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Pleasure-y Guilts: Little Debbie Zebra Cakes

The two women who loved me best taught me to hide food from my father as though he’d pull down the rafters to punish indulgence. He’s rail thin, but full of appetite (cookies, ice cream, anything coconut). My grandmother’s vice was Scottish shortbread and butter cookies, hidden in a tin. My mother preferred all manner of car foods. The same features that make drive-throughs and convenience stores popular locations for armed robberies — on/off and in/out — produce opportunities for secret, fervent binging.

A friend tells me that since COVID shoved Americans out of restaurants, her guilty pleasure has been calling a baby-sitter to watch her daughter while she cries into a Styrofoam take-out container on the stormy banks of Lake Superior. Isolation and control are the habits of mind required to survive a plague. Addicts will tell you those traits are the adaptations that give us our momentum, our single-minded energy. Most of the woman-authored addiction memoirs – Caroline Knapp’s, Leslie Jamison’s – feature a hunger roiling under rivers of booze and piles of pills. I’m sober, but I don’t go to AA or NA because “conference-approved literature” so seldom names the place I learned secret abundance: in the passenger seat of the family car, burying plastic food wrappers under receipts and discarded gloves in the map pocket of the door to conceal my habit. That the addiction was to eating – a vice I cannot live without – reveals the limitations of abstinence.

If I called a scotch and soda a “guilty pleasure” in your presence, you wouldn’t laugh or nod like you would for watermelon Sour Patch kids. (If I praise the way gin sings with ice, will you cheer, the way my high school friends did when I finally professed my love for the utterly mainstream Shirley Manson?) The classic Onion editorial, from a man who avers that he’s “like a chocoholic, but for booze” haunts me. I’m never going to get sober from my wretched need for calories. Feminine body projects require some delusion about abstinence. Produce a face where the nose does not join to the cheek in an eruption of lines and pores. Manufacture a body that requires nothing but sleep and yogic Urdhva Dhanurasana.

The vanity of a saturated, dense, jewel-tone eye shadow and matte lipstick won’t get you far as a professor, as Contrapoints argues in her video essay on Beauty. Any excess can harpoon you. When I began looking for a professorship, I was 28 years old and a dress size 28. I could scarcely find a suit to fit my body, so I had none of the usual agonies about whether it made me look “professional” or simply “uncomfortable.” Any discomfort I managed with mid-day drinks in the hotel bar. Around the hotel conference complexes, there weren’t many blind alleys for gorging, so I drank my calories. But after a particularly bad interview – the junior committee member was applying lipstick in a mirror compact by the time the chair delivered the last question – I ate a double banana split in the wide-open space of the Copley Plaza Food Court, with dozens of badges and black suits milling around. I’m not getting a job with this body, so let it rip the seams.

Annus mirabilis, annus horribilis. That year, I watched a loved one die sober and skinny. I broke and dislocated my bones. An allergist told me that I could drink neither beer nor wine; that the sensations I’d mistaken for hangovers were, in fact, near-death experiences. I stopped drinking. I radically curtailed eating. I medicated my mood disorder. I landed a permanent job. I’m a size 12, which is thin for me and fat for many of the disciplined bodies that wander the hallowed halls of academia. I order burgers without the bun. In Shanghai, I even skipped the noodles.

On big days, I reward myself. No more liquor; I’m not allergic to spirits, but an addict knows “how narrow is the margin between being lost and being saved.” Milestones include the final day of the semester. Birthdays. Landing in Beijing. The second dose of Pfizer. Enchanting conversations with beautiful men. Near my campus or on my afternoon walk, I am sure to find my guilty pleasure at CVS or a gas station. It is a stark white cake with black stripes I’ll elevate by calling “ganache.” It is neither chocolate nor vanilla. It is a Zebra Cake and, for all I know from reading the ingredients, made from zebra meat. The loose skin hangs from my belly over my waistband: not fat now, but the ghost of fat. The seat belt touches a hernia scar, a remnant of hypergymnasia. I don’t like how it feels, but it doesn’t hurt. The flesh remembers that it has hurt.

Even now, I cannot commit myself to eating as a reward. I open the cellophane, rip the cake down the middle, and throw a portion out the car window. If I can reduce the fraction and halve what I swallow, I might be able to keep my hands on the wheel.


Jennie Lightweis-Goff teaches in Mississippi. In spite of temptation, she makes her home in New Orleans.


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