As a young student, my father would collapse into repose while studying, pencil in hand and face on the desk. He grew up in Brighton Beach, Brooklyn, where he usually slept in a bed I’d later find Playboy and comics book under, in a room that stayed unchanged for decades. As he dreamt, my grandmother would make her way home, wearing her long dress and a face full of makeup (she had an aesthetician’s obsession with her own visage, and is the only person I know who shaved off her eyebrows to continually draw on new ones), carrying a box from The Seagull—a bakery by the sea. Grandma Eva and her husband, my grandfather, had lived through the Holocaust; after four years in Auschwitz, she cherished the banal, the simple: long walks alone, dense pastries.
She’d wake my dad from his slumber; I imagine his slow, bleary-eyed journey to the kitchen, that hypnagogic state between dreaming and waking. She’d by then already sliced a thick piece of seven-layer cake, poured a glass of milk. It was 11PM or 2AM; she’d returned from either poker or bingo; it was a weeknight or a weekend—a few elements of this ritual were subject to shifts, but it was always milk, always chocolate and vanilla, always the seven layers that are actually fourteen if you count the frosting between each tuft of cake. Dad would ravenously eat one slice or two, the cloying taste lingering and quieting him back to bed.
I think often of the invisible but inextricable link between my grandmother’s experience of torturous starvation and, later, her robust appetite, an almost frenzied consumption of nearly anything. I think of the way my father adopted it, too, despite never having survived a mechanized atrocity. How does starvation make way for a bottomless belly, a belly that becomes enthusiastic and agreeable enough to create a genetic impact? While she purchased the cake, they both ate it, night after night, with unusual vigor.
The inclinations of the tummy are mysterious. Recent research has indicated the sugar high—that ubiquitous explanation for children’s hyperactivity mid-birthday—is not even a real phenomenon. So how does one account for that sudden giddy rush of energy? Is it just a sweets-induced joy? An appreciation for the ability to eat purely for pleasure, a gratitude made physical? I imagine this is what living looks like, sometimes: it is blithe and euphoric and grateful. And then it is over.
The ghetto in Łódź, Poland was the second-largest ghetto in all of German-occupied Europe, comparable in size to the Warsaw ghetto. Jews and Roma were fenced in like scared animals, and then like starved animals, barred as they were from food deliveries, heat, company beyond their own species. There was plenty insult to this institutionalized injury: the ghetto was utilized as a center of industry, manufacturing war supplies for the German army, creating the same weaponry and technology that would kill the ghetto’s inhabitants—it’s a cruel joke that malevolence and efficacy are excellent bedmates. No murderer is lazy, and deportations to death camps began just a couple years after the ghetto’s inception. By the time the Soviets arrived to liquidate it, only 800 of the 204,000 Jews who’d passed through the ghetto remained.
I’m trying hard to think of comparisons to this idea—about living in the machine that kills you—but a comparison is less applicable than a pattern. This is the definition of control, the same methodology by which Native Americans were forced to become foreigners in their homeland, by which the U.S. government at once trivializes and fetishizes dark-skinned bodies. Nothing is better, the powerful know, at killing your resolve, at altering the DNA until it no longer recognizes its carrier as human, than a decades-long, teased-out death.
Grandma Eva was interned in the ghetto with most of her family—a few lucky siblings escaped to the U.S.—for two years before her transport to Auschwitz. She was hungry, as it were, for two years, and would never again understand fullness, even when food touched her lips. When she was alive, she’d tell me the story of her brother, Pesach—named for the holiday—eating a particularly watery soup, shoveling it into his mouth quickly, then tapping the bowl with his spoon. He tapped it loudly, a request for more he couldn’t make with his tongue, because in that same moment, he collapsed and died.
She’d spend her time at Auschwitz hiding bread beneath her pillow, hiding the thinness of her frame in clothes that masked her bones. She became little more than a body, and her attempts to transcend the limitations to which she’d been reduced were as clandestine as she was ill. She was a secret who kept more secrets, though there was nowhere for them to hide. When liberation came, it took Grandma a year to recover from her injuries; she stayed in a hospital bed, bound by a metal brace. The doctors fed her apples and wine—the apples strengthened her teeth; the wine, her blood. She was biting into an apple when she heard her sister, passing by the hospital and calling for her, her sister who’d returned from the States to scour Łódź for her familial survivors.
My father knows how to eat, but doesn’t know how to stop. “I don’t have a mechanism that says ‘stop,’” he tells me. “I always ate until I was stuffed, growing up. Now I unconsciously do the same.” Dad will clean his plate, and mine, too. It’s not a particularly healthy habit; it points to the problem of “intuitive eating,” of “eating when you’re hungry and stopping when you’re full.” What if fullness is relative to trauma? What happens when your intuition is ancestral?
When Dad was young, food was eaten hurriedly and voraciously, not just with delight, but with speed. Meals were equal parts ceremonial and routine, the times at which they were consumed moments of real worship. Food welcomed him home from school, woke him up at night; it was an insult if company arrived and food wasn’t present. “The incidents of starvation,” Dad explains, “meant my mother fed me until I burst.” Grandpa Solomon used food as a form of currency, particularly when he broke Blue Laws to keep his Bedford-Stuyvesant butcher shop open on Sundays, giving police officers steaks and hot dogs to bribe them out of writing him a ticket. He gave his patrons store credit, allowing them to shop before their paychecks arrived; during the riots of 1964, his store was the only one spared, the neighborhood banding together to protect it. Police thought he was complicit.
They were selfless. I remember Grandma Eva’s kitchen, the strangely comforting smell every grandmother’s apartment has. She would never sit with us, only serve. Matzah ball soup, the dough a compact cloud on my tongue, softening the unctuous broth. Chocolate wafers from Poland. Saltless cuts of chicken. Mashed potatoes. Banana and stews and cheese-filled chocolate bars from the Russian market and, for some reason, lots of sad lettuce and vinegary cucumbers. Combined with the scent of her perfume, it was overwhelming; I wanted to stop, but I couldn’t. “Eat, eat,” she’d say, gesturing with her hands open, indicating the spirit of gift-giving. To eat was a necessity and a constantly unfolding miracle. Crude forms of birth control (placed, incidentally, in soup) at Auschwitz meant my father and uncle’s births were unreal blessings, unexpected mitzvahs. You eat, and you eat, and you are lucky to eat. I never left her apartment without an aching belly, exhausted and a pound heavier.
There was a time I could regulate my own eating without trying, when I recognized the sensation of fullness. I struggle with it now, sometimes, this idea of consuming without any hunger to support it—eating without thinking, eating because I have work to avoid, eating to stay awake when sleep feels troublesome. I’ve gone through periods of deliberately eating too little, to feel small; then eating too much, to balance the forced deprivation. Most women I know have had briefly maniacal relationships with food. The only way to heal from it, for me, has been to love food: to cook it, learn it, grow it, treat it as both sustenance and sensuality. Loving relationships don’t contain any resentment. They’re communicative and sensitive.
When I was young, I knew this intuitively. My father did, too, and we’d eat together, his excitement about food deeply contagious: variations on the meals cooked by mother (who’s from Puerto Rico), his own take on Elena Ruz sandwiches, peanut butter with pickles on white bread, artisan jellies. When I developed a hankering for butter sandwiches, my mother was horrified; Dad made them for me happily, even toasting the bread. He’d read the packaging of everything as he ate: Cheerios box tilted in front of him with his right hand, spoon in his left, never glancing at the actual cereal. I adopted this habit, swapping out packages for other ones after I’d skimmed through all the nutritional information and ad copy. Perhaps this was mindless eating, but it felt like it enhanced the experience: food in my mouth, food on my brain. (Even now, with less packaged foods in my life, I must read my roommate’s cookbooks when I eat alone.)
In the middle of the night, I’d hear Dad creeping through the fridge—the cake and milk phantom limbs he hoped to materialize through other midnight snacks. There’s so much to be said for the trouble of emotional eating, but I question this dialogue and its language—that food is meant strictly to be healthful and restorative despite how good it feels to eat for your heart, if you’ve the luxury to do it. When he was in high school, my dad shocked the parents of a girl he was dating, a girl far more observant a Jew than he. They’d made some sort of meat for dinner and he wanted to wash it down with milk, a profoundly un-Kosher move (the Old Testament forbids consuming the cow with the milk of its mother). “In my house, it didn’t matter,” he tells me. “Milk was served proudly, whenever we could have it, as a way to celebrate life. Someone had been so close to death and seen so much of it and then survived.” She could eat whatever she wanted.
I cook alone now, living away from home. It is so fundamental to the sense of self, I think, to cultivate—alone— that which nourishes you. I eat slowly, trying to remember to breathe, forcing myself not to hurry desperately. Nothing will take me, even though the sense of need is so intense and cellular, buried in my DNA. When my dad goes grocery shopping, he never makes just one stop. He hits three stores at the very least, effectively spending a quarter of the day in the aisles of a supermarket. When I visit, I am lucky to be there when he gets home, holding bags as if they were sheathed in wrapping paper, always having found something new. “You should try this,” he says, pulling out a jam I’ve never tasted, some totally randomized buffet selection I’ve never seen. He presents them like game show prizes, holding them up to the side of his face, and my mouth inevitably salivates. They all look like gifts.
—Monica Uszerowicz is a writer and photographer in Miami. Her work has been featured in Hyperallergic, The Creators Project/VICE, V, and Temporary Art Review, and she is the Film + Performing Arts Editor of the Miami Rail, an independent extension of the Brooklyn Rail.