Content Warning: This op-ed contains discussion of disordered eating.
There is something very special about forgetting to bring your utensils back to the table at John Jay. The astonishment––and following disappointment––that one must return back to the pulsing belly of the buffet station brings a sense of urgency. Weaving through the crowd looking for a fork and knife gives me a stronger sense of purpose than I have during most other parts of the day. I see there is an absence of critical literature on the food we are served every day; so for this review, I picked up a hearty plate of beef stew, scallion rice, and celery for you all. It was tasty.
Ever since I got to Columbia, I’ve framed my life through food: eating it, cooking it, restricting it, and the periods of time in which I am or am not exposed to it. Mealtime is extremely precious to me, because it’s the one time of day I absolutely must sit and take care of myself. While entering a fresh year of school, we are reminded of how easy it is to forget to do things to take care of ourselves, like brushing our hair, clipping our nails, or giving ourselves basic nutrition—or at least, I worry that one day I’ll forget. “Food is medicine,” my dad says. I come from a family of food neurotics. To make a long story short, we nitpick everything in our food, criticize each other on our food choices, often overeat, and, yes, our unit contains a smattering of medically disordered eating. It’s what makes mealtime so fun at our house!
When I came to school, food at the dining halls became my refuge from uncertainty. I know I’ll be there about three times a day. There is a limited number of food options to choose from, and it almost feels the same as when my mother would choose the same low-fat greek yogurt for my high school lunches day after day. “If it’s too sour, you can add honey!” she’d say, often going on to assure me of its freshness and local origins. Occasionally, she’d offer me appetite suppressants, but I’d never bite. It’s not that I’m worried I’ll get fat. I am, but that’s not the point. The point is that Columbia dining halls give me structure when I freeze up at the thought of eating. They guide me through meals that I never knew how to make without the help of a watchful, sometimes forceful eye.
Tonight’s meal––beef stew, scallion rice, and celery––was a fabulous day ender. It feels budget-regal: simultaneously savvy and indulgent. It’s also a small plate; it took up about half of a John Jay hubcap (read: plate), which is purely indicative of the difference in how much I eat at home versus at school. By the time the month is up, portioning sizes will grow to match the size of the plate (and sometimes, plates), and my body will follow suit. The sharp crunch of celery pairs nicely with relishing the intense fear of that eventuality.
I don’t think I’m alone in fearing food. At college, many of us struggle with delivering ourselves basic needs—when it comes to food, things can slip through the cracks. If you’re looking skinny, people compliment you. If you’re overweight, it’s the freshman 15. While I spent my first semester in college, learning how to sustain myself alone, I almost lost a family member to anorexia. One of the scariest parts was that I saw her fears reflected in myself and found myself making similar draconian food-control decisions while away from my parents. If it hadn't been her, could it have been me?
As someone with food neurosis, I wonder how many other people around me live in fear of what they eat (or don’t). Although we hear about eating disorders commonly occurring in high school students, most eating disorders actually occur while a student is between the ages of 18 and 21—college age, baby. Although not every Columbia student may have a diagnosed eating disorder at this point in time, many of us do use food as a means to anchor our lives. But do we even know how to feed ourselves? If I don’t know when my next meal is, my brain goes haywire, convinced that I won’t make it through the already taxing day. Once I get to it, I find myself figuring out how to convince myself it’s okay that I’m eating at all, and to enjoy it while it lasts.
I’m incredibly thankful for Columbia’s dining halls. They give me a space to enjoy a meal while faced with the pressure and chaos of life at school, and to stay as long as I want until I finish. They are safe havens for me, places where I can make my own choices, but still find the menus online whenever I want to plan my meals. There’s always coffee. There’s always sugared donuts. There’s sometimes country fried steak.
Today, before I went back to get the fork that I’d forgotten at the buffet, I used my hands to tear off a part of a slice of beef. It was a beautiful indulgence. The dry, tough piece of beef was stewed in something like canned tomato sauce, and I had to take my time to chew. John Jay allows one precious moment like this. I went back for the fork, united it with the meal, and ate the final third of my sustenance for the day––on to waiting for tomorrow.
I give beef stew, scallion rice, and celery an eight out of 10.
Emma Gometz is a junior at Columbia College, majoring in evolutionary biology and visual arts, who has ten toes and ten fingers at this point in her life. Did she just jinx it? Find out by emailing her at email@example.com. Her column, Food, Fear, and Filth, runs every other Thursday.
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