All this week Kill Your Darlings is showcasing extracts from this year’s KYD Unpublished Manuscript Award shortlist, who are spending the week fine-tuning their work at Varuna, the Writers House in the Blue Mountains, thanks to the support of the Copyright Agency’s Cultural Fund.
Sam van Zweden’s Eating with my Mouth Open is a giant braided essay looking at cultural and personal stories around food, memory and mental health, and their effects upon the body. van Zweden’s personal experiences of difficult embodiment and intergenerational trauma provide a lens to consider the intersectionality of people’s relationships with food and their bodies, and the deep importance of food as a marker of gender, class, culture and identity. Eating with my Mouth Open takes a body politics lens to body positivity, asking what social factors contribute to the difficulty of food, how people have become disconnected from their bodies, and how we might reconnect.
It starts, for me, as a question about why memory is so persistent around food; why all this significance hangs upon eating.
Or, well, no. This is short-sighted and clinical, and I know that this isn’t where it starts. Not really. Its starting point is less located in language, not a formulated or conscious question but something that is born in my body and in feeling. It starts in my skin. My memories of food live throughout my body; sometimes those pieces light up again in tasting – I taste with my hands, I taste with my eyes and ears. There is a link between my memory and my body: if it weren’t for all this remembering, I might just fall apart.
My body, with its tingling extremities, its tingling centre – my body becomes alive with memory when I eat, and its starting point is my skin; that really quite flimsy membrane that sits between me and the world. Between what I am and what the world is. My body lets memory in, at the same time as it exudes memory – memories seem to come from both without and within. It’s strange that sense memory doesn’t start on my tongue – you’d think the taste buds would be the home of all food memories, but they’re not. It’s the other things that mediate my experience in the world – my eyes (which see beautiful desserts and appreciate their architectural aspects), my nose (which transports smell, and with it the memory of one of Dad’s workplaces when I smell lobster), my ears (burnt butter sounds like white noise), and my hands (the memory of making, serving, eating). My whole body is in. It’s the hokey-pokey of the memory.
My body lets memory in, at the same time as it exudes memory – memories seem to come from both without and within.
When I encounter mangoes, I am transported to the memory of climbing aboard a tram from the Queen Victoria Market to North Melbourne. I say ‘encounter’ because I’m not only talking about eating. This memory wakes up when I smell mangoes, or when I hold a mango in my palm. The memory rocks gently from side to side, and I feel the sun on my bare legs. I’m cupping a huge mango in my hand. I’m travelling home with my lover; the mangoes are an extension of our confident bodies. Then even further back, to porcupined mangoes, the bright flesh of the fruit sticking out at angles like puzzle pieces – evidence of my father’s sure knife skills. Then back to the tram and the sun. Forward again, to the house in North Melbourne. The memory aches in my palms. They feel again the question-mark curve of hand against mango echoing the curve of hand against breast. The boldness of a fruit having such a large, single seed at its centre. We drank smoothies in bed. We drank up all the summer we could get. Drank one another. My fingers tingle with the sugary tack of mango juice. When I eat mangoes I remember tangled bedsheets.
My nose, my legs, the palms of my hands are all destined to appreciate mangoes; they’re all part of the anticipation before the mango goes anywhere near my mouth.
Media and cultural studies academic Ben Highmore suggests that ‘to concentrate on taste to the exclusion of other senses means to fail to recognize that the experience of eating is also dependant on the haptic sensitivity of tongues and mouths, and on sight and sound (the cacophony of crunching might actually be part of the ‘flavour’ of potato chips, for example).’ The experience of flavour doesn’t only live in the mouth, and so the memory of flavour must surely be elsewhere, too.
Perhaps memory itself is essential to flavour. Perhaps in eating comfort foods we’re ingesting comfort as much as food. Studies have shown that ‘comfort foods’ are as comforting as they are because of their association with the loved ones who fed them to us, more so than any qualities inherent to the foods themselves.
Perhaps mangoes would taste different without the porcupine and the palm-cupping and the summer and the lover.
But the problem with food is that it seems simple. It’s something we must interact with every day, and so might easily be taken for granted. It’s so normal, so necessary, that we hardly think of it at all: it’s just fuel; if you stop eating, you die.
But if it’s a simple food-in-energy-out transaction, then why can’t I just eat a mango and have it be a delicious mango? Why are these mango memories so insistent in my body? The memory tingles on my face, in my palms, against my teeth.
Perhaps memory itself is essential to flavour. Perhaps in eating comfort foods we’re ingesting comfort as much as food.
When I eat, when I feel, when I crave – these are the times that my senses can become overwhelmed and memories bustle in. I remember particular foods, but I also remember all the stories that I have created around them. These memories come with attachments.
Mangoes are tied up in the push and pull of seasonal food, and the effects this has on my mood. They’re too much part of the story of a particular summer, and of all the summers of my life.
In the first volume of Proust’s Remembrance of Things Past, the narrator eats a madeleine with some tea, and is visited by memories of his life which he had previously thought were lost to him. The past holds the narrator’s body captive, and memory is enacted through his senses, until he arrives at the conclusion that the memory doesn’t reside in him, but rather that it is him. He relives the memory viscerally, from the inside out.
Anyone else, with the same tea and biscuit, would have remembered something entirely different – or nothing at all. Not all food feels tethered in this way.
Proust’s narrator’s memory isn’t a prop or a thing locked away in the past. It is his very self. It is the reminders that swim up through all that’s been and is present in his body. His body relives his memories – the shock of an unexpected memory, jostling in on a smell or sound or taste.
I think I have found a kindred eater and rememberer in Proust and the narrator of Remembrance of Things Past.
I, too, am possessed and haunted by the past. I worry whether the writing of personal stories and memoir means that I look backward too much, too often, and search for meaning where there is none. But then, my guiding gut-feeling points back to the persistent question – isn’t there meaning in everything that appears to me? Doesn’t there have to be? And if these memories are so insistent, surely there’s something in there. I’m not latching onto memory. Rather, memory latches on to me.
I recreate my mind for the page, creating chains from it. I weave, stitch, tie, follow.
At the time, setting the table with my brother was nothing. It was a daily ritual, a chore. Nothing.
Now I dissect it. I poke at it until it speaks, and I insist that it has something to say. Writing down is a process of learning the language that my memories favour.
And while it’s comforting to think of pinning down memory through language, it’s also baffling. Understanding how my memories come back doesn’t do much to explain why. It doesn’t unravel this tangle of eating and remembering.
Dutifully, I recreate my mind for the page, creating chains from it. I weave, stitch, tie, follow. Chase.
But also, this: My memories are fizzly fireworks. They shoot skyward, driven by quiet energy, and then explode in all directions. Sometimes the colours change. Sometimes there’s a third or fourth explosion on the way down. Sometimes they’re an underwhelming little dot that looks like it might turn into something beautiful, but just squiggles away into the night in almost-silence: pfffff-nothing.