It seems particularly apropos to write about food on the day after Thanksgiving. While everyone is, to quote Dickens, “steeped in sage and onion to the eyebrows” I’m reminded of a quote by Spain’s three-star chef, Santi Santamario, who famously told a chef’s conference, “All good meals end with a good shit.” And frankly, I believed my first narcissists-and-food article Narcissistic Invalidation: Even Your Tastebuds Are Wrong would, well, take a crap. The topic was so “weird” I fully expected the article to bomb at the box office.
The comments it received were particularly interesting. A Facebook friend encapsulated the concept perfectly:
Food is an amazing control tool.
If narcissists can force us to put a hated substance in our mouths and swallow, there’s nothing they can’t control. It’s almost a kind-of culinary rape, a penetration-by-food, if you want to take it to extremes, to the Nth degree.
Food is never “just food” for anyone. It helps form our national identity, our family identity, even our religious identity. It’s a social thing, a celebratory thing, a relational thing. It should be a hedonistic pleasure as well as a source of nutrition. Most of all, it should be about love.
But narcissists contort food into something to be dreaded. A control mechanism. Something imbued with shame and guilt.
As a little girl I recall secretly confiding to a running tape recorder that Mommy was making “botato” soup and that I didn’t like it. I was ashamed to say it outloud but the cassette tape seemed a safe outlet for my shameful dislike of potato mush, devoid of even a hamhock for flavoring, liberally laced with celery salt.
Since writing Even Your Tastebuds are Wrong, I’ve given more and more thought to my own dread-of-dinnertime when I was a little child labeled a “picky eater” by my Doctor-Dobson-informed-parents and shamed for it. “I loved everything MY mother made,” I would always hear repeated over and over to shame me for not liking what my mother cooked. It took me decades to realize, anybody would have liked everything Grandma made. She cooked meat-‘n-potatoes and cooked ’em well. There wasn’t a lentil or a scorch-you-all-the-way-down-your-esophagus meatless chili in sight at Grandma’s house.
As a tiny little girl, I vividly recall loving vegetables, raw, and scarfing them like a rabbit ending a forty-day fast. Meat, fish, shrimp, eggs, cheese, toast, potatoes, raw fruits and vegetables…I loved it all. If my child had loved all those things, I would have counted myself the luckiest parent on Earth and never labeled them “picky.”
Let’s face it. Narcissists who can’t cook project their own shame over their deficiencies in the kitchen onto the people who can’t stomach their food. Instead of accepting that cooking just isn’t their strong suit, and doing something about it, they shame the people who are forced to choke down their inedible offerings.
There’s a right way and a wrong way to prepare every ingredient. Just about every ingredient can be rendered inedible or delicious by how it’s prepared. Anyone can get distracted and burn the pancakes, but it was abuse that made my husband’s father burn the pancakes black every time he made them and then force his children to eat them. That’s not a culinary preference; that’s abuse.
What I didn’t like as a child, I still dislike today. Back then I was shamed and forced to eat it anyways. One time, I’m told, I was served canned peas, and only canned peas, meal-after-meal to basically starve me into submission. Mushy legumes. Yellow mustard. Burning hot chili pepper pervaded soup (with raisins). Soggy dumplings infused with an herb that made me gag. I was made to feel like a bad girl for not liking those flavors.
Every time I said something negative about the cooked carrots (which I hate to this day), another one would be added to my plate as punishment.
Back then I felt shame and guilt; now I feel pride for having a discriminating palate even as a child. And everyone has a right to some God-given likes and dislikes. Liking all foods and flavors isn’t mandatory to maintain a balanced, nutritious diet.
If narcissists could humbly accept that they don’t have the God-given gift of being a good cook (and few people do), they could study and practice to become better. But it’s more than that. I now see badly prepared food as disrespectful to the vegetables that grew in vain and the the animals that died in vain. It was Chef Gordon Ramsay who first opened my eyes to this concept. Whatever you may think about him, it was one of his swearing-and-screaming tirades at a Masterchef contestant who ruined the chicken that made me realize that ingredients should be respected.
A cow died to give you those steaks. Now, you can cook them until they’re dry, tasteless and gray all the way through … as my family paranoiacally does to avoid germs .. and then cut into them immediately without resting them. You may as well eat an old shoe. That cow, if it had a grave, would be rolling around in it mooing, “And I died for this!?”.
Or you can take a steak, even a fairly cheap cut, and cook it respectfully. My favorite way (if grilling isn’t an option) is with my husband’s blowtorch! The outside will be beautifully seared, the inside juicy, pink and rare. Season it lightly, add a dab of butter, caramelize the butter with an extra blast of the torch and then rest it. It may be a cheap cut of meat, but it will be delicious, juicy, nutritious and that cow will not have died in vain!
The same goes for legumes. I now realize they don’t have to be thick, gluey globs that look and smell exactly like a jolly good shit. To hear Anthony Bourdain wax lyrical about the lentils of Casablanca makes you realize that the humble legume can and should be treated with respect. Then it will be delicious.
In my thirties, I discovered a minor passion for cooking good food, really good food made properly. Even that was an issue for my narcissists. As I wrote in Of Narcissism, Creativity and Hollandaise Sauce:
Later my efforts in disastrous caramel-making by boiling sugar and water for a long time were met with a condescending, “Well, just this time, but don’t waste that much natural gas again.”
They were so worried about the electricity or natural gas it took to cook my creations. That still hurts to this day.
Food: Yes, it’s to keep body-and-soul together. But it should never be used as a control mechanism. Food should never be about shame. That’s narcissism talking. After all, narcissism invades every other room of the house…why not the kitchen too!?