Nonfiction from Diane Gottlieb
Take two pieces of Wonder Bread, Classic White. Place them side by side on a dessert plate. In a small, black, cast-iron frying pan, toss a healthy slab of butter. Two tablespoons. Three if you dare! Turn the flame on low. While the butter melts, take a paring knife to a Hershey’s Milk Chocolate bar. Hold the bar over one slice of Wonder and begin to shave it down. Watch thin curls of chocolate gently tumble, blanketing the bread like a milk chocolate snowfall.
(You might want to stop here. For a moment. Breathe deeply the sweet, sticky Hershey’s scent. But the butter, it’s browning. The frying pan, sizzling. Move on.)
Position the remaining white slice atop the chocolate. Then walk the sandwich over to the stove and pop it into the warm, liquid fat. Place the plate on top and weigh it down with a full can of coffee. (Yes, this is old school!) I prefer Maxwell House. Red. Whatever the brand, you’ll need that can.
And then, you’ll need to wait.
In college, I would divide a Snickers bar in two each morning. I’d survey the pieces carefully, measure them closely with my eye. Toss the larger of the two. Eat the smaller. Breakfast. I’d starve myself the rest of the day.
My mother loved beautiful people. She never said I wasn’t beautiful. But her eyes, the way she turned down her mouth when she looked at me, when she took me shopping for clothes. She didn’t have to say a word. I was soft and round, sweet and doughy. Mom preferred a leaner cut. So, in seventh grade, I did what I needed to do to make her proud of me. I lost weight.
My family rarely ate meals together, so I cooked for myself. Late afternoons, I’d take a package of Waldbaum’s string beans from the freezer and lower the contents into a pot of boiling water. I loved to watch the ice melt, the freezer-burn vanish, the solid block of string beans pull apart. Five minutes later, I’d empty them into a stainless-steel colander I’d placed in the kitchen sink, then slide the thin, long lengths into a bowl and cover them in ketchup. String beans and ketchup. This was dinner, every night, for over six months.
I often wondered if my mother knew. She must have. The freezer was always full of 9-oz boxes of frozen tasteless greens, the cabinet stocked with Heinz.
Wait beside the pan. But not for too long. Don’t worry, you’ll know when it’s time. Careful with the coffee can! Hold it in the center. (If you grab the bottom, your fingers will burn.) Next, lift the plate. (It may also be hot, but that warmth will feel good to the touch.) Take a spatula and flip the sandwich. Add a little extra fat to the pan.
Snickers was my go-to in college. I even loved the sound of it. The long, sumptuous “s.” The hard kick of the “k.” Hurt so good.
As friends gorged on pizza, thick crust, extra cheese, I counted. All their calories, I added in my brain while sipping Diet Cherry Coke. I tried not to stare, but the mozzarella, it melted, s-t-r-e-t-c-h-i-n-g, as friends pulled slices apart. My nose picked up the bitter in the oregano, roasted garlic in the sauce. And as the sharp knife called hunger twisted its blade into my belly, I smiled. The pain made me feel alive.
My father worked long hours. Weekends were the only opportunity we had to spend time together. Late Saturday nights, he and I would skip hand-in-hand down 108th Street to the candy store. Most of the sections of the Sunday New York Times were delivered to the store around 10:15 P.M. “Hot off the presses,” the clerk would joke. Dad bought his paper and a Snickers bar for me. Sometimes two.
Sunday morning. Another chocolate ritual. After Dad returned from the store with the rest of the Times, he went to work in the kitchen, a knife to a Hershey’s bar, chocolate curls on Wonder Bread.
Women have never been trusted around chocolate. Our desires, our lack of control, our consumption of the confection was, historically, considered a grave danger to the moral fabric of society—unless that consumption was controlled by men.
Of course, men giving women fancily done-up chocolates and bonbons remained an acceptable practice … But … they could also unleash unhealthy sexual urges if consumed in the wrong contexts … Society’s codes allowed a man to give a woman a box of chocolates or bonbons. But if a woman treated herself to these same confections, she was guilty of pleasing herself instead of others … It was also risky conduct, because according to popular thinking, a woman by nature could not be trusted to control her own desires.[i]
Poor men. What an impossible balance to strike! Gifting women with chocolate. The rich, delectable, creamy centers. Chocolate in small doses. Chocolate in exchange for love.
Hey, men. Let me share a little secret: Pandora. She’s out of the box. There’s no way to manage our desire.
You’ll have to wait for the second side of the sandwich to be done. It’s a delicate balance—you want to melt the chocolate but can’t scorch the bread. Make sure the flame is low. Actually, lower it a bit more. You’re almost there.
College. Introduction to Composition. I learned literary terms and lived more than a few metaphors.
Literally: I began to disappear.
Figuratively: It was the first time I was seen.
Ironically: The less space my body occupied, the larger my presence became.
My present. My body. My gift to the young men around me, to my demanding mom. I watched it melt, watched the fat drip away like Hershey’s on white bread, butter in the pan.
Red lips, redder heels, clothes painted on. I walked across campus as if parting the seas. Oozing power, I lit match after match, torching the male gaze. Don’t mess, my smile said. Don’t mess or I’ll swallow you whole.
I minored in English. My major, psychology. The science of the mind.
I got straight A’s.
Chocolate is a chemical cornucopia, containing hundreds of compounds, many of which—including caffeine, theobromine, serotonin, and phenylethylamine— alter our moods. From antioxidant to anti-depressant to aphrodisiac, chocolate proudly carries its rep as a downright miracle food. (Some women claim chocolate is better than sex. I’m not sure what that says about their partners.
“Chocolate does affect women differently than men,” says Anthony Auger, assistant professor of psychology at University of Wisconsin-Madison. We have an intimate relationship with chocolate. We crave it. Especially when we’re expecting our periods. “This distinction can be found as far down the evolutionary ladder as rats.”[ii]
Some say cooking is a science. I’d say it’s an art.
Remove the sandwich from the pan and place it on the warm plate.
(I was a lonely kid.)
Press down on the sandwich to melt the chocolate even more.
(Chocolate softened the sting.)
Then take the knife you used to shave the bar.
(Dad was gone a lot. Mom was there but gone.)
Cut the sandwich in half on the diagonal.
(I wanted to hold on to the taste, the flavor.)
Savor. Each bite. Every last crumb. Follow the path all the way down to your belly.
Follow it. Follow. Soon there’ll be nothing left.
[i] Wendy Woloson, Refined Tastes: Sugar Confectionery, and Consumers in Nineteenth-Century America.
[ii] “Curiosities: Why Does It Seem Women Like Chocolate So Much More Than Men Do?” University of Wisconsin-Madison News.
Diane Gottlieb’s essays, stories, and reviews have appeared in About Place Journal, The VIDA Review, The Rumpus, Hippocampus Magazine, Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, and Entropy, among others. She has an MSW, an MEd, and received her MFA from Antioch University Los Angeles where she served as lead editor of creative nonfiction for Lunch Ticket. You can find her at https://dianegottlieb.com and on Twitter @DianeGotAuthor.
I enjoyed your story, although it was filled with pain. Sorry, Diane.
Incredible! The juxtaposition of physical and emotional hunger is exquisite! I so relate!
I love your honest, beautiful prose and your clever, creative structure of each piece you write, Diane. Wow!
I love your honest, beautiful prose and clever, creative structure, Diane. Wow!
Beautifully written. I love your honesty Diane, and how you mixed into the recipe all of your memories and experiences both painful and joyful.
Wow! The male gaze and female expectations. Your pacing is fantastic, Diane. Moving.
YES. Thank you for capturing this way-too-common love/food deprivation experience so succinctly and movingly. One of the best pieces I’ve read on this painful subject. More, please!
Damn! This is awesome! Great pain leads to great writing. And I can relate. But the person was my dad, not my mom.
okay so I’m a guy. What I got out of that was a grilled chocolate sandwich??
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