The story of the tortellini is this: Venus, the goddess of love, traveling through Italy, stopped to spend the night at a tavern in the town of Castelfranco. The innkeeper could not help but spy on her in her room. He kneeled at the keyhole, his palms against the wall, but all he could manage to see was her naked stomach. He raced down to his kitchen, rolled out a sheet of fresh egg pasta and tried to recreate the image of her belly. Thus, the tortellino was born.
A tortellino fits perfectly inside of your mouth, soft, delicate, with a burst of surprise inside the belly of each. It has always been one of my favorite foods.
When I was five years old, my grandmother told me, “If you keep eating tortellinis, your stomach will always look like a tortellini.” I was eating a bowl of tortellini with butter and parmesan that she had moments ago placed before me. She picked up my T-shirt and giggled at my stomach.
I pressed the pasta between my teeth. The sweet cheese and meat spilled out onto my tongue. It warmed my throat. As I swallowed I wanted to close my eyes and float away. I didn’t care. I made the decision that eating tortellini was worth a tortellini stomach.
“Are you hungry?” she asked moments later. “Have some more.”
The word hunger implies pain. It implies animal. It implies desperation.
One morning, as I spotted my packet of birth control pills on the counter, I wanted to dive face-first towards the counter and swallow the packet whole— cardboard, plastic, all twenty-eight pills, everything. My husband and I had been talking about trying for a baby. Most of the time, I wanted a baby, but was not sure we were ready yet. I did feel I was already a mother; I have always felt this way. When there is hunger, you must have what you hunger for.
I don’t want my life to change, I’m too afraid, I thought as I stared at the pills. I wonder who will be in here, I thought and placed my hand on my stomach; I wanted to crunch the birth control packet between my teeth like a pig, a lion, a rabid dog.
Pica is defined as an eating disorder in which a person consumes non-food items such as stones, hair, paper, glass, chalk, twigs, or screws. It is found most often in children, people with nutritional deficiencies, women who are pregnant, and people with developmental delays, anxiety, or depression. Incidents of pica have been on the rise in the last ten years, while other eating disorders such as anorexia, are on the decline.
My grandmother cooked all of our meals growing up. Gnocchi, meat sauce, brasciole, meatballs and spaghetti, fried chicken, ravioli, lasagna, baked ziti, broccoli sautéed in garlic and oil, all her pasta freshly made in the basement, all her sauce made once a year in August, a week-long family affair of boiling tomatoes, removing the skin, pouring them into a machine, then into jars.
Every time she saw me, which was all day, every day, she said, “Eat, eat, Sara, eat, here, eat this meatball.”
And then, “You’re too fat, you can’t fit into that shirt.”
And, “Eat, eat, eat this bowl of spaghetti. I’m gonna watch you finish every bite.”
“You’re very fat, you know.”
If I did not finish the meal she had prepared for me, it meant I was not appreciative of all she had done for me. I was rejecting her love.
When I finished graduate school, I asked my mother to buy me the print edition of the Oxford English Dictionary. “Ridiculous,” she said, but it was all I wanted. I thought it could help give me words. I thought it could help teach me the history of all the hungers. So many of us hold within our bodies a vast emptiness, and I am trying to figure out how to represent it with words. The empty space goes so many places, through so many tunnels, tunnels of art and imagination, and so much can go wrong, like mental illness or addiction. But it is how we get to each other, how we access one another: Through the inside.
As a young woman, I was rarely in control of my body or my mind. I had hungers like snakes wildly contorting from my head. I hunger for food, for sex, first for my stomach to be full of a baby, then for my baby to be merged back into my body; I hunger for alcohol and pot, for obliteration; I hunger for my family: I want to hold them close and breathe them in but they are like holding a grenade. I hunger to change my story; I hunger for my childhood to have been different, to not have been one of violence, mental illness, adultery, divorce, addiction. I hunger for New York City, for home, but my hunger to give my daughter the peace I didn’t have keeps me here, in this beautiful, calm California life. I hungered for my husband before I met him. I was young, I was alone and tattered and desperate for companionship. I’d been trampled over by men, one after the other. I needed, I prayed, I yearned, to meet my husband and have some aspect of my life that was without turmoil. Sometimes I hunger so hard for something, it appears. I met him.
Instances of pica have been on record since the 1500s. There is a case study of a young Indian woman who came to the hospital for abdominal pain. An MRI on her stomach revealed she had been eating iron nails. A ten-year-old boy told doctors he felt intense anxiety all day, abated only by eating the carpet from his bedroom floor. A young woman from rural Ethiopia snuck to the back of her house so no one would see as she ate the mud walls of her parent’s house.
Before I got pregnant, I wanted to eat every single baby I saw. I wanted to suck their toes into my mouth and grab their thighs with my teeth. When I was pregnant, it went away because there was already a baby in my stomach, and now I just want to swallow my own baby, no one else’s; I want her back inside my skin because I don’t know how to contain my love for her.
Food can be a portal to that underlying empty space so close to freedom. I am in the portal when I am making a lasagna, then holding the soft pasta, sauce, and ricotta in my mouth, and then I follow it down my throat as it fills my body and through a tunnel into the floor, and the tunnel is one of beauty, colors, lights, and in it I am weightless.
The tunnels to freedom are many: gambling, exercise, reading, pills, heroin, sex. The freedom is always brief, and there is always a consequence. But there is chaos in my body and I need, temporarily, to be free of it.
When I was pregnant, I craved roasted red peppers. I bought twenty of them every week, coated them with olive oil, and baked them in the oven. I learned this and all cooking from my grandmother, who always seems to have a bottomless vat of freshly roasted, peeled, and thin strips of red pepper to heap onto bread for lunch.
I can say there are moments I feel full. But I’m afraid I’ll always be hungry.
My grandmother’s farm in Italy was on a front line during World War II. Their house and their lands were bombed. She and her four sisters hid in fields when soldiers came. They walked vast distances trying to find a safe place. Soldiers raped girls and set them on fire in front of their fathers and brothers. Eventually, my family came to Queens where people took shits on their doorstep, where my mother walked to school and home by herself at age five, terrified, not knowing the language, clutching her key in her hand.
I listened to my grandmother’s stories again and again. I felt the hard places all over my family’s bodies and watched as they crashed against one another. I was lonely and loneliness felt to me like an endless dark well. I’m not lonely in that way anymore. I have a daughter and a husband who hunger for me more than anyone will, ever again.
I would need to be much bigger than this, the size of a country, the size of a sea, to house my love for my daughter. Even in my inflated body, my love feels crushing. I eat to make space. My love burns a hole, the widest, most invisible hole, and to fill it I hold her, and kiss her, and watch her, and I throw food down the hole, in fistfuls.
During a visit to the doctor when I was pregnant, my doctor asked me, “Do you think about eating dirt? How about the walls of your apartment? If you do, please let me know.” Then she gave me a brochure about pica. It said that pica in pregnant women derives from an iron deficiency. And the word, pica, came from the Latin word for magpie, a bird that will happily eat anything.
The moment I look away, my daughter will pull up grass and eat it. She will burrow her finger in the dirt and touch it to her lips. She will press her palm into the sand and rub it over her tongue. When she is in the arms of a friend with a sleeve of tattoos, she will place her mouth right over the pink calla lily, testing for flavor. If she wants to know what something is, she puts it in her mouth, just for a moment. We have forgotten that tasting is not just the precursor to eating.
Hunger, unlike Desire, is closer to death. I have all the things I used to hunger for. Yet my hunger is still wide and painful and doesn’t have an impetus. Desire is a wish, a need, a demand. It is lust and action. Desire can have inside the word regret, or loss, or pleasure.
After many hours of questions, the girl who ate the iron nails revealed she had started to eat the nails three months ago. Three months ago she had been forced into an arranged marriage. She did not want to be married to a man at all. She desired women. She hungered for iron nails in her throat.
I want to write about addiction because it is never satisfied, and it eats through generations, and my brother, who came home from rehab to a house with no alcohol and went around drinking all the cough syrup and all the mouthwash until my mom found him holding a bottle of nail polish remover. And my baby brother shooting heroin, his best friend dead beside him. My father, who lived on his own when he was fifteen, who didn’t finish high school, who hungered for love and family and who, in the end, drank us all away.
They say these things aren’t your business, you must let people live their own lives, and the suffering is not happening to you, but in my family, we are one another; we go back generations. I can feel the stories in the meat of my body before I am told. Hunger pangs are the walls of an empty stomach touching, over and over, finding nothing to digest, nothing to push further inside the body.
I cook when I’m sad. It’s just me, my hands, and what they are making. The trick to making a delicate meatball is to mix the ingredients with a fork, then gently cup the meat with your hands, just barely touching it. By touch you can figure out what it needs. Too dry? Add milk. Too wet? Add breadcrumbs, meat, or cheese.
One day, my daughter pulls Luce Irigaray’s This Sex Which Is Not One from the bookshelf, and I remember that Irigaray says we don’t have the language so we call female hunger bottomless. We call it desire. We call women with desire monsters. My daughter eats her crayons and when we tell her not to, she rubs her hands into the marks of crayon on paper and quickly sucks the tips of her fingers because she loves the crayons and loves drawing and wants to eat it all.
Pica is defined by cultural norms; it is not always about an individual pathology. Eating dirt and clay is, in modern-day America, considered pathological, but there are many parts of the world where dirt and clay eating is perfectly normal. We are pathological if we don’t fit into our culture, like the young woman who did not want to marry, who protested by eating iron nails, who wanted to be with a woman. After she was released from the hospital, her parents allowed her to return home. She no longer had to live with the man she had been promised to.
My grandmother taught me you don’t buy roasted red peppers, or pre-sliced garlic, or frozen, ready-made chicken. You prepare these things yourself. And it is a way to practice love, to give love and be loved.
To love, you must roll chicken in butter and eggs and pat the chicken down with freshly seasoned and grated breadcrumbs that you’ve made from discarded bakery bread gone stale, then you fry those breaded strips in hot oil for just a few minutes, until a fork can easily slip right through, and if you are ever sad, I will make you a nice meal and it will make you feel better. The more care that goes into preparation, the better it is. The love will heal you. This is why it takes all day to make chicken broth. This is why chicken soup will heal your cold. It’s the love.
What do you want me to make you? I’ll make you anything.
But you must eat it quickly, before we disappear, before one of us dies, before soldiers come to take away our food, or our brothers, or our girls, before bombs drop on our houses. Before more time passes, before we grow old. Before we move to a new country to start over, but not really, because we have taken everything with us, including our hunger for war, and for peace.