOO much because it’s all so fattening, and you don’t need all that. But don’t you dare try and make something else because goddammit your mother slaved away in the kitchen for you.

It’s very confusing.

Plus, you know, cooking was a mother’s job, and the rest of us were supposed to serve and clear, but we never cooked. The kitchen was my mother’s domain, so we could never cook for ourselves. The only food in the house – other than occasional take-out – was what my mother made.

One of the many paradoxes of my life is that I have advocated tirelessly for liberating women from servile roles while not entirely freeing myself from their impacts.

I mean, I’ve definitely unlearned a lot of these practices. In my house, everyone cooks, everyone eats, and you’re allowed to prepare something even when there are leftovers. In fact, we sometimes do that heretical thing and throw out leftovers (gasp!). And mostly, we talk about food primarily in terms of taste, joy, and flavor. And often ethics, for the vegetarians and vegans around. And sometimes in terms of healthiness -- although it is tricky, because discussion of healthiness can devolve into food-policing. No matter what, never, ever language of diets or calories. The word ‘fattening’ is categorically banned from our house, as is any discussion of points or fat content.

Still, despite all this work, I realize that I still harbor bad habits. I’m still eating for the wrong reasons. I do find myself feeling guilty about the leftovers and forcing myself to eat them out of guilt before I cook fresh food. I still do that….But mostly, I often find myself sitting with my beloved family eating food that I don’t necessarily want to eat because someone prepared it. Sometimes they even prepared it for me. I’m still eating out of guilt and obligation.

To be sure, there is something beautiful about it. When someone cooks for you, it can be a very loving act. In my house growing up, it was more of a resented chore than an act of love.

But today, in my house, it is definitely more of the loving gesture.

Still, what I discovered the other day is that I really do not want to be eating food out of guilt. Even if someone says, “I made it for you.”

Because those words – “You must eat it because I did this for you” – are not necessarily the right reason to eat. Guilt and obligation are not the reasons to eat. There are loving and compassionate ways to say “No” that reflect appreciation of the effort without putting our own bodies on the altar.

Mostly, I’m releasing from my kishkes the martyrdom of all the women who slaved away, unappreciated. The cultural servitude of women is a terrible stain on Jewish life. I will continue to fight for women’s freedom, equality, and right to live for ourselves. But I don’t have to eat what I don’t want to eat just to make someone else feel better. That’s a big lesson for me.

In this case, though, I decided to eat the rice. Because boiled rice with spicy stir-fry is also quite satisfying. And in this case, once I was able to release the traumas I was still holding on to, something else happened.

I actually tasted deep and enduring love that it was made with.

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