It’s hard to write when you are cracking yourself up, but I’ll take that problem anytime, over the hard-to-write that comes from tears pooling at the lower rim of your glasses.
Junk food, oh, junk food! Cotton candy clouds of ecstatic-bad-for-you. I am reminded of my friend Deanne’s Dear Sugar Daddy poem, a pornographic festival of her now-relinquished passion for sweets, which she performs in a sultry flurry of blonde hair and big, winning smiles. Deanne is the queen of naming junk food for what it is – an addiction – while simultaneously extolling the pleasures of swooning into its sticky embrace.
I grew up in a household mostly ruled by my mother’s authority in food, which inclined to Grapenuts and organ meats over Dingdongs and Coke. I was in college when soda started showing up in her refrigerator – a treat she wanted for her youngest, my brother, but could never quite stomach when I was living in the house. Something about loose morals in the young female? My brother drank whole milk, while I was commanded to 2%. Frosted Mini Wheats for my brother, frozen cheesy bits for him. Am I remembering this right? Am I making this shit up from the part of me called Orphan Black Sheep Daughter? Maybe, maybe not.
Anyway, when I left home for college and left my mother’s rules behind, I did fatten up, in layers made of beer, dining hall omelettes, lasagna, and whole round loaves of brown raisin bread stolen from the kitchen, while my friends and I wrote all-night papers. I didn’t really have that much access to hard-core junk food unless I bought it myself, and I was perpetually broke. But desserts took their toll, in conjunction with my then-disdain for all forms of exercise besides wild dancing at parties. I remember buying cranberry-colored jeans in a bigger size. I remember the fug of long study, and being often quite ill. On one bronchitis-motivated visit to Undergraduate Health Services, the nurse told me to stop smoking, and I replied indignantly that I’d never started in the first place. I didn’t quite know it then, but my young person’s disembodiment allowance was running out. For the first 20 or so years of my life, environment, youth, and a high metabolism had stood in for what would soon require a much more active commitment to the body’s thriving.
Yesterday I went to my first Deep Water class, the latest development in my love affair with Old Lady Aqua Aerobics. Not old lady: mature lady. Strong lady of many years. Anyway, it was awesome. In the water, I don’t have to worry about fucking up my knees. I can totally go for it, and not get injured. I can stretch to what feels like 8 feet long, and there’s no problem. Splash like an orca. Bounce around. I could feel my muscles unknot and the young horse part of me whinnying and perking up her ears. If it doesn’t hurt and I don’t care how foolish it might look, lots and lots can happen. In this way, some of the cheap thrills of junk food can show up in the midst of something that nourishes the body, instead of rotting its teeth and inflaming its joints. I was potato-chip-ecstatic, and yet left the pool empty and clear, rather than holding yet another crappy wrapper to add to the world’s reefs of bad ideas.
When I was a kid, my dad would sometimes take my brother and I to McDonald’s for Happy Meals, which were to us the stuff of total bliss. We would get McNuggets. Plastic garbage-toys! Fries! Sauce in little space-packets. Puzzles to solve, right there on the box. I don’t know if I noticed then that the prizes ended up being a pain to know what to do with, afterwards. I don’t know if that food disagreed with my young body. Probably not. Probably it just pitched into the project of constructing a six-foot Julie from all available materials.
To be fair, my mom would also sometimes take us on junk food adventures. Her favorite was Long John Silver’s, and we liked it there, too. I remember especially the chunks of Fry Itself that always wound up in the bottom of the box, underneath the fish and other creatures. How exciting! You could let go of the batter as an envelope for actual food, and just mainline the crispy stuff straight. Tartar sauce was like mayonnaise, but also sweet and crunchy. Yes, my mother was possibly the only person in Fresno special-ordering brains from the grocery store, but she also knew good junk food when she saw it. She knew when to surrender, and was not one of the hyper-vigilant parents who enforced no-birthday-cake rules. Instead, she let us eat other kids’ rosy sheet-cakes, and baked for us: amazing rabbit-shaped confections with bowties and M&Ms for eyes.
If I move away from the cozily retrospective and look into where I am now, junk-food-wise, I see the tensions around my desire/not-desire to take up the challenge of eating a totally plant-based diet. At certain times, the choice feels completely self-evident: Duh. Stop participating in patterns of agriculture that harm animals. End of story. But then Timothy brings home leftover pastries and bread pudding. What then? The food already exists. What’s the harm in eating it? Or I’ll start thinking about how there are organic, pasture-based dairies right around here, with seemingly high standards for animal welfare. Meanwhile, I have no idea how the fancy almond-coconut creamer I’ve switched to for my tea is produced. Its manufacturers could be clearcutting the last wild habitat of the Sweetnosed Lemur to make that stuff, for all I know. They’re definitely flying it in from somewhere, because New Hampshire and Vermont are known for their cows, but not their palm-groves. And the coconut stuff comes in disposable, indestructible packaging, while the milk arrives in endlessly reused glass bottles.
Pretty much anything I eat will have some junk food components – some traceable pathways for harm to myself, to others, or to both. Even the admirable farmers who grow our CSA use a shit-ton of plastic bags. Even the local scrappy bulk-food wholesaler can’t resist sending me home with a half-dozen one-pound plasticized portions each week. The junk element is pervasive and inevitable.
I stop at the gas station for potato chips and encounter the sacred feminine. Wherever we show up, we show up in our wholeness, if we let ourselves notice. Cashewgurt (or at least the kind I tried) tastes pretty awful to me. Vegan pâté, by contrast, is delicious, especially with butter-sautéed chanterelles on toast. In the wrong frame of mind, I feel there’s nothing on this earth that could possibly nourish me. Other times, I’ll eat Little Debbie Nutty Bars with certainty that the universe cares deeply for each one of us.
I drink a glass of leftover rosé with ice cubes in it, unwinding from the knots that have arisen in the course of this day. A sense of humor returns: Oh, yes! I sure did get myself into a pickle there, but that’s not the last word, and anyway, pickles aren’t junk food.
Julie Püttgen is an artist, expressive arts therapist, and meditation teacher.