Skip to main content

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.

Story continues below advertisement

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.

Story continues below advertisement

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.

Story continues below advertisement

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.

Report an error Editorial code of conduct
Comments

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff. Non-subscribers can read and sort comments but will not be able to engage with them in any way. Click here to subscribe.

If you would like to write a letter to the editor, please forward it to letters@globeandmail.com. Readers can also interact with The Globe on Facebook and Twitter .

Welcome to The Globe and Mail’s comment community. This is a space where subscribers can engage with each other and Globe staff.

We aim to create a safe and valuable space for discussion and debate. That means:

  • All comments will be reviewed by one or more moderators before being posted to the site. This should only take a few moments.
  • Treat others as you wish to be treated
  • Criticize ideas, not people
  • Stay on topic
  • Avoid the use of toxic and offensive language
  • Flag bad behaviour

Comments that violate our community guidelines will be removed. Commenters who repeatedly violate community guidelines may be suspended, causing them to temporarily lose their ability to engage with comments.

Read our community guidelines here

Discussion loading ...

Due to technical reasons, we have temporarily removed commenting from our articles. We hope to have this fixed soon. Thank you for your patience. If you are looking to give feedback on our new site, please send it along to feedback@globeandmail.com. If you want to write a letter to the editor, please forward to letters@globeandmail.com.
Cannabis pro newsletter