Food and Flesh
Undressing the ways we consume
Our first-ever piece of autofiction is a meditation on the finicky knots of pressure, pleasure, and performance we braid in early adulthood, and the strange co-existence of freedom and captivity.
By Isabela Vera
Your first memory of food and sex has the kaleidoscope filter of early childhood. You’re sitting cross-legged on the thick carpet of your living room in the second house you lived in. Something in that house was pink. Was it the exterior, the walls, or even the carpet itself? It’s hard to say now, and you certainly can’t ask your parents for the sake of writing this memoir. What you recall with clarity is a white plate full of orange slices. It sits between the three of you, and as you reach out to grab one, your parents start talking about sex. The penis goes into the vagina, healthy and natural. You stare at the oranges even though you know your parents are trying to look at you. Something heavy keeps you from looking up to meet their gaze.
Food and sex. As two essential elements of our messy human lives, it’s no surprise that they often intertwine in the material, in memory. For many of us, they are bound together by their shared role in our pursuit of pleasure. In these overworked and overstimulated times, we are told that in finding pleasure and savouring it, we become closest to ourselves. And yet, food and sex are so often used as tools of performance: as smokescreens we hide behind, or as costumes we try on. These days we are encouraged, expected even, to enjoy life’s pleasures — to eat good food, to fuck — with abandon. There is so much pressure to consume, and so much pressure to consume authentically, in a way that brings us joy, sets us free. In this rush to gobble it all up, to take up the space we’ve been granted, where does one’s self end and performance begin?
Valentine’s Day 2008 was a wild one. You recently lost your virginity, graduated from teen magazines to Cosmopolitan, and know exactly What Men Like. Armed with this information, you take advantage of an empty house to tie your boyfriend up, douse his chest with chocolate sauce, and hit him with a stick you found in the yard.
Shut up and take it, you admonish in response to his increasingly fearful facial expressions. It’s only when he goes completely soft that you give up and start wiping the sauce off with a paper towel and hand soap. You feel embarrassed, but you’re not sure why. Things implode later that year shortly after a blowup you have while kayaking across a lake. Triggered by his refusal to splurge on a Eurotrip after graduation, all the years of eating pepperoni pizza and talking about hockey suddenly feel too much. The words spill out of you.
You’re so boring, you say. I need you to start reading the newspaper in the morning and ordering more adventurous dishes at all-you-can-eat sushi.
It doesn’t go down well, and you both end up paddling furiously in divergent directions until you have no choice but to land your kayaks at the same point.
It’s your second night on campus as a freshman, and you’re with a family friend at a party full of sophomores. Your parents suggested you get in touch with him to have him show you around. What was likely a pity invitation brings you both back to your dorm room, which had been yours for just 48 hours and is flush with non-perishables and fresh linen. Suck my cock, he says. You’re just learning this script, but it’s easy enough to follow. Your brain is damp with Smirnoff and it doesn’t feel like this room is yours. He has the biggest penis you’ve ever seen.
In the quiet darkness, you suddenly come back into your body. The awareness activates your gag reflex. I think you should get out, you hear yourself say. Here, I’ll give you a juice box. You weren’t raised in a juice-box family, but the usual dietary parameters seemed to fly out the window when your parents went to Walmart to stock up on dorm room essentials. There are dozens glued together in little packs in a box next to your bed. Your guest is quiet for a moment before you hear the pop of plastic piercing plastic, followed by a heaving swallow. What the hell, dude, he finally says.
The following day while rushing out to class, you find the crushed juice box in the stairwell. It stays there until the winter holidays. Upon your return in January, you wonder who finally took it away.
A year later, you run into Juice Box Boy and find yourself tongue-tied and blushing. You’re in the middle of biking up a hill to campus in September and very conscious of your sweaty upper lip. By this time, you’ve left campus and moved into a total dump, along with five girlfriends. Hey, you say, not sure if it’s best to wipe the sweat off your lip (and therefore draw attention to its existence) or let it pool. Almost immediately the tingle becomes too much and you find your wrist against your mouth.
Hey, he says. You ruminate on the redness of your cheeks all day until it’s time for Thirsty Thursday at a run-down club in the city. The keyboard notes of S&M pulse as you down discounted vodka crans as fast as the bar line will allow. By midnight it feels like most of your friends have a love interest locked in. You jump in the nearest cab and ask the driver to drop you off at the McDonald's behind your house. As you teeter on splintering high heels to a table where you sit down and eat your Kid’s Meal, you see Juice Box Boy at the booth right next to you, eating with a friend. No luck for them tonight either.
When they come back to your room, the air is sweet with the scent of a mango that you’ve left ripening on your night table, away from the sticky fingers of roommates who would surely scarf it down if given a chance. The boys refuse to touch each other. You don’t much want to touch Juice Box Boy’s friend but it’s hard to extricate yourself now. Your house is teeming with returning roommates and peripheral friends, and you’re in too deep to cause a scene. Both men have parched scratchy mouths but you make the right noises anyway.
In the morning, your mango and its thick perfume are gone. You’re half-incensed, half-relieved to have an excuse to text Juice Box Boy.
Am I always going to be feeding you?
Dude, chill. My friend took it.
It’s precisely sex’s slippery quality that makes the pursuit of sexual pleasure such a tricky political project. It’s a moving target, often obscured by the clashing expectations of both the patriarchy and feminism. Grappling with our true desires can feel like an epic, often lonely journey.
There’s a sense that everyone is doing it, but nobody wants to dig any deeper into how it’s going. Uncovering feelings, revealing bruises, hurts, and wrongs feels taboo. As if doing so could have you labelled as overdramatic, oversensitive, unreliable, even dangerous.
In this moment, sex feels symbolic of freedom. To renege on it would be akin to backsliding. Freedom is something that should bring us happiness. But it’s confusing to only feel powerful when deciding whether you want to spread your legs.
Later in college, you find yourself on what feels like your first adult date. He’s clever, cultured, and cute, if a little on the short side. His Facebook profile photo shows him at a bar mitzvah wearing a bow tie.
He lives in a sleek one-bedroom downtown. You’re still in a dump near campus with a bunch of roommates. No one has ever taken you out for wine before. He skims the list with confidence and knows what bottle will go well with nduja. At home, you’re still eating chickpeas out of the can and drinking vodka with coke.
By the time the bar closes, it’s too late for you to get the last bus home, and since he lives right around the corner, he graciously offers for you to stay over. You refuse to let him touch you, and he concedes quickly. You lie awake for half the night, listening to his soft breathing and the cars rushing by under the window, jarring to your suburbia-tuned ears. Being in that bar felt nice, like the kind of place you should be spending time. You imagine yourself there with someone else, this time with the wine list down pat. Tonight, you couldn’t quite get it.
You’ll be put on the spot with drink pairings a year or so later in an open-plan house in the jungle, somewhere in South Asia. Glasses are being poured, and the mood is heavy with unspoken designs. The pressure to perform feels high. You profess to love high-end whisky but can’t name a single brand you want when pressed. He is 13 years older; she is three years younger. This time everyone did want to touch. In the morning, you open your eyes with a start. You should’ve left hours ago. Three whisky glasses, puddled with the memory of ice, sit outside the mosquito net. You pick them up as quietly as possible and tiptoe downstairs, intending to slip out unnoticed, only to find that a stray dog has stolen one of your shoes.
On that same trip, you have a horrible experience, even worse than arriving back over half a day late for your hostel’s 10-pm curfew without only one shoe. It starts innocently enough, with a head of blonde curls that you keep getting a quick eyeful of out the side of your rickshaw. The town only has one road, so it isn’t hard to get a full picture as the days go by. He’s definitely your goal of the week. You’re getting bored with surfing anyway, probably because after ten days you haven’t managed to stand up once. Then, one night you’re out at a beach bar and see the curls bobbing in the crowd. You set your eyes on them, and it’s not long before they’re on your stained hotel pillow. But something about it feels empty, and before it even starts, you wish that you could take it back.
The next morning, you take him to meet some friends at a café you have all been frequenting for weeks. The papaya salad is delicious and cheap. You weren’t exactly subtle about your ambitions last night, so all your friends smirk as you sit down. Everyone is buzzing with stories of the night before, but you’re barely present. The surrounding chatter might as well be ocean swell. Last night, the condom broke, and your mind is running a marathon with the potential consequences. Chlamydia, HIV, death. You’re too scared of needles to get a blood test done, so you’ll surely be dead before you dare to figure it out.
You only tune back at the end of the meal when you hear the conversation suddenly getting heated. A shrieking sound is coming from the guy you brought here. A vein bulges in his forehead as he pushes his chair back and springs up. Suddenly, he’s nose to nose with the restaurant owner, a spindly man with a greying mustache who has come over to bring you the bill. Until now, he’s greeted you each morning with a soft smile and an offering of smoothies on the house. At the moment, though, that smile is nowhere to be seen.
These prices are way too high, last night’s guy yells at him with nearly comical vitriol. I’ve been here for months, so I know this. I’m not going to pay. The owner looks crestfallen. A calculator showing a grand total of $8 for all six of you dangles from his hand.
You reach up and yank your plus-one to the table by his wrist. You’re embarrassing yourself, you hiss, in front of everyone. Most importantly, he’s embarrassing you. In response, he throws some tattered bills down and stalks off. You and your travel friends stay sitting in shocked silence. You can feel the unspoken verdict on your taste in men like you sent them to a lousy restaurant after waxing lyrical about how that dinner had changed your life. You can just imagine the Yelp reviews: one-star, hostile service, must have eaten there out of some need for punishment.
The twilight zone of ambivalence, of not yes but also not no. It’s easy to dwell there too many times, even as you say each one will be your last. Next time you should do better. It will be years before someone publishes Cat Person.
Back home, brunch is getting trendy and seems like a well-to-do activity post-coitus, no matter how detached the act is itself. Unfortunately, amid a slow-burning heartbreak, disconnected acts are your modus operandi, so you’re having a lot of overpriced toasts.
One grim morning, you empty the wallet of one particularly lacklustre lay on a plate of duck eggs poached for two days at 60°C. Any possibility of meaningful conversation has been vacuumed into the chasm that opened in your soul the night before when you saw the jet-black star tattoos he has inked on each of his bony hip bones. It’s not too early for an espresso martini. Who is this person, really, and why are you here? You wonder glumly what the one person you want to be brunching with is doing right now.
As things stand, that person just wants to be friends. His commitment to that ideal, however, constantly peaks and troughs. It’s complicated: It started off complicated, stayed complicated, and will inevitably come to a complicated end. You’ve never loved someone so desperately nor been so frequently rebuked. It’s an intoxicating and soul-crushing game. You met abroad a few years ago, back around the time when other boys were still stealing your mangoes, and you were awestruck. He wore rings, played guitar, had favourite recipes for lamb shoulder, and spat in your mouth while you fucked in a packed hostel room. The sex made you feel alive. One time he pulled your hair and slapped you so hard you were left with a bruise under your eye, no bigger than a grain of rice but noticeable nonetheless. Nobody believed you when you said you slipped in the shower.
These days, your relationship festers like a gangrenous wound. You meet every few weeks for awkward dinners preceded by cold, patronizing text messages, which he sends claiming that you won’t be sleeping together afterwards. Usually, he means it. Usually, you’re left bereft. You always agree to meet again anyway.
Tonight, you take him to a new restaurant. By this time, you have the disposable income to dine out frequently and do so with gusto, although your obsessive monitoring of the number on the scale always limits how much you indulge. Regardless of whether you’ll let yourself order dessert, you want to impress him with the handle you’ve got on the city’s gastronomy scene. The place doesn’t disappoint. The music is good; tasting dishes, meticulously presented, come out one by one. But you don’t taste what you’re eating. The conversation is spiky, each of you painting impossibly rosy versions of your lives. You feel yourself slipping behind an alternate persona, the more arrogant and acerbic veneer you put on when you’re on edge.
In the end, an exorbitant bill comes, and you’re quick to swoop it up, tipsy on the new 0s in your bank account and the possibility of clawing back a shred of control. But, a lump is growing in your stomach, sprouting the first tendrils of the emptiness you know you’ll feel when you shut your front door tonight. As you look for your wallet to pay, you realize you might need to move some money between accounts and go to open your banking app with twitching fingers.
You know, if this were an actual date, doing that would be highly embarrassing.
You look up from your phone. You want to remind him of the $700 he owes you for the flight tickets you bought him two years ago. You never followed up on it, even though you were still a student, and he had already graduated into a high-paying job. Tell him off, a voice says in your head. Fuck that. But some everlasting sense of loyalty to him holds you back.
Thanks, you say with an ironic smile, tapping a thumb to finish the online transaction with one hand while putting your physical card down with the other.
Your roommate has been there for you throughout all this heartbreak, even if his version of picking up the pieces looks less like a platonic pep talk and more like sliding his fingers inside you while you wallow in bed. It feels so vindicating to be wanted that you don’t push him away, although afterwards, you wish you could shower out of your skin.
On the last night of living together, you go out with mutual friends. Around midnight a fork appears in the road. You want to go to another bar. He wants to go to an underground techno club. That is the last place he should be, in your opinion, given his poorly concealed cocaine problem. As you both begin to hurl words at each other with increasing intensity, an oblivious reveller stumbles past with a large box in his hands. Hey mate, want a donut? He is so drunk that only his eyes react to your roommate grabbing one and jamming it into your face. You blink at them both through jam-globbed eyelashes.
The night ends quickly after that. But it is the start of the month, and a new tenant is already in your room. You’d planned to stay in bed with your roommate, resigned — although you can’t quite explain why — to the inevitable sexual advances you knew would come your way. For better or for worse, you instead sleep in the garage, curled up on a tattered couch with exposed springs, and refuse to come up when he stumbles in begging for forgiveness at dawn.
Do we owe each other decency? Does sexual freedom trump social contracts of care? Are we anywhere close to a world where the two can co-exist? As Nona Willis-Aranomowitz suggests, we can’t really have a sexually liberated society when women aren’t liberated — despite all that rah-rah go-girl messaging on sex from the last decade or two that would have you think otherwise. Don’t get me wrong, it’s imperative we have the room to search for our authentic sexual selves. But amidst all the cheering on of sexual freedom and venerating of pleasure, somewhere along the way the recognition of power dynamics, and the room for choice, got lost. In their place, feelings of shame began seeping in. Shame for not doing it enough; shame for not enjoying it when you did; and shame for not having more of what felt like a backbone, but was actually a mandate, to do it on your terms.
In September, you go away for the weekend to fulfil a long-standing promise to meet a brief travel flame. He licks you to orgasm in the span of a single dishwashing detergent commercial playing on the hotel TV. It’s the first time in a while you haven’t had to fake it, and then wallow in bad-feminist guilt over doing so. But those are the only seconds in which you aren’t painfully aware of his earnest yet insipid personality.
To distract from the feelings of revulsion creeping into your chest, you take him out for pho but can go on no longer when you see him twirling his rice noodles around a fork and spoon as if seated at a piazza in Firenze. You decide to flee to a friend’s house in an adjacent city. When you tell him you’re leaving, he cries for three hours straight.
Three weeks later, you meet your future husband. You know he’s the one when you both hate the ramen on your first date. You’ve cycled through enough dunces to know that relationships make or break on food. Given the fresh horror of the recent unromantic weekend, it’s an immense relief to find someone who can not only deftly use chopsticks but point out that the yolk of the ajitsuke tamago isn’t soft enough. For those reasons and innumerable others, you find yourself falling head over heels and not even worrying about it.
It’s perhaps the tensions inherent between sexual liberation and superficial empowerment that leave us confused about why we want certain things, why we do certain things. Why we concede to impulses our brains say are wrong, why we ignore longings our hearts tell us are right. Why sometimes it feels easier to leave our bodies than to grapple with the ways politics manifest in our bedrooms (or bathrooms or cars or kitchen tables). It takes time to realize that this incessant tug-of-war is not a product of your own fallibilities. At least, not fully.
But even the “security” of marriage can’t save you from trials at the table. After a few years of sitting through brutally banal meetings together, you realize you have feelings for one of your coworkers and find yourself daydreaming about his deep voice and dark hair. Curious, restless even, you start to forge an even deeper friendship, despite the constant angst it brings. Why you pursue it so doggedly, you can’t say. Perhaps it’s because you finally feel at home enough in yourself to dream of stretching the limits that others went ahead and snapped in years gone by. Maybe it’s because he reminds you of the kind of person you could’ve been very happy with in another life, in another place. Whatever the reason, you’re suddenly the captain of a ship steering a cargo load of feelings, complicated by the fact you never got your boating license.
From the beginning, you work, however unintentionally, to collapse your two lives into one. You rabidly curate lists of restaurants to try out together, with the less-than-subtle intention of turning him into your dream epicure. The irony of having a perfectly eager gourmand who would love to try those places waiting for you at home isn’t lost on you. But you forge on in pursuit of a wholeness you’ll never have. The list of restaurants shrinks quickly, and when you go out with him, you posture. You don’t know this ingredient? You don’t know this wine? You feel like you’re in control. But are you? This version of yourself chafes you to your core, even if you don’t know how to switch it off when you’re with him. Maybe it’s because you know you both deserve better.
As the months go on, you have more and more moments together where you feel like yourself, but it’s ill-timed. By then, he starts getting into the swing of things, cooking curries and mixing Negronis for an endless loop of Bumble dates. Seeing that gives you the feeling that you made him. But he, in many ways, made you, as did all the others that you let in, and maybe even the ones you didn’t.
Isabela Vera is a founding editor of Feminist Food Journal.
Further reading & listening
Coaston, J., Willis Aronowitz, N., Goldberg, M. ‘After Dobbs: What is Feminist Sex?’ The New York Times: The Argument. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/09/28/opinion/after-dobbs-what-is-feminist-sex.html?
Dee, K. (2021, March 15).' ‘The Coming Wave of Sex Negativity’. Substack. https://defaultfriend.substack.com/p/72-the-coming-wave-of-sex-negativity/comments?s=r
Goldberg, M. (2022, March 3). ‘A Manifesto Against Sex Positivity’. The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/03/21/opinion/manifesto-against-sex-positivity.html?action=click&module=RelatedLinks&pgtype=Article
Khazan O. (2017, December 11). ‘A Viral Story for the #MeToo Moment’. The Atlantic. https://www.theatlantic.com/technology/archive/2017/12/a-viral-short-story-for-the-metoo-moment/548009/
Konnikova, M. (2016, June 25). ‘Casual Sex: Everyone is Doing It.’ The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/science/maria-konnikova/casual-sex-everyone-is-doing-it
Srinivasan, A. (2021, September 6). ‘Who Lost the Sex Wars?’ The New Yorker. https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/09/13/who-lost-the-sex-wars
Willis Aronowitz, N. (2022, August 16). ‘I Still Believe in the Power of Sexual Freedom.’ The New York Times. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/08/16/opinion/sex-women-feminism-rules.html