“I portioned that so we’d have enough for tomorrow,” John says.
“It’s just a few pieces of broccoli.”
“But we’re having salad tonight.”
“It’s not enough,” I snap back.
John knows how much I want my greens, a fall-out of my years-long struggles with anorexia: If I don’t eat at least three servings of greens each day, I worry I’ll gain weight.
Yet his “not-enough” fear prevails over mine. “What will we have for tomorrow’s dinner then?”
“There’ll be plenty left,” I insist, rolling my eyes.
For 16 years, as long as we’ve been married, John has been the apron-wearer, the one who plans our meals—a week in advance—prepares our meals, and stores them in the freezer, divided with measured accuracy in Ziploc baggies. The only decision we have to make together around mealtimes is which size baggie to use for leftovers.
For me, being tasked with making decisions, especially around food that doesn’t involve greens, sends me into an anxiety-spin. My decision dread isn’t new, yet another a long-term side effect of anorexia. I also have a brain injury, from being hit by a car 17 years ago. Which means the wiring in my frontal lobe, the part of the brain that helps with planning, multi-tasking, and processing decisions has been sheared. Even making the smallest choices is still difficult. Choosing to eat a pear or a handful of nuts for a snack is like choosing between a total knee replacement or getting a steroid injection. Forget even thinking about grocery shopping, something John loves to do. There are far too many jars and boxes of this and bags of that for someone with both a broken brain and food-choice anxiety.
So our marriage has been a perfect one: While I’ve happily stayed clear of the kitchen, John has happily been doing his magic preparing my favorite non-dairy, no gluten meals basted in healthy fats.
Then Coronavirus entered our kitchen, and John’s frequent shopping trips came to a hard stop. That’s when he became infected with “not-enough.” Because I’m immunocompromised and John is terrified of getting Coronavirus then passing it on to me, his two adult daughters have been taking turns shopping for us every couple of weeks. A couple of weeks between grocery deliveries is a dog year for John. Pre-COVID, he shopped every day, often going to multiple supermarkets. When he’d come home, he’d be as high as a jogger who just went for a 10-mile run. I stopped asking him why it took two hours for him to pick up a few items for dinner. After 16 years, I knew why: “I like looking at all the different peanut butters,” he once told me. “And I stop to smile at the Annie’s salad dressings.”
While we wait for our next set of groceries to arrive from one of his daughters, John worries about running out of food. I worry about getting my fix of greens. So I’ve had no other choice but to enter the kitchen, and we have a galley kitchen—too small for me, John, and our collective neuroses. Though our marriage is still a happy one, we are both now infected—with low-grade kitchen anger.
“I work hard in the kitchen to make sure we have all this,” John says, as I fork a fourth piece of broccoli onto my plate.
“I know, but I can’t just have a few flimsy leaves of lettuce.”
John heavy-foots his way to the pub table in our dining room. I follow, carrying a full plate of greens topped with John’s handmade turkey burger dressed with a dollop of his smoked-tomato dressing.
He lights the tea candle before us, and we clink our wine glasses three times, as we do every night before taking our first bites. Clink, clink, clink.
John, the fifth of eight siblings, grew up with food insecurity in a rural Vermont town with a population of low-to-moderate wage earners. While his father earned a modest income as a border patrol agent, his mother worked at home—baking bread, canning peaches, frying up pierogi. Just about everything they ate was a product of their mother’s Ukrainian recipes, handed down from her father, a subsistence farmer and cobbler. One of thirteen siblings, John’s mother learned at a young age how to scrape by on what the family could reap from the land. In this way, she knew what it took to keep her eight kids fed and clothed—careful rationing of her handmade everything, from soup to sauerkraut.
John often went to school with buttered Saltine crackers for lunch. For breakfast, he savored torn pieces of white bread soaked in milk. At the time, he didn’t understand his family was food insecure. He remembers it as a treat to have Saltines with butter.
As an adult, and director for a large Vermont non-profit whose mission is to fill basic needs in the community, including food shelves, it hit John square in the brain. The memory of his mother asking, “Did you get enough meatballs, Johnny?” Like she did for her seven other children, she’d load up his plate with pasta and top it off with one meatball sliced into four pieces. “It felt like four whole ones,” he still remembers. Growing up, John didn’t see the quartered meatball for what it was: A result of his mother’s artful efforts to make sure what little food they had was equally divided among all eight growing kids. Nor did he hear the worry buried in his mother’s growling belly.
And the Saltines. Those too he came to realize were all that was left in the food budget at the end of the month. The same went for the frozen peas and corn his mother spooned onto his dinner plate. Fresh greens were as familiar to him as gefilte fish. He didn’t stop to admire kale in the store, let alone eat it, until he met me in 2003.
I, the middle of three siblings, grew up with food security in a suburb of Boston, with a population of high-wage earners. My father was determined not to follow in the footsteps of his Ashkenazi ancestors, who eked out a living as mercantile traders and farmers. Instead, he went to college with an eye for turning every penny in his jar into a dollar and became an entrepreneur: a real-estate developer, a money lender, an ice-cream store owner.
Before my anorexic days, when I drank Tab for lunch, I went to school with a brown paper bag packed with a thick cold cut sandwich, pretzel sticks, and a can of Fanta orange soda. For breakfast, I spooned down name-brand cereal. My father, who recalled the stories of his ancestors economizing to the point that potato bread became a luxury, made it clear to me as a kid that money didn’t grow on trees. He tolerated zero waste. Not even a despised hot dog, which he’d insist I eat—the entire dog—before I could get up from the dinner table.
Growing up, I didn’t understand how much I had taken the abundance of food available to me for granted. After John and I were married, and we found ourselves facing our share of unexpected financial hurdles, my father’s extreme frugality came roaring out of me. I didn’t, and still don’t, dare to waste food—not a mouthful of left-over tuna fish, or a forkful of chicken marsala from the previous night’s dinner. Though John cares for every dish he makes as if it were his first born, he is also a bacteriophobe, and is quick to toss my back-of-the refrigerator scraps into the compost. He begs me not to eat food past its time, because who knows what kind of bacteria has found its way into the edamame over the past twelve days. Compostable vs. edible has become our staple argument. For John, the seven-day rule applies, no ifs, ands, or buts. For me, if it doesn’t smell like a dumpster, it’s fine to eat. To remind John not to throw out food I look forward to snacking on, I attach yellow sticky notes to each morsel of leftovers: “Three bites of tofu. Eat me.” Or, “Hi, I’m half a sweet potato.”
It wasn’t until the evening after our kitchen argument, as I opened the freezer and saw the air-tight baggie of remaining broccoli tucked inside the door shelf, when something dislodged in my brain: how much our histories influenced our uniquely obsessive approach to food and shopping. Though I have stood witness to, and have benefited from, John’s meticulous meal planning, I admit it has taken COVID for me to see with wide open eyes what he’s been showing me all along. Every dash of spice he’s added to every crockpot full of coq au vin, every clove of garlic he’s chopped and stirred into every pot of kale, and every perfect square of veggie lasagna he’s slipped into countless Ziploc baggies, he has done because he wants to make sure I’m well fed.
Now, each night after dinner, when John asks, “Did you get enough to eat?” I reach for his hand and say, “Yes, I’m full. Thank you, Sweetie.” I carry my empty plate to the kitchen and eye the leftover veggie du jour of the night. John walks up behind me just as I snag two more pieces of greens from the stir-fry pan. “Is it okay?” I ask.
“It’s up to you,” he says. “But I did portion dinner so you’d have enough for lunch tomorrow.”
My heart does a little dance, and I hug him.
Then I put one piece back into the pan, and pop the other into my mouth.
Melissa Cronin is an author and journalist living in Vermont. Her work has appeared in USA Today, The Washington Post, The Jerusalem Post, Narratively Magazine, Purple Clover Magazine, Brevity, Saranac Review, Tahoma Literary Review, Intima: A Journal of Narrative Medicine, and elsewhere. She holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her writing has received Notable Mention in The Best American Essays (2019), and she’s a recipient of Vermont Studio Center Merit Grant and a Vermont Arts Council Development Grant. A public speaker on the topics of traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder, Melissa has completed a memoir based on trauma, healing, and forgiveness. Find Melissa at melissacronin.com and Twitter @CroninMelissa