EAT IT: Sex, Food & Women’s Writing is an assortment of stories lumped around those pesky, unshakeable drives: food and sex. These survival drives can deliver equal parts pleasure and pain, and Eat It is an eminently digestible helping of each. It deftly demonstrates how those drives shape and define us despite our attempts to shape and re-define the drives.
Goldberg’s A Lady’s Gotta Eat documents the lonely search (after feeling vaguely anemic) for the perfect burger. From Milestones, “where hamburger fantasies come to die,” to Harvey’s (“It knew how to satisfy me just enough until the dawn”), Goldberg’s piece is just the right ratio of funny asides to heartbroken resignation. Sarah Barmak traces the lurid history of women using the most prudent weapon at their disposal: poison. Arsenic, used regularly as a skin tonic, was easily concealed by booze or coffee — a feminine favourite for offing useless husbands. It later became a common legal defence in criminal cases that involved poison. “Just because an accused woman had poison in her home didn’t prove she was a killer — just diligent about her toilette,” writes Barmak.
Kate Daubs’ brilliant Our Lady of Perpetual Sorrows starts off with the sure-footed adage, “Girls started dressing like sluts for Halloween in 1997.” It follows the dressing-down of self-styled martyr, Amy, an 8th grader who “invented oppression by being as different as she possibly could from her classmates,” Halloween sluts included. Though she preens at predictions for her plebeian classmates, her own future, as predicted by a soothsaying public school janitor, is bothersome. “The only thing that will ever bring you happiness is your own misery and the failure of others,” he announces. Then, “You need to be less of a smug bitch.”
Lauren Spring’s furtive account of masturbating with one bony hand in an anorexia treatment facility represents glorious surrender to one drive – even while battling another. Maya Reid’s colourful recollection of dining on penis in Beijing shows how the desire to be desirable demands desperate measures (apparently, the high levels of collagen in animal penis are “good for the skin”). Rebecca Kohler gets contrite in Don’t Even Ask About the Tenderloin when writing her long-lost inner feminist. The crass overtures from her local butcher get her loins aflame: “‘Sal’ is basically asking me, ‘Are you going to fuck that sausage?’ And I’m like, ‘Marry Me.’” Inner feminist responds with a curt request for pepperettes, as she prefers her sausage “shrivelled and dried out.” And Baute’s sparse and lovely piece Left Over shows how even a simple can of Beefaroni can summon a tidal wave of memory and grief.
Eat It grapples with disappointment, loss, insanity and reconciliation. Although occasionally menacing (as in Kathryn Kuitenbrouwer’s tale of owls and infanticide), the stories remain believable and, more often, completely plausible. Even Jessica Kluthe’s piece about vegetarianism Recipe for a Vegetarian packed a punch without being shrill and didactic. Eat It is real women’s writing that resonates.
Toronto Standard caught up with Eat It editors Nicole Baute and Brianna Goldberg yesterday.
How did you select the contributors?
Baute: Our contributors came to us in a variety of different ways. As soon as Feathertale agreed to take on the project, we put together a website explaining our vision and threw out an open call for submissions. Brianna and I had put together a wish list of story ideas and prompts that we were prepared to share with writers if necessary, but we were also excited to find out what people thought of when they heard the words “food, sex and feminism” (that was our working subtitle at the time).
Writers were interested in contributing right away – the first day we shared our site on social media we got more than 1,000 page views. We received many surprising and wonderful submissions and pitches from writers we didn’t know. At the same time, we reached out to some of our writer friends and colleagues, asking them if they might be interested in writing something for the book or, as in the case of many of the short stories, if they already had something written that might be appropriate.
We also reached out to a few writers we had a passing acquaintance with but otherwise admired from afar, and were very pleased when they offered us stories to publish.
We did try to curate the book as our table of contents filled up – we wanted to present a range of subjects, and to explore food and gender from a variety of different perspectives, so to that end, we did seek out a few pieces on specific subjects. But on the whole, what was amazing was how little we had to rely on that list of prompts and story ideas. So many writers had something to say about food and sex and gender, and their unique contributions were better than anything we could have asked for!
One thing that helped tremendously with this entire process was having Feathertale’s excellent reputation behind us! (The Feathertale Review has won multiple National Magazine Award awards and is supported by the Ontario Arts Council).
What was the biggest challenge in putting it together?
BG: There were logistical challenges in that for part of the time I was living in Nigeria and Nicole was living in Ghana, while our publisher and designer were in Toronto… but GChat and a commitment to honest communication was the solution!
BG: We started with a “wish” list of story ideas but, in the end, I think only one of the ideas made it to the book. Everything else–silly and unsettling alike–was completely unexpected. For example, Maya Reid’s rumination on the bleakness of romance while dining at a restaurant in China that serves various types of animal penis. A few stories are disturbing in that you step into the shoes of someone who is despairing or lost–but that was the point of the book, to make visible all these feelings that go largely ignored in everyday life, and to approach them with humour, perspective and literary flair.
NB: The bravery of the writers. We wanted this to be a bold book, and the contributors picked up on that and ran with it. Some of them wrote about intensely private matters with so much grace and humour. It sounds cheesy, but they’ve been a big inspiration to me!
Has working on Eat It changed how you feel towards food/sex/being a woman?
BG: Marinating in Eat It stories for two years, I’m now more aware of the diversity of ways my relationship to food is mediated by influences in my world, both personal and cultural. I always knew body image was an issue but now I see how much more (previously invisible) baggage there is. Also, I have a much clearer sense of why I’ve always felt so uncomfortable with the word “Feminist” and I’m able to start working with it. Before I was apprehensive of it, but now I’m more curious.
BG: Grossest would have to be either gelatinous pork blood cube (I was really trying to be open-minded, but it just didn’t work out…) or whole catfish stew while I was in Nigeria. I am not kidding when I say I still have nightmares about its wily whiskers poking out of the pot’s lid. Favourite edible guilty pleasure is my go-to recipe for a recovery from a crappy weekday: 6pm + wasabi peas + cheddar Goldfish crackers + any white wine.
NB: Not sure about grossest. Guilty pleasure? I usually try to eat healthy but sometimes when nobody is looking I do really weird things like go out of my way to get to an Arby’s and order curly fries with a side order of cheese. Hot, oozing cheese in a little plastic cup. I never regret it.
BG: WHAT! I had no idea about that, Nicole! Well, now I know where our next Eat It meeting will be taking place…