I tried to win friends with sugar because I was sure that was the only way I could. Other kids were cooler, prettier, had fancier toys, but I figured out early on that if I could bake and make extra-strong Kool-Aid, they’d keep coming to my house. The good ones came back even when the pitcher ran dry and the pan was empty, but I always felt a little guilty for not having anything to feed them.
I suppose that meant something like friendship, and certainly community. Even as a kid, I knew my people when I saw them—the ones who got quiet for a minute while taking that first bite, maybe even closed their eyes to shrink their universe down to the tip of their tongue. And then, AND THEN, they’d want to talk about it.
E. did. Even though he’d been practically wedded to my best friend since before any of us could drive, when we all ate together, E. and I were tuned into a channel only the two of us could hear.
“Is that ginger? I think it’s fresh ginger.”
“I dunno, my mom only has it powdered in the spice cabinet, but I’m gonna find out.”
“I want to try this recipe, but it calls for…tamarind.? What the hell is that and where can we get it?”
“I guess I can go try Kroger?”
“Dude, that would be awesome. When I’m a chef and I open my own place, you’re totally my taster, right?”
And he totally did marry my friend and become a chef, but the restaurant—his restaurant—never happened because the drugs bled the dream out of him first. I don’t know, maybe this thing was coiled up inside him all along, and the heat of the kitchen made it wake, swell and strike. Maybe it slithered out from the grease trap and wound around him slowly, but either way, he was stuck. He stopped coming home to his wife, daughter and twins-to-be, preferring the company of the people in the half-shadows, like him. When he did show up at the kitchen table, sweaty and bloody-knuckled (a server’s ex had needed to be taught a lesson—and yes of course, he was screwing her), I could no longer tune into his frequency.
He’s a chef, my friend and I nodded. That’s just what happens to them. That’s what we had learned at 24.
I know different things and more people two decades later. I’ve been lucky enough to broadcast my signal far and wide and have a choir of voices sing back at me. I love the people who make food their living: the restaurateurs, chefs, servers, bartenders, managers, craftspeople, farmers, photographers and writers (and yes, some of the PR people) who find their highest calling in making sure strangers get fed. It’s how I connect with people—many of my closest friends, my family, my husband—and the lens through which I see much of the world. It’s how I keep my soul satisfied, and it’s often how I stay stitched to the world when I am frayed, low and anxious.
I make my living writing about food, and increasingly about mental health—my own included. With writing comes listening, and I have heard so much pain from people I love in this industry. Depression, anxiety, mania, addiction, despair. Whether we are people drawn to food because it is inherently a generous business, and because we hunger to ladle out pleasure to people, hoping for some spill-off to tide us over, or if we’re drawn to the fire and light and wild-eyed family—so many are swallowed up whole.
We’ve lost and are losing beautiful people because we don’t know how to talk about it. Maybe we’re afraid to pause the party for a minute and ruin the illusion. Perhaps we’re frightened of looking weak. It could be that we don’t know where to turn.
Turn here. Stop and read someone’s story or share your own. Find a resource you didn’t know existed and let some of the pressure ease. Exhale a little bit. Let someone else feed you. I promise you, there is plenty to go around.