By Robin Chotzinoff
Illustration by Lucy Engelman
My 21-year-old daughter Constance has her own apartment. On the first morning of my visit, the roles reverse—I’m the one who wanders into the kitchen, opens the fridge and stands there vacantly, looking for something to eat.
“Is there bread?” I ask.
“Yes, but you wouldn’t like it.”
My bread snobbery is well known. White, fluffy and flavorless, à la Wonder, is beneath me. Baguettes may be white and fluffy on the inside, but that’s different because … but I will not get into this. Whatever I say will be taken as criticism of Constance’s grasp of nutrition, her taste in food, her actual self.
Forget bread. I’ll fry eggs. Constance’s grandfather considered eggs the perfect food. He made egg salad with hollandaise—eggs with egg sauce. When it came to frying, he didn’t skimp on butter. The stuff in Constance’s refrigerator isn’t exactly butter, but I will not mention it. I’ve cooked with plenty of non-butter. My mother, who avoided grease of any kind, fried food on virgin Teflon, which has no calories. I was always counting calories. A squirt of PAM, the WD-40 of cuisine, had very few. By the time Constance was born, I’d moved on to Smart Balance. My younger daughter, Augusta, who was learning to read at the time, called it “Blance.” Blance was supposed to be good for your heart—unlike fat, which was bad.
I spent decades trying to be good with food, counting fat, calories and hours at the gym, journaling cluelessly about “emotional hunger” and eating huge amounts of … anything. I did this for 30 years, starting at 15—Constance’s exact age when I began to recover. As I got a grip, she lost hers. She left for college having learned all my worst food behaviors, along with some I could only guess at, because eating disorders are secretive.
Binge eating disorder, in particular, is a big, fat secret. It affects more people than anorexia and bulimia combined, but it didn’t show up in the DSM-V until two years ago. Whatever you want to call it, it seems to run in my family. Constance figured that out sooner than I did. Last winter, just after her 21st birthday, she entered intensive outpatient therapy.
We talked daily, sometimes hourly. I was there for her. She was honest with me. Her binge-free days became months. Then she came home for the summer and real life set in. My vision of her recovery involved organic vegetable soup, meditation and helping the less fortunate. Instead, she slept a lot, went to therapy and ate most meals at chain restaurants, because they were safe, she said, and because my kitchen, with its “food rules” and intense flavors, was “triggering.”
Looking around her kitchen now, I see grains in clear containers, cookies and chips resealed with tidy clips, a notebook with recipes—some of them mine—in page protectors, vegetables in the crisper, Halloween candy sitting in a decorative jar. Constance feels at home here, and I can see why. It’s homey.
She takes the Blance out of my hand and offers me olive oil. The smell of eggs frying in olive oil reminds me of a noisy Greek woman I worked for 30 years ago. “You brek, you brek!” she’d yell, as she made my breakfast. “Then you work!” To this day, I prefer to start my day with a good jolt of protein. I derive no strength from cereal or cinnamon toast. You know what else brightens my mornings? Butter. I read recently that animal fat greases our neural synapses somehow, boosting memory and fending off depression. Whatever. I stopped paying attention to food experts years ago. Why, then, do I want Constance to listen to me?
Here’s what’s important: Lemon Boy tomatoes in my garden, ripe figs on my neighbor’s tree. Stir risotto exactly as long as it takes you to drink one beer—I recommend Dale’s Pale Ale. With a sharp knife, a hot stove and James McMurtry blasting, you can make anything taste good, even cabbage. Some food makes you feel alive. Some doesn’t. I eat my share of crap, but I notice the difference. Jews are commanded to take care of “the stranger in your midst.” One of my great joys is when that stranger shows up for dinner.
Food is important. Food is what I have instead of an eating disorder.
But that’s between me and me, and I’m in Constance’s kitchen now. I like it here. It’s small, but everything fits.
WHEN WE COOK
by Augusta Dexheimer
When we cook,
We do it in the best sort of way.
We turn on all of the lights
That track across the ceiling with orange and yellow rays
And we put on music
That is loud and vibrant.
We take out all of the ingredients at once.
Then we get in each other’s way and
The dogs get in ours.
And we eat out of each other’s dishes.
And we actually, literally throw back our heads
In raucous laughter.
Our kitchen isn’t huge,
But it’s the best room
In the whole house.
It’s bright and sunny, even at night.
And when we’re finished in the kitchen,
It’s usually dark enough for the candles.
We set out the napkins that have been on
The clothesline all day
And are still with the sun.
And when there’s time,
We eat and talk and laugh
Until the candles have
Burned into little candle nubs.
And when the bustling is done,
And the food is had,
And the dogs are falling asleep where they stand,
My mom closes the linen curtains
Above the dining room table
And we disperse.
It makes every night feel like home,
The kind where everyone has time to cook together
And let the candles disappear every night into a puddle of wax.
Thirteen-year-old Augusta Dexheimer is a student at the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders and is Robin Chotzinoff’s younger daughter.