Monday, April 30, 2018

Book Review: "Feast: True Love in and out of the Kitchen" by Hannah Howard

"Life is big and scary. Food is constant, safe, dependable."

Growing up in Baltimore, Hannah Howard always loved and appreciated food—ethnic and gourmet specialties as well as comfort food. Her mother was always dieting, always trying to shed those stubborn pounds, and Hannah, who was always taller and more amply proportioned than her classmates, inherited those struggles. She wanted to be popular, to be pretty, to be able to wear different clothes, but she couldn't outrun her body type or her love of food.

As she grew tired of hating how she looked in the mirror, she began starving herself. When she didn't eat, even though she felt dizzy and incapable of physically making it through the days, she was more satisfied with herself. When she occasionally slipped, falling prey to immense food binges, she made herself pay even more, with hours and hours at the gym, and existing only on coffee and yogurt for days.

Just before she enrolls at Columbia University, Hannah and her family move to Hoboken, New Jersey, and she gets a job scooping gelato for a brooding chef. She winds up in an all-consuming, dissatisfying, psychologically destructive relationship, which wreaks havoc with her head, her heart, and her self-esteem. It begins a pattern of these relationships, which only serve to exacerbate her growing battle with food and her self-image.

She gets a job as a hostess at New York's famed Picholine restaurant. While constantly worrying about how she looks and whether her clothes fit her takes a toll, she is around some of the world's best food, and she starts to truly appreciate the finest cheeses and other ingredients, all while her mind is making her believe she is fat and ugly.

"Not eating makes me feel powerful, but my goal is never to starve. I am obsessed with food. I read the new food blogs, every article and recipe in Gourmet and all of the cookbooks stacked in the Picholine office. My goal is to be so thin that it's okay, necessary, that I eat. Once I get to some magical, impossible land of skinnydom, I will stop starving and start some living."

Hannah's struggles with her body, her appetite, her unbridled love of food, and her poor self-worth make her an easy target romantically, and she winds up in poor relationship after poor relationship, with men who are emotionally unavailable, too old for her, and/or dealing with their own problems and addictions. She starts to realize she can never recover and never reconcile her love of food until she begins to love herself, which is no mean feat.

Feast is a powerfully emotional account of one woman's battle to accept herself as she is, and realize she is so much more than her weight and self-image. The depths to which she sinks, physically and emotionally, hit home for me, as I've struggled with my weight and my self-worth for many years, and I, too, love food and love to explore different cuisines, despite my worry about the calorie and fat levels of what I'm eating.

While at times you may wonder why Hannah allows herself to be treated so poorly and why she can't seem to rise above her addiction, and you want to scream at her to show some backbone, to walk away from her mistakes and stop endangering herself. But at the same time, you see just what a toll her physical and emotional state has taken on her.

Howard is a tremendously engaging writer, and the fact that she juxtaposed descriptions of amazing culinary encounters with instances of emotional and physical trauma made the book poignant, real, and hunger-inducing. I enjoy memoirs that combine physical and emotional struggle with a favorite pastime, and even though this was difficult to read at times, I really enjoyed it and felt connected to her character.

Don't read this on an empty stomach or if you're feeling low about your appearance!

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