Bob Levin is a former editor at The Globe and Mail and author of the novel Away Game.
My friend Dan was driving from Maryland to St. Louis to attend a memorial service recently and, on Facebook, posted photos of food from roadside joints along the way. Potatoes and gravy in West Virginia, BBQ mutton in Kentucky. He was taking a different return route, he said, so I mentioned a small-town smorgasbord in Indiana that I recalled from my college days, oh, some four decades ago. And the remarkable thing is, it’s still there, albeit under a new name, and Dan actually went, calling me his “true road-food soul brother.”
Which is fair enough, in spirit, just no longer in practice.
My eating is mostly vicarious now, my relationship with food increasingly remote and bittersweet. After four bouts of cancer from ages 18 to 63, I emerged from my last round a couple of years ago with an esophagus that, simply put, no longer works. I can eat small portions – a bit of chicken stew, say, once a day – and that’s about it.
I survive on TPN – total parenteral nutrition. Liquid food, propelled by a pump, flows straight from a plastic bag into a vein through a PICC line in my arm, 12 hours a day. This is not only deeply unsatisfying but, as it turns out, sometimes unstable – twice in the last year I’ve endured long, miserable hospital stays caused by blood infections in the line.
But TPN is also miraculous, keeping me alive, I tell myself, and I should be grateful. And I am, I am – even as I am now obsessed with food.
Obsessed: the urge is primal. Food is sustenance but there’s also the social side, and the cultural, and the ineffable pleasures of taste, texture and scent. You could even say – here parents and ad execs agree – food holds the power of love.
Lord knows I’m no foodie. The truth is I was mostly a burger-and-fries guy, once upon a time, although open to slightly more exotic fare – Chinese, Japanese, Greek. That said, my personal menu had been narrowing for years, squeezed by lactose intolerance and radiation damage to my gut. I entered the land of the bland, of chicken, potatoes and rice.
But at least I could still eat, sustain myself without a machine. Now my brain is on food overload, awash in memory and media images.
Scrambled eggs and oh-so-fragrant bacon as a kid. My mother’s roast beef or chicken pot pie, with its fine flaky crust. Buttered ears of fresh corn.
Guiltless hot dogs at the ballpark in Philly, my hometown, and the local specialties: hoagies, cheesesteaks, soft pretzels.
The rib eye steak at an Old West chain restaurant in Indiana, served with fries, salad and a bottomless Coke, perfect between afternoon hoops and the night shift at the newspaper where I worked.
And my New York years: fat pastrami, brisket or turkey sandwiches from the deli, Sicilian pizza from a hole-in-the-wall on Broadway, beef with snow peas in Chinatown and cannolis in Little Italy.
Then later Atlanta, with its intense competition for fried-chicken supremacy – in my time, between the no-frills Deacon Burton’s and the ageless Colonnade (don’t miss the cornbread and sweet potato soufflé). Or drive up to the North Georgia Mountains, for family-style dining at tables laden with fried chicken, beef, ham, okra, creamed corn, collard greens, mashed potatoes, maybe some strawberry shortcake for dessert.
Okay, enough, I’m getting carried away. But there’s no escaping it: Turn on the TV to see stylish couples lingering over thick steaks at the Keg, for no apparent reason other than they can afford to. “Why not tonight?” the line goes.
Smug stuff – imagine a poor person’s reply – but for me it’s physical and every night and in my face. Curse the cooking shows too, by the way, not to mention the diet ads that depict round folks shrinking by eating apparently magical food.
I take some small solace in noting that, in the ubiquitous fast-food commercials, the burgers often look garish and greasy and frankly unappetizing even to desperate eyes. The chicken wings don’t look so appealing either.
And I remind myself that, limited as I am, I’m lucky to still be here. So many friends and family have died, no longer around to complain about their deprivations. I know that, I know it – and yet...
I still dream of the day when I can ditch the IV nutrition and return to supplying my own. I’m trying to eat more, pushing it, so far with limited success. I will keep trying.
Meanwhile my friend Dan enjoyed the Indiana smorgasbord, particularly the Swedish meatballs, fried chicken, green beans. The Facebook picture of his plate looked pretty damn good. I liked seeing it, in a complicated sort of way.