I unfurl a bag of chips, barefoot and alone. I keep the lights out. I drop my shoulders, bend my neck forward, and allow my mouth to be happy when it meets the salt and the grease. I eat one chip, then two, then the entire bag. Eating satiates nothing; not my hunger, nor my sadness. I close cupboards quietly, open the microwave before it beeps. When I am done, my stomach is distended with bloat. The next day, I know, my fingers will be swollen from all of the salt. With enough sugar, a patch of bright acne will sprout around my mouth and chin. At first, I cover it with concealer. Before long, I leave my skin how I feel: angry, red hot with loneliness. In the months following my grandmother’s death, I repeat this process: I try cookies, spoonfuls of peanut butter, an entire sleeve of crackers, rum balls with too much liquor, frozen pizzas that melt and burn in my microwave. Nothing works.
For the first time, I want food to bring me home: not to her kitchen, where we rarely turned on the oven to cook, but to our small town’s greasy diner, where once every summer—because that’s how often we could afford it—we shared a plate of fried clams and french fries. I want food to bring me home to the gas station where I walked most afternoons after school and bought a slushie and stained my tongue blue.
I search my cupboards, then the fridge, then the freezer. In the morning, I will drink black coffee and eat the tartest tangerine I can find. Later, it will be vegan pad Thai, farm-to-table tacos, or a wood-fired pizza that costs four times as much as the one in my freezer. I’ve spent my adult life hungering for these foods, not just for their taste, but for their status. In the months following my grandmother’s death, these meals make me feel like an imposter.
Now, more than a year after her passing, I continue to search for her in food. There are no family recipes, no favorite casseroles or signature birthday cakes. When I eat the food that reminds me of her, it comes wrapped in plastic or spills out of a can. A first-generation Italian-American, she defied stereotypes when it came to kitchen life. We ate microwaved TV dinners in front of the tiny television in our living room, watching talk shows on local stations. It’s hard to have pride when you’re poor. Finding joy in food that comes from a bag or a box feels like a sin in a society that demonizes it. Now, it’s hard for me to honor that happiness while grieving. Food brings me home, but it also makes me face my shame.
In Riddle’s, my grandmother hands me her shopping list. We are in the only grocery store in Hull, the seven-mile-long town she raised me in, nestled on the coast just south of Boston. I know the lists from memory, but because I am five and eager to prove I can read, I read it out loud, anyway. Canned vegetables, first: spinach, green beans, corn. Canned soup, too: tomato, minestrone, Italian wedding. Condensed milk, to later be diluted with water and poured into cereal. Frozen broccoli makes the cut, as does cauliflower, when it is on sale. We toss in a few boxes of candy that cost just shy of a dollar each, then make our way to the produce. That day, only tomatoes are on the list. We live off of her fixed income — I know, already, how important it is that we follow the list.
In line at the register, my grandmother makes small talk with the woman in front of us. As the cashier scans the woman’s items, the woman squats down and talks to me directly. She tells me that I am a nice girl, very well-behaved, and that I need to be good for my grandmother. At this age, a lot of adults tell me this, because our town is small and everyone knows my parents are in and out of the picture.
The bagger puts the woman’s bags in her cart and she puts her change in her wallet. She smiles at my grandmother, then at me, then at our food on the belt: canned, boxed, frozen. “You really do a lot,” the woman repeats. “I mean, it’s really great that you do what you can, considering what you have to work with.”
Jacqueline was the first person to call me poor directly. We were assigned partners on a class field trip to the aquarium. Her family moved to Hull from Quebec, where her parents left behind corporate jobs for the softer, slower kind of life business people imagine you can live by the ocean. She was long and lanky with red hair, a slew of acne on the curve of her cheeks, and signed the notes she wrote me in class with greetings and goodbyes in French, a touch I found incredibly sophisticated. The closest I ever got to kissing her was when she asked me to check her braces for specks of food.
I slid beside Jacqueline on the bus. At twelve, our thighs had just started to flesh out and jiggle, and they spread out onto the sticky seats, unyielding wills of their own from beneath our denim cutoffs.
Jacqueline hesitated. “I’m not supposed to share with you,” she said, eyes still on my fluffernutter sandwich. “But it tastes really good, so I want it.” She grinned and took one of the sandwich halves, then gave me her yogurt and some orange slices.
I stared down at my lap: My peanut butter and marshmallow creme sandwich on white bread stared back at me. I asked her what she meant.
“My mom said the food you bring is bad for me,” Jacqueline said, dipping a carrot stick into her tub of hummus. “But it’s okay. She said it’s not your fault that you’re poor.”
I thought about Jacqueline coming to my house after school, sitting beside me on the living room floor while we ate microwaved meals in front of the TV — a treat, my grandmother said, because I had a guest — for dinner. The bus started moving. I crumbled my half of the sandwich and put it back into the paper bag. The sandwich oozed peanut butter and marshmallow onto my hands. I wiped it on my shorts, where it stayed the rest of the day.
I was quiet for long enough that Jacqueline stopped asking me what was wrong. Finally, she squeezed my hand hard, and I pulled it back; she didn’t leave a bruise, but the mark lingered for years. She’d move by the end of the school year, and we would lose touch entirely. Until then, we spent as much time together as her parents would allow, but it was never the same.
Hull is home to one Dunkin’ Donuts. The national chain originated in Quincy, a small city just a twenty-minute drive from where I grew up. The chain is prolific enough to have penetrated even my small, sleepy town where mostly fishermen and retirees call home.
My grandmother loved it all: the apple crullers, the croissants, the cake donuts, the munchkins filled with jelly. She ate Boston creams without irony. When I went to school, she occasionally went there and ordered a baked good and drank coffee by herself. I don’t know if my grandmother considered herself a feminist; I have no idea if she saw eating alone as an act of quiet revolution. Eating alone and eating processed food, high in fat and coated with sugar and grease, at that. We shared such intimate things: food, money, a home. But I can’t know if she shared my shame in any of it, if she ever struggled with feeling that her happiness was undeserved. The funny part about grief is that it feels revisionist — so many questions I waited too long to ask.
When I visited my grandmother in the nursing home she lived in for the years before her death, she mostly asked me about food. I knew it was voyeurism; she was missing almost all of her teeth by then, so hard foods were out of the question. She ate mostly applesauce, pudding, and spaghetti with a marinara sauce she did not like. “It doesn’t taste like home,” she said to me during one visit.
The nurse’s aid smiled at me as she changed my grandmother’s sheets. “A family recipe?”
I looked at my grandmother, who was looking out the window into the courtyard that sometimes brought her happiness and sometimes scared her. When she wasn’t asking me about food, she was asking me where she was. She remembered almost nothing; most days, not even me. She wore a light blue dress with small, small flowers on it and a big, bulky white cardigan on top. She loved to be warm.
“No,” I said. “Not from scratch. Just a favorite kind.”
When the aid leaves, my grandmother goes back to asking me about what I eat. “French fries?” she asks. “Hamburgers?” I switched from beef burgers to black bean, from french fries to roasted sweet potatoes. Now, greasy food is falafel or pizza with cheese made from cashews.
“You still eat well, don’t you?” She asks. Our definitions of eating well have changed, and I feel too guilty to correct her.
“Yes,” I say, “I do.”
In health class, our teacher talks about the benefits of eating fresh food. We are in the fifth grade, and this is the week after the boys and girls are separated to learn about puberty. I haven’t started my period yet, but I am already worried about gaining weight when I do. She passes around copies of the food pyramid. She stresses the importance of words like fresh , whole grain , and organic . We separate into small groups to write out menus of what we eat, then match them on the pyramid. I am naive enough not to lie. She writes a note for me to take home to my grandmother, on the importance of eating healthy. I am smart enough to tear up the note and throw it away before my grandmother sees it.
I struggle with the equation of food of love, of effort with love. Women, especially, are held to a standard that equates cooking as a way to express love and care. How often does society equate the time spent at the stove with how much love went into the meal? When we hear that a baked good is homemade, we imagine the delicate steps: mixing the dry ingredients, then the wet. Cracking eggs without dropping in a sliver of shell. Monitoring the rise before pulling the bake. We understand domestic labor, from the time it takes to cook an elaborate recipe to the neatness of folded laundry, as a tangible representation of love.
My grandmother’s love was in opening a can of soup and heating it over a stove burner. She didn’t make a broth from scratch. She didn’t dice vegetables or braise meat. We were poor and she was tired. There is no other way to say it.
A woman stands behind me in line at the drugstore. We’re in the Lower East Side of Manhattan and just about everybody has the flu. I’m holding Gatorade and ramen noodles. At the last minute, I pick up a chocolate bar. This is an indulgence: I am twenty-three, less than a year out of college, and making eleven dollars an hour working in a high-rise office in Midtown.
“You’re lucky,” the woman says. “If I ate like that, I’d blow up.” We are the same size, and I don’t know what to say. I chuckle until she adds, “All that processed stuff can catch up with you, you know.”
At the register, I forget to ask for a bag, and my purse is too small to carry my purchases. I hold them in my hands for the walk home, and when I get inside, the chocolate bar is mostly melted in my hands. I peel back the wrapper and eat it before I remove my jacket.
That night, my grandmother is not dead yet, but it had been close to a year since I had seen her. When I go home to Massachusetts, she will no longer live in the house I grew up in, and will have already transitioned to the nursing home where she will die.
On the phone that night, she struggles to hear me. I use this as an excuse to keep many things from her: that I am exhausted from my job, that I feel terrified of New York, that I am in love with a woman, that I am ashamed and unsure of how to eat in front of my coworkers.
“Are you eating well?” She asks.
“Oh yes,” I say. “Oh, yes.”
These are some of the last conversations we have on the phone. By the time she moves to the nursing home, she has forgotten how to speak into the receiver. When I do call her, and someone holds the phone up to her ear, I say hello over and over, and her voice is a disembodied giggle at whoever is in the room with her, not hearing me at all.
Once a week, I eat a doughnut. Sometimes I eat the doughnuts in the morning when they are fresh and soft, and sometimes I eat them at night, when they are flaked over and stiff. Every time, I go to the same diner and survey the case: These doughnuts are filled with marshmallow, whipped chocolate, matcha green tea creme. The muffins are gluten-free, sprinkled with almond slivers. There are breakfast sandwiches with tofu-based eggs and sausages made from seitan.
It’s a Tuesday morning, and I am working from home. I establish my usual space: a narrow table in the corner, against the wall, with just enough room for my laptop and a small plate. It is the first of her birthdays to pass since her death, and I challenge myself to bring my grief outside with me.
The doughnut I choose is filled with vegan marshmallow, topped with peanut butter. In the center of the doughnut, a second marshmallow is brûléed . The cashier hands me the doughnut on a plate.
The man in line after me orders a vegan sausage biscuit and an espresso, to go.
“Wish I was eating that,” he says, nodding at my plate. I smile at him until he says, “Sure a whole lot of sugar, though.”
“Yeah,” I say. “I know.” He watches me sit. I bite the doughnut in half. Marshmallow oozes onto my chin and nose. I can feel peanut butter on my right cheek. The dough feels thick and my cheeks puff to hold it all inside. He doesn’t answer, then his order is ready, and he goes out the front door. I watch him leave and new people come inside, and I eat. I eat.