I hate eating in public. And I say this fully realizing that many of you who read this have had occasion to eat with me. If I invite you over, to my home, things are not so hard for me. I have control over the menu, the ingredients, and the portions. I can even control the color of the table wear. After all, there is a reason all my plates are blue. Take me out of my comfort zone and things get tricky.
First of all, I need to know what is in my food. No, you don’t understand. I need to know what is in my food. Call me OCD, eating disordered or just neurotic but this is important to me. When I don’t know how it was prepared and what is in it, it makes me very nervous to eat it. Cue the ominous music every time I enter a restaurant. Thankfully some places are posting their nutritional information online but that is small comfort considering they lie more than the entire body of Congress on the day before elections.
Now, add people – often people who know about my sordid eating disordered past – and you have a recipe for complete crazy. Being a natural born worrier, I worry a lot. I worry about what to order. Seriously, there is nothing more painful then watching me peruse a menu. It will make even the most patient gourmand kick me under the table. Then I worry about what you think about what I’m ordering. I worry about whether the chef will add extra oil or cheese. I worry about saying that I’m worried for fear of exposing myself for the freak that I am.
Inevitably when my food comes there is something wrong with it. There is unaccounted for shine on my veggies. There is a bed of pasta that wasn’t mentioned on the menu. There is too much cheese and not enough sauce. They dressed my salad in the kitchen. The “whole grain” bread looks white. But I won’t say any of these things to the waiter. Even though any one of these will render my meal inedible to me.
The pain is heightened immeasurably if it is not a nameless back-of-the-house chef who prepared my food but a good friend. One who has invited me over dinner. One who has invited me over for dinner knowing full well the extent of my “issues.” One who has done her utmost best to abide by my every nutritional precept, naively unaware that her efforts will probably fail because that’s how strong my neurosis is.
During the meal, I worry more. I worry about how much to eat. I simultaneously worry about appearing not to eat and appearing to eat too much. Will you think I’m a pig? Will you wonder why I’m eating that ice cream sundae when I am normally such a healthy eater? Will you wonder why I’m not eating the special lasagna you baked meat-free just for me? Will you quietly tsk “anorexic” and look away? Will you stare?
I have acquired many habits over the years suited to different eating environments. If it is a buffet or pot luck with a lot of people involved, I’ll generally skip the food entirely. I may carry around a plate with a few things on it. If I eat anything, I’ll make a big deal about it so everyone will know I am eating. If it is a more intimate setting, usually one involving sitting at a table, I’ll try sitting next to one of my kids. That way I’ll have an excuse to get up if the anxiety overtakes me. At the very least I can feed them bites of my food. If no kids are involved, then I pick and poke, hyperaware of every bite I take. But I’ll talk a lot and laugh loudly hoping to distract you from the battleground that is my plate. If it is just you and I, one-on-one with our food, then all bets are off. My worry may consume me to the point where I become nauseated and unable to eat. Or, the switch may flip and I’ll eat it all. It’s hard to say.
It is a strange form of hubris I suffer from. I do realize that probably nobody cares what I eat or don’t eat. People do not go out to fancy restaurants to scrutinize what is on my plate. And yet, I worry.
I also worry that by telling all of you this you will not want to eat with me again and I will finally be shunned in the exact way my paranoid mind tells me I will be. But more likely many of you are reviewing eating experiences with me in the past and going, “ahhh, well it all makes sense now!” I confess all of this because I don’t want you to think it is you or your food. It’s never really about the food. It’s about my need to control things.
I don’t like being like this. It’s a hard line to walk: balancing that physical need to eat with my mental need to not eat in public. And I know it doesn’t have to be this way. I see all of you eat so joyfully and carelessly. You are my goal. How will I reach that comfortable place? With practice.
So please, keep eating with me. Be patient. I am already better than I used to be.