The Pandemic Is Making Me Deeply Anxious About Food
The shortages and economic uncertainties due to COVID-19 are bringing up some longstanding obsessions around waste and having enough to get through.
I counted the noodles again. There are neither more nor fewer packets in the lidded plastic bin than there were when I looked last night and no reason to assume that the quantity would have changed when it's just the two of us haunting the apartment day after day, night after night. But that unvarying number (14) makes me feel safe—for now. Little else does these days.
There's a note on my calendar for a date a couple of weeks from now when I'll have officially lived in New York City for half of my life. I'd marked it on there some months back imagining how I'd commemorate this private milestone, maybe just a day-long highlight reel of the places that have sustained me through a nearly 24-year stretch in a maddening, enervating, taxing, vibrant, exquisitely un-boring city. Pick a train line—let's say the N with a switch to the R—and take it all the way. Start at the Neptune Diner in Astoria where I spent a thousand Friday nights with close friends, lingering over feta-studded omelets, or fish cakes and spaghetti if I was feeling flush. Head down to Manhattan's Chinatown to pick up the vermicelli noodles, turnip cakes, lotus root, black vinegar, crisp silver anchovies that surely were not part of my childhood diet in Northern Kentucky but have since become staples in my home kitchen. Pause to see what's playing at the movie theater at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, making sure it lets out in time to allow me to stand on the Coney Island boardwalk at sunset with a Nathan's lemonade—likely spiked with something a little stronger from the flask I carry in my purse for just such an occasion. Stuffing my shoes into a shopping bag and sinking my feet into the sand, forward to the ocean. I'm still here, but look how far I've come.
But I'm frozen in place, grasping on to what I have. As the infection, hospitalization, and death statistics began to tick upward, with red dots on the coronavirus tracking maps bleeding across the country, and headlines about shortages and people panic-hoarding the most basic groceries, the feral animal that slinks around the perimeter of my brain raised its hackles, sunk in its claws, and howled. I've lived with a panic disorder for my entire life, coupled with generalized anxiety, depression, and ADHD. While in recent years I've managed to assemble practices and techniques (and perhaps most helpfully—medication) to mitigate the depth and width of its damage, it's opened wide its jaws, swallows every statistic, picture, soundbite, growing strong enough to leap the fence and roam freely. And I've shrunk back into that 23-year-old girl, new to the city, counting her change for ramen packets and rice,
My Instagram feeds are full to bursting with other people's feasts: sourdough loaves, pans of bubbly lasagna, comforting stews to fuel an unseen army. If human beings did actually eat with their eyes, I'd be splayed on my couch nightly, stuffed and groaning. But now more than ever, I'm parsing out my flour by the carefully measured gram, lunging across the kitchen with an inchoate sob lodged in my throat when I fear my husband is about to toss out the chard stems, scraping every molecule of bacon fat into the little apple-shaped lidded crock that lives next to the stove. I don't tend to share this part; it's not pretty.
This panic is not rational and for me it is not new. I know this, but I don't have the energy to fight it right now. It is sensible and smart not to waste, and as a person who makes her living as a food journalist, it is my responsibility to show how to enjoy food while not taking it for granted. But this is always an obsession—especially in times of economic threat—and it eats away at me. Once when I was in college, I went to visit my maternal grandparents in their assisted living facility. The two of them wandered to the communal dining room for lunch—included in their care plan—and my grandmother instructed me as to which leftovers I could thaw out for my lunch. I peeled back the foil from a plastic tub and recoiled at the layer of pale green mold atop the spaghetti sauce and when she returned, I gently mentioned that I might possibly go find something at a vending machine or in walking distance and she said no, you don't waste food, you stupid girl. You scrape that off and you cook what's left and be grateful you're not starving like the children in Armenia. I did, and I ate it as I had various unpalatable things before, and I said thank you.
Though I don't know for certain if my grandmother was ever scarce of food herself, she was 9 years old when she lost her mother to the Spanish Flu, 11 when her father died, and 18 when the Great Depression laid waste to the economy. She and my grandfather—who lost his own father when he was 4—raised their five children (a priest, a social worker, a nurse, and two teachers) to live a life of service and gratitude, eschewing any extras that could be seen as frivolous, seeing wastefulness as a sin on par with lust, sloth, greed, and the like. For better and for worse, this hypervigilance over waste and excess trickled down, along with the anxiety and depression that are hard-coded into my being. You cut off the mold and the rot and you eat it. I have been deeply lucky over the past decade to have shelter, food, clothing, healthcare, and some luxuries that it's taken me a while to learn to accept.
I've also had times in my adult life when I have been in danger of losing shelter, when I was not food secure, when I had to make the choice between eating and walking home for miles in the dark because a paycheck—if I was lucky enough to be getting one—was days away. I am grateful for those survival skills. It's been a while since I have really had to use them, but a slight dip in the economy, an unexpected expense, or an ambiguous work email can instantly awaken the beast. I get crafty and feral, can make a meal of nothing, figure out where to shake cents from barren trees, and stay alive. I know painfully well that so many people have so much less than I do, have a fraction of the privilege, and I do what I can to share. It is how I was raised. But that doesn't quiet the howl in my brain, the one that keeps me awake and counting every cent in the bank, every egg in the carton, every packet in the bin. Enough, I tell myself. You have enough. Enough. Enough! For now.
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