My Love and Hate Relationship with Food

I hardly ever think about this anymore, but recently I was reminded of my early cooking experiences.  These are not the cooking experiences of my adulthood when I was raising children and entertaining friends, but the times when I was a young child with a lot of time on my hands and a desire to cook.  Someone asked me when I became interested in cooking.  I had to really think about this and not give my usual quick answer which is usually something about cooking because my mother worked at night.  The real truth is I started eating because I was lonely, and later I started cooking because I loved eating. When I was ten years old  we had moved from Germany to California.  In Germany we lived on an army base surrounded by lots of other families but in Seaside, California I knew no one.  My father, an army food services expert, was commissioned as a warrant officer and assigned as head of all the “mess halls” (food services) on Fort Ord, a very large army training post in Northern California.  We lived in a rented house in Seaside that had moldy walls.  My mother hated that house and wanted to buy a house more than anything in the world.  My father told her she would have to earn the money if she wanted a house because he was content to rent.  Her job options were limited due to her lack of work experience in the United States and her broken English.  Japanese was her native language and she tended to surround herself with other Japanese women, preferring to speak Japanese as much as possible.  She had heard from her friends that one Japanese woman, by the name of Janie, worked on Fisherman’s Wharf in Monterey.  Many popular, “high end” (at the time) tourist restaurants were located on the wharf.  My mother bravely ventured out to apply for a job at Cerrito’s on the Wharf, a boat shaped restaurant specializing in huge platters of seafood.  She was thrilled to be hired and always prided herself on being “one of the first Japanese girls to be hired on the wharf”, setting the stage for many more to follow.  To prove herself, she worked extremely long hours, 6 days a week from 2 pm until midnight or later.  At ten years old, I was very attached to my mother, having just had her all to myself for the past five years in Germany.  She was always there to cook, sew clothes, take me to ballet lessons, tell stories, and do all the typical “mom” things.  All the sudden she was never home and when she was home, she was exhausted and grumpy.  I would wait up until one or two am when she came home just to see her.  She piled mountains of coins and paper money in sacks in her closet every night.  While she served fancy seafood to well-off diners all night, her meal was a bowl of ramen noodles.  Sometimes she brought home a piece of fish or abalone, a “mistake”, however I suspect she took the untouched food from her customers’ plates and wrapped it up, rather than throw it out.  She had survived starvation in World War II and hated to waste food.  While mom was gone at night, my dad decided to also take a part time job as a bouncer at the base NCO (non-commissioned officers) club.  This meant both parents were not home from the time we came home from school until after we were asleep.  It was my older brother (older my just a year) and I, home with nothing to do, night after night.  We watched TV and ate. We weren’t allowed to leave the house, have friends over, and in the 60’s there were no electronic diversions.  It was a very lonely time.  I had always been a normal weight child but suddenly my weight increased and I became “chubby”.  I was constantly reminded of this fact by my parents, who told me daily that I would be pretty if I wasn’t so fat, then turned around and rewarded me with food.  Our father would take us to the local Baja Burger weekly for cheeseburgers, fries and shakes and our mother would bring us candy and sunflower seeds when she came home at night.  It was confusing.  My father decided to put my brother and me on a diet when we were about 11 and 12, the first of my lifetime of dieting.  He weighed us, made up weight charts, and then recorded our weights weekly.  We both gained weight. Punishment was spanking with the belt, ridicule, yelling, deprivation, and shaming.  But then we were left alone again for days on end with nothing to do but raid the pantry and fridge.  Once of the incidents that stand out for me was a time when my mother prepared what she called, “Tony’s tacos”.  The landlords of our rental house were Mexican and the wife showed my mother how to make her version of tacos.  These were fried corn tortillas filled with meat, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes and her homemade salsa and they were utterly delicious.  My mother asked my brother, Charles, “how many tacos do you want?”  He answered, “however many dad will let me eat”.  My father immediately hit Charles upside the head and started yelling at him about his answer.  Talk about a double bind–damned if you do, damned if you don’t.  We both lived in fear of my father, ashamed of our weight, and lonely for never seeing our mother.  By the time I was thirteen we had enough money to move to our own house. About the same time my father was sent to Vietnam for a year.  My brother and I were really on our own then, with no parents around much at all.  We became a bit wild–hosting gatherings at our house, running the streets, getting into all sorts of mischief.  My mother had no idea what was going on in her absence.  She sometimes made food for us before she left in the afternoon, such as beef stew, meatloaf, spaghetti–all made from the little Shilling and McCormick seasoning mixes.  The pantry was full of rice a roni, canned Chef Boyardee, instant mashed potatoes, and canned vegetables.  We always had a stack of TV dinners in the freezer.  We ate whatever she left us and then cooked more food.  Out of boredom, I found recipes for apple pie, cookies, cakes and more in the few cookbooks in the house.  We also had a freezer full of white butcher paper wrapped meats from my father’s army mess halls.  Many were packages of filet mignon, however we didn’t realize it at the time.  Only when my mother asked where the expensive “filet” went, did I realize we had been frying that meat for steak sandwiches.  Oops.  When my father returned from Vietnam we were fatter than ever.  He was very angry and became even more controlling of our eating.  I was tasked to cook dinner every night by this point.  (When my mother was home, she made herself beautiful Japanese dishes which I loved.  My father frowned on her Japanese cultural expressions, however, so we rarely ate Japanese food as a family.  It was only after he died, at the young age of 54, that I was able to learn how to make her wonderful food.)  I enjoyed cooking, even though my “cooking” was making pork chops or chicken with shake and bake, preparing instant mashed potatoes, heating up canned vegetables, I still loved the experience, especially eating the food.  I loved food–everything from savory to sweet food, ethnic food, restaurant food, anything.  I experimented with baking constantly. With no guidance, I made pie crusts from the recipe and added so much liquid, overworked the dough to the point the crusts were always tough.  My cakes were usually too dry and the cookies were too hard.  Then there was the double message constantly received from both my mother and father that I was a good cook but shouldn’t be eating.  My love and hate relationship with food started in those years.  I didn’t eat when I was hungry and enjoy the food, rather I ate what  I could get away with eating before my father found out.  This meant sneaking a lot of food into the house and eating it before my parents came home.  My brother and I took money from my mother’s pile of tips and bought dozens of donuts from the donut truck that came through our neighborhood, bought ice cream from the ice cream truck, bags of candy and cookies from the grocery store, and simply ate at every opportunity.  I remember sneaking into the kitchen at night and making sandwiches very quietly.  It seemed that I always felt so deprived of food, or at least of the enjoyment of it.  Now I can have whatever I want, whenever I want it, without the prying eyes of either parent, both long gone. Now I endeavor to eat the best food, what nourishes my body and soul, not eating for eating sake, or stuffing myself with crap just because I can.  I no longer “diet” to lose weight, although I have been changing my eating habits for health reasons and weight is dropping as a result.  If there is anything I feel like eating, from sweets to burgers, I simply eat it, without guilt.  I find myself craving the healthiest foods most of the time, and if I overindulge, no problem.  The saddest thing is when I look back at photos of myself at age 10, 13, 16, 18, when I was “too fat”, I see a pretty, slightly, slightly overweight girl.  At 63 I weigh only 10  more pounds than my “fat” high school self, and I look perfectly fine.  I am in the process of overcoming my love and hate relationship with food every day and I am succeeding! My mother, Tamiko   SaveSave
4 replies
  1. D.Mitchell
    D.Mitchell says:

    Julia,

    Enjoyed reading your writing. Many children begin their eating patterns with misguided options. I appreciate your idea of balance with enjoyment of foods still. As a master trainer, I can add that cardiovascular exercise fitted to your own body and lifestyle could actually enhance your health in physique and functionality. Contact me for further details.
    dm

  2. Debbie Mears Storm
    Debbie Mears Storm says:

    Julia, this is so beautifully written. Thank you for pouring your heart and soul out for us to read. What an inspiring story of self-love and survival. You are so special and I am so happy that we’re friends.

  3. Yovonne Cooper
    Yovonne Cooper says:

    I remember our junior high days in Marina, CA. I hadn’t thought about our re!ationship as being food centered, but after reading your post, I guess it was. We’d take turns making breakfast sandwiches to eat as we walked to Los Arboles Junior High. Those were the days when kids and parents felt safe walking a mile or so without fear of abduction or strangers. When my daughter was in junior high and rode the bus, I’d wait with her at the end our driveway! My siblings enjoyed our cookie making after school. We had fun together thru the high school days. Remember our dating days with George and Yo? Thanks to Facebook I’ve been able to keep up with you. I have great affection for you.

  4. Julia Dunaway
    Julia Dunaway says:

    Lots of comments were posted to my Facebook page but I would really love to see your comments here. Thanks to all who read this post and commented. I appreciate you!

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