The year was 1993. I was in the third grade, and my teacher, on a Monday morning, asked us to write up what we had done that weekend.
Saturday is a blur in my memory now, but I remember writing easily about Sunday. For lunch, we had gone to Hooters, where I would have ordered either a grilled cheese sandwich or a hot dog. (It would be later that I would appreciate their wings.) Those days were grand, my friends. Hooters made one hell of a grilled cheese sandwich, and their hot dogs weren’t bad either. I was one happy girl amid the blare of televisions airing sporting events, with my mom and my dad and my little brother, all happily chowing down.
When my teacher asked me to share what I had written, I stood up at my seat and read. My teacher smiled. She knew what was up. I thought she had likely had the grilled cheese, too.
But when I sat down, the pure evil that was Jessica Carson (names have been changed because I’m too poor to get sued) descended upon me.
“You go to Hooters?” she asked, dripping with judgment. She might as well have asked, “You eat babies?” or “You still watch Barney?” All the same to her.
“Yep! Their grilled cheese is really good.” I was on a mission, similar to the evangelical mission I would take up in my teen years. I was bringing people to the path of grilled cheese.
“You only go there because your dad likes to look at the waitresses’ boobs,” she taunted.
“That’s not true,” I said. I feel sure my face must have flushed; it’s my embarrassment reaction. “My mom went with us.”
Jessica sat back in her chair. “Then your mom is just sick,” she said. And with that, she turned back to her desk, where she plotted all her evil deeds (like kicking me in the fourth grade – that bitch just wouldn’t let up).
I was humiliated. How had the innocent joy of a rocking grilled cheese – perfectly buttery bread grilled on the flat top, with what I can only assume was a white American cheese that my untrained palate then mistook for fancier fare than my run-of-the-mill yellow Kraft singles, melty and delicious, nonetheless, with curly fries on the side – how had Jessica Carson turned that joy in a parchment paper-lined basket into something shameful, wrong, and embarrassing? How had she taken my parents down in one fell swoop? They weren’t in our class; they couldn’t defend themselves. And I was so shocked at the accusation – my dad some dirty old man, my mom some weird sidekick of his – that I was rendered speechless.
Some version of this has likely happened to all of us. Perhaps as you were sinking your teeth into velvety foie gras, someone piped up and told you about the complicated ethical debate surrounding the production of foie gras.
Perhaps you’ve merely been tearing into a bag of Funyuns and received the stink eye from people who issued complaints about the stink of the snack (and let’s face it, the inevitable stink of Funyun breath).
There is a scene at the beginning of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, where a young Toula is asked by a table full of terribly white, terribly blonde, terribly PB&J-eating children what she is eating for lunch. “Moussaka,” she replies. “Moose caca?” the blonde girl laughs, poking fun at Toula’s heritage, her food, and her family.
M.F.K. Fisher is quoted as saying, “Sharing food with another human being is an intimate act that should not be indulged in lightly.” That quote gets at the heart of why I would not order buffalo wings on a first date (or several dates to follow – you need some level of commitment to feel safe eating messy foods in front of a significant other). Eating is sensual and a little animalistic. It’s active – we tear, we bite, we chew, we dredge, we pull, we hold. It is a physical need, and therefore it’s a highly physical act.
But it’s also an emotional act, one that makes us vulnerable to the people around us. From the embarrassment of food stuck in our teeth to the full on food shaming antics of Jessica Carson and her lemmings all the world over, eating exposes us to one another.
When I set about writing this article, it was to share a funny anecdote about Hooters. But as I wrote, it showed me something more. Just like finding a friend to shop with or go to a concert with, we should perhaps be selective about who we share our food, and indeed our love of food, with. The same way we should think twice about giving our hearts to feckless or undeserving individuals, we shouldn’t give our appetites away too freely either. We need not fear food shaming, but we also need not waste our passion on people who see a Hooters sign and think only of breasts and not of wings.
Food is physical. It fuels us. It comforts us. It’s personal. And frankly, it’s too precious to let the Jessica Carsons of the world ruin our grilled cheese sandwiches.