Feast: True Love in and out of the Kitchen by Hannah Howard Review

This book belongs to that dying coming-of-age-in-NYC-uber-honest-personal-essay-featuring-tampons-vomit-and-DMCs genre.

It’s also sweet and embarrassingly relatable for millennials.

The best things about this book is Hannah’s startling honestly. Not even so much when it comes to her devastating eating disorder, but how she feels about men and work. You kind of wonder if some of it was made up to protect the identities of the people involved. It’s preciously revelatory and confessional. You can feel the anguish.

It’s certainly readable, but I cannot honestly say I am a fan of the style. Some of it is beautifully descriptive. Parts are repetitive. Everything shines like the moon. Hannah is preoccupied with the sensations in her toes. 

The descriptions of food can be wonderful, but at times it seems like she ran out of paper and had to write her shopping list in her personal diary.

Other times, the detail seems unnecessary. For example, she cooks Irish oats. I effin love Irish oats. But frankly, they are not that different to good oats from anywhere else in the world. Why mention that they are Irish? To show your level of pickiness? Sophistication? But surely, oats are just oats – and anyone who cares about food enough to care that the oats are Irish knows that. Hannah isn’t pretentious or arrogant! (Of course, the reader is assured at this point that they know her like she is her best friend.) Maybe, it is just the glaringly obvious explanation: food is her tragic obsession and there is no rhyme or reason to it.

There are also too many Americanisms consumerinisms. She talks about writing things in Sharpie. Dude, why can’t you just say marker?

The main theme of the book, as I see it, is Hannah’s struggle to find people who will love her and accept her. She wants to find a “home”, “her people” and feel like she belongs. Despite severe anorexia, she even feels at home when the uberthin hostesses of an superposh New York restaurant side with her in a mean girls exchange. That’s all it took: knowing she wasn’t alone. Her fear of weight gain summed up in one line: “I will be unfuckable, or even worse : unlikable, unacceptable, unlovable.”

There is probably one most telling bit in the whole book. Hannah talks about the advice that works: “Get out of yourself and your own head. Call someone else. Ask how they are doing. Ask about their day. Listen. Don’t talk about you. That advice. I’ve heard it before from Aaron and it is exactly what I don’t want to hear. It works nearly every time.”

What is it? Well, the same way that steroids get rid of inflammation, this exercise gets rid of self-obsession. A crude diagnosis, but it’s there.

The ending is a little but too much of an amalgam of post card philosophy. I don’t think she’s not honest or what she says is wrong, but it’s not nearly as refreshing and gripping as the rest of the book. Then again, this also happened to War and Peace, so I don’t judge 😉

My highlights below.

On what food does for an addict

Life is big and scary. Food is constant, safe, dependable. Food blots everything out and calms everything down, draws the shades and tucks me in. Cozy. Miserable. Numb.

Sure, food is my answer to anxiety, sadness, boredom, anger, but also to excitement, possibility, and joy.

And just like starving is the answer, bingeing is the answer.

Often, postbinge, I feel a sweet relief, a stillness.

It is an instant cure to whatever ails me, save the paltry price of the morning after — waking up and needing to barf and not being able to, vowing to eat nothing for a day, a week; the self-imposed, relentless suffering.

My trusty companion has let me down. All that food has done nothing to quiet my demons. I cannot escape myself.

I am not a cool girl. I always have friends, wonderful friends, and yet my identity as an outsider feels fixed from as far back as I can remember.

But most importantly, I am not thin enough. This sums it all up. This is my curse, my refrain, true as my name.

The mirror is enemy number one.

After cosmetic surgery

When I go back to school for senior year, nobody notices. If they do, they are silent. I feel the devastation in my chest, my bones, their marrow. I am still me.

On loneliness and lack of self-esteem

College means everything. If my body is one measure of my self -worth, college is the other.

I read. No matter how lonely I feel, how much an outsider,how fat, I am welcome in the world of words, stories, poems. They hold my hand. They show me that there are more ways to think and feel than I may fathom.

In my fantasy, something remarkable happens at college. I am not an outsider. I belong.

I am going to be a whole new Hannah. Like myself, but immensely better. Skinnier, of course. Skinnier is everything. Skinniness is next to godliness.

The summer holidays after getting into the college of her dreams:

My new life is full of possibility but I am stuck inside myself. My stomach feels round and big as the moon. I have big plans for my summer. I want to do unambitious things like make eight bucks an hour scooping ice cream, read a lot of trashy mags, and sleep. It sounds wild, an adventure. Also, I will diet.

It doesn’t feel like enough, not even close, but hunger seems a small price to pay for liking myself, for not dreaming of carving away the flesh below my belly button, the sides of my butt.

On starving herself

So much better than being cool, I feel powerful. My skin and bones are different, electric.

My stomach gurgles, struggling against its own emptiness, and I am proud.

I go long stretches of days with only Pink Lady apples, coffees with skim milk and Splenda, liters of diet soda and seltzer water. A frozen yogurt, sometimes.

My butt hurts when I sit, and sometimes my knees buckle under the weight of my body, like it’s heavier in its thinness.
I think about the pancetta sandwich he cooked me, the cruel extravagance of the buttery croissant.
I flip through the pages, deliberate over what I won’t hate myself worse in the morning for ordering.

On men

It is the best drug — wanting him, him wanting me. The room spins.

He peers over, and we make eye contact… “ You’re very beautiful, like a model. ” His eyes are wider than they should be, all pupils, like he’s taken an opiate. His gaze feels like a scratch on my skin, unbearable… He doesn’t say anything this time, his eyes are hard on me. I think, This is because of my diet. Fifteen pounds ago, this would never have happened. Is this what people want? Why?

“Your face is a ten, but your body is a six,” he says, unprompted. “ I’m only grading you harshly because you have such potential. You could be a ten, even, if you lost some weight, got in great shape.” I feel as if my skin has been peeled from me. And yet, I agree.

“Do you see the way men look at you?” Corey asks. “ ike they’re hungry?”

I still hate the roundness of my belly, pull on the flesh around my hips and fantasise about its evisceration. But I have felt immense pleasure and given the same. The power of that straightens my spine.

Because I don’t believe I am likable, even for a second, attention from men surprises me, every time.

On hearing that her boyfriend is addicted to coke and alcohol:

I don’t think, Hannah, yikes, walk away. I think, Thank god. I am not alone. He gets it… He drinks the way I eat—to fill something unfillable.

I think about years passing with him, decades. The thought makes me want to puke.

[There is a lot on sexism. There is also a rape.]

On wanting to be thin

I wonder how miraculous my life would be in her body.

“ You know,” she says, “ being skinny is such a strange part of beauty. It’s not the most important part. It’s just the only part you can control. ”

“The point is to be fuckable. ”

I fantasize about butchering myself the way the cooks I work with so beautifully break down a side of beef, carving away the excess until I’m okay.

I want to be badass and free from the patriarchy and skinny.

No one wants me to join Ari on TV because of the roundness of my belly, I am sure. It doesn’t matter, the other stuff.

On finally being thin

I think, This is what I wanted. I’m skinny and eighteen and about to go out with a Michelin – starred, kind – of celebrity chef. I wonder why I’m not elated.

“ You’re beautiful, ” he tells me. The claim sounds ridiculous, cruel.

I don’t particularly want him, but being wanted makes up for it.

My chest hurts with each inhale, the empty ache of not – enoughness.
..deep inside my internal organs, there are millions of pounds of longing. This is not the way I thought skinniness would feel.
The Atlantic rushes up to my ankles, the beach smells of wind and sardines. My loneliness feels as wide as its endless expanse.
I want to eat the pastéis de nata and I don’t want to eat the pastéis de nata. I am trapped. Either way, I will let myself down.
I remember Corey saying “ Just lose some weight, then you can go back to loving food.” Am I there yet? That place does not exist. I will never arrive.

On work

Nobody goes home sick at The Piche. It’s the restaurant code of honor.

I close the restaurant, stumble home drunk on exhaustion at 2 AM, and get up at 5 AM to open the restaurant the next day. “ It builds character, ” they tell the three management trainees.

At first, I love the profundity of my exhaustion when I come home, the satisfaction of the ache in the arches of my feet, my lower back, proof I have worked.

The day ahead here feels like a prison.

I don’t stop talking about whether to quit or not to quit. I’m trying to decide. Both options fill me with hot dread. I feel resigned. I fear that if I stay, Josh’s prediction will come true.

My soul will be constricted and slicked down, like my hair, until, starved for breath, it deflates. Yet if I go, I will be a quitter, a failure at my first real grown-up job.

What she really wants from work:

It’s the creativity, the spirit, the heart.

The Corporate Steakhouse could never have been home. Walking out past the koi for the last time, I feel the vast freedom that comes from knowing this, from setting off to find the place that is.

On finding out that what she thought was her dream turned out to be quite different in real life:

Our vision. Our dream. The truth is, I don’t love it or even like it. I am simultaneously stressed and bored.

On her initial recovery from anorexia

Anorexia is the most fatal mental illness. Deadly. Before a heart stops, way before hospital visits, furry skin, even when the anorexia is merely an idea of itself, a taste of impending famine, it starts to obliterate things.

I cry in her office. I know I am getting fatter. What was the point of all this struggle? I gain a few pounds, and nobody says anything ever again to anyone’s mom ; nobody worries about me.

I am not better. If anything, I am worse. I still go as long as I can go without eating, until everything around me breaks into little dots and begins to lose its substance. And then I binge.

On her success in recovery

No longer a secret, the food very slowly loses its tight grip on me. The shame begins to dissipate.

“Your feelings won’t kill you,” Faith says as if reading my mind. “And they will pass. Promise.”
I once thought I was eternally fucked.
They tell me “a power greater than myself can restore me to sanity.” I say that I don’t understand what the fuck that means.

On wanting love

Surreally pretty. I catch myself staring: his sharp jaw, his cheekbones, his underwater eyes. That he likes me, loves me, seems unfathomable.

…our whole bodies are not just touching but without boundaries, his skin is my skin, his tattoo is my tattoo, and it is better than chocolate and cake and sex and success and all of the things that are good.

I notice that the people who love me do not love me more or less if I am thinner or heavier.

My eating disorder is all about me, me, me. A selfish beast. It tricks me into thinking that if I can shrink enough, I will be safe and loved and admired. But I am safe and loved and admired just as I am, no matter what size I wear, even if I have to tell myself this a million times over to half believe it.

Post-card philosophy

There is a Japanese art called kintsukuroi. Each time a piece of pottery cracks, it is lacquered back together with gold. All those golden threads make the piece what it is, extraordinary.
I like to think of my heart like that. That each time it breaks, it gets more valuable and beautiful with the mending. It is a collage of gold.

Insight

It makes me sad, how much of my own life I have missed, buried in the self-obsession of my eating disorder.
It’s not that I’ve emerged from my cocoon a butterfly. It’s not that I have escaped the taskmaster that lives in my brain and shouts and shouts an endless loop of fear, worry, shame. But I do know that the taskmaster’s voice speaks only some garbled, deeply skewed version of the truth, and that’s no truth at all.

On social constructionism

What is a social construct? A rather arbitrary intangible concept created by society. Therefore, under the assumption that X is a social construct, one interpretation of X is not more truthful than another. For example, if gender is a social construct, by definition, the idea that there are 50+ genders is neither more or less truthful than the idea that there are two.

The concept of social constructs is itself very much a social construct – as is any sociological theory. Therefore, calling X a social construct to show that X is irrelevant is… irrelevant.

Those who claim to be at war with a given social construct, on the basis of it being a social construct, need to do more than highlight its arbitrary nature, because their proposed views are equally arbitrary, or offer an alternative that is qualitatively different than just a new set of social constructs.

If you substitute the word culture for social construct above, it’s easier to understand. Of course, if you feel that the concept of social construct is qualitatively different to the concept of culture, please convince me, so that I can stop worry about theory and just join the cool kids.

Looking at the broader picture of social constructionism, I don’t really buy into its fundamentals because I don’t think that perception changes reality, just like I don’t think that Photoshop takes the cellulite off Kim Kardashian’s behind.

 

 

“It’s only natural”

This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, businesses, places, events, locales, and incidents are either the products of the author’s imagination or used in a fictitious manner. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, or actual events is purely coincidental. This is not intended as a substitute for the medical advice of physicians. The reader should regularly consult a physician in matters relating to his/her health and particularly with respect to any symptoms that may require diagnosis or medical attention.

A very handsome, fit and well-dressed young man came in to see me about a nagging, chronic gut problem. This is the sort of thing that medicine doesn’t really have an answer for and the referring family doctor knew this as did the said dashing young man. The reason for her referral was that he had had enough.

I took a very long history filled with exacerbations and remissions going back to when he was a teenager, alleviating and aggravating factors that the tormented young man never really managed to leverage.

All the same, he was ahead of the curve in his career. He travelled extensively, ran a half-marathon and even climbed Kilimanjaro.

We were nearly certain that his condition didn’t have an organic cause we could address, but given the one or two potential pointers for such a cause, the duration and extent of his distress, it was decided that the gentleman should have some specialist investigations. As a sort of an advance measure, we gently suggested that in all likelihood, the tests won’t find anything and if so, there won’t be much we could offer him besides a few tweaks of what has helped him in the past. At this point he covered his face with his hand, then made a tight fist whitening his knuckles, plunging visibly into anger and frustration – not so much at us, it seemed, but at the powerlessness of medicine and his ill fate.

There is no denying that this high-flying man suffered greatly with his imperfect bowel. I was left there wondering two things.

This man is so accomplished, able to climb mountains and run marathons, why does he so firmly believe that his condition is “debilitating”? I can only presume that he has a kind of equation in his head where his potential plus his condition equals his reality. I did wonder if his reality could have been far more impressive had it not been for these bouts of gastrointestinal torture. I have the suspicion that the thought occurred to him. Perhaps it occurred to him many times a day.

Furthermore, if he is determined to eradicate this unidentified fiend sabotaging his gut, why didn’t he do more of what worked and avoid the aggravating factors? It would seem a little maladaptive to refuse to negotiate with the affliction. Or did he write down all his shortfalls to the condition, thus allowing him to sustain a vision of unadulterated, perfect potential trapped by the wretched disease?

I then wondered if that is our perfectionist millennial nature that’s always chasing the latest maximising-optimising lifehack or is that the sort of irreducible self-selection that particular kind of young person to hospital regardless of their generation or culture.

The reason I wonder this is that only last week I was trying to convince a much older man to consider treatment for his chronic pain, but he insisted, “it’s only natural”. Then again, I don’t think it would ever occur to him to climb Kilimanjaro.

It’s that simple

A 60 year old woman told me today that she lost 10 kg (22 pounds) in the space of one month, without starving herself, etc. Her bloods even look better. Of course, she has a lot to lose (say 30-40 kg), but I just think it’s so amazing when people do actually do it.

I asked her what was the main cause she could identify – giving her a few a few options, such as changing what she eats, exercise, a life event?

And she said, “not overeating”.

And simple truth miscalled simplicity, indeed.

Decisions

Whenever I struggle to make a decision, I think of Seneca’s letters. In short, the message is, if you had a very short time to live, what would you do?

I have recently discovered another method.

Imagine you are an 85 year old you giving yourself advice. What would your 85 year old self tell your present self?

Written under the influence of geriatrics and Saint-Emilion.

A little bit of Irish politics

What is the purpose of having four political parties if for the last couple of constitutional referendums they all virtually agreed with each other on how people should vote?

I don’t necessarily disagree with them, but there seems to be a resounding group-thinking lack of pluralism.

P.S. Are you painting yourself green for Paddy’s Day?