Love always used to feel like pigging out, the same kind of bottomlessness. Sex was for cold mornings where you forgot to close the blinds or for hot summer afternoons, when the urge took you, when the sun was watching but you didn’t care, all white rumpled sheets like an advert. But love was felt through those times that I felt a lack of inhibition with someone, our affection expressed through meals: hot boxing a room with takeout pizzas; all Sunday spent watching Broad City; making silly concoctions after nights out with the only things left in the fridge, like hot dogs with cheese and lingonberry jam and bread crumbs and mash; my older ex-boyfriend meeting me at my film internship with homemade sandwiches, harissa and peppers and vegetarian sausages squashed beneath the silver foil, his soft face smiling, paternal; spending a whole hungover Easter Sunday making shepherd’s pie, because the person you love has never had it before; holding hands across the table eating cheap schnitzel in some random restaurant in some random Swedish town.
Scenes of food in film tend to be more intimate than those of sex. Needing to eat is universal, but being able to eat what you want, eat badly, share your strange or disgusting or embarrassing eating habits with a partner, pig out with them, seems like the surest sign of intimacy. This need to eat betrays our bestiality, but feeding reveals our appetites. It’s so closely linked to sex, to what our bodies desire, to what we want, not just what we need.
I find it particularly significant. I had struggled with disordered eating since as long as I can remember. From being ten and asking my mum if it was okay to have one snack a day or if that would make me fat (I remember staring down at the dusty yellow triangle of the Dorito, afraid of it), to throwing out my packed lunches and having diet coke as my only calories at school, to discovering bulimia at age 15. It felt so secretive, so powerful. But then it became too much of an effort, too much strain.
So I kept the binge eating, but ditched the purging. It wasn’t just that my eating was all over the place, a mess. It was that my own appetite frightened me. I would write food diaries and circle a smiley face next to days that were shorter than one or two lines, and a frown face next to days when I had eaten three meals and, god forbid, snacks.
If food memories can be traced back to childhood, then mine are of rice pudding, heated in the microwave so that there’s a thin, flimsy skin coating the top. My mum would serve it to us in our nighties in small glass china bowls. I liked it so hot that I would have to blow on the spoon, a little one, which made the whole process of eating feel savoured and precious: consuming in tiny little bites. Rice pudding became the first lesson in savouring things and the way that food slowed time and calmed down my anxieties. But its soothing properties became dangerous. When older and hit with poisonous body dysmorphia – disordered eating and the remnants of being a teenage girl – I also first tasted the power of secret, shameful eating; food as something only to be enjoyed in private. This in turn led to a lifetime of tussles with binge-eating. I could only want or need food when no one was watching me. Even then, it filled me with shame and self-hatred.
* * *
In Nora Ephron’s Heartburn, Jack Nicolson serenades Meryl Streep with songs whilst munching down on a slice of pizza as big as his head, his unbuttoned tuxedo in contrast with the pizza, shiny and slick with oil, love as moments of silliness and informality during all the other parts. In one scene they eat spaghetti in bed, which felt both luxurious and too indulgent, those little festivities that occur when in love, especially at the beginning. Like deciding to go for beers just because it’s a sunny day, or buying two different types of ice cream (pear, cookies and cream) because you feel like it, two co-conspirators. Daniel Day Lewis’s appetite in Phantom Thread is a thinly veiled seduction dance, the foreplay evident in his voraciousness. And Vicky Krieps as Alma bites: when she writes ‘for the hungry boy’, it feels a little obscene. Here food can be a form of seduction but it can also be wielded like a weapon, an attack. The way Alma scrapes the butter on her bread as a reflection of her flaws, her noisiness: something to start a confrontation. Her very being, this love, is an intrusion to him. He needs control, always. Her way of achieving control is in the kitchen, the way she prepares his asparagus: not passive, but an active act of aggression. Using domesticity not as something pathetic, but an act of warfare.
* * *
Like the characters in the film, food didn’t just commemorate the glory of romance to me, but were also reminders of the deadening gaps between people. Like the time where I went for cheap hangover pizza with the man who told me I broke his heart, me shaky and silent, the only comfort of hot melted cheese on bread, plain. Or the quesadillas which were messy and too small and which were (alongside everyone else in the Mexican diner) witnesses to our fight about how I didn’t want to, couldn’t be with him, how he ran away to get cigarettes but still ran back to me, was a sucker for me. I knew it, the quesadillas knew it, the witnesses to my love crimes knew it. Just like the olives and bar nuts and yellow orange drinks drank in Tumblr glasses in dimly lit French bars that I shared with an ex, the one with whom I went from eating gourmet chicken Kievs by the riverbank, holding hands in the cool breeze like it was summer, bugs everywhere, moon reflected in the water, to shouting at one another as I made us toast, drunken and cruel. Or the midnight curry at Dishoom, the best Indian in London, where I bled through my jumpsuit and cried in a taxi all the way home.
The first time I made breakfast for someone in my new flat in Stockholm belied a kind of extravagance that I didn’t feel in my ambivalence toward him; hummus and lingonberry flavoured rye bread and butter and passion fruit and bananas and pineapple juice and coffee and porridge and lingonberry and elderflower jam. I couldn’t wait for him to leave.
When I stayed on the tiny Island of Fårö, I was alone, until the older Swedish man decided to join me. We walked 26 kilometres each day, on dusty side roads and through tall grass where I got nettle rash. We rewarded our pilgrimages with indulgent breakfasts of porridge, juice, salami, cheese, bread.
In the evenings we found a small white farmhouse restaurant with faded white interiors that emerged out of nowhere on the stretches of empty road. As we drank Aperol spritzes, we talked about his father’s fame and death. He seemed surprised but elated that I was so fascinated and obsessed with his father and the world of being a Swedish actor in the 1930s and 1940s.
* * *
It was falling in love that allowed me to feel I deserved to eat, the most basic human survival instinct, yet I still felt guilt for needing it. But the rituals of romance and sex were always entwined with the intimate and charged act of eating.
I had travelled with my current boyfriend, Anton, to visit his family in Sweden’s south. Småland is three hours from where we both lived in Stockholm. Everything seemed new. Our love had transmuted from a drunken fumbling first date where we had forgotten to eat. We had had sex that neither of us remembered the next morning because we had drunk so much cheap beer the night before at the pub I had chosen called Söders Hjärta (its name translates to ‘heart bar’). His text messages were direct but romantic, no mind games. He told me how much he liked me, how much he wanted a second date. I didn’t trust this candour; it started to make me nervous. I had never experienced it before, this slow dawn into romance or love. I was always fast, too fast for my own good.
I went home for Christmas. We had promised each other that we would watch Married to the Mob and eat ostkaka (cheesecake) from his hometown and drink silly orange drinks with umbrella straws. But cancelled planes and the new Covid variant kept me stuck in the Welsh forest, so our January plans with me insisting he was Matthew Modine got pushed back to February. When I was finally allowed into Sweden, he was there, waiting for me at the gate of Stockholm metro’s T-Centralen. I went back to his place and didn’t leave for a week: our second date.
This second date led to a month-long romantic exodus, bound up in silver snow and black nights. Every day, my friend and I would write a poem to each other: his were about starving children and genocides and mine were pure voyeurism, self-indulgence, about love and a boy with yellow-blond hair.
It was romance punctuated by meals and time, toothful smiles, and chapped lips and our gleaming pink cheeks. Adrift in snow, encased in his flat in Midsommarkransen, all I did was write, sleep, eat, survive. Toast and turkey and Swedish cheese, slabs of it for breakfast, and Swedish tacos with pineapple and sour cream on Fridays and giant pizzas on Thursdays with sparkling wine, but only on occasions like when I was arriving from the airport. I found it strange that Swedes put banana on their pizzas. We made broccoli and leek and potato soup with too many potatoes and too much stock, his fault that it was too watery, but the butter was good and warm and nourishing and I felt so glad to be there, and I repeated the phrases from the Swedish TV show like a little child learning how to speak. We ate small meatballs in brown cream sauce on plates that looked like IKEA trays, a simulacrum of domesticity. The lingonberry jam was sour and purple and perfect, his smile toothy and electric and silly. Vampire teeth. I felt taken care of.
I found the same little missives of delight in our morning routine in Småland, at his parents’ house. Waking up with the sun, and how surprising the butter and bread tasted, not needing anything. The sun in the greenhouse of the conservatory looking out onto the trees. My favourite things, realised: light and the sun, a napping spot, a reading nook. Time distilled into a spot. What the Swedes call ‘hygge’ – cosy.
In A Lover’s Discourse, Barthes writes of festivities, of that time with the loved one as a banquet, a feast of pleasures, even the dinner is a part of the tenderness. It reminds me of when Anton pours me a drink, hot amber liquid, dazzling in the white light, or getting drunk in the heat, orange Campari spritz glowing tangerine, the moments that I most feel content. Not with a girl and a gun, as Godard said, but with a boy and a drink.
In Southern Sweden, we joined the birthday celebrations of Anton’s uncle. The table is long and flowing with wine and Swedish and Czech beer and laughter. His uncle, on my right, has a booming laugh that makes me instantly feel at ease, him looking me in the eye and asking me about ice bathing and ice hockey. The baby, Love, is fed a lemon and makes faces, and Anton keeps offering him more, teasing him. Anton is silly, and totally comfortable. This must be what real love is: sat next to one another, my eyes fixed on his gaze, him finishing my Skagen toast, its creaminess not too heavy and thick for me. I think I won’t like things and it turns out I love them.
My wine glass is like a goblet, and I melt into it, everything blotting out into a haze: middle class rituals of board games, darts, dancing to ABBA and Lena Phillipsson. During the game, I have forgotten how to write, and during the darts, I can’t aim in a straight line. I swarm around Anton’s 23-year-old little brother and am intense, in his face and arms around him, telling him he should watch Midsommar and come to Stockholm, which I repeat over and over.
One night, Anton tells his family that I told him that if he was a flavour, he would be dill. He’s laughing, feigning disgust, talking about how dill is boring, such an unattractive flavour to be associated with, a shit avatar. He tells me I am vanilla, which I think is worse (‘but vanilla is my favourite’ he says). At least dill is unique and uncommon, I tell him; dill adds excitement to an otherwise ordinary snack, like a crisp flavour. It’s special.
Phantom Thread showed me that food and clothes are the most intimate vessels we have of our inner lives that we can show to the world. It also validated my suspicion that food wasn’t just about need but, like sex, about control, the ugly side of my eating disorder. I had always wanted a person to tell me what to eat and what to do.
But then I met someone whose presence felt like Christmas – warm and woozy and cosy, a constant festivity – and I finally learnt to let go, enjoy the most banal of human activities. Instead of obsessively noting down smiley faces next to what I eat in a day, I think of his face and feel the love rushing up inside of me, telling me to finish that goddamn pastry.