On September 12, 1981, I stood in the dining room and opened a new jar of Skippy Peanut Butter. I cracked the paper seal with a knife and carved a 12 into the creamy surface. I closed the jar and placed it next to my plate. It was my twelfth birthday. While my family would later eat a meal that I’d pay no attention to, I would enjoy two peanut butter sandwiches. The 12 was once in a lifetime; the peanut butter was every day.
I lived to a set of rules that I don’t remember forming as a toddler, but they worked like this: Absolutely no meat or vegetables. I’d eat toast or cereal for breakfast. I was okay with fruit. I’d eat oranges, bananas, apples, and grapefruits (but don’t put them in my Jell-O.) Lunch and dinner was always peanut butter. Usually plain sandwiches, rarely with jelly. Sometimes I’d add brown sugar. I was less picky with drinks and even less so with sweets. There were so many contradictions. I’d drink eggnog but not eat eggs. I lived on peanut butter sandwiches but would not eat peanuts. The only consistent thing was strict adherence to the rules. The rules were non-negotiable. If I brought unacceptable food to my mouth, my body would revolt. I’d gag, my stomach would constrict, and my eyes would water. Regardless of any consequences, I had no choice but to set the food back down on my plate.
Even then, I was aware the impact reached farther than me. I knew it was a family affair and that I was lucky. While my friend’s older brothers inflicted strict authoritarian rule, attacking any signs of deviation, my older brothers sat quietly and barely noticed me passing along the vegetables. They carried on nonplussed while I ate the same damn thing every damn day. My parents tried everything that the other parents at the church pot-luck dinners thought they would try if I had been their kid. Just let him stay with us for a while, and we’ll shape him up, their faces, their whispers, or even their outdoor voices said right to my mom. My parents tried. They held back the peanut butter. They sat me in the corner. They told me I couldn’t leave the dinner table until I ate real food. They gave me stern looks meant to modify my behavior. If you want our love, their reluctant looks said, you will have to eat normally. They took me to counselors. One ate a bucket of Kentucky Fried Chicken in front of me, licked his fingers. One tried to hypnotize me, but I was a young cynic immune to the powers of suggestion. While he tried to get my subconscious to talk, I made up a story that I stole from a Gilligan’s Island episode.
I wanted something to work. On some afternoons, I’d tell my mom that tonight was the night I was going to eat, so we’d leave the peanut butter in the cabinet, and she’d set me a plate. I’d slowly get the hot food on my fork and into the air, but then the smell would hit and my body would seize, and by the time the food was just outside my mouth, I’d gag and set the fork down. The failure was palpable.
My friends didn’t see a problem. The theory of eating peanut butter all the time didn’t sound crazy to them. In lunch at elementary school, they’d trade me coveted cinnamon rolls for my peanut butter sandwiches. It was easy to hide the extent of what was going on, to lay low, but it wasn’t going to last. How I ate wasn’t changing, but different ways it could be perceived were looming. There would be pizza parties. There would be social events. There would be Junior High, the worst place in the world to stand out.
Another problem quickly growing was how slowly I was growing. My family was tall too. My dad was six-foot-four, and so was one of his brothers. Another uncle was six-foot-seven. My older brothers and cousins flaunted their growing prowess. I initially kept up with my schoolmates, but significant separation happened fast. By the time I was thirteen, I was short enough that the pitchers couldn’t find the Strike Zone. I walked the first forty times at-bat that summer. During the streak, a coach from the other team yelled from the dugout, “He ain’t looking to hit. He’s just looking for a walk. Strike his ass out!” I respected the trash talk. I loved baseball and could deliver trash with the best of them, but I couldn’t take that. This was personal. I wasn’t there to walk. I didn’t want to stand out. I wanted them to pitch me the damn ball. I wanted a Strike Zone too.
Around that time, my seventh-grade science teacher, Mrs. Fischer, taught us about inherited traits and how genetics could only take you so far. Genes had to be fed nutrition to live up to their coding. She planted a seed that all of the people who loved me had tried to instill. She didn’t even know what she had done, but she stuck a simple idea in the back of my mind, and it quietly went to work. My destiny needed nutrition. The same way my head had mysteriously gotten me into the eating mess, it was now magically working me out. When the seed had developed enough ideas about choice and impact, risk and reward, it was finally ready to sprout.
I don’t remember the date like I remember sticking the number 12 flag into the peanut butter moon, but there was a particular afternoon when I came home and told my mother that I would eat real food tonight. I don’t even remember what the first food was. It might have even been liver, but whatever it was, I put it on my fork that night and put it into my mouth. The heat and the texture and the flavor bounced around in there, but I was able to get it down. All of it. I ate real food, and no one got hurt. It was strangely both a very simple and complex thing to do.
This started the Era of Showing Off. Look what I’m eating. Look what our boy is eating. Look at us in a restaurant. Look at him eating grilled cheese sandwiches. Look at him eat honey-glazed chicken. Hot dogs. Salad. Peas and Corn. Look at how much he loves seafood. I remember the first time I ate pizza and love at first bite. I suppose this was also the Era of Relief. But it begets the Era of Regression. Of pulling back to the mean. To the comfort zone. To the These Things Are Okay, But These Things Are Still Bad. Trying things was fun and all, but do I have to try everything? That merged with the Era of Broken Logic. Cheese on pizza or grilled sandwiches = great. Cheese on a hamburger = gag. French fries were good, but mashed potatoes were a horror show. Pizza could only be pepperoni. Mustard was good in the early days, but it eventually moved to the ban list. The result was an acceptance of the Picky Eater as extreme as picky can be. At least it wasn’t only peanut butter sandwiches anymore.
Forty years later, I’ve still often seen a certain look of disappointment. My exasperated college roommate dealing with always pepperoni and trying to understand how that was any different than sausage. Like it would’ve been okay if it just made some sense. My first wife Michele, years into dealing with my extremity, taken to the brink in a restaurant after I refused to eat linguine alfredo with bacon mixed in. Alfredo and bacon were favorites of mine but cooked together, they brought the gag reflex, and now my wife and I had to deal with the aftermath. I felt it was my food, my business. I just wanted some alfredo. I hadn’t invited the bacon. We had nicknamed my beer belly Alfredo, not bacon. That’s how I felt, but there was also how she felt. Her look said, Oh God, not again. Not tonight. She wanted to know why I had brought the extremity. To her, that was the uninvited thing. I can see that now, but back in the restaurant, I was just pissed at her for being pissed at me.
Almost ten years ago, when my wife Kristy and I had just started dating, she cooked me dinner for the first time. I warned her of my pickiness, but I didn’t give any dimensions. She thought she had chosen something safe. She made chicken and rice with a light creamy sauce. It should have been safe. It should have been great. But as I sat at her table, forty-three and feeling three, I got the fork to my mouth, my body seized, and I started to gag. I had no choice but to put the food down.
Somehow, Kristy hung in there with me. Both my getting older and working on these issues with her has helped me see how eating can be a social activity that doesn’t have to be a beast of burden. One requirement of the social side seems to be eating with a free spirit or an explorative zest. Having always experienced eating as a chore rather than a pleasure, this is a big challenge. At least I have seen the possibilities. I have jammed a piece of bruschetta into my mouth without asking what it was. I have enjoyed the discovery of tastes previously foreign to me. I have eaten edamame, and I liked it. I’m still a beginner, but I have seen the possibilities. I’ve learned skills that have edged me somewhat closer to the mean. Self-reflection showed me the fight or flight nature of my gag reflex. When I’m facing a challenging food, I get a heightened sense of fear that I know isn’t rational, but I also know what feels real to me. This epiphany led me to an effective mantra: I am not under attack. I am not under attack. I can quietly say this to myself, and I’ll find a calmness that overrides irrational fear. It doesn’t work all the time. It requires a lot of energy, and sometimes it’s still easier for me not to bring the effort to the table.
I think it was Flaubert who said that talent was long patience. Kristy has taught me that love is long patience. My food journey has taught me that life is long patience. I love long patience. I need long patience. Like the Bacon Alfredo Incident, the truths of my disorder are dynamic. I’m fifty-two now, but there’s no reason I can’t keep learning. There’s no reason I can’t keep fighting. Just pitch me the damn ball already. Strike Zone or not, I’ll give it my best.
As you can tell from my piece, food is a funny mental element for me, and I often more enjoy the times that I’m not thinking about it. At the same time, I know this about myself, and slightly changing it is even more fun. If I took a quick spin through my catalog of writing, I think food makes rare appearances. Still, I do find it as a fairly central scene setter in my current novel in progress, where the food my characters eat and live becomes a spirit of the house, a spirit of the self, a spirit of interpersonal connection. Maybe I’m getting there.
Al Kratz is a writer from Des Moines, Iowa. He is the managing editor at New Flash Fiction Review and the author of the Tony Bone Stories from Ad Hoc Fiction and Off the Resting Sea from above/ground press. More about his work can be found at alkratz.com.