To Feast on the Heart of Your Own

April 11, 2023

Graphic by Victoria Cheung

When I long to feel closer to my mother I turn on the Food Network in the dark of my apartment. I watch Rachael Ray make some roasted vegetables for the umpteenth time until my eyes glaze over. I can no longer discern what is real and what is simply my tired mind deceiving me. I shut my eyes tight but sleep doesn't come. Only the sounds of pots and pans clanging softly, trailing on from the TV.

If I let my mind drift, I can begin to smell the aroma of garlic and onions roasting on the stove — the basis for all good recipes. It didn’t matter where I was in life, there was always garlic and onions perched in the fruit basket. Resting in the produce section, awaiting imminent demise.

Cooking is an act of taking care of myself the same way a mother would. To nurture through nutrients. Be fed life through a colorful plate. There's no room for flavors of bitterness or acidity on my tongue. I only wish to bask in the sweetness of survival. Furiously building a meal out of scraps and creating a masterpiece. To love myself through organic ingredients and spices that make my dim apartment wonderfully aromatic.

To become engulfed in the scent of garlic and onions in my kitchen is to be transported. I walk into my mother’s room and have her smile at me, saying I smell like peaches and look like her sunshine. It warms my skin like the heat of a flame.

It reminds me of being the height of her knee and wanting nothing more than to see the top of the stove. I wanted to watch her hand stir a big pot of chili or flip a pancake effortlessly. She is an artist in the kitchen with skills to challenge the best of them. Instead, she used her knowledge of culinary arts to perfect a well-loved grilled cheese to please the palate of a child.

Years later, I looked at that child in the mirror and turned my back on her. I traded grilled cheeses for iced coffee and sustained myself on the compliments of others. It was a quirky little habit, to replace meals with beverages and stay full on the notion of looking thin. I liked it. The validation of others, playing it off like I didn’t work myself to the bone for a half-hearted comment about looking waifish.

I had to claw my way out of the trenches to mend the wounds I inflicted. The hair falling out and the twists in my stomach. It was a horror I had created. I gathered my inspiration from photos online and I executed my plan with precision. I cut into my own heart, slapping it on the wooden cutting board and disregarding the blades piercing through. I sliced off the extra weight I no longer wished to carry. This was it: wielding the weapon of control. Charring my flesh until it was withered.

I began to imagine there was a greater force at play, a dark figure that lived in my brain and poisoned me with its venom. It emerged from my mouth when I let out a cry and clawed at my ankles. It scratched at my naked body until there was nothing left to grab. It picked its teeth clean with my rib bone. Once famished, and now full of the fruit of my labor.

But there is no monster, no wolf in sheep’s clothing. It is only me. One of my many different forms, who thrives on self-hatred and caffeine instead of a well-balanced meal.

I schemed up a plan to fix what I had broken. Maybe…I know! I had to conquer the beast. I stepped in front of the mirror. I looked her right in the eye and expelled her with a scream that plunged like a knife — piercing my own heart. I used that same sharp edge to slice onions and dice garlic uniformly. It was glorious. I am a chef! A mastermind! A visionary!

Graphic by Victoria Cheung

Kate Moss famously said, “Nothing tastes as good as skinny feels.” She was wrong. She must’ve never worn a “Kiss the Cook” apron and made dinner with her friends. She must’ve never shared her deepest secrets and recounted childhood memories over a glass of lemonade and a charcuterie board.

If I didn’t take care of myself, no one would; I was separated from the bubble that I used to comfortably reside in. There was no one around to make me grilled cheese or remind me to eat three meals a day and drink eight glasses of water. I now had to fight over mounds of rotten produce to feed myself on weeknights. On Mondays, I dance in my kitchen — between slicing and sauteing, singing along to the sizzle of the pan. I adorn an apron stained by time like it's my metal armor. I lean my head over the stove and glance into a pot of alphabet soup that spells out my destiny. Yes! I have a future! I pour the love into overflowing bowls and gulp it down, even when it burns my throat. I savor the flavors of satisfaction on my tongue; it tastes so rich.

On the bad days, I busy myself. I stir a pot, chop a stick of celery, blend a smoothie. I offer them like a peace treaty to my loved ones. I decorate a plate with sliced fruit, grab a glass of water, and place them on my roommate's desk. I ignore the stickiness of the juice on my hands and smile through the seeds.

If I cannot be taken care of, maybe I can do the caretaking. It’s the only way I know how to say “I love you.” To be loved by me is to be fed — fed by overripe bananas and compliments that seep out of my mouth like running water. I say them face to face. I say them to the mirror. I kiss my reflection and try not to break the glass in the process. ■

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