By conservative estimates, there are currently enough wrongfully convicted people in prison in the United States to fill a football stadium.
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recently I felt as though my life had grown stagnant. I was ready for a change and some adventure, so I took a job with a trail crew, helping to maintain wilderness trails in the mountainous Idaho backcountry.
Now my crew is on the final stretch of our assignment. The seven of us have been working out of a remote ranger station, accessible only by foot, horse, or plane, for nearly four months. We’ve gone without world news and have been able to send and receive postal mail only once every two weeks, when a U.S. Forest Service official comes on horseback to restock the station with food and supplies.
I wanted this experience when I took this job. I needed to separate from conventional society, to fall off the map for a while, to test myself. We all did. At times, though, to hear us talk, you might think we were forced to be here. Living in the wilderness makes one hunger for ordinary luxuries. We constantly quote movies and stand-up comics. We talk about the songs we want to hear, the meals we want to eat, the people we want to see, and the vices we’ve left behind — even though we’re secretly glad they’re not around.
As the season comes to an end, our appetite for all those luxuries grows more voracious. When we arrive back in town, I will indulge with the others, but I expect I will then return to the wild, driven by an appetite for whatever lies beyond the next ridge.
Los Angeles, California
In 1978, at the age of eighteen, I became engaged to my boyfriend, T., who was nineteen. During high school my desire for knowledge, self-expression, and friendship had been replaced by the desire for popularity, parties, and boys. I had become vain and confused and was unable to see a future for myself without T. Marrying him would give me a distinct identity: wife. At the same time, I felt anxious. I see now that I was nervous about the step I’d be taking, but back then I couldn’t identify the cause of my fear. Like many women, I had been taught to attribute my anxiety to my weight. So I began starving myself, believing that if I could attain a perfectly thin body, I’d feel better.
One late-spring day T. and I drove forty minutes to Glacier National Park. I didn’t eat any real food on the trip, trying to fool my appetite with diet soda and sugarless gum. On the way home we stopped at a grocery store so T. could get some snacks. In the freezer section he found a box of chocolate-coated ice-cream bonbons. I had loved ice cream as a child and was both delighted and apprehensive that this decadent treat was coming back to T.’s house with us. For the rest of the drive home, all I could think about was that box of bonbons. I tried to estimate how many I could have without exceeding my daily allotment of five hundred calories. I imagined the crunchy chocolate shell and the thick vanilla ice cream inside.
At the house T. put on some music and opened the box of bonbons for us to share. They tasted even better than I’d imagined. After we’d eaten a few, T. put the lid back on and returned them to the freezer. I craved more, but he wanted to have sex and go to sleep. I obliged him. Then, after he was asleep, I tiptoed to the fridge and helped myself to more bon-bons.
In the dark kitchen I ate those treats as fast as I could, afraid of getting caught but unable to stop. When I finally put the box down, I was ashamed at how few were left. I felt guilty and desperately hoped I hadn’t gained weight.
I slipped back into bed — cold, scared, and numb. It was a feeling I’d get used to in the coming months.
My mom and I shared a love of food. A fresh salsa or a good chocolate bar could be the highlight of our day. So it was devastating when she started chemotherapy and her appetite vanished. For her, eating became an unpleasant chore. Everything tasted metallic, and afterward she would sometimes throw up.
I lived several states away with my husband and kids, but I was determined to help my mother. Before our next visit I made a few discreet phone calls and found someone who could sell me some pot.
Since my mother had never smoked marijuana, or even cigarettes, I decided to make pot brownies and let her choose whether to try them or not. I didn’t tell anyone else in my family about my plan, so they wouldn’t be implicated if I somehow got busted. (This was fifteen years ago, and my mother lived in a state with strict punishments for drug offenses.)
I studied recipes and learned that it’s best to sauté the marijuana before adding it to the brownie mix, in order to release its full potency. One evening I began preparing the brownies and dinner at the same time.
I was surprised to find that cooking marijuana creates the same distinctive smell as smoking it. I nervously hoped that the aromas from the simmering spaghetti sauce would obscure the odor. Then my fourteen-year-old daughter casually entered the kitchen and whispered that she smelled pot.
My mother tried the brownies, but they gave her diarrhea. I’d failed to restore my mom’s appetite, but I did start wondering about my daughter’s.
I grow organic produce and flowers and sell them at a farmers’ market. Beginning in April each year my staff and I rise before the sun, pack, drive for miles, and lay out a colorful assortment of spring greens, white turnips, orange carrots, and red beets. In summer the crops change to red and yellow tomatoes, blueberries, golden fingerling potatoes, purple and rose eggplants, green cucumbers, scarlet radishes, and yellow squash. As the months pass, the riotous colors of summer fade to subdued greens.
A farmer’s work is buffeted by changes in the weather: weeks of drought followed by deluges; heat so intense that tomatoes rot without ripening; chilly days that kill the eggplants and okra. Working from sunup to sundown is the norm. Our fondness for the outdoor life might diminish, but our need for income remains.
We try to keep track of our customers’ preferences. In prior years red lettuces and arugula were trendy. Now people want kale. I grow three kinds and can describe the differences in texture, bitterness, and nutritional value.
Wild creatures are also interested in our crops. Deer circle our fences, eyeing the edamame and tulips. Groundhogs build tunnels under the rows of tomatoes. (I imagine them rejoicing that they’ve struck the mother lode.) Squirrels snatch ears of corn and munch on them atop the ten-foot-tall fence posts. Blacksnakes get in the chicken coops and swallow the eggs. Many kinds of insects also show up with unquenchable appetites. I picture an army of wildlife marching toward us, from the tiny aphids in front to the large deer in back, each carrying his or her own knife and fork.
By September I am fed up with all the responsibilities, hard work, and constant challenges. Sleep-deprived and sore, I swear I will quit. But toward the end of November I review our year and marvel that with less than a suitcase full of seeds we grew enough food to sell four van loads of produce a week for thirty weeks. I remember the child eating tomatoes right out of the paper bag, and the new customer to whom I explained the differences between beets, turnips, and radishes. I think of the woman who told me that, after having eaten our vegetables and greens for six months, she was no longer anemic.
In mid-January the first sprouts begin to appear, and my appetite — my lust, really — for farming returns. I experience so many small miracles in my work: newly hatched chicks chirping; okra flowers opening for only a day; cucumber vines climbing anything they can reach. Looking forward to another year on the farm, I feel as joyful as I imagine those groundhogs felt when they first came upon this bounty.
Pittsboro, North Carolina
My father had large appetites for beer and pot. After having left the office for the day, he’d stop for a pint or three at a bar, followed by a few tokes of a joint in the car on the way home. As I grew older, I feared that I would develop a dependence like his, so I steered clear of all drugs and drank only on rare occasions. I never suspected my addiction would be to something else.
Ever since I was a kid, I’ve been drawn to sugar: candy, cookies, cake, ice cream, pie. I even ate the sugar cubes for the coffee at my mom’s office. By the time I got married, I was hoarding goodies in my dresser drawers for a quick pick-me-up: chocolate-chip cookies, doughnuts, Rice Krispies treats, personal-sized chocolate cream pies. My husband eventually discovered my secret stash and asked that I not keep food in the bedroom. So I hid my contraband in the back of the pantry.
When I became pregnant, I quit eating sugar to reduce the chance of gestational diabetes. I was a model of healthy, nutritious eating for a few years. But after I had weaned my daughter, my appetite for sweets returned in full force, and I was once again sneaking bites of frosted doughnuts and peanut-butter candies.
One day, as I reached for some jelly beans that were tucked in the cupboard behind packages of pasta, I caught my daughter staring at me wide-eyed. I had done my best to protect her from the lure of sugar. At that moment I realized it wasn’t enough to keep it out of her diet; I needed to set a good example. I put the bag of jelly beans in the trash and quit for good.
Today a lot of people don’t understand why I would refuse a piece of cake at a kid’s birthday party, and I still get funny looks when I forgo sweets around the holidays. Sometimes I think it’s more socially acceptable to refuse a drink than a cookie. But sugar is an addictive substance, the same as drugs and alcohol. Some people can handle it, but for many of us abstaining is the only solution.
My son has life-threatening nut allergies. Eating a single peanut could kill him. This has made my job as a parent stressful. Our family must avoid restaurants. I carefully plan all our encounters with food, packing every away-from-home meal and even baking cakes for my son’s friends’ birthday parties. I spend hours online looking for recipes that are safe. When we fly, I have to make sure no nuts are served near us. (I tremble in anger and cry quietly when other passengers remark that we should have stayed home.) I advocate for my son so he is safe and included in social situations and school activities. Sometimes I’m considered “high maintenance,” a “control freak,” or a “pain in the ass.”
I surrendered a graduate degree and other interests to embrace my unexpected motherhood. I’ve given so much of myself to parenting, I sometimes don’t know what’s left. On the hardest days I sit in my car in secret and eat chocolate-peanut-butter ice cream. The flavor was a childhood favorite of mine. My dad and I would visit the ice-cream parlor after my basketball games. I always traced each salty swirl of peanut butter with my tongue. Now, eating that forbidden cup of ice cream reminds me of a simpler time, when I was not responsible for a fragile life.
once i suffered a concussion from a fall I took while walking in the woods. Later, in the emergency room, a doctor told me that I would be sensitive to light and sound for several days. What he didn’t tell me was that my other senses would be heightened as well.
I had a sudden and intense appreciation of food. Eating a cherry tomato was akin to a fireworks finale in my mouth. The flesh was sweet and sometimes quite salty, and each seed was an explosion of taste. I felt such awe that I wanted to applaud.
I sipped drinks, even water, and slowly swished them around in my mouth to find all the different subtleties they held. (I had always been faking it when I’d done that at wine tastings.) Pita chips had complex layers of flavor. Oatmeal, salad greens, and cheese were all extraordinary. Even just walking into the house while onions were sautéing on the stove gave me sensory overload.
Because everything tasted far better to me than before, I was always excited to eat. I worried at first that I might overindulge, but I didn’t. A bite was wholly satisfying. A single serving was a feast.
As a small child I loved to eat, especially foods that were high in fat and carbohydrates. I was overweight from the age of fourteen to twenty-three, and every diet I tried had no lasting effect. Then one night a drunk guy in a nightclub told me that I’d be “really cute” if I lost ten or fifteen pounds. His statement launched me on a severe low-calorie diet, which I maintained for a few years. Shopping for clothes and even bathing suits became enjoyable for me. I eventually got down to less than ninety pounds, but I thought I looked fine.
When my periods stopped, I didn’t mind — less fuss, I figured — but I still went to a doctor once a year for a pelvic exam and Pap smear. During one visit, as I was lying naked on the examination table, the physician gasped. “You’re way too thin!” she said. “Are you eating?” I told her about my low-calorie diet, and she left the room to consult with other medical staff in the hallway. I heard the word anorexic, which frightened me. Was I anorexic? Surely not.
The doctor returned and told me about the enormous harm I was doing to my body, how it would ultimately begin breaking down my vital organs for nourishment, which could be fatal. I started to cry and agreed to try to eat more. When the exam was over, I went to my car and cried some more and ate the four ounces of sliced apple I’d brought with me. I couldn’t get down the half cup of cottage cheese.
After that, I did eat more. I slowly gained weight, and my periods came back. Today I struggle to keep my weight down, but I’ll always be grateful to that physician. She probably saved my life.
Huntington Beach, California
I grew up during the Depression, and there was never much food in our house. We lived in the backwoods of Maine, and I still marvel at how Mother managed to feed six children. Most of the time supper was a thin, watery soup and, when we were lucky, a slice of homemade rye bread. The only meat we had was the gristly leftovers from a butchered cow or pig after Mother had sold the choice portions to people in town.
Potatoes were a mainstay of our diet, especially during the long, cold winters. We ate them boiled, baked, fried, mashed, in soup, and layered with kraut and salt pork in a big stew pot on the woodstove. We kids even used them hot from the oven to keep our hands warm on our way to school. I loved potatoes, especially potato pancakes and kugeli, a baked potato pudding.
But there were other foods that, despite my endless hunger, I had trouble eating. The sausages made with blood collected from the pig during butchering were one. We had other sausages, too, which were hung on a rod in the attic to keep dry. In warm weather they became infested with maggots. Mother sometimes used dire threats to force us to eat them. And when the barrel of sauerkraut down in the cellar was nearly empty toward spring, the kraut had small brown weevils floating in it. I would pick them out with a spoon and lay them beside my dish.
Mountain Rest, South Carolina
I was born less than six months after my parents’ wedding. When I was a child, they made no secret of their sexual appetites. My mom used to sing along to Neil Diamond — “Ride, c’mon, baby, ride” — and lick her lips. And at restaurants my dad would make comments that caused waitresses to blush.
After my parents split up, my dad bought a waterbed and had a succession of blond girlfriends. My mom took up with a handsome young man who was halfway between her age and mine. I remember watching one time as she stumbled downstairs with her shirt on inside out to lock the door behind him.
I developed a similar appetite for the men I met on the street, on the beach, at school, and at work. I lost my virginity at thirteen and had slept with twenty-five men by the age of twenty.
As I got older, I came to prefer women to men, and I sometimes struggled with my sexual needs. I woke up wanting sex every morning. When lovers weren’t willing, I’d lie on the bathroom floor and masturbate. I also followed my lust into more than one affair. Though I recognized that my sexual appetite was a major source of conflict in my relationships, I couldn’t imagine living without it.
I’m now fifty-two and deeply content with my long-term partner, even though sex has always been the weakest aspect of our relationship. My decreased sexual appetite allows me more emotional and spiritual freedom. I’m not convinced these changes are due to age alone. My mother, now seventy, tells me that she still masturbates every day. Her seventy-five-year-old partner can’t keep up with her, and she often wonders if a younger man would have her.
In the 1950s I became a ward of the state and was sent to live in a foster home with two elderly women, Dee and Mary, both of whom seemed to strongly dislike me from the day I moved in until I ran away at the age of fifteen. They frequently complained that the money they received from the state didn’t cover the cost to feed and clothe me. I wasn’t allowed to use the washing machine, so I had to wash my clothes in the bathroom sink with bar soap, then spread them on my bedroom floor to dry. Since there was no heat in my room, the clothes would sometimes be frozen stiff in the morning. My bed was a thin, plastic-covered mat on the floor.
The worst part was that I was always famished. I was banished from the kitchen because Dee and Mary were afraid I would try to steal food. (I would have, if given the chance.) My breakfast was a bowl of plain oatmeal — no sugar — and a cup of watered-down milk. At school I would watch other kids eat thick sandwiches of sliced meat and cheese for lunch and frosted cupcakes for dessert, while I ate a piece of white bread smeared with margarine and a small apple. Sometimes I would eat my lunch in the bathroom so I wouldn’t have to see what the other kids had. Supper was also meager. (I suspected that Dee and Mary ate before I came home from school.) I would often sneak out of the house at night and steal vegetables from a neighbor’s garden. Once, I even stole a bottle of milk that had been delivered to a neighbor’s door.
One summer afternoon, while Dee and Mary were outside, I grabbed a slice of bread in the kitchen, covered it with butter and sugar, and stuffed it into my mouth as fast as I could. Just then Mary walked in. I was terrified. “Please don’t be mad at me,” I stammered. “I was so hungry I couldn’t help it.”
Mary crossed her arms and glared. “I hope you enjoyed it,” she said, “because that will be your supper tonight and your breakfast tomorrow.”
Although more than fifty years have passed, I still remember being so hungry that I was willing to risk everything for a slice of bread.
Des Moines, Iowa
After spending eight days in the wilderness, I stand in line at the grocery store behind an obese man. He’s probably close to four hundred pounds. He is with a man I presume to be his father, who isn’t nearly as overweight but does have a sizable belly. I look at their groceries: four two-liter bottles of soda, four packages of meat, two large bags of chips, a pack of cookies, and a loaf of white bread. I’m appalled.
I avert my eyes to the magazine racks flanking the checkout line, noticing the covers that feature extremely thin women and advertise articles about surgical tummy tucking and “ten easy ways to reduce your appetite.” Having survived an eating disorder in my youth, I’m disgusted. I suddenly feel stuck between two horrible extremes of our culture. All I can think is: When can I get back into the wilderness and away from “civilization”?
At just under four pounds I was, in 1962, one of the smallest infants ever to have survived at Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland. Both my mother and I had almost died due to complications.
Every time I went to the doctor as a child, he would explain to my mother how far behind my growth was compared to my peers’. To help me get bigger, my mother would give me huge servings at dinner and not allow me to leave the table until I had finished everything on my plate. I learned to hide food in my pockets or put it in my mouth and then go to the bathroom and spit it out. As I got older, I’d just sit stubbornly at the table until way after my bedtime. My mother told me I was an “impossible, disobedient girl,” but the fact was I couldn’t eat as much as my older siblings. And having a “normal” height was never my goal. It was my parents’ — and the doctor’s.
At the dinner table they talked about my insufficient height as if I weren’t there. I felt I had done something wrong; that being in the “bottom percentile” for my age was somehow my fault. I wished they would say, “Madeline, you had a hard time before you even entered this world. Thanks for hanging in there. I’m so happy you’re alive and here with us.”
My parents were ecstatic when I reached the height of four foot eleven, because it meant that I wouldn’t officially be classified as a “midget.”
I now have two beautiful children and a kind, funny husband who happens to be six foot one. We have taught our children to listen to their own bodies and to eat only when they have an appetite.
When our daughter Amelia was born, she and I both almost died due to a rare complication. Amelia is now eighteen and five foot four. At times during her adolescence she blamed me and my genes for her short stature and envied her taller brother, Zach. My daughter is athletic, and one night when I was tucking her into bed, she said, “Zach plays hardly any sports at all. He is wasting his height.”
I told her: “Honey, you had to go through a lot to come into this world when you were born. I am so glad you’re here.”
Madeline Strong Diehl
Ann Arbor, Michigan
In the early 1970s, at the age of fourteen, I began attending keg parties in the woods with my junior-high friends. Enterprising high-school boys who could pass for the legal drinking age provided the beer and charged two dollars for a cup. My girlfriends and I would each chug a full sixteen-ounce cup or two, then stagger down the dirt path back to the road in the pitch dark, arms linked, singing, “Follow the yellow-brick road.” In that sooty tannery town, with its smokestacks emitting the stink of cowhides, chemicals, and dyes, we had found a beautiful distraction.
Forty-two years later I’ve been sober for three months, and I attend Alcoholics Anonymous meetings. I am at least a fourth-generation alcoholic. In the mid-1930s my paternal Greek-immigrant grandfather had a copper still in his cellar, where he used raisins to create a cloudy 100-proof elixir called yeni raki. My maternal great-grandfather and grandfather were potato farmers in Appalachia and made potato moonshine in their root cellar. Their heavy drinking eventually cost them the family farm.
Someone once described the AA process to me this way: “First you come. Then you come to. Then you come to believe.” What do we believe? That there is a chance on this green earth that we can put down our drugs or drink and rein in our compulsions.
Fremont, New Hampshire
I was blessed with a naturally slender body — but not quite slender enough for the ballet world. When I was eleven, the ballet master and mistress of my school brought me into their office, put me on the scale, and pinched the fat on my thighs. They posted my weight on the door of the studio so that everyone could see my progress — or lack of it — at the next weigh-in. They also suggested I try smoking to curb my appetite. I did, but it only made me hungry.
My role model at the time, the prima ballerina of the school, ate plain lettuce leaves and saltines — from which she would pick the salt — every day for lunch, after five hours of dancing. My friends would eat fat-free yogurt and half a grapefruit and roll their eyes as I took out my organic turkey burger, homemade french fries, and salad.
At the age of twelve my friends were taking diet pills and drinking Slim-Fast in place of meals. I tried it for a while. The pills made me so nauseous I couldn’t eat, which I suppose was a success of sorts. I also strapped on thirty-pound ankle weights and went for power walks daily. A few times I made myself throw up after dinner, but I soon stopped.
After high school I became a professional ballet dancer. Most of my closest friends in the business had severe eating disorders. As these women became increasingly emaciated, they were rewarded with better and better roles. I was very thin, yet at one audition a director told me he would hire me only if I lost fifteen pounds within two weeks.
But I loved food and ate balanced, healthy meals throughout my career. As a result I was never given great roles or “partnered” by a man, because I was too heavy to lift. At twenty-six I threw out my ballet shoes and went to art school to pursue painting. I still have a healthy appetite, and I’ll forever be grateful to my nutritionist mother for the meals she provided throughout my childhood. Nourishing my body has always been more important to me than landing a starring role.
© Mark Chester
Rising early, my mother prepared breakfast for my sisters and me every morning: soft-boiled eggs, sliced apples, a glass of milk, and sometimes hot cereal with raisins. For our lunches she’d pack a sandwich of wheat bread and fresh-ground peanut butter, along with dill pickles, unpeeled carrots, and some sesame seeds. During lunch at school, elbow to elbow with my friends, I’d eye their soft, crustless white-bread sandwiches, bags of chips, and fruit-roll-up snacks with envy. I envisioned them going home to Hamburger Helper dinners with chocolate pudding for dessert.
As an unintended consequence of the healthy meals my mother provided, I became preoccupied with sugary snacks. I went to my friends’ homes after school and raided the snack drawers in their kitchens. I stole loose change from my father’s dresser to buy sweets at the convenience mart. I even befriended elderly neighbors who kept dishes of candy in their living rooms. Once, my mom noticed that my sisters and I had ransacked the marshmallows and granulated sugar she kept in the pantry. In response she padlocked the pantry door whenever she left the house.
My obsession grew fiercer in adulthood. I binged on sugary cereal in college and chocolate-peanut-butter cups at my first job. To this day passing a fast-food restaurant sends a rush of adrenaline through my body.
Not wanting to make the same mistake as my mother, I’ve allowed my own children access to both healthy and not-so-healthy foods. They prepare their own breakfasts, lunches, and snacks. Without dietary restrictions to provoke them to rebel, they choose moderation. But I do worry about what they will rebel against.
Kimberly L. Mitchell
When I was four years old, a doctor prescribed Valium for me, to treat an unnamed mental illness. My mom crushed the medication into a powder and put it in my applesauce. By the age of twelve I was taking illegal drugs. Later I dropped out of high school and peddled narcotics to fund my habit.
Since then, I have been admitted to more than half a dozen inpatient rehab centers. I have suffered two near-fatal overdoses: one gave me permanent nerve damage, and the other inflicted a traumatic brain injury that has left me physically impaired. I have been convicted of four felony drug charges and one count of drug-related homicide, for which I will spend more than twelve years in prison.
The strange thing about my appetite for drugs is that I still want more.
Fox Lake, Wisconsin
My mom was orphaned as a baby and often went hungry as a kid. Raised by distant relatives who passed her around, she finally ended up in Delaware with an aunt who ran a boarding house for “working men.”
At fifteen she escaped and went to Chicago, where she worked as a waitress and met my dad. He had been an orphan, too, and was newly discharged from the merchant marine. They married and lived in a boarding house near the beach, and soon my brother was born. It was the depths of the Great Depression. My dad worked picking up garbage in public places and keeping any loose change he found. Some summer nights they’d sleep in the park to escape the heat in their one-room apartment.
By the time I was born, Dad had a steady job loading boxcars for the railroad, and we lived in a four-room apartment. Every night when my dad got home from work, my mom would prepare his dinner: a pork chop, a hamburger, or “Hungarian goulash” — hot dogs in tomato sauce with paprika.
My mother didn’t manage our household budget well. She’d buy treats for my brother and me — a roller-coaster ride, lunch at a rib joint, tickets for a movie — without telling my dad. “Where did all the money go?” he would yell at her. She always held back enough money for my father’s nightly meal but sometimes not enough for ours. When this was the case, it was my job to go to the restaurant in front of our apartment with a large tin can, approach a waitress, and ask, “May I have some leftovers for my dog?” We did have a dog, but any leftovers I received — usually the ends of beef and pork roasts, burned and fatty, sometimes with bones still attached — weren’t for her. Back at home I would dump the contents of the can onto the kitchen table, and my mother, my brother, and I would tear into the scraps.
My mother told stories of her childhood with pride: her premature birth (she was kept alive in a warm oven and fed milk with an eyedropper); the time she stole a potato from her aunt’s kitchen and ate it under the porch, despite the punishment she knew she’d receive.
I wonder now how people who’ve never had experiences like these can understand what it’s like for kids to live in fear that there won’t be anything to eat for dinner, and to depend on the generosity of strangers like those waitresses who gave me leftovers.
My family had huge bowls of salad with dinner each night. I loved it, except for the thick slices of raw onion, which made me gag. I would eat my way around them until they were all that was left, drenched in Italian dressing at the bottom of my bowl. My father wouldn’t allow me to leave the table until the onions were gone, so I began finding ways to covertly dispose of them.
Sometimes I could wait until my father left the table, then dump the onions back into the serving bowl. Or I’d cough chewed onions into my paper napkin, which worked for only a mouthful or two before the flimsy napkin became too messy. In summer we drank from opaque plastic cups, and I would pretend to take a sip of water but actually spit the onion inside, then discreetly empty the cup in the trash later. This went on until the day my unsuspecting mother grew tired of drinking out of plastic and threw the cups away.
Some nights none of my tricks worked, and I sat at the table and cried until I was allowed to go to bed. When I did eat raw onions, I heaved and struggled not to throw up. I couldn’t imagine why, night after night, my father would torture me so, and I began to detest him.
To this day, if I accidentally eat something with uncooked onion in it, I start to feel sick to my stomach, as if I were back at the dining-room table of my youth with my fists clenched in my lap and hateful thoughts about my father filling my head. It is not how I wish to remember him, but that is the legacy he left me.
Durham, North Carolina
As a kid I’d ask for second and third helpings of cake and ice cream at birthday parties. At school celebrations PTA mothers knew me as the chunky girl who always wanted to eat, and they would scold me for taking six cookies instead of three. Once, while I was reaching for an extra slice of pizza, someone’s mother told me not to be such a “piggy.”
I put on weight throughout middle school and high school, but my appetite never quite felt sated. By senior year I was fifty pounds heavier than most of my peers. One afternoon at the mall, a group of girls walked past me while I was eating in the food court. “God, she’s fat,” one of them said. I stood up, left the rest of the food on the table, and went home crying.
That was in February, and I vowed to lose as much weight as I could before graduation in May. I worked out to exercise videos. I walked and ran. I ate salads and drank diet shakes. I went from a size 14 to a size 2. Girls who’d known me since grade school and had snubbed me in high school told me I looked “really good” and asked how I’d done it. I went out on dates with guys who told me I was pretty. The more compliments I received, the more my weight-loss obsession grew. I exercised for three hours a day and ate only plain crackers, lettuce, and diet soda.
I started college that August and immediately made several friends and dated a fraternity boy. I woke at six every morning and jogged for an hour. In the evenings I worked out for two hours at the campus gym. By October I was crabby and depressed all the time. One day, after class, I bought a bag of miniature candy bars and a box of doughnuts, then sat under a tree in a cemetery and ate all of it.
After that, whenever my roommate stayed with her boyfriend across campus, I’d lock the door to our room and pig out on fried chicken, pizza, potato chips, and ice cream, stuffing the wrappers and empty boxes under my bed. When the room started stinking, my roommate found the garbage I’d hidden. “Can’t you just eat like a normal person?” she asked. But I couldn’t. I kept bingeing and putting on weight. My boyfriend broke up with me, and gossip about my eating habits spread. I heard the whispers: “Look at how fat she’s getting” and “Her clothes are so tight.” I went home at the end of the semester and didn’t return.
I’m almost forty now, and I still struggle with my weight. Some years I’m thin; other years I’m fat. Not a day goes by that I don’t look at my reflection and think I need to lose a few pounds.
My husband is a loving man. Whether I’m a size 18 or a size 10, he tells me I look great. Maybe one day I’ll be able to see this for myself. Maybe one day I will no longer hear the voices saying, “Don’t be such a piggy,” and, “God, she’s fat.”
Evergreen Park, Illinois
My mother had large appetites for many things: men, adventure, sherry, Russian history and politics, good conversation, and food. She loved to cook, eat, drink, and laugh with gusto. After the evening meal, when she thought no one was watching, she would stuff herself with leftovers.
She was always a little overweight, which she blamed on her unhappy childhood, but as a teen and a young woman she had enjoyed the attention of many handsome soldiers. She’d even enlisted in the WAVES division of the Navy (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) and had taught sailors how to shoot — among other things. After World War II she met my father. They married quickly, and she got pregnant and threw herself into motherhood with her characteristic, slightly manic energy. I was her fourth child of four and the only girl.
I was in elementary school when my mother went back to college and got a master’s degree in Russian studies, but she was never able to turn that passion into a career. In middle age she felt adrift, aimless, and depressed. She slept on the couch all day, waking only to make dinner. Then she’d drink sherry and act like her old charming self until the meal was over. This went on for years until she ceased cooking, began losing her memory, and became violent toward our dad.
After we’d placed her in a nursing home, my mother stopped talking, then stopped using the toilet, and finally stopped getting out of bed except to eat. We would bring her fresh fruit and chocolate bars, which she’d wolf down without even acknowledging us.
When the nursing home called to tell me that my mother had stopped eating, I knew the end was near. I drove to the facility to find her unresponsive, her eyes vacant. For days I held her cool, still hands, which had once been so busy, and watched her body become increasingly thin. After a week my daughters came to say goodbye, and they brought a big pizza to share with me. It was while we were there with her, eating and laughing and talking with our mouths full, that my mother died.
When my mother was a kid, her parents left her and her six younger siblings with their grandparents in the Dominican Republic for what was supposed to be a year but turned into eight. My great-grandmother’s home had only two rooms: a kitchen and a bedroom. Food was scarce, and the kids often roamed the streets of Santo Domingo until late at night. Once, when the cupboards were bare, their grandmother cooked them pigeons for dinner.
When my siblings and I were kids, my mother made sure none of us went hungry. She overfed us all and got offended if we didn’t eagerly and gratefully devour whatever she cooked. I’ve been told that, as a baby, I would pinch my mouth shut while she was trying to feed me. When I was able to talk, two of my first words were “no more.”
After years of therapy as an adult, I realized that I overate whenever I was under a lot of stress. It was my way of comforting myself, a habit that had begun with my mother’s ideas about how to nurture children. By then it had been years since I’d talked to my mother, and many more since she had fed me, but in difficult times her hand was still guiding mine at the dinner table.
Union City, New Jersey
In 2007 my boyfriend, James, and I traveled from New York City to Savannah, Georgia. When we arrived, we were incredibly hungry and began looking for somewhere to eat. On a street crowded with mansions and trees draped with Spanish moss, we came across a long line of tourists who informed us that they were waiting to eat at Mrs. Wilkes’ Dining Room, a local landmark. James and I conferred and decided to get in line. We stood on the sidewalk for at least an hour. That food had better be good, we kept telling each other.
Eventually we were seated with eight strangers. We didn’t place an order; the servers just started bringing plates of fried chicken, biscuits, collard greens, macaroni and cheese, peas, yams, and okra to our table. The food smelled delicious. James and I grabbed spoons and served ourselves.
Just as we were about to take our first bites, a man at our table asked that we bow our heads and pray. James and I had been raised in secular homes and weren’t used to saying grace before eating — and we were starving — but we put down our utensils and joined the others in prayer. As the man gave thanks for the food before us, he reminded us that others in the world weren’t so lucky. I realized then that I wasn’t really starving at all. My appetite was nothing compared to the hunger of the women, men, and children all over the world who didn’t have access to the sort of food I was so privileged to eat.
James and I are now married, and we say grace before every dinner and think of the millions of people around the world who are hungry.
Brooklyn, New York