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Food, Yes, Thank You

by Kathleen E Dunlap 2 months ago in advice / religion · updated 2 months ago
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Underneath all the diets

If you ask my dad about his first few Christmases as a new member of my mom’s family, he would tell you about McDonald’s hamburgers. To-Go bags marked Dennis’ spot at the Christmas Eve dinner table, not as a mark of shame, but rather as a gesture of goodwill. After all, he was not interested in the tradition of eating oysters on Christmas Eve.

Specifically, oyster stew.

A Maryland tradition.

My grandparents, Don and Thelma, had begun their lives on the East Coast. When they migrated west to Indiana, they brought this part of East Coast living with them. Oyster stew, chipped beef gravy, and scrapple are just a few of the delicacies I consumed in their house as a kid. For the stew, my grandma would sauté canned oysters in a heavy-bottomed soup pot with loads of butter and salt. Then she would add cream and boil until the shellfish and the milk melded together in a flavor only enjoyed by those who live and long for the ocean. You can’t mistake that smell for anything else: metallic, salty, briny, oily. Top it with saltines and celery salt, and the ocean materialized in my grandma’s dining room.

My mom, Lynn, let the tradition lapse when we moved overseas to Germany for a few years, much to my dad’s contentment. However, the year I turned 14, my grandparents visited us at Christmas. My grandpa decided it wouldn’t be a proper holiday without oyster stew, so we attempted to buy the ingredients at the local market. We didn’t realize that canned oysters were United States delicacy only. The Germans believed in fresh seafood of all kinds. So, we picked up fresh oysters—frozen solid and still in their shell.

We tried every knife in our kitchen to pry open those stubborn creatures. We pounded them. We coaxed them. Nothing worked. Until my grandpa introduced a hammer. The head of the hammer landed on the black shell with a resounding boom. The shell cracked. The thunder of the hammer continued until all shells were open and the slimy sea creatures revealed.

Ice shards and shell scraps littered our kitchen.

We feasted on the buttery stew that night. My grandpa, bursting with pride at his contribution. My Dad, still uninterested in the dish. My mom, content to allow this tradition to seep in again. And me, slurping up soup, marveling at its silky texture and salty tang. I never wanted to stop eating it. The home I longed for was right there in one bowl. I was connected to those around me.

But underneath all the food lurked something else. It was the idea that, while food was necessary for life, food was sinful.

My family belonged to a Baptist church community. The Baptists were not skinny folk. We ate before church, after church, at church. We ate to please the person who had made the meal. We ate to garner the attention of men with the money in their pockets for donations. We ate because it was a holiday, a celebration, or a funeral.

Eat, eat, eat!

Except, Baptist women shouldn’t be fat. As women, we were expected to cook and to eat, but also to be skinny. My grandmother loved the saying, “Into the lips, onto the hips.” She said it at almost every meal as she gazed at each female who dared to have a 2nd helping of potatoes or a slice of cake for dessert. “Gluttony is a sin,” she would murmur.

Around June of 1992, my mom decided to eat only bananas for a week. Their bright yellow skins decorated our kitchen as though my mom was planning a party with banana splits as the main entrée. After the banana week, it was cabbage soup. The acrid smell of the cooked cruciferous vegetable permeated our 2-story house.

I actually missed the bananas.

My mom lost a lot of weight.

My grandmother approved.

The church ladies admired my mom.

But I loved food. I felt almost delirious over it. I loved our feasts.

After meals, mom would inspect my body and say, “You’re going to need to be careful.”

Careful around food. Careful around bites. Careful, careful.

The summer I was 15, we visited my aunt in Indiana. I shared a room with my cousin. As I stood one morning in front of her wide mirror, checking my face for any signs of acne, she pronounced: “You’re fat. In the face.”

Then she flounced off.

Mom was right. I needed to be more careful. No more pretzels or peanut butter or Pop-Tarts. No more gravy and potatoes, or cheddar cheese on crunchy crackers, or giant slabs of ham piled on fluffy white rolls. Except the harder I tried, the heavier I got. Clearly, I was evil since I couldn’t control my cravings.

The thread that tied me together to my family and my church was the constant presence of food. Food gave me the acceptance and belonging that I craved from my community, yet it also brought deep shame to my soul. A voice inside my head, sounding so much like my mom and my grandma, whispered, “You are not good enough.”

I dieted and then binge-ate. Then I restricted a little more but would sneak jars of peanut butter out of the cupboard. I slipped extra bites of food into my mouth while my mom cooked or cleaned or put away leftovers, hoping no one would notice.

In the year 2000, I was 16 years old and weighed over 200 pounds. I am uncertain of the total amount of my weight because I never stepped on the scale. I just knew I was “big.” I experienced a heavy period flow, causing cramps, lots of bleeding, and likely some of the weight gain. Before going to a gynecologist, my grandmother intervened with my parents and decided to take me to a Christian nutritionist named Rodney who lived on a farm in northern Indiana. Surrounded by bleating goats and a stash of firewood in Y2K anticipation, my grandma and I listened as Rodney give me a list of nutritional supplements and a list of foods not to eat.

“You are what you eat,” he said. He smirked at me and leaned back in his desk chair.

“God will help you do this,” my grandma told me as we drove away.

I kept a food log and faithfully reported it to my grandma. I ate applesauce! I had green beans! Yay for whole wheat toast! Hoorah for zucchini! What I didn’t tell her were the cookies snuck from the pantry, the extra helping of cheesy casserole I ate while my mom had her back turned at the dinner table, and the ice cream sundaes my dad bought for me whenever we ran errands together.

Needless to say, I never lost weight.

Geneen Roth wrote, “Food answers hunger.” For me, food attempted to answer much more than hunger. Through it, I quelled my anger. I quieted my tears in cookies. I felt seen by the jars of peanut butter. The chips and salsa provided company for my loneliness. Food held me up when I couldn’t find room to stand in a family that struggled to accept me and a church environment that squelched me.

Food worked intense overtime on my behalf.

One Sunday night, during yet another meal after church, our guest speaker commented, “God could have created us not to eat.” I put down my fork when she said this.

Surely, a Divine Engineer could have bypassed the need for food in our bodies, yet we need it. This then, logically, had to mean that because food is necessary to sustain life, food is sacred. Somewhere among the food logs, counting calories, and obsessing about my thighs, I had lost the dignity of eating and the joy that erupts from a sacred embrace.

I had to reclaim the experience. Forgo every diet—whether with bananas, or cabbage, or food logs. Counter the diet culture that had pervaded even my community of faith. Leave the 56.4% of American women who are on a diet. Lean into my hunger. Accept my body for who she was and who she was becoming.

Slowly, I created room for the largeness of myself. I stopped stepping on the scale. I gently told my mom, “Please don’t comment on my body anymore.” I marched myself into a therapist’s office who said to me, “God isn’t requiring something from you. He just wants you to be.” No woman present in my church had been accepted for who she was, but for how she looked. I left and found a different faith community.

Food does not make me myself. I am already fully me. Inside me dwells the capacity to love and be loved. I have the right to take a seat at the table, no matter what size my jeans are. I deserve kindness and respect.

I belong. This belonging does not protect me from sadness or loneliness, nor does it free me from feeling angry at times. Belonging accepts all emotions as God-given and God-breathed, and belonging says, “Seat here with those you love, and be connected.” Connection sparks the effervescence of joy. The bubbliness of laughter can be heard at my dinner table because I am no longer trying to be so God-damned careful.

Instead, I’m saying, “Yes.”

Yes, to the sacred connection of body and soul that happens during eating.

Yes, I will have the wine and the chocolate and the cheesecake and the pizza.

Yes, I will also have the oyster stew. Sorry, Dad.

Yes, please, to all of it.

Except, perhaps…bananas.


About the author

Kathleen E Dunlap

I'm a diverse writer who loves spirituality, my family, my community, and a great cup of coffee. I also love to run the trails by my house.

Check out my other writings at

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