Not everyone is missing dining out at restaurants because of the pandemic
©Natalia / Adobe Stock
Not everyone is missing dining out at restaurants because of the pandemic
In a world of foodies, I stand alone. With every commercial calling me a hero for ordering in or telling me that restaurants miss me, I am reminded more and more that I don’t like eating. When conversations about delicious meals and favorite recipes come up, I smile politely and nod. My mind tries to run through the Rolodex of classic scrumptious fares I’ve had. But usually, I draw a blank.
I have always been a picky eater. As a kid, I would scrunch my noses at anything that was green, spicy, not sweet, not carbs, or not fried. But, the nail in the epicurean coffin was the onset of my chronic illness in the eighth grade. In the days where I was still undiagnosed and presumed to just have a Herculean stomach bug, I ate like a diabetic old woman. My diet was a honey, Wether’s originals candies, Bomb pops and Gatorade, based diet. I longed for a juicy apple, or a juicy piece of chicken, and for a sip of juice to stay down. But, to no avail.
After three weeks and 35 pounds lost, the doctors thought that I should probably get a feeding tube because my well-rounded diet wasn’t cutting it. They described the tube as a temporary placement that would go from my nose to my jejunum, a part of the digestive tract so irrelevant I can’t even remember what it does. “A temporary tube down my throat and in my nose?” I asked. They nodded yes. “Okie dokie, let’s do it,” I told them, with the fakest smile I could muster. By the next week, a yellow tube called an NJ Tube, snaked from my nose to my stomach with the excess taped to my cheek.
At first, I would touch the tube gingerly, but eventually, I would play with it without thinking. As I sat messing around with it, the inefficiency of eating began to dawn on me. Now I could simply crack open a can of formula, pour it into the pouch, set the pump to run (for an hour and a half any quicker and it would come up), connect it to the port opening taped to my cheek, and be done. I could even “eat” on the go by putting the pump in a nifty backpack. Sure, the formula smelled like fish, the pump whirred loudly, and I often felt a sensation of cold fluids rushing through my nasal cavity. But, I could technically be getting nutrition as I slept without choking.
While I was enjoying this new efficient form of caloric delivery, the world around me was still barbarically eating with their mouths. So inevitably my friends (ok one singular friend) and family would invite me out to restaurants. With my feeding tube visible, I would try to decline, citing a headache, or a lot of homework to catch up on. Or sometimes I would tell the truth. I felt grotesque. I felt as if a monster with a tentacle sticking out of my face. I didn’t want to be seen by myself, let alone anyone else. I remembered the look of pity and confusion that spread across one waitress at a barbeque restaurant. The slight sad smile that she gave me. I declined a lot more invitations after that trip.
Because my tube kept falling out (I’ll let you imagine the mechanics of that) and my septum was eroding, after months of having the NJs, and a new correct diagnosis, the doctors thought I still needed a feeding tube, just a more permanent one. An upgrade even. “Where’s this one gonna go, my stomach?” They nodded. “Okie dokie. Let her rip.”
I had my new feeding tube placed directly connected to the jejunum. I could cover the small plastic port with a shirt, and no one would know that I survived by having formula pumped into me. Though I was still frail, the small plastic port was hidden enough from the world that I wasn’t treated as an invalid.
As is the case with so many people with health conditions, the hiddenness of my disability made me have to contort to have any interaction in the world. I did venture out more, which, of course, involved food-centered gatherings.
But the same scenario would occur every time. I’d sit toying with the menu, the waiter would come, I’d lie and say with a little laugh I’d eat off of everyone else’s plates, or that I wasn’t hungry, or that I’d just stick to water, my fellow diners would ask if I was sure I didn’t want something, whether or not they knew my affliction, I’d say no, then I would wait for their food to arrive, I’d try to talk as they ate, but sometimes I would sit quietly in the hope of making the meal go faster without distraction, my dining companions would glance at me, then to their food, and sometimes would apologize as they waxed poetic about how delicious their food was, I’d say they had nothing to apologize for, and a silence would fall over the table, their faces frozen with guilty at my suffering, my face hiding my annoyance at their guilt over something which none of us had any control over, the waiter would come with the check asking how the meal was and I’d instinctively say “Great,” everyone would talk about how they ate too much, and I’d say nothing.
Occasionally, if the food looked too enticing, I’d have a bite, excuse myself to the restroom, and return with a freshly rinsed mouth after making the restaurant my personal vomitorium. The only difference when the tube was hidden instead of a pitying smile on everyone’s face. All I got was judgmental confusion. Why would you come to a restaurant not to eat? You only realize how much of social interaction is centered around food when you sit staring politely at people eating when you can’t for years on end.
Even when I began to have better management of my symptoms, the ability to eat solid foods as my main source of caloric intake, social outings involving food still made me squirm. It took weeks before I could feel the sensation of hunger. Food took months to be appetizing again and a year to be delicious. After I’d spent months not eating at all, the thought of consuming what was once a sentient creature gave me an existential panic attack. My new status as a card-carrying vegan now made it hard to find an agreeable place to eat with friends. But even with these dietary choices and restrictions, I still found it very hard to eat, in a basic sense. The actual sensation of chewing and swallowing is one I still have to ignore as I eat.
So at a time when the world has been mourning its favorite restaurants, I’ve been thrilled. I feel for all the restaurateurs whose livelihoods are threatened and wish that they can continue on. But, since the pandemic began, I have had no socially distanced hangouts under the pretense of getting food. In the few instances where my friends and I have gotten food, it’s been in grocery stores, where I can check the ingredients, and there’s something for everyone. A decentralized food utopia!
Or so I thought. But the longer I sat in isolation, the more I thought about pancakes. When I was at my worst and was getting my nutrition from a tube, all I envisioned was enjoying a short stack of pancakes. Covered in butter and gleaming in syrup, I would sit and eat them. And I wouldn’t taste them again as they rose up my throat. This thought plagued my every waking moment and my dreams. I needed to purge this craving.
I decided to do the next best thing, to cook them for someone. I called my friend, the only person aside from my family and medical professionals who had seen me with my NJ tube and not make fun of it. She was my only friend at the time. I asked her if I could cook for her. She obliged me, never asking why I wanted to cook even though I couldn’t eat. She never asked me about a lot of things. She simply sat at my table as I went through each step like a ritual. The mixing of ingredients, adding spices, the scents, the sizzle. I prepared her plate, added powdered sugar, and sat down next to her with a small cup of water. As she took her first bite, she looked at me, not with the confusion that comes with indulging someone’s fantasy, but with joy. “That’s the best pancake I’ve ever had,” she said. I never felt like a pariah when I cooked for her. I felt like an unassertive grandma, offering her favorite grandchild a treat.
The pleasure on her face counteracted the fear I faced every time I took a bite of food. I miss that pleasure. I miss the scents of the kitchen, and the gossip she and I would swap at these pancake parties. I miss making someone feel loved through this simple mixture of ingredients and heat. The pleasure of home cooking has been a comfort I didn’t know I needed. While I still get uncomfortable in restaurants, and haven’t mourned their closures, I’m holding out hope. Thousands of miles away from her and not sure when I can host anyone in my home without a mask, I long for the day when I can make a stack of pancakes for my friend again, in the understanding that sharing food is never a requirement, but a sign of the joy and kinship we share.
Leila Winn is a 19-year-old college student, who has autonomic dysfunction and a somewhat functional relationship with their chronic illness.