The Hungry Games
My wife eats. I take pictures. There’s a reason.
SHE FROSTED cakes in the supermarket bakery, her wild dark hair pinned up in a net. I manned the next counter over in the deli, chipping ham, slicing Land O’ Lakes American cheese and serving up the old-school Pittsburgh staples of Dutch loaf, head cheese and souse.
It was late summer 1987, after my freshman year of college. To ask her out, I filled in a cake-request form and left it in the “pending orders” box. She was vaguely charmed. I was vaguely self-satisfied. We arranged a date at one of those TGI Friday’s/Houlihan’s-type places that, by the mid-1990s, would be ubiquitous in the American republic.
I wish I could tell you there was a cookies-and-cold-cuts happily ever after. But her appetite—the lack of it — got in the way.
She looked over the menu. I watched as her brow furrowed and her face squinched. Blackened burger? Too spicy. Grilled shrimp salad? Too fishy. Loaded potato skins? Mozzarella sticks? Fried ravioli? No, no and no.
At last she ordered something inconspicuous, quite possibly from the extended chicken-finger family. She picked at it as we struggled to converse. At the end, we shook hands. There was no second date.
I was 19. Though I couldn’t have articulated it at the time, even then I was scouting for someone who saw eating as a window onto life, who would — sitting at the dinner table and wandering through the world that encircled it — be exuberantly, unrepentantly hungry.
A decade later, I found her. And I held onto her. This is the story of my wife, and the things she eats, and why I take pictures of her when she does.
YOU KNOW the kind of marginally provocative prankster who purloins, say, a garden gnome from some suburban lawn and spirits it around the world, photographing it in exotic locations? I’ve spent the past 17 years doing that with my bride and her mouth.
I’ll haul her off somewhere (a hotel in Laos, a diner near our house in Pittsburgh, a train station in Australia, a cramped dumpling house in rural China), I’ll order her some food and I’ll pull out a camera.
I’ve never been disappointed.
On our first real date, during the summer of 1998, I saved up and invited her to lunch at Ruth’s Chris Steak House. I ordered the 20-ounce cowboy ribeye, rare. She ordered the 20-ounce cowboy ribeye, rare. I was halfway through mine before I looked up and saw she was halfway through hers. She was sheepish. I was smitten.
The photography started shortly thereafter. We were living in Manhattan, and we frequented this windowless, subterranean bar in a subway-station entrance. On Fridays after work, we’d disappear inside and emerge at around 9 p.m., bellies warm with vodka, feeling ravenous. Fortunately, there was a KFC directly above, and buckets of chicken were ordered. In my bag I carried a tiny silver Olympus camera loaded with something the ancients called “film.” Snap. As a piece of original recipe made its way down her gullet, I fired off the shot you see here, starting us down the rabbit hole of photojournalistic gastronomica.
I can’t say precisely when it started to be a “thing.” I just know that I thought she was beautiful and loved taking photos of her, and that some of them involved eating because that’s what she was often doing. The ratio of girlfriend-not-eating photos to girlfriend-eating photos began to tilt toward the latter. It helped that the digital camera really began to take hold for regular consumers in 1999, just as we began cohabitating and co-dining.
One morning, I came around the corner into the kitchen of our cramped Manhattan apartment and happened upon her furtively eating a piece of rare leftover steak. The sudden combination in my presence of two favorite things — her and aged prime beef, probably in that order—caught my eye. The little Olympus was sitting nearby. Snap. She eyed me like a cornered animal but gamely continued gnawing.
On another occasion not long thereafter, she was sitting on the curb in her sister’s driveway on Long Island, downing a cookout hamburger and minding her own business while I was photographing her niece playing. She took a bite, I took a photo. Snap. A tradition was being born.
It grew as we traveled, ate, got engaged, ate, got married, ate. I captured her eating macaroni and cheese in the capital of Laos, a bacon cheeseburger in the train station in Sydney, Australia, and microwaved nachos on the couch of my parents’ house outside Pittsburgh. By this time she had perfected the he’s-taking-a-picture-of-me-eating-again look that combined tolerant weariness with slightly aggrieved bonhomie.
People thought the whole thing was pretty weird. Probably because it was. “It feels to me like a fetish,” one friend stage-whispered. “It’s kind of unsettling,” another said. “Do you really want to be showing me this?” admonished a third, his eyes darting around like a 12-year-old with a Playboy. But I was determined to press on.
Over the next decade, I kept my camera at the ready. I captured her masticating a fried chicken drumstick in China while our newborn son was tethered to her chest in a Baby Björn. I froze her in time attacking a strip of smoked salmon belly in the Pike Place Market in Seattle. And on and on and on: Slurping spicy broth on Foothill Boulevard in the shadow of California’s San Gabriel Mountains. Sneaking cheese at midnight from a hotel mini-fridge in Manhattan. Corn dogs. Pizza. Meat skewers. Soups, hot and cold. And noodles, more noodles, always noodles—echoes of the first meal we’d ever shared on the first day we ever spent together.
When we lived in Beijing in the early 2000s, I learned that the official chef for the British ambassador to China spent off days hiring himself out as a freelance roaming restaurant, cooking multi-course Chinese banquets with his ingredients in your kitchen. That became her 35th-birthday present. I was there, chopsticks in one hand, camera in the other. She called it a meal. I called it a photo op.
Sometimes, I’d take a whole slew of photos of her in one sitting — a photo shoot, as it were — during a meal. One, the “Sushi Sequence,” chronicled her various interactions with maki that was arriving by the plateful on a moving carousel. Another time, she was enjoying her spicy food so much one sunny Chinese afternoon that I took about 50 frames— the “Sichuan Sequence.” She’d never looked more beautiful.
The iPhone’s arrival in 2007 made things easier. I could fake a yawn—like the guy on the movie date sneaking his arm around the girl—and furtively snap a picture mid-chew. She is a patient woman, my wife.
Sure, it was fun. But it was more than that. It was a culinary distillation of why, and how, we loved each other. Strange as it might seem, it was a direct reflection of how we had met, of what drew us together in the first place: We both wanted to interact with and encounter the world we inhabited on the most intimate and visceral of levels.
It was hunger, plain and simple—a metaphor made literal.
AMERICANS LIKE to follow prefabricated scripts, and the stale storylines of love and marriage top the list. It’s fashionable to pretend that we’re forever weary and put-upon when it comes to our partners, even if, in reality, we aren’t in the slightest. “The ball and chain’s making me stay home tonight.” “He’s always out with the guys.” “She would NEVER let me get away with that.”
At the beginning of our life together, we promised to do battle vigorously against falling into such crevasses of cliché. Of course, sometimes we do anyway. Everybody does. But we call each other on it. We have a mantra: “Don’t get lame.” My sister even made us a cross-stitch, suitable for framing, that bore those words.
Keeping a marriage unlame as years melt into decades raises the question: How do you keep noticing your partner—truly noticing, truly inhaling—once you’ve been together for a long time and the initial intoxication has faded? Contained in our cross-decade collection of eating photos, I think, lurks a clue that might be useful even to individuals less odd than ourselves.
It’s simply this: You must become an intrepid explorer in the mundane corners of your own life.
How? You actively lend shape to routine, making it part of your relationship’s master narrative. You convert the workaday into the exciting, the mundane into binding, morale-building tradition. You turn something silly into something epic.
Along the way, word by word, you build a language of the everyday that belongs to only the two of you. You seize common ground as if it were a sprinter’s baton, and you run with all you’ve got.
For us, one key patch of common ground has always been the breaking of bread (or, more to the point, the breaking of meat). Is it so odd, then, that one of the ways I choose to notice her as we move through our lives is also one of the fundamental ways she interacts most passionately with the world?
She will tell you the same thing—now. It took a few years, though. First she had to go through the five stages of giving me grief.
- Denial: “You’re not really doing that, are you?”
- Anger: “Can you please stop? I just got up. Can I have a little peace here?”
- Bargaining: “If you stop, I’ll give you some of this food.”
- Depression: “So this is our future?”
- Acceptance: “I love that you love me so much.”
In 2008, the critical mass of eating photos became such that I had an enormous coffee-table book made to contain them. Now, when we host freshly minted friends, we bring it out after a photograph-free initial dinner, let them browse it and gauge their reactions. Over time, it has become an informal litmus test for exactly how open we want to be with new acquaintances. (Do let me know if you want to order a copy. Out-of-state shipping charges may apply.)
Of late, I am training another generation in this peculiar discipline. Our two sons have come into consciousness thinking that photographing the matriarch while she’s eating is just something that families do. I have not disabused them of this notion, though I do feel a bit of pre-emptive pity for the girlfriends-to-be of the coming decade.
And guess what? In the process, our kids are trying all kinds of foods from all kinds of places and traditions that they otherwise might never allow themselves to get near (“That’s weird. Take a photo of Mom eating that.”). The common language grows, and another dialect emerges.
If you’re at all like me (and I recognize that, after reading this far, you may want no part of that conditional), sometimes you associate songs with people who appear in certain moments in your life. I realized recently, recalling the beautiful but picky eater from the long-ago supermarket bakery, that the song playing in my head when I think of her is one from U2 that topped charts that long-ago summer: “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For.” I tried for a moment to imagine having ended up with someone who lacked such intense appreciation for the products of the kitchen. It is, I am relieved to say, a culinary destiny I do not have to face.
When I think about what I will face in the years to come, though, this activity actually factors into it all.
Today, somewhere in Western Pennsylvania, my mother and father, married nearly 69 years, pass the final days of their extraordinary lives in a very caring, very friendly assisted living facility. It tries mightily to be cheerful and appealing, but its fare at mealtime inevitably tends toward the unspecific. My parents shuffle into the dining room with their walkers each night and sit down to food calibrated to the gastrointestinal mean of someone born in the Coolidge administration. Thus are they served a gray burger on a taupe bun, cole slaw that wishes it were elsewhere, and beige sugar-free ice cream pining for a pink plastic spoon and a summer afternoon.
Somewhere in those melancholy meals, I see my future taking shape: my wife and I, worn out and frail but still eating, continuing our journey all the way to its bitter, low-sodium end. I’ll be armed with whatever gadget passes for a camera in 2050, aiming it in her direction at mealtime, still taking all of it — all of her—in.
She hungers, and I expect she always will. For that alone I will love her forever. Even when her entire head disappears into a mammoth bowl of ramen noodles. Especially then.
- Takeout Menu Legends: Years before the documentary about it, I found General Tso’s hometown in rural China and took the story of his chicken diaspora home to roost.
- Chasing Pain: Walking the streets of Sichuan’s largest city, searching for spicy food.
- Dumpling Standoff: In frozen northern China, trying to stay warm with carbs.
- Claim Your Steak: An entire book about searching for the perfect piece of beef.
Ted Anthony, a Pittsburgher living in Thailand, has been dissecting and musing about American culture since Guns N’ Roses was on the charts and “Rain Man” was in the theaters. He is the author of Chasing the Rising Sun: The Journey of an American Song. He tweets here, Instagrams here and collects various fragmentary images and thoughts on Tumblr here.
©2015, Ted Anthony