Back Burner

Nourished by Connections

By | January 25, 2018
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Illustrations by Jessica Olah

The Madonna holy candles watched from the shelf above as I examined first one loaf, then another. Rapping on the crust the way I’d seen the noninnas do, running my fingers along the cracks where they’d split, their vulnerable insides showing. As an American student living in Italy, buying bread became my most sacred ritual. I spent hours inhaling the yeasty aromas that sustained me more than the meals I wouldn’t allow myself to enjoy. 

Disordered eating found me as I struggled to devise ways to cope with the anxiety of living so far from home for the first time. Moving to a country rooted in a language I didn’t yet speak unmoored me, and I grasped desperately for an anchor. Well-meaning jokes about the dangers of a pasta-heavy diet burrowed under my sensitive skin, and I decided I’d show them. I’d become so light, I could rise above my anxiety, my introversion, the myriad microaggressions that assault young women in a society not made for them. I vowed to all but disappear. 

Paradoxically, the less I ate, the more time I spent obsessing over what I did eat. In Italy, as in so many cultures, life revolves around the table. I salivated at bakery windows, stood at restaurant doors with my nose rabbit-quivering and stalked grocery aisles like a predatory cat, planning my one daily meal as meticulously as a surgery. Food became as precious to me as the breath rattling between my exposed ribs, and I elevated each bite to an almost religious experience. When I returned stateside, I resolved to learn how to cook, to become priestess instead of congregant, at my family’s table. 

I’m one of the lucky ones: My eating disorder raged intensely, but briefly. And as I emerged, the same force that drew me into it helped to revive me: the power of food as a social experience. None of my solitary meals in my tiny Italian kitchen nourished me so deeply as the eggplant parmesan parties my roommates and I threw several times over our six months together. 

We formed an assembly line around our wobbly kitchen table, laughing and gossiping as we worked together. One girl cut the eggplant into neat, even rounds. One dredged them in an egg wash, and another coated them in breadcrumbs. The last dressed each slice with a dollop of red sauce, a slice of fresh mozzarella and another wash of sauce, before we piled the heavy platter into the oven. As they baked, we drank red wine and sopped up olive oil and balsamic vinegar with fresh bread we first cut, then tore off the loaf, as the aroma wafting from the oven drove us ravenous. I’ve made that meal many times since, but it’s never tasted as good. It never will again. 

Illustrations by Jessica Olah

It was that communality I came back to, when I began participating in food—in life—again. We find each other and ourselves at the table, in the simple ritual of eating together. When I rediscovered the joy of sharing a meal, I realized how much more than flavors I’d been missing. 

When I moved to Astoria, my ears sang with the Italian I learned all those years ago and the Greek I only recently began picking up in trips to that country. As I acquainted myself with my new borough, it was at the restaurants and markets where I revived my body and my spirit. Queens is a place where I can pair a frappé with a steam bun and follow it with loukoumades—where the grizzled old men outside my corner coffee shop nod at me and my dog as we pass by every morning—where we’re a part of something larger than our beautiful borough, and as precious. 

Queens’ heartbeat throbs strongest within communities that spring up around hot pots and mezethes. As I walk my neighborhood on a sweltering summer afternoon, laughter drifts from sidewalk tables alongside scents of restaurants beckoning passersby. I love Queens most for its diversity, and I can find no better way to engage with its rich fabric of cultures than at the table. Our borough offers so many dining rooms where we can all come together over a meal that tastes like family, in whatever language we make our home. 

I wander through an Astoria bakery and close my eyes for a moment. As I breathe in, yeast and sugar tango in my nostrils, and I’m transported. For a breath, I’m back in Perugia and my stomach throbs with something like longing. Today, I choose a cucidati without a trace of the old familiar guilt. Back on the street, a cacophony of languages undercurrent the bustle of a weekday afternoon. I unwrap my cookie and grin, taking a hearty, grateful bite.

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