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Guest Posts, travel

A Tasting Menu, Belgian Style

April 7, 2024

Stanley Tucci whetted my appetite for sampling a country’s cuisine through travel. I knew my way around schnitzel, wurst, and spaetzle after spending my junior year abroad in Germany. I knew my way around pork on top of pork with pork in Czechia when I had a fiction fellowship in Prague. I knew my way around pork fat on bread, hunter’s stew, mushroom soup, and kielbasa in Poland. I wanted a new challenge, but where? When an opportunity came to present an academic paper in Antwerp this past summer, I saw my chance. My goal was to sample as many national dishes as I could in Brussels, Bruges, Ghent, and Antwerp. Unlike Tucci, there would be no cameras rolling, no luxury transportation, no peeking into the kitchens and cooking alongside the chefs. I would be a pure consumer of a Belgian tasting menu, focusing on my physical and emotional reactions and rate the food as if I were a food critic. But, of course, I sampled much more.

The Appetizers

First Appetizer: Beef Carbonnade

My entry to the Belgian food scene came during a day trip to Bruges and Ghent on my first full day in the country. I arrived in Bruges on a luxury motor coach with fifty others I didn’t know. Our tour guide, Eros, a Spaniard, commanded enough English to make jokes, good ones. But it wasn’t long before the uneven cobblestone and the heat got to me. On one narrow street, I sat down at a sidewalk café. The tour guide asked me if I was okay. No, I was not. An American doctor in the group presented me with a cold bottle of water. An American nurse in the group loaned me her personal fan and sat with me while the group moved on. I don’t think I ever experienced such kindness from strangers. Eventually left on my own, I stumbled into a ten-table café simply called Café-Café run by Spaniards. I know this because the place was littered with flags of Spain and photos of the Spanish soccer team. I ordered beef carbonnade, not a typical appetizer of course, but it was my entry point. I detected the piquant taste of beer in the sauce. I suppose I should have ordered a beer, but I needed the comfort of a Coca Cola Lite. The stew came with Belgian fries and mayonnaise. An American couple from one of the Carolinas. They recognized me from the day tour as the woman who had a meltdown. We chatted a bit. Thumbs up on my first Belgian culinary experience. I noticed, though, that when by myself, I became more observant of my surroundings. Would I have noticed the woman working on her laptop near the front window? Or the woman on the banquette next to me nursing a beer?

Second Appetizer: Vol-au-Vent

The tour proceeded to Ghent, and Eros led us past St. Joseph Church to the marketplace. Concerned for my safety and health, he said, “I’m taking the group to the marketplace and then around the city. You can stay at the marketplace.” It was good advice, and I found another restaurant in the marketplace, Jaggers, where I sat at an outdoor table under an awning. I ordered vol-au-vent, a creamy chicken stew with puffed pastry and Belgian fries. I didn’t need to eat again so soon after lunch, but here was an opportunity to try yet another Belgian dish in a major Belgian city. While I waited, I set to people-watch. I spotted the American nurse from our tour sitting on a bench. I invited her to join me. She was gracious enough to do that. She, too, had physical limitations. Mine is obesity. Hers was recovering from breast cancer surgery. She ordered a salad and a blonde beer. She texted her sister and niece to join us and so we had a merry party. I ordered a blonde beer, too. Our server, my first Flemish Belgian, loaned us his squirt bottle/fan, the kind people use on long lines at Disney World in Orlando. His English was superb. He was the kind of person you’d invite to a party to liven it up. I’m sure he didn’t treat us any differently than other tourists, but he made the experience special. I couldn’t say what others were doing around me, because I focused on Randa, her family, and our server.

Palate Cleanser

First Palate Cleanser: Croque Maison

A writer in my writing family history workshop, Helen, introduced me via email to Edith, a French woman she knew from her junior year abroad in Montpelier in the late 1970s. Edith and I arranged to meet at Mokafe in the Galeries Royales Saint-Hubert, across rue d’Arenberg from my hotel. Although my hotel physically connected to The Foodmaker, I craved real food and not grab and go. Here at the Mokafe was a full menu. I arrived thirty minutes early and ordered the croque maison, a grilled cheese with egg and tomato. It was scrumptious. I studied the vaulted ceilings of the gallery, the sculpted figureheads. I could envision nineteenth-century residents ambling through these balustraded, columned arcades, their heels clicking on the marble, skirts swishing from shop to shop. An American family sat down at a table next to me and ordered waffles. Tour groups promenaded through the archways in a variety of languages.

Edith was a larger-than-life personality wearing a turban and caftan. She immediately assumed a relationship with me, told me the bags under my eyes could be a thyroid problem and that I must have eczema because I was scratching my wrist. Usually people who are that direct I find abrasive and obnoxious. But I couldn’t help but find affinity with her through our shared interests and concerns. Though she’s lived in Belgium a long time, she was not a Belgian national.

Edith and I talked about writing, our various maladies that for both of us included cancer, and love gone bad. She brought me a gift of Neuhaus Belgian chocolates and an artisanal mustard with speculoos, a spiced shortbread. I’d heard of it before as a fan of the Food Network. We sat and chatted long enough to have to find a restroom inside the cafe and to order lunch. I ordered the carbonnade and determined the version I had in Bruges was far superior. Edith insisted on ordering me a beer and she introduced me to fruit beer, much lower in alcohol content. She wanted to get me Pêcheresse Lindemans, a peach beer, but they were out of that. Instead, she ordered me a berry version. It was delightfully refreshing as a sparkling kind of fruit juice. We ventured afterward into Grand Place. We hadn’t gone far before my lower back and the oppressive heat demanded I sit down somewhere. We sat at a café and marveled at the large administrative buildings that bounded the square, a throwback to another bygone era. We ordered Coke Zero. She departed via taxi for her residential district, and I went into Neuhaus on the square and bought some chocolate truffles and an assortment box as future gifts.

Apparently, there are great differences between the various manufacturers of Belgian chocolate. I was instructed to look for how long they’d been in business. Neuhaus was established in 1857 by a Swiss man with Italian roots (the original family name was Casanova).

It was such a delight to be with Edith, because she knew Brussels, she spoke French, we’re about the same age, and we spend a lot of time processing the past. By not speaking the language, I wondered what I could be missing from the experience. Without someone like Edith to guide me, what foods was I not trying?

Second Palate Cleanser: Savory Belgian Waffles

I couldn’t get Belgian waffles off my mind. Near Mokafe I had spotted a sandwich board proclaiming both sweet and savory Belgian waffles. On the way back through the Galeries after saying goodbye to Edith, I stopped at this small shop. I ordered tuna tartare, two of them. They didn’t have enough tuna, so the second one would be salmon. Substitution accepted. Except the waffle was large, 1.5 inches thick and 7 inches tall, and I couldn’t even finish the first waffle. I thought I could take the second one back to my hotel, but the proprietor said I had to eat them fresh. He issued me a refund for the second one. Onto the top of the waffle, into each of twenty-four deep pockets, chunks of tuna piled high, topped with chopped onion, microgreens, and a spicy mayo. I had to eat it with a knife and fork. The crust was flaky and crunchy, the inside softer, made possible by egg whites and yeast. A more-than-satisfying bite.

The Entrees

First Entrée: Moules Frites

Moules frites is a Belgian national dish. I’ve always liked mussels, but at Legal Seafood in New Jersey, the mussels had gritty beards and so many did not open during steaming. In Brussels, at La Marmiton, a restaurant at rue de Bouchers within the Galeries Royales Saint Hubert, recommended to me by the staff in my hotel, a double decker pot came my way. The server lifted the top pot to reveal a heavenly aroma and gleaming obsidian shells with soft meat inside them. The top pot was to be used for the empty shells. The mussels swam in a peppery, white-wine broth with chunks of carrot, celery, leeks, and onion. Naturally, a net-like metal container of Belgian fries accompanied the mussels and came with mayonnaise. I ordered Pêcheresse Lindemans, the peach beer that Edith had first recommended. I could not stop scooping up the broth with my spoon, not even considering that was what the bread was for.

I watched other tourists, in particular, one group of Japanese men, order and enjoy the moules frites. It was the right thing to order in this place at this time. Moules frites and beer just went together like peanut butter and jelly. A Spanish couple and their daughter sat at a table across from me. They did not order the mussels, but I watched the wife order bread basket after bread basket and wondered why I hadn’t thought to dunk bread into the moules broth.

Perhaps I wanted to drown my aloneness in the food, in the white wine sauce, in the cream, in the act of pulling mussel meat out of the shells and letting the empty shells clink against each other in the blue pot. With every sip of beer, which I never ordinarily drink, I let go of the person I was to maybe become the person I wanted to be: a younger, svelte cosmopolitan.

Second Entrée: Waterzooi

Liz, an eighth-grade educator from Westchester, New York, was presenting at the same Antwerp conference as I. We’re colleagues from Gratz College where I received my Ph.D. in Holocaust & Genocide Studies and she’s nearing completion of her dissertation. It was so good to meet up with someone I already knew. A wave of relief washed over me when she came through the revolving doors of the Hilton Antwerp. We ambled to ‘t Pukte, which I had scouted out in the Grote Markt in Maalderijstraat during the afternoon, because we both wanted genuine Belgian food. I had to try the waterzooi, a chicken stew in a cream sauce. To me, it wasn’t as comforting as an American chicken pot pie. Maybe you need puff pastry for comfort like Liz’s vol-au-vent. I could see waterzooi as a dish served on a cold winter evening to warm up the bones from a day out in the city or village. Leeks, potatoes, carrots, cream, chicken stock, chicken breast, and butter. I didn’t notice what other people were ordering or eating. I only noticed the temperature dropped and it became quite breezy, even chilly.

Third Entrée: Moules Frites Redux

I yearned for moules frites again and decided to revisit ‘t Pukte by myself on my second night in Antwerp. This restaurant offered fourteen different entrée versions of mussels. I ordered the “Antwerp” version, apparently made with local Antwerp beer, not white wine. The broth did not have the depth of flavor or the seasoning as at La Marmiton. A pot of mussels was brought to a table of two German men. The pot I should have ordered. I asked the server what version of mussels that was. Her response: the chef’s special mussels made with white wine, garlic, spicy herbs, tomatoes, and I imagine too the butter, leeks, potatoes, carrots, celery, and onions. Maybe I was too tired after a long day at an academic conference at the university. Maybe I was still disappointed that a Flemish children’s writer I had met a decade ago at an event at New York City’s Flanders House had cancelled dinner with me. I almost spoke to the Germans in German, but I didn’t.

Fourth Entrée: Another Beef Carbonnade

On my last night in Antwerp, I tried the carbonnade again at my hotel restaurant. Not only was the service deplorable, but also this version was the least successful among my tastings. The meat was tough. I could not taste the beer. It was clear to me that it was time for me to return home.


First Dessert: Cuberdons

Edith introduced me to the cuberdon, a traditional Belgian candy, a jelly-filled cone, almost shaped like a Hershey’s kiss but taller. The traditional flavor is raspberry. I bought an assortment, and through meticulous taste-tasting, preferred the honey flavor. It reminded me of the gummy, honey-flavored Pine Bros. cough drops that I sucked on as a kid whether I had a cough or not.

Second Dessert: Cheese Platter

At La Marrmiton, I opted for the cheese plate as dessert. Despite my lack of a gall bladder and the ability to process dairy, I did fine with three slivers of Belgian cheese, one of which may have been the most local cheese, Fromage de Bruxelles, a cow’s milk cheese with a rind. These two remaining cheeses could have been Postel, a hard cow’s milk cheese with a nutty flavor and no rind, and Remedou, a hard cow’s milk cheese with an orange-brown rind. I will never know for sure. I wish I had thought to ask what these selections actually were.

Third Dessert: Belgian Waffle

Dinner with Liz at t’ Punkte in Antwerp’s Grote Markt ended with my order of a Belgian waffle with sliced strawberries and whipped cream. It was much easier to eat such a waffle as a dessert. The cream just eased the swallowing of the flaky crust.

Fourth Dessert: Belgian Chocolate Mousse

While the Hilton in Antwerp disappointed in many ways, it did make the creamiest Belgian chocolate mousse, accompanied by the most exquisite Belgian chocolate truffles that made me say out loud, “Oh, my G-d, yum.” No one heard me.

If I had been traveling with Edith, I think we could have ventured into the kitchens and watched the chefs create their traditional fare, even if the food was planned to satisfy tourists more than nationals. But by being alone, I managed to observe a fuller menu and a fuller complement of cultures and their reactions to Belgian food.

Maybe I need a theme when I travel, especially when I travel alone. I’m looking for something outside myself. Some sort of connection, a raison d’être. I’m not Belgian. I have no Belgian roots. Yet, I experienced the country intimately through its food, through the consumption of carefully curated ingredients into delectable delights.

Barbera Krans

Barbara Krasner holds an MFA from the Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her essays have appeared in The Manifest-Station, South 85, The Smart Set, Gravel, Collateral, and other journals. She lives and teaches in New Jersey.


Wondering what to read next? 

This is not your typical divorce memoir.

Elizabeth Crane’s marriage is ending after fifteen years. While the marriage wasn’t perfect, her husband’s announcement that it is over leaves her reeling, and this gem of a book is the result. Written with fierce grace, her book tells the story of the marriage, the beginning and the end, and gives the reader a glimpse into what comes next for Crane.

“Reading about another person’s pain should not be this enjoyable, but Crane’s writing, full of wit and charm, makes it so.”
Kirkus (starred review)


Activism, Guest Posts

Eating Animals: Confessions of a French Hypocrite

February 8, 2024

“The animals served here have been born, raised and butchered in France,” reads the hand-scrawled chalkboard on the wall opposite my cozy café table. I am reclining  on the sofa of my favorite neighborhood bistro with my afternoon coffee.

What jarred me about this sign was the language, especially the last phrase that the animals are abbatus en France.” “Abbatus” means “slaughtered” but it stems from the word “battre”–to batter–in this case, to batter to death.

The owners of this establishment obviously do not expect their patrons to be discomfited by the reminder that the elegant meal on their plate had a painful death. And perhaps this is no wonder. On the street I live near Les Halles butcher shops exhibit entire rabbits sliced down the middle. They exhibit wracks of cow ribs the size of accordions. They exhibit chickens with their necks, heads, claws and feathers still attached. After all before becoming a shopping mall Les Halles was the food market of Paris—with rows of live animals displayed for human consumption.

If French people are often not squeamish about the sources of their food, I suspect many Americans are. I suspect that most of us set before a long-lashed, large-eyed, unblinking cow and asked if they wanted it killed and stuck between two patties, would decline. It is largely by disguising and distancing the process of killing that this process can continue.

200 million animals are slaughtered for food every day worldwide and yet normal persons living normal lives will never set foot on a factory farm. They will never witness so much as a family farm. They will never make an emotional connection between the ketchup-covered quarter pounder on their dinner plate and the ambling, meditative, peculiarly human animal on the field.

And even should they make the connection, they will persuade themselves—as I regularly persuade myself—that they are powerless to change the order of things. The cow, the sheep, the deer, the chicken, the rabbit is already dead; there is no bringing it back to life by depriving oneself of the pleasure of consuming it with a tasty condiment.

There was a single time in my life that I was consistently vegetarian. That was when I made my home, for some months, in a remote and rural village in Greece. I knew, there, that when I ordered a piece of mutton, the chef would repair to the back of his taverna, slit a lamb’s throat, skin it and stick it on the spit to grill. Perhaps he did not do it on the very same night but he certainly did it the day before and the day after. The chain of supply and demand was impossible to overlook. So for the time I lived in Greece the only thing I ate off a spit was grilled eggplant, grilled tomatoes and grilled peppers. And I might say they were delicious.

When I returned to “civilization” in Paris my behavior (by my own standards) deteriorated instantaneously; I returned to buying pre-packaged meats from the supermarket and ordering “steak tartare”, (raw ground beef with some spices and an egg on it.)  After all, the deed was done; the creature was dead and I might as well eat it. What was the use of grandstanding, of proclaiming virtuous abstinence when there was nothing to be salvaged, nothing to be gained, basically, but an ego boost?

The paradoxical relationship between humans and animals is a subject that demands far more reflection than it has received. Almost everybody proclaims to love animals. In first-world countries certain animals are emperors. People pamper their pooches and groom their kittens often more than they pamper or groom themselves. Pet spas and suites are a booming business in the United States and elsewhere.

And yet the moment you are not the right species, all bets are off. No matter that most mammals share comparable sensitivities and intelligences, if you’re the wrong kind of mammal chances are you spend your short life imprisoned in cells hardly bigger than your body, that you are experimented upon, factory farmed, hunted, killed and eaten, as opposed to coddled and cuddled.

As a child it was always explained to me that animals were inferior to human beings and that therefore we had the right to kill them. Never mind that the opposite argument was made to me as well: animals killed each other so we—being animals too—had the right to do unto them what they did unto each other. On one hand we were equal to animals and so we could kill them with impunity; on the other hand we were superior to animals and so we could also kill them with impunity. Talking about self-serving logic.

Now that I am no longer a child but rather have a child of my own, a child who has been raised on stories of pigs and elephants (Wilbur of Charlotte’s Web and Dumbo of Disney), deer (as in Bambi) and monkeys (as in Curious George), rabbits (as in Thumper), bears (as in Winnie the Pooh), ducks (as in the Ugly Duckling) , mice as in Mickey Mouse and chickens (as in Chicken Little), I am paralyzed with fear of having to explain to her one day that all these animals she loves we routinely kill. Some of these animals she has already eaten. How many chicken wings has she happily gnawed on already, not knowing where they came from.

Nor does the tale end with storybooks; there are also stuffed animals, the fuzzy beasts my daughter goes to sleep with, around whom she throws her chubby arms and in whose soft embraces she drifts off into dreamland.

Why is it that human beings seem—for many practical and pedagogic purposes—to prefer animals of different species to animals of their own species—and simultaneously to butcher them?  Why is it that for every Little Red Riding Hood there are a hundred Porky Pigs, for every Raggedy Ann there are a dozen furry cartoon rabbits–if not because we adore these animals—often better than we do our own kind?

But what message do we send children when we teach them to adore them as well—and simultaneously to accept their murder?

Is it really so incomprehensible that a certain number of children turn violent as they grow older, that many young adults become desensitized to the pain of the creatures they once considered their best friends? It is testimony to our ability to compartmentalize that we do not become even more cynical about loving relationships as we grow older. After all, many of us learned to love by learning to love our animals—be they in our cribs or on our doormats, in our storybooks or in our I-pad movies.

I wish I had the answers to all of these problems but the fact is I don’t. I myself have a carnivorous palate. If I consulted my taste buds alone I would live off of foie gras and steak tartare.

I would like to think, however that taste buds do not prevail over morals and that—as someone once memorably said— “I will not kill any animal that is afraid to die”—nor, either, will I accept to be complicitous in its killing.

I suspect that history will one day judge us for the destruction we have wreaked upon the animal world in a comparable way that history has judged slaveholders for holding slaves and Nazis for gassing Jews.

Indeed, the late Nobel-prize-winning Jewish author, Isaac Bashevis Singer has had the protagonist of his story, The Letter Writer, declare that “all people are Nazis” in relation to animals.  “For the animals, every day is Treblinka,” Herman Gombiner asserts—he who (like Singer himself) has lost several family members in concentration camps.

France is not going to become a vegetarian oasis for some time. After all, it was only in 1976—considerably less than 50 years ago!–that animals were declared to be “sentient beings”—as opposed to machines or merchandise–by Article L214 -1 of the French rural code. (There is now an animal rights’ organization in France called “L214: Ethique et Animaux.” dedicated to eliminating the “worst” forms of treatment, transport and slaughter of animals and to move toward a vegetable-based diet. And yet if there are vegetarian restaurants in Paris they remain (as in most of the world) anomalies. And if there’s a meatless sausage in a natural foods store it’s still cause for remark—generally disdainful.

The last time I went to that local bistro of mine, however, the blackboard proclaiming the local “battery” of animals had been taken down. It may be an accident but I’m going to be optimistic. Perhaps it is progress. Perhaps Parisians are starting, slowly, to become sensitive to the quotidian cruelty of their culinary practices. Perhaps not only the French but the rest of us, too, will one day put principles before palates. I can’t help hoping.

Cristina Nehring has written both books and articles for the NYT, the WSJ, tha Atlantic, Harper’s, Oprah, Elle and NY Magazine. Her first of three books, A Vindication of Love, made it onto the cover of the New York Times Book Review. Find Cristina online at


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Guest Posts, Christmas, Fiction Fridays

Waiting For Flicker, Christmas 1963

December 18, 2020

By Byron Spooner

“The holidays are hard on everybody,” Mother says, stubbing out her half-smoked Kent in a chocolate-smeared dessert plate, as if that might head the conversation off at the pass. If Dad were here he’d be giving Mother his usual hyperbolic ration of shit about smoking, but he’s long gone so she can do pretty much anything she Goddamn well pleases. Plus, she only smokes about three or four a day. Five, tops. If I could get away with that I’d still be smoking.

Arranged around the table in roughly the same configuration as at that lunatic Christmas dinner forty-odd years before, the three of us are the only ones left and none of us remembers exactly. Not that it matters.

“And really, what was Dad thinking?” my brother Davey says.

Which is exactly the question Mother doesn’t want me or Davey asking, the start of a discussion she’s endured many times; another rehash of that evening we still tell stories about—obsessively, she would say—and embellish and laugh about, at our increasingly infrequent gatherings. She hopes she can still steer clear of it.

“Who knows?” I say.

“Who cares?” Mother says too late.

At the head of the table, the tinsel-shimmering tree in the bay window behind him, looming over us, was six-and-a-half feet of Dad. He was halfway into his third martini. At the other end, Mother, tiny and starting to put on weight, had a VO on the rocks within easy reach; who knew how many she’d had in the kitchen. The entire Northeast region, as the weatherman called it, may have been glazed stiff from three days of continual freezing rain, but inside the heat was on full, the food was steaming. The perfect way to bring the day to a fitting finish.

Granted, the morning’s gift exchange hadn’t gone as well as it could have. Davey and I had each gotten at least one thing we wanted and had managed to keep the whining to a minimum. Davey, at seven, had been, for weeks, nearly beside himself with anticipation; I played it cool, it was my tenth Christmas and I acted the unimpressed veteran. Dad’s asshole buddy Garnett and his glamorous wife Marge were with us and, as always, exchanged token gifts with Mother and Dad. But they’d been staying with us ‘for a couple of weeks’ since around April. Another thing for Mother to be chronically pissed off about.

Things got off on the wrong foot early when Dad gave Mother a flat white box with red wrapping paper and a gold ribbon. She unwrapped it carefully, putting the paper and ribbon aside intact, and slid the top off the box. She peeled away the tissue paper and slowly, with a puzzled smile on her face, held it up for view in front of us before she realized what exactly it was; the flimsiest, shortest, sheerest negligee legally offered for purchase within the borders of the contiguous United States. There were straps going every which way with seemingly no imaginable purpose, it looked as if the whole rig couldn’t modestly cover one of the cats. What there was of it was the thinnest black fabric with blacker vertical ribbing and a feathery—or maybe furry—scarlet trim. The second she realized what it was, her smile disintegrated and she flushed red as the trim, dropped it back into the box while trying simultaneously to refold the tissue paper around it, jam the top back on the box—if she could have rewrapped it she would have—and drop it on the floor next to her. She couldn’t look at anyone in the room, instead scowling at the box as though it were a Great Dane soiling her clean floor.

“Go ahead, try in on!” Dad said to her, leering slightly and elbowing Garnett.

“What was that?” Davey asked, “What’s it for?”

What was Dad thinking? Did he mistake the flush of embarrassment and anger on her cheeks for some rosy dawn of eroticism, a pinkening of the cadaver of desire afresh? Was he so out of it that he misinterpreted the obvious signals?

Mother was short-tempered the rest of the day and when I asked Dad why, he said, “Christ, who knows? It’s always something with her.”

Dad wore his suit to dinner nearly every day and there was no reason Christmas dinner should be any different. Expecting guests, especially wealthy guests like Aunt Doobie and Uncle Flicker, brought out the blade in him. Flicker had inherited money—“a shitpot full,” according to Dad— from his family. Money made from the manufacture and sale of a nationally-known constipation remedy. Which was what made “shitpot full” even funnier, again according to Dad.

When Flicker wasn’t around Dad referred to him as the “The Laxative King,” but on the rare occasions Flicker was around he sucked up to him unsubtly, calling him “My favorite brother-in-law” and stuff like that. It was Dad’s conviction, his only unshakeable tenet of belief, that the one and only reason Flicker existed on the earth, the reason he’d been born of woman and suckled and nurtured and expensively educated and raised to maturity and unleashed on an unsuspecting and undeserving world in all his slim, urbane, cigarette-holder-sporting, Thunderbird-driving, condescendingly-nasal-voiced glory, was to make Dad look bad.

Dad’s attitude was: You never knew when a rich person might be suddenly convulsed by the irresistible urge to begin handing out random cash. Stranger things had happened after all and there was no reason not to be close by should such a compulsion come over Flicker.

But Doobie and Flicker, never the most reliable of jetsetters, still had not shown. They were already a couple of hours late when Mother and Dad powwowed in the kitchen, hissing and whispering. Mother wanted to go ahead and serve; dinner was going to be too late for us kids if we waited much longer. Dad wanted to hold off for another hour or so. Mother’s winning point, the one that changed Dad’s mind, was ‘If we stall around any longer the roast’ll be ruined.” Overdone and tough. Hearing this, Dad, who liked his beef cooked ‘so it moos’ immediately relented and started herding everyone in sight to the table. He always said sophisticated people ate their meat rare.

With or without Doobie and Flicker, Dad had been looking forward to the Christmas roast since sometime around the Fourth of July. He loathed Christmas and all things associated with it but wasn’t about to let that spoil a good meal. Just because he’d been collecting Unemployment for the better part of nine months didn’t mean we couldn’t splurge a little for the holidays. The roast alone had set him back enough to feed the entire family the usual slop for a week. We’d be eating nothing but macaroni and cheese and store-brand canned crap into mid-January at least, but it would be worth it. Mashed potatoes, peas with pearl onions, Parker House rolls, real butter, Jell-O salad. Gravy. Garnett had said he’d kick a share into the pot but came up short, having been unemployed even longer than Dad.

Dad seemed to hover over the roast, a knife in one hand, a fork in the other, letting the anticipation build.

He peered into the gravy boat, the good one our grandmother had given us, silver and shaped vaguely along the lines of Aladdin’s Magic Lamp, from over his glasses. If you asked him—not that anybody ever did—there was never enough gravy; the woman never made enough. If it had been up to him he would never, ever, have to ladle out the gravy in carefully measured, niggardly portions as if we lived in the poorhouse or something. If it had been up to him, he’d have poured it. He’d have poured it on his meat, his potatoes, his vegetables, his salad, his goddamned ice cream, if he wanted to. He’d float the whole flipping meal in it.

And he always, at this point in the proceedings, asked the same question, “The gravy situation is MIK, I presume? More In Kitchen?”

“Just what’s there,” Mother said, her voice tense. To her, the most galling part of the whole performance was he always, no matter how many times he trotted out the same tired line, felt the need to translate the acronym for her. Did he think she hadn’t heard ‘More In Kitchen’ the last two hundred times he‘d said it? Did he not realize he was prodding a hornets’ nest with this MIK nonsense?

He shared a downcast look with us kids, and then with Garnett and Marge, as if to say, ‘See how much I have to suffer?’

He paused for another solemn moment.

“I must say that Christmas dinner is always extra special when I’m serving all these wonderful people. All these people who are so close to me and whom I love so dearly.”

Was he sincere or just bullshitting us? Probably a little of both if my ear could be trusted. It was hard to know.

“I know we’re all broke this year…”

“Just like last year…” Mother muttered.

“…but there are still some things…”

“…and the year before that…” she continued.

“…that are more important…”

He went on from there, blessing each of us several times including the roast and the gravy and the pearl onions, with the gravy ladle.

“A-men, a-men,” Marge said.

“God bless us one and all,” Garnett said. He was defrocked minister, so he still knew how to make stuff like that sound sincere and insincere at the same time..

“The food is getting cold,” Mother said.

Carefully and with all the high-seriousness befitting the occasion, Dad carved the roast and doled out the slices, a few at a time. His disappointment was obvious as each successive slice peeled away; the meat was gray, without even a trace of pink, through and through. The rest of us, hungry and not nearly as worldly as Dad, fell on the food like starved peccaries. All the while we kept one keen eye on the remaining food and plotted ways to get a little more than the others when the time came for seconds. Everyone talked at once: the gifts, the rain outside, the fire in the fireplace, Santa, Christmases past, Dickens, the Grinch, a week off from school.

No one mentioned Kennedy, who’d been shot and killed just over a month before.

“We’re not going to spoil our Christmas just because that sonofabitch is dead,” Dad had said, earlier in the day, making clear his position. As if there had ever been any doubt.

Garnett pulled a palmed marshmallow out of Davey’s ear. He kept a bag of them hidden in his coat pocket. Davey giggled.

“I love this time of year; the Christmas trees, the decorations, the store windows,” he said.

“Yes, it is lovely isn’t it? Why don’t we drive into the city tomorrow and see the decorations on the big stores one more time before they take them all down,” Marge suggested.

“Good idea,” Mother said, “We all get tired of being cooped up in the house after a couple of days. I know I do.” A glance at Dad.

Dad rolled his eyes ceilingward. Not his idea of a fun way to fill an afternoon.

“Did you see the guy owns the hardware store downtown?” Dad said, “He stuck a sign in his window says, ‘Give Your Husband a New Screw for Christmas!’ You might want to take the kids past that way. Good for a couple of laughs.” It was always hard to pinpoint who his intended audience was for this kind of thing. The rest of us could practically hear Mother simmering at the other end of the table. He was oblivious. At least it seemed so.

Garnett laughed, as would be expected, but Marge hid her mouth behind her napkin.

“Why would you say something like that at this table, with the children here, everyone in such a good mood?” she said.

“It’s a joke, m’dear, a joke. Best just to let it pass.” Garnett said, pulling another marshmallow from Davey’s ear. I monitored this pretty closely. Usually after another highball or two he’d switch from marshmallows to quarters. You wanted to be around for that.

“I hear Doobie and Flicker are headed for Aruba after the holidays,” Dad said.

“Yes, they are,” Mother said, perking up, momentarily encouraged that her husband had been paying attention to something other than his own needs for a change.

“Maybe they decided to head down there early,” Dad said.

“I understand it’s lovely this time of year,” Marge said.

“Me, too,” Garnett said, “No freezing rain, at least.”

“Art Plouts had a buddy went to Aruba,” Dad said, “He told me it isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.”

“Art Plouts?” Mother said.

“I remember ole Art,” Garnett said, “Wasn’t he…”

“Art Plouts?” Mother said again, incredulous, wanting none of Art Plouts, a gin-soaked housepainter Dad had met in a barroom in Memphis who’d mooched room, board and booze off us for several months in exchange for a couple of shaky coats of exterior white.

Mother said, “If Aruba’s such a hellhole how come people are practically killing themselves to get there?”

“Just ‘cause you’re rich, doesn’t make you smart,” Dad said, directing this at me and Davey as if it were a valuable piece of advice.

Mother said, “I guess by that measure you’re about the smartest man in town.”

He gave her a look of wounded incomprehension.

“You should be a regular genius,” she said.

Garnett reached over and pulled a quarter out of my ear. I must have miscalculated his rate of consumption.

“You and Art and all your other deadbeat friends? You idiots think it’s smart to not work? You and your friends are too fucking smart to hold a steady job?”

The table went silent.

Garnett issued a barely audible burp.

Dad swore like a drill sergeant, we heard obscenity and profanity daily—hell, hourly—from him. It had only been only a year or two since I’d figured out ‘motherfucker’ wasn’t another word for ‘lawnmower.’ Nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, exclamations, he swung the words the way Dizzy Gillespie swung high notes, the way Jackie Gleason delivered a punch line, with precision and artistry, yes, but also for the sake of pure entertainment. But that word—Fuck—coming from Mother, and not just the word but in that tone, in front of her children and Marge and Garnett, and on Christmas, was nothing but unalloyed rage. It sent a charge of fear through the room.

“See here,” Marge said.

“Shut up,” Mother said, “You’ve been on my last nerve all day with your holier-than-thou, high-and-mighty attitude, so right now, just for now, why don’t you shut up?”

After a minute and with deliberate and exaggerated patience Dad said, “If you’re referring to the alleged differences between me and the sainted Flicker, I would like to point out, A, he’s never had to lift finger one in his entire pointless goddamned existence. B, he inherited everything…”

“It wasn’t Flicker who gave you the idea for that…that…filthy…thing you tried to give me this morning. That idea had to come from Art or some other dirty-minded friend of yours.”

“I came up with that on my own…” he said, leering again at the memory.

“I had nothing to do with it,” Garnett said.

“And in front of these poor children…?”

“…and, getting back to my original point, don’t forget, C, everyone…” he said, going back to his list, his forefinger pointing to the ceiling, massively oblivious to what was coming.

“…and on Christmas…?” she said, wanting nothing more to do with his alphabet.

“… on the entire face of the planet…”


  As she said this last, she jumped out of her chair, gripping the edge of the table, bringing her end up with her as she rose.

“…kisses his rich ass…”

Like all tragedies, this one happened in slow motion.

We all watched breathless, frozen in place, useless, as Mother tilted her end of the table upward and sent an avalanche into Dad’s lap; the tablecloth with our dinner, dishes, silverware, serving platters, water glasses, the cocktails, the roast, the Jell-O salad, the peas with pearl onions, the mashed potatoes, the gravy—the gravy! Dad tried to save the roast, grabbing it as it sailed by. At the same time, he tried to stand, to get out of the way of the rest of our dinner, but in his rush to throw himself clear his legs got tangled in his chair legs; his left shoe clomped onto the silver-plated gravy boat, half-flattening it. He slipped in the spreading slick of gravy and fell backwards, kicking out, shooting the gravy boat, which no longer resembled Aladdin’s Magic Lamp or anything recognizable, at a terrifying speed and sending it smack against the opposite wall. It ricocheted back at him, caroming off the ceiling on its way. There was still enough gravy in the ruined thing to spatter Dad’s face and clothes when it struck him square in the forehead and rattled to the floor, came to rest in nearly the exact spot it had taken off from. More stunned than wounded, he fell backwards into the tree, bringing it down with a great, sickening crash. The plugs on the Depression-era light strings sputtered and smoked under the strain and finally gave up the ghost, flickering once, twice, and dying. Dad sprawled on top of the ruined tree, the roast resting on his chest like some wet trophy.

“Shit,” Dad said.

An extended stunned silence ensued punctuated only by the miniature crash—Ding!—of a last glass ornament dropping to the floor. We all sat in our chairs feeling suddenly exposed, absent the table, napkins in our laps, knives and forks still in our hands

“God bless us one and all,” Garnett said and Dad, from where he lay moaning, his suit gravy-spattered and covered with pine needles, could only laugh. He always thought Garnett was a fucking riot.

“A few years ago,” I say, “It came to me that the world didn’t need me to point out all the already obvious hypocrisies of the season. Most people work out ways to live with them, reconcile with them, so they can still enjoy the season. And I’m not helping anything by acting like Dad; trying to convert everyone into an atheist or a Scrooge. So he hated Christmas? So what? What gave him license to go around spoiling everyone else’s holiday?”

“So if you don’t have anything nice to say I just dummy up? ” Davey says, “Doesn’t sound like you.”

“It’s the new me,” I say.

“How’s that working out for you?” Davey asked.

“So-so, I’d have to say, Dr. Phil,” I say, I’ve been the other way for so long it’s just habit to be that way.”

“Forty Christmases under our belts since that one,” Davey says, “I guess we’re the last of them.”

I ask Mother, “What happened to Garnett?”

  “After your father died, I lost touch with Marge and Garnett,” Mother says, “I assume they’re gone. It was no state secret I never really cared much for them.”

She always said that, “No state secret.” Some things never change. Actually, most things never change, if you think about it.

“No, it certainly wasn’t,” Davey says, laughing at her understatement.

Mother says, “The last we heard they’d gone up to Providence to live with Marge’s sister, ‘looking for work’—probably sponging.”

“Doobie and Flicker never did show up,” Davey says.

“The peripatetic Doobie and Flicker,” I say, jumping on the rare chance to insert ‘peripatetic’ into a conversation.

“Wow, nice word,” Davey says. In our family, sarcasm is the mother tongue.

“Yeah, and I remember how pissed off you were,” I say to Mother. Davey just laughs. Whatever happened to her sister Doobie and Doobie’s husband Flicker that night is lost in the mists—the freezing rain—of history; never satisfactorily explained, never resolved. Nobody ever asked, nobody ever explained. Like everything else, we all just acted as if nothing had happened and trudged on. It was a tradition that had been passed down through generations. They died a few years later off the coast of Mexico, marlin fishing. Apparently everyone on board was loaded—’knee-walking drunk’ was how Flicker’s ancient mother put it—when they capsized.

“They always lived like the rules didn’t apply to them. They were terribly reckless.” she says, “And, just to set the record straight, I wasn’t ’pissed off’ so much as disappointed.”

Davey laughs again, “‘Disappointed?’ Hell, you didn’t speak to them for a couple of years after that.” He is always brutally honest with her, the one who calls her on her bullshit, never giving her an inch, ever since he was little.

“Yes, I never got the chance to reconcile with her,” she says, “And I would’ve too.”

Davey and I exchange glances that say, ‘Yeah, right.’

“It was all so long ago,” she says, sighing “I don’t understand why we always have to come back to it. Every Christmas it’s the same Goddammed thing.” She lights her last Kent of the evening and shakes the match out.

Davey says, “You’re right, ‘the holidays are hard on everybody.’”

Byron Spooner has recently retired after twenty-one years as the Literary Director of the Friends of the San Francisco Public Library where he produced literary events including a weekly poetry series with San Francisco Poet Laureate Emeritus Jack Hirschman. He founded and edited of The Readers Review, the Friends’ literary blog, where he wrote about books, music, film and bookselling. With his wife, writer Judith Ayn Bernhard, Byron co-edited Arcana: A Festschrift for Jack Hirschman (Andover Street Archives Press, 2014). His writing has been published in the San Francisco Examiner, the Anderson Valley Advertiser, Autobiography and Isis. He has written introductions to several anthologies published by FSFPL. His short story, A Book for Christmas was published by Red Berry Editions in 2011. Byron has served on the San Francisco Poet Laureate Nominating Committee and the One City, One Book Selection Committee of the SFPL, on the Board of Litquake, and the Advisory Board of the Beat Museum.

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Eating/Food, emotions, Guest Posts


November 17, 2019

By Judy Harper

My daughter had her 15th birthday party at our house a few months ago. Eight teenage girls converged at our home and had the 2019 version of the classic sleepover: they scrolled through Instagram, watched YouTube videos, listened to Billie Eilish, ate a lot of junk food, talked about their crushes, giggled, and stayed up really late. The next morning, I tip-toed past the mass of girls sleeping in my living room, and went into the kitchen to dutifully make the breakfast my daughter had asked for: bacon and chocolate croissants. The young women ate their breakfast and the sleepover wrapped up at 10:30 a.m., with a mountain of blankets, wrapping paper, and leftovers for me to clean up. Oh, those leftovers. Pizza, croissants, bacon, cupcakes, chips…

Do you know how this story goes? What do you do with the leftovers? Do you throw away the slightly stale chips? What about the pizza? I do, eventually, end up throwing away the pizza, but not after I spend the majority of the day binge eating leftovers. I eat a chocolate croissant, a chocolate-covered donut, and five pieces of bacon at 11:30 a.m. About an hour later, I have a piece of pepperoni pizza, and at 2:00 p.m., I have four more pieces of pizza: two pepperoni and two cheese (I don’t eat the crust, though, you know, because I’m watching my carbs). Then, I drink two diet Cokes and sit down, stunned and dazed, in a sweaty stupor. The next day, I will throw away the pizza and the chips, but not yet. On this day, I just sit there, trying to pretend like it’s OK that I ate this because tomorrow will be different.

Do you do this, too, or is it just me?

That night, I sleep fitfully, having to get up to drink water and eat handfuls of Tums. When I do sleep, it is fitful and shallow. The next morning, I wake up, groan, get on the scale, and groan again. This number that I hate is staring at me, judging me, and this body that I hate and treat with such contempt is there, on full display, the symbol of my neglect and addictive tendencies. I want to cry, or scream, or punch something, but I don’t let it out. I never let it out. Instead, I start to scheme about how not to end up here again, ever, while also trying to forget all that I ate the day before. It’s a complicated dance requiring careful and exacting footwork that has to be performed in a specific sequence, and, usually, it works. It involves frantic, non-stop thinking, scores of internet searches, dozens of podcasts, trips to the library and, of course, Amazon purchases. It involves promises and lists and the constant, thrumming noise of trying to tune out of the pain and into something more comfortable.

I try to forget the pizza, the donut, the sweating, the Tums, and I focus on what I’m going to do to make sure this never happens again. The fixation on the image of the perfect life I’m going to start living just as soon as I’m done showering and getting dressed keeps me somewhat occupied as do the internet searches and lists of things I need to do and buy in order to finally become better, to finally become the perfect woman, like the one I see on-line who runs her own blog, makes her own soap, raises five children, runs half marathons in under two hours, and works on her PhD in psychology in her spare time. I want to be perfectly reconstructed into the woman I heard interviewed on NPR, the one who overcame horrific traumas and a severe learning disability to triumphantly publish her first novel and find herself short-listed for the Man Booker Prize. The options and variations of who I want to become are endless; I can be the athletic intellectual, the intellectual comedian, or the quirky eco-warrior. The images dance in my head and for a while, I’m drawn into the creation of the woman I will soon become.

When I used to drink, this part of the morning took much longer…the frantic and desperate attempts to piece together what I’d done the night before, and often, no matter how hard I tried, not being able to remember. Those mornings were far darker and more torturous than the post food-binge mornings, but the action is the same: trying to twist time and memory into something other than what they are. Trying to find the space inside my soul where there is respite, coming up empty, and then replacing that respite or self-forgiveness with stuff…mental exercises, frantic writing of to-do lists, texting friends in search of validation, reading blogs, searching for new gyms, and reading about diet programs, and so on.

Wanting to forget something is almost as difficult as trying to remember, but a little less painful, and as my day progresses, I slip into that dark internal abyss of loathing and hatred—why did I eat all that? Why can’t I say no? Why can’t I control myself? Why do I eat until I can’t see straight? Why can’t I do better? Why can’t I be better? Why can’t I be someone else?

This continues for hours. I distract myself and then I have a fleeting thought that I wish I hadn’t thrown the pizza away because a slice or two sounds good. Then, I hate myself for having that thought, and sink back down into the awfulness.

This takes hours, and the ping-ponging between the highs and lows exhausts me. With each thought of the shiny new me that I’m going to forge comes also the crashing thought of a life without the escape of pizza or chocolate or chips or blogs or podcasts or internet searches.

And I am so uncomfortable there, in that swinging back and forth between the highs and the lows, that I grab my notebook and write out “the plan” to turn myself into someone else, someone completely new and different. Anything to get away from my thoughts.

The plan takes shape: I’ll never eat sugar again, goes the familiar refrain. Not one bite. I’ll also never eat anything with artificial sweeteners in it, oh, and of course, I’ll never eat chips or crackers again. Better to just wholesale go 100% Paleo and dedicate my life to eating this way. I’ll clean the whole house, top to bottom, organize every single drawer and cabinet. I’ll clean out my closet. I’ll write my book. I’ll run 5 miles every single day and do yoga, too, becoming that person who wakes up at 5:00 a.m. and cheerily goes about her day, non-stop, until 11:00 p.m. I’ll be that perfectly busy living that perfect life. Oh, and I’ll stop chewing my cuticles, too.

The day moves forward smoothly from here; I have now found an escape from my thoughts and I have a plan. I have eggs and avocado for breakfast, but I put milk in my coffee, which isn’t strictly Paleo. It’s OK, I tell myself. I’ll go to Whole Foods today and buy coconut almond creamer. This is the last time I’ll ever do this. I put my earbuds in, turn on a podcast, furiously clean the stove and sweep the kitchen. Then, armed with a list of 25 items that will make my life perfect, I head off to Whole Foods.

I arrive and walk optimistically through the store, filling my cart with things that will save me: pasture-raised eggs, ghee, cabbage, avocados, plantains, tomatoes, and ideas for recipes and images of the way everything will be when my life is perfect flood through my head. I find the coconut almond creamer and put three of them in my cart…if I’m going to change my life, wholly and completely, right now, today, I better be armed with groceries. A thought pops into my head: maybe I should give up caffeine, too, as I am far too reliant on my daily cup. But I manage to shut down the thought.

I move easily past the beer and wine aisle, grateful that the siren call of alcohol no longer plagues me. I turn the corner and see the banner hanging from the ceiling, a picture of a happy, achingly beautiful young mother, next to her cloyingly pretty little girl, and they are smiling at a tray of sponge cake, whipped cream, and beautiful berries. Shit, I remember, my thoughts and spirit sinking, I told my daughter we’d go downtown and go clothes shopping and get ice cream at our favorite place. What am I going to do? Watch her eat the ice cream? Eat some myself? Find a sugar-free, dairy-free variety? Shit.

I turn the final corner in my sojourn toward perfect living and I see the bakery, and the slices of cake and the cookies and chocolate bars. And, in an instant, I put two chocolate bars—one with almonds, one without—in my cart, right next to the cabbage and tomatoes and plantains, and I walk to the register. There is a low-level buzzing in my head, and a voice that just keeps saying “it’s OK. Just this once. Don’t worry. You’ll be fine. This doesn’t mean anything.”

I pay, walk to my car, and carefully load in the $158 worth of organic, locally sourced groceries into the trunk. I slip the chocolate bars into the pocket of my sweatshirt and I get in my car. Before I can think or look at myself in the rearview mirror, I start the car and turn up the volume on the podcast I was listening to, and I quickly begin eating one of the chocolate bars. I try to eat one square at a time and savor it, but, of course, I don’t. I can barely taste the chocolate, but it is pulling me out of the feeling of fear I have of the groceries in the trunk and before I’m out of the parking lot, the first bar is done. I’m now waiting to get to a red light so I can rip open the second one, which I devour almost as quickly as the first. As I drive down the street, my teeth aching dully and my head buzzing, I feel a wave of sadness descend over me. I pull into my driveway, and, feeling like a fraud, I unload the groceries and carelessly put them away.

I stand in the kitchen, staring into space. I have worn myself down. I can’t figure out a way to justify the chocolate. It doesn’t make sense. I am not angry at myself anymore nor do I have thoughts of how to fix this, either. I’m just done, spent. An entire morning of bouncing between self-loathing and desperate attempts to pull myself out of it render me exhausted. I spend the rest of the day half-listening to podcasts, walking the dog, skimming through some work, and cobbling together a dinner of leftovers.

I don’t cook anything using the ingredients I bought at Whole Foods; they just remind me of what a failure I am, remind of the chocolate, which then reminds of the pizza, which then reminds me of the time I ate an entire container of French onion dip and a whole bag of potato chips and the roof of my mouth ached for days, which then reminds me of the time I drank so much that I passed out on the couch and spilled a glass of whiskey on the floor, which then reminds me of the time in college when I threw up on the stairs of someone’s house at a party, and so on. These thoughts are so painful that I shut them down the only way I know how, by stuffing them down with food or with podcasts or with Wolf Blitzer sharing 20,000 breaking news stories.

A week later, I find the cabbage that I had planned to braise with onions and tomatoes in the bottom drawer of the refrigerator, rotten. I put it in the garbage and see that the tomatoes on the kitchen counter are shriveled, and as I throw them away, I turn on a podcast and turn up the volume.

Have you ever done this? Anything similar to this? Or am I the only one? What is your thing? Is it food? Alcohol? Shopping? Perpetual busy-ness?

Drinking was, by far, the most destructive of my habits, and I’m so glad I quit. But food is also very destructive, and removing alcohol hasn’t cured me of what truly ails me: fear of my self. Not “myself”, but my self…my soul, my inner-most me. I don’t know her, probably never have. I’m afraid of what I might find if I do, and so I avoid her. I fear so terribly that she’s some awful disappointment that I distract myself in every way I can conceive, purposefully blind to the consequences.

Can you relate? I ask because I have a hunch you can. This isn’t about food addiction or alcohol addiction or cell phone addiction…those things are the consequence of the core issue: not knowing ourselves and not having the time or space (or desire) to actually know who we are. The most common manifestation of this is the Instagram moment or the duck-lipped selfie pose, those very falsely manufactured moments intended to show us something real. But of course, they aren’t real. They are fake, and yet we somehow elevate them in our consciousness and create ideas about how our lives are supposed to mirror this ideal.

I’m not writing about anything new here. For years, we’ve known that the internet and especially social media are robbing us of some aspects of real life, and I don’t know if my particular issue of binge-eating angst is because of the internet, per se, but I do know that my disconnectedness from the world around me, from feeling things in the here and now, have been exacerbated by the internet and the need for distractions in general. Or maybe, it’s just that I’m 46 and I’m in the throes of a bout of existential angst.

And yes, while existential angst is certainly a part of this, I also know that my food addiction and my podcast addiction and my addiction to anything that will keep me from a moment of quiet, a moment of reflection, a moment of stillness have gotten far worse in the years since I’ve had a smartphone and access to stories and pictures and interviews with people who live lives that are thousands of times more glamorous than mine at my fingertips. Everyone has a story, a life hack, a “you can do this, too.” You can organize your whole house, build your own compost bin, change your diet, do more core work, run your own business, and thus become just like someone else.

There is nothing wrong with self-improvement. Not one damn thing. But are all these books, podcasts, and blogs really aimed at self-improvement, or do they sell the idea that the way someone is doing something is the way we should all do it? In short, are they selling the idea that the way I am is fundamentally damaged and that if I can change external parts of myself, I’ll be better?

As someone who is, by nature, deeply insecure, deeply neurotic, and very impressionable, I think the answer is yes. I have bought, hook, line, and sinker, into the idea that I’m not good enough, but that there is an answer out there for me, that some blogger or self-help author is going to fix me.

I have been searching for years now, and I can’t find the answer, no matter how hard I try. And the harder I look, the less I know. I used to be able to eat a meal without second guessing myself, and now, I can’t. I can’t figure out if eating a banana with breakfast is good for me or not, and an internet search only makes this worse. And if I can’t figure out if bananas are good for me, then how will I ever figure out how to lose weight, get in shape, write that book, be a better person, and so on? If bananas are confusing, then what about life? How will I ever know?

I want to believe that I’m actually fine, just the way I am. I really do. It’s just very hard and overwhelming. I have read about and seen a lot of movement toward body positivity and inclusivity, but even that overwhelms because I don’t want to blog about it, be interviewed about it on the Today show, or post about it on social media. I don’t want to be famous or a vanguard. I don’t want to have the answers. I just want to be who I am, whoever that is, and not feel less than because I don’t run fast or compost or follow a strictly Paleo diet or a strictly vegan diet or write a blog or make my own goat milk lotion.

Or, how about this? I want to go through a day, a whole entire day, without feeling less than anyone else, without needing to drown out the self-doubts with noise. I want to be able to just be, whatever that means, and to not feel so afraid of that, just that.

Judy Harper is a 46-year-old adjunct instructor at a community college. She is married and has a 15-year-old daughter. She lives near the ocean on the central California coast.

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Guest Posts, Family

Family Table

October 13, 2019

By Kat Read

This was my family table: I’d open the glove compartment and peel a small stack of paper napkins off the pile wedged inside. I’d layer them over one another on the open door and then reach into the paper bag, extract the packets of ketchup, usually three or four. I’d squeeze the foil packets onto the napkins, scraping down from the outside with my fingers pressed together. I’d jostle the fries loose onto the tray. Then I’d take the salt shaker that we kept in the glove compartment and sprinkle more salt onto the fries – we really like salt, my mom and I – and I’d hand her a fry, crisp and kissed with ketchup.

My dad did most of the cooking in our house when I was little, but he died suddenly when I was fourteen. My mom has never liked to cook. “Cooking was never an interest of mine,” she’ll say to me now, but I know that’s not the whole story. After he died, it felt ridiculous to sit and eat an elaborate dinner at our big empty dining room table, like we were performing in a play that no one was watching. Here we are, sitting down to dinner, bravely carrying on. My mom was exhausted. She worked full time, took care of me, took care of our house, all while trying to figure out how to live the rest of her life without her husband. Cooking dinner was just not a priority. I covered the table with my schoolwork and we mostly ate prepared foods and fast food.

We drove an hour and a half together in the car each day, and we’d spend the time talking about my classes, her work, our friendships. We made jokes and we listened to music and sometimes we’d stop for fries. We had our dose of family togetherness in the car, so most nights when we got home, we’d retreat to separate corners of the house. My mom would eat a frozen dinner in the kitchen and I’d sit alone in front of the tiny TV in the living room. Sometimes, I’d make myself a paper plate of nachos: a pile of Tostitos chips and pre-grated cheese melted in the microwave, the whole thing sprinkled liberally with Kosher salt that we kept in a little Pyrex bowl next to the stove. I’d peel the chips off one by one and sink into a crunchy fatty salty bliss. When I was done, I’d head into the kitchen, say hi to my mom, and wipe the plate down with a paper towel before sliding it back into its spot above the microwave. Even now, I love to make a huge plate of nachos and devour them all by myself, luxuriating in solitude.

Is that sad? I don’t know. Sometimes I think it must be, especially when I hear other people talk about their food memories from growing up. We didn’t have shelves of sauce-spattered cookbooks. I didn’t learn to cook from my mom. We didn’t sit down together at seven o’clock sharp every night for a family meal.

And yet: sometimes, we would stop at Whole Foods on the way home from school. She’d helm the cart while I skittered around the store looking at the cheeses and the fruits and the sushi. We always ended up buying the same stuff: a baguette, a slab of good butter, a jug of grapefruit juice, and two cannoli with little chocolate chips studding the ends. We’d eat the cannoli before we left the parking lot.

When we got home, we’d pour two huge glasses of juice and sit on the couch. We’d tear off chunks of bread with our hands and punch the cold butter into the crevices with the tip of a knife. We’d sit beside each other and giggle and chat and watch other people cook on America’s Test Kitchen.

I still crave the pairing sometimes, the fattiness of the butter and the acidity of the juice. It is strange and unexpected, like the life we had to make together after my dad died. But we made it work, sitting side by side, facing forward.

Kat Read is a writer in GrubStreet’s Essay Incubator program, an intensive writing course based in Boston, MA. She recently published an essay on the intersection of therapy and writing on the Brevity Blog and an essay in Coastin’, a weekly arts magazine. Kat works as a fundraiser at GrubStreet and lives with her husband and their dog in Cambridge, MA.

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Guest Posts, Eating/Food, emotions

American Chop Suey

February 4, 2018

By Kimberly Wetherell

The name alone mortifies me. American Chop Suey. It’s the name my mother gave to her signature dish, the supper we ate at least twice a week every week for as long as I can remember throughout my formative years. What Julia Child did with beef, bacon, onions and mushrooms, my mother did with elbow macaroni, browned ground chuck, Prego (It’s in there!) spaghetti sauce, and a sprinkling of her “secret blend” of spices; very likely nothing more than dried oregano, parsley, and basil. It’s that sprinkling of the secret spices that made her a chef, she told us. That quip was something I mocked her for to my professional chef friends when describing how pathetic my mother’s cooking was, and how it drove me to learn how to cook properly and eventually become a professional chef myself.

I’m not a professional chef anymore, though. I opened my own restaurant in Brooklyn three and a half years ago, and three years ago tonight (as I write this), I was reviewing my year-end books. I could see that we had been hemorrhaging money and that by the end of February 2015, our doors would be forced to close unless a miracle happened. It didn’t. I was a solo entrepreneur and I had sunk my life savings into the venture, which included leveraging my tony Park Slope brownstone apartment for the business loan, and I lost everything. As soon as I could, I left Brooklyn behind for the warmer climes of St. Petersburg, Florida and I spent two years there in an attempt to recover. Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Eating Disorders/Healing

How To Get Over An Eating Disorder

August 25, 2017

By Sarah Simmons

It’s 3:58pm, known around the parenting world as the witching hour.  Babies and toddlers are terribly whiny and you’re not sure what to do about it. It’s too early for dinner but it’s also too late to plan an outing.  For me it’s a time where I restlessly walk around the condo past the accumulating crap of life,  pile of laundry and the kids because I should and could be playing with them or folding the clothes or even getting to the closet that needs to be organized but I don’t. Instead my mind keeps wandering to food.

My dinners are the same every night.  Some sort of vegetable with ranch dressing. The same so I don’t have to think about it. It’s light enough where I’m not full and then can go to town on what I really want, which are the cookies.  But it’s not just a woman sitting down with 3 cookies on a plate daintily munching whilst watching Modern Family.  It’s a woman shiftily going back and forth from living room to kitchen, like an alcoholic,  to reach under the cabinet where one of the several 2 pound bags of animal crackers lie open,  to grab handful upon handful until most of the bag –okay the entire bag- is empty.  I crave these things all day long  and try to plan it so I might possibly eat less. Like, maybe if I eat dinner late enough then I will be too sleepy to eat?  It doesn’t work.

Eating has represented more for me than hunger. Food=control=suffering=filling a void.  I don’t know how these things come to be or why I can’t just have a healthy relationship with food but I do know this: Continue Reading…

Guest Posts, Eating Disorders/Healing, Eating/Food

A Binge To Remember

December 1, 2016

TW: This essay discusses eating disorders.

By Jenna Robino

I am 20. I live in a one bedroom apartment all by myself, right next to LAX. I’m practically a terminal I’m so close. It’s my sophomore year at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles. I am a theater major. No minor. I have no idea what I want to do after college, I just like acting and playing different characters. In high school my graduating class voted me “most likely to be on SNL,” so I decided I’d stick with it, and here I am.

Let me close my window. They’re double-sided because of the noise from the planes. Yeah, that black stuff is from the exhaust. I’m sure it’s going to cause some sort of health problem down the road.

One of the reasons I live here, by myself, is because I have a problem. At night, I turn into a food hungry monster and no one’s food is safe. When I had roommates, living in the campus dorms, I would sneak into their rooms when they weren’t there and steal food: handfuls of cereal, candy, a granola bar. If there was one of anything, of course I didn’t take it. I was a thoughtful thief. Whatever I scored, I’d bring back to my top bunk, stick in a container and hide under my pillow. Continue Reading…

Christmas, depression, Eating/Food, Guest Posts


December 18, 2015

By Nicole Gibbs

I pulled my dirty, fifteen year old mom van into the farthest corner of the parking lot. The same spot where years ago I’d waited for my connect, and later where I’d waited for people who were willing to buy my bad dope at a jacked up price. I turned the car off and glanced around, those old instincts on full alert. I reached down and brought the brown paper bag into my lap. I pulled out the greasy “Siracha Burger,” the box of curly fries. I made sure no one was looking and I tried to ignore the tendrils of guilt that teased at the edges of my consciousness as I bit into the spicy, salty burger.

Halfway through the guilt won out for a few moments and I paused, taking some deep breaths, my throat tight with food.

What was I doing?

I was a vegetarian!

I was on a diet!

Oh jeez. Quit being so uptight, I told myself. It’s one goddamn burger. It’s not the end of the world.

I didn’t want to keep eating it. I hated myself more with each bite. But it tasted so good! I couldn’t stop.

What was wrong with me?

What was the difference between this and the drugs? I mean, of course I wasn’t going to abandon my kids and go live on the streets so that I could eat Jack in the Box all the time. That would be ridiculous. But really, at the core, what was the difference? I used to sit in this same parking lot, watching the same city bus roll by, the Mexican families sitting at the Mc Donald’s across the street with too many kids running around, the same dirty street, the same fear of being seen, the same war going on inside of me, the same self-loathing afterwards. On a scientific level it’s all the same too, I suppose. I put this stuff into my body that’s really bad for me and it lights up all those dopamine receptors and I feel good for a minute and then I feel bad and want more. Continue Reading…

Eating Disorders/Healing, Eating/Food, Guest Posts, healing

Tales of a Food Restrictor

December 10, 2015

By Anne Falkowski

At 45, I made the decision to face my disordered eating. It was a dark creepy crawly which followed me around for more than half my life. (It’s not unusual for women in their 40s or older to have untreated eating disorders for twenty, thirty or even forty years.

I decided it was time to let go.

I could do this. But I needed help.

I called the experts and landed in an office the color of fog and ocean. The colors of healing. This was a place for anorexics, bulimics and eating disorders not otherwise specified (like myself).

There was a large rubber plate of fake food next to the tissue box. On this fake plate was a mound of beans, a thick slice of bread, a pile of broccoli and an unidentified piece of meat. I liked to run my fingers over the beans and feel their lumpiness.

It was in this ocean room, while I fingered the beans, when Mark, the therapist, told me I was a food restrictor.

“Are you sure? Wouldn’t I be thin if I did that?”

As always, I was hyperaware of my body which refused to be the size I wanted it.

“Well, not necessarily.”

His hand reached up to touch his tie. Mark always wore a shirt and tie. He was twenty years younger than me. At first his youth threw me. How could a clean cut baby-faced twenty something counsel me, a middle aged woman, who had been dealing or not dealing with disordered eating probably as long as he had been alive?

He told me that we cannot pick the bodies we want.

I wanted to be slim, slender, thin, and bony.

“It doesn’t work that way. We don’t get to choose our bodies.” He held my gaze. Continue Reading…