Learning to Like Food…Again?

DC widow blog writer Marjorie Brimley cooks over a stove in a kitchen

For much of my life, I claimed that I’d rather take a pill than eat a meal.

My friends and my husband thought I was insane. “But food is so enjoyable!” they’d say to me, and point out all the fun restaurants in DC. I held firm. Yes, sometimes I enjoyed a good meal, but often, I just wanted to continue on with my day, uninterrupted by the need to eat. Part of this was being a busy mom who hated cooking things my kids wouldn’t eat. Part of this is the fact that I have a food allergy, which can make eating a bit scary. But still – my lack of caring about food was pretty outside the norm.

This changed somewhat when Shawn built garden beds for me in our backyard almost a decade ago. I was in Texas for a summer trip and he was home working, and I came back to two long raised beds that he’d built out of scrap wood, stained and filled with dirt. He didn’t care a lick about gardening, but he knew it was important to me, so he did it. I loved him so much for it, because it was something I’d always had growing up in Oregon, and I planted vegetables and herbs right away. When people would ask me what my favorite food was, I’d say, “backyard tomatoes.”

(That is still my answer, by the way. Have you ever had a backyard tomato? After you do, you can’t ever eat a tomato from the supermarket again.)

When Shawn was dying, I couldn’t eat much, and after he died I don’t think I ate any solid food for at least two days. The morning after he died, I was in my kitchen and one of my friends suggested I try to eat breakfast. I demurred. “Leave her alone,” my dad said. “She’ll eat when she’s ready.”

I loved my dad so much in that moment. It was the first of many things he understood about about my new life.

My friend Christine brought over smoothies every day that week, in an attempt to at least get a few nutrients into me. After a number of days, I could eat a little bit, and eventually I started joining my family for meals.

But I never enjoyed it.

I remember about a month after Shawn died, I went out to brunch with a group of friends. I thought I was ready, but I found myself gagging in the bathroom about halfway through the meal. I can’t remember if it was Becky or Michelle who came to find me (maybe it was both of them?) but I remember crying, thinking how I’d never enjoy something as simple as french toast again.

At least I never really liked food, I reasoned. Yes, I had come to appreciate the ingredients produced by my garden and the joy of sharing a really good meal with friends, but at that point, I didn’t derive any happiness out of either one of those things. In a way, I was back to my previous self – the one who would rather take a food pill.

Time passed – a lot of it – and it was the summer of 2019, almost a year and a half after Shawn’s death. My kids had become more ambitious eaters (I think in part from having to eat food cooked by dozens of other people immediately after Shawn died) and we were traveling. One day in France, I sat down at a cafe, ordered a coffee and watched my daughter eat her first homemade croissant.

The look on her face was one of pure joy.

I laughed at her expression and took photos. That night, I told the waiter at dinner that I wanted him to bring me the best thing on the menu, whatever it was. When he did, I ate it slowly, savoring the different flavors as I sipped my wine.

I was actually enjoying a meal.

(If you’re reading this blog and you just lost your partner, do not fear that it will take you 18 months to like food again! That’s simply how long it took me. Remember, I was never a big foodie.)

The process of coming back to enjoy food was uneven for me. I guess that’s how it is with grief. But slowly, especially over this past fall and winter, I found myself enjoying some of my meals. Really enjoying them.

Still, it wasn’t until a few weeks ago that I realized things had shifted. The first time I recognized the change, I was at home. It was a normal weekday evening and I was in my kitchen, putting the finishing touches on a Japanese beef stew. “It looks bad,” Austin said, “but it smells good.”

“Well, then, you can close your eyes and eat it,” I said.

My dad came in the kitchen just then. “You sure have been cooking a lot of new kinds of food lately,” he said.

“I guess I have,” I said. “I’m getting back into food, I think.”

After he tried the soup that night, he turned to me and said, “Marjorie, this is really, really good. We should eat this again.”

I pointed out that it had eggplant in it, which he claimed to hate. “But it’s good in this stew,” he said.

He was right. We both lingered at the end of the meal, scraping up the last bits of stew in our bowls and talking about politics. I paused when we finally got up to clean, thinking about how rare such a moment was for me. I’d actually really enjoyed the flavors of the meal. I loved the way it transformed my conversation with my dad and I even liked the extra work of pulling together something special for my family.

Was I starting to become a foodie?

A week later, I was on a field trip with my students in Philadelphia. The kids all wanted to eat at Shake Shack and Panera and I groaned at my choices. “I’m going to take a walk and find something else,” I told the other chaperone, who was lovely and offered to stay with the kids.

I texted a friend who knew Philly, and he recommended a place nearby. I walked there, sat down at the bar, and asked the waiter to bring me the best thing on the menu.

He complied, and the meal was amazing. There was a tiny parsnip soup in a bowl the size of an espresso cup, a perfectly balanced crab toast, and a linguini made from scratch. I inadvertently sat next to a farmer who was sourcing the restaurant, and I told him about my attempts at gardening.

But mostly, I just enjoyed the way the food tasted. I savored the complex flavors, like the addition of fresh dill that had likely been harvested just a few hours prior, and I thought about how much I was loving the moment.

That night, I reflected on my meal. I thought about how much I’d enjoyed the simple pleasure of it, and how rare that was for me. I congratulated myself on enjoying the meal, because it was part of my 2020 goal: to appreciate beautiful moments when I find myself in them.

This is progress, right?

And yet.

I immediately began feeling strange about the whole night. Yes, I loved the food. Yes, I loved being out by myself. Yes, I appreciated that I dined alongside a chatty farmer and a handsome bartender.

But who is this woman that I’m starting to become? The one that loves great food and flirts with the bartender? I mean, really? I thought I was the person who would rather take a food pill than go to a restaurant alone. I never used to be able to spend a full hour talking about the importance of the addition of certain herbs to enhance a piece of seafood. Would Shawn even recognize me today?

And does the fact that I’m finding new interests, new passions, new things that keep me alive – does that mean I’m losing him?

I don’t know. If I really let myself think about Shawn, even two years after his death, I can become consumed by the sadness of his absence. I can still feel the bile rise in my throat when I think about enjoying something as much as I’ve been enjoying food lately. Because one thing remains true for me: I’d take that food pill every single day if I could have him back.

But since that type of magic doesn’t work, I’m going to put the idea of a food pill aside. Because really, it’s ridiculous. A food pill could be useful, and might make me stop feeling these conflicting emotions every time I have a terrific meal.

But that’s not living, is it?

Image Credit: Becky Hale Photography.

8 Replies to “Learning to Like Food…Again?”

  1. Thank you for this Marjorie. I love to cook and bake and try new things in the kitchen. But I also lost this when my husband died. It is getting close to 2 years for me and I have noticed in the last few weeks that I have been cooking more. In particular, I have been trying new recipes. It is so good to have that part of me back. But it’s bittersweet too – it’s part of who I am but there is so much of me that has changed. And my husband isn’t coming back like my food interest. I went on a Valentine’s Day date with someone I have been dating for a few weeks and the food was amazing. He likes food but isn’t a foodie and it just wasn’t the same – not sure if that is the point or if that is a problem. I long for the certainty I used to have.

    1. Oh, I totally understand this! I too long for the certainty, even if I didn’t like every part of it, even if I fought with my husband sometimes. Back then, I still KNEW what to expect and I still knew, every day, that he loved me.

  2. I hear you, Marjorie. It’s been eleven months, and I still don’t like to eat. I do it alone in front of the TV because that’s my life now. I have no interest in eating out. Protein bars are my meals when I’m away from home. The idea of mindful eating doesn’t compute. I eat because my body is hungry. But to pay attention and maybe enjoy it? I’m not ready for that yet. Others assure me that the grief eases up at some point. I’m trusting the process, as horrible as it is.

    1. I mean, I think the grief timeline is different for everyone. But I do think it eases, eventually (I’m working on a post about this very topic this morning!) Hang in there. Even though I wrote this post, I haven’t really gotten to mindful eating for more than just a few meals yet.

  3. Everything tastes like cardboard for a while, doesn’t it? I think my kids and I did an awful lot of healing around our kitchen table. We, too, had kind people donating food to us in our time of need, but we quickly decided we needed to let them keep their hot dishes for their own nutritional needs. We developed this routine that lasted for years where we’d do all the week’s cooking on Sunday. Everyone would chop, or measure, or stir, even though the youngest were only six and seven when we lost our alpha cook. I’m a teacher, too, so I always thought of it as a Montessori-type experience, and I never got too upset over messes and failures. To this day cooking is what we do when we all get together. Now that we’ve welcomed cooks from other families into our kitchens, though, we have come to realize that as a family, we developed a heavy hand with garlic and peppers. I wonder if we became such heavy-handed spice users because we were trying to overcome that cardboard-taste.

    1. Yes! I actually think you’re onto something with your point about spices – I too wanted to just FEEL something with food for so long, and at least with a lot of spice, I did that. You’re right – for a long time, everything tastes like cardboard. It’s nice when that cardboard feeling eases.

  4. I lost my husband a little over two months ago. I can relate to so much in this post. I barely ate anything in those first few days. The thought of eating just made me sick to my stomach. After that, I would eat random amounts of food, just to get by. I now have come to enjoy a good meal again, although many times at night after I’ve fed our infant son and put him to bed my appetite is just gone again. Maybe the loneliness and silence of the house at night feeds that hunger instead of food.

    After that first month, I discovered a restaurant nearby my house I never noticed before. We had never gone there together. I first tried it with my mom and then my friend who had come to visit and help us. One day when I was out driving, I needed something to get me out of my sadness. I decided to take myself to lunch. I sat there all alone. I picked something fabulous from the menu. I sat there and actually enjoyed my meal for one of the first times in these two months. I’ve now taken my son there with me, and we had an amazing time. I feel dining there is symbolic to us moving forward, finding joy in a place that is new to us in this new life.

    1. I feel the need to say this – you will get to a happy place in your new life. I can feel it in your words. That doesn’t mean it will be immediate, or that you’ll have a perfect road uphill. The path is not linear. But I can tell from your message that you will get to a good place. Go easy on yourself now – these are early days – but know that the light will get stronger as time passes.

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