We saw so few movies when we were growing up that the ones we did see stick in my mind, like the 1968 film, “Oliver!” a musical adapted to screen, based on the classic Dickens novel, Oliver Twist. The bits I remember about it were how the boys, victims of child slave labor, shared beds, where one slept during the other’s 12-hour work shift, and then they switched, and the song “Food, Glorious Food!” The boys were so hungry they dreamed of food and sang joyously about what they craved. I remember a bittersweet feeling about that song. Although food was certainly plentiful enough in our house, it was, to me, anything but glorious. It was more on the order of a protracted, hideous, recurring nightmare.
I was always “dickkopf” (fathead) and a “bad eater.” Right from the start I did not like meat, which made for an ongoing power struggle. Now I am not a “formal” vegetarian, meaning I have no ethical, political or spiritual rationale, simply my age-old distaste/preference to avoid meat.
Meal times were not much fun, anyway. Our dad, who had been a chef before becoming a cantor, repeatedly told Mom with a smile, “I did not marry you for your cooking,” but really, it was no joke. When he cooked, he required a fair measure of adulation for the uppity French dishes he made, which were never my taste, apart from the meat issue. There was also a truly unsavory period of at least several years that I think of as the “Kosher wars.” Our dad wanted to keep a kosher kitchen, and Mom wouldn’t do it. He lived on nightly Hebrew National hot dogs until she finally relented with “OK, I will cook what you buy.” I don’t remember how they resolved the part about two sets of dishes. Mostly I remember the long and bitter tension that hung heavily over our family table. No great surprise when my trauma expressed itself via, among the many other symptoms, a near-fatal anorexia that spanned my adolescence, but really much more. In 1967, anorexia and eating disorders in general were even less understood than they are now. There was no treatment to speak of, and I was simply viewed as a “bad girl”, creating headaches for my parents. I somehow got to a healthy-ish weight eventually, but the agony of obsession persisted for decades.
After many years and all sorts of somatic approaches alongside my depth psychotherapy, I can say food is one of the truly glorious and great pleasures of my life. I love it and am grateful to say I eat whatever I want. I love making food, too. I am a home cheesemaker, a sourdough baker, and I aspire to grow vegetables when I can make the time. On a particularly bad day at the office, I might rant to my ever-patient partner, “I’m done! I am going to retire, be a cheesemaker!” until I calm down. We do, however, love our food.
After many years and all sorts of somatic approaches alongside my depth psychotherapy, I can say food is one of the truly glorious and great pleasures of my life. I love it and am grateful to say I eat whatever I want.
When I was in the throes of my eating disorder, our dad would rail at me that the word “companion” emerged from the Latin com panis, sharing bread. Eating together was a natural and human way to connect. Ideally, that would be true. My not wanting to was somehow “inhuman.” For so many who grew up in a household of trauma and neglect, this was sadly far from true, and disordered eating is a not-so-uncommon expression of dysregulation.
I was interested to learn that, in a strange way, the whole category of “com panis” and food culture became a mechanism of social control and an attempt at cultural change in the Soviet Union. I heard an interesting story, “Dissident Kitchens”, on one of those wonderful late-night Public Radio programs. After the revolution in 1917, food was scarce. The new Stalinist government set about industrializing food, essentially dictating what was to be eaten by everyone. The new housing, small apartments where everyone lived, was built without kitchens. Rather, there were large communal kitchens, and people broke their bread in dining halls with 500 comrades. The Bolsheviks were not interested in the tradition or the aesthetic of food. First, food shortages devastated all that, but further, private kitchens were considered “bourgeois.” The foods to be eaten were determined by the government, and everyone ate the same. Apparently, and understandably, the people hated that and sorely missed cooking and the ritual of sharing intimate family mealtimes.
When Kruschev replaced the Stalinist regime in 1953, in addressing the housing shortage he had apartments built once again with small kitchens, which became a place for families and friends to gather. Now, cookbooks and programs reflect the slow and steady revival and reclamation of traditional Russian foods. And although Russia is currently alienating many of us, its food story is informative, and reminds us how very elemental the family table is. Eating together in harmony is on the order of a birthright. And the way it is corrupted in micro and macro forms of trauma is a crime against nature as far as I am concerned!
The dysregulations of trauma and neglect that manifest as disordered eating are some of the most persistent and challenging to heal.
One of my favorite books of all time is Michael Pollan’s epic Omnivore’s Dilemma, which approaches food from myriad directions: psychological, emotional, nutritional, environmental, political, cultural, ethical, aesthetic, historical… what else? Long before he became a harbinger and champion of psychedelics, Pollan wrote brilliantly and prolifically about food and its many meanings, which span quite a universe. There is even now an emerging sub-field of “culinary medicine,” which makes a lot of sense to me. Here in San Francisco, food is virtually on the order of religion, which can be both a pleasure and an embarrassment.
The dysregulations of trauma and neglect that manifest as disordered eating are some of the most persistent and challenging to heal. I have worked with survivors who suffered disordered eating of every stripe, not to mention my own. I do not pretend to know how to treat eating disorders effectively, and I have yet to see programs that do. Please prove me wrong! The best thing I know, which is the best thing I know for trauma in general, is the combination of depth, attachment-oriented psychotherapy, and neurofeedback. If I had had that 50 years ago, who knows if my own healing would have required less than the multiple decades it did?
Whatever we can do to get the shame out, even better. And whatever we can do to break the intergenerational transmission not only of trauma, but also the agony of interference with the natural development of food and eating tastes and habits, better still. It is my wish that “enlightened feeding,” becomes an aspect of “enlightened parenting.” Although I am not a mother, I am indeed a proverbial “Jewish mother” in that I love to make and give food, although certainly not to foist unwanted food on anyone ever! Far be that from me! But for me, it can be an exquisite show of love and care, as long as (like with any gift!) the recipient is truly seen, known, and considered.
Our mom used to say “Mahlzeit!” before we ate. I never knew what it meant, thinking it was “mouse-ite.” I picture a little family of mice enjoying their dinner (maybe cheese?) It is a form of greeting and celebratory marking of mealtime. We later evolved into singing a Hebrew grace before meals. Although I have long since given that up, I do like the ritual of feeling and acknowledging with gratitude before we eat. My husband graciously does all the grocery shopping, buying those things that I am not able to make for us myself. My little ritual has become a hug and a loud exclamation, “I love you! Thanks for the food!” What’s yours?
Enjoy your dinner!
My book “Working with the Developmental Trauma of Childhood Neglect: Using Psychotherapy and Attachment Theory Techniques in Clinical Practice” was published on August 31st. It provides psychotherapists with a multidimensional view of childhood neglect and a practical roadmap for facilitating survivors’ healing.