I’m going to show you a homework assignment. For my Literature of the Senses class this week, we’re to write short pieces on the sense of taste. These are just one- to two-page writing exercises and I’ve put this together. I blogged about ramen noodles some years ago, and I did look back at this entry for reference, but it’s entirely retooled, as you’ll see.
It’s hard to write stuff and it’s hard to write about hard stuff. It’s hard to think about hard stuff that happened. Maybe I should go bake cupcakes or something. Mmm … Cupcakes.
Anyway, here you are.
As a young woman, many times had I fervently wished I could zap my appetite into nothingness so that I could slim down for the summer or whatever. It seemed so simple: Just don’t eat. I was never able to not eat, though, and usually not able to eat even slightly less. My appetite was stronger, in the end, than my desire to own smaller jeans.
But when I was dying in 2008 from failed abdominal surgeries related to advanced Ulcerative Colitis, my appetite really did vanish and it stayed gone for a dangerously long time, entirely without me trying. It turns out that having no appetite is a woeful, morbid thing.
My body knew my intestines were failing, so the appetite mechanism was doing me a favor by closing up shop. If nothing came in, nothing could leak out, internally. But my doctors and my family desperately needed me to eat, even a little, so that I could heal. If I couldn’t manage to start getting some nutrition, a feeding tube was in my future.
It was frightening to want nothing to eat, to snap my head away with a grimace when food came close to my mouth. It was alienating in the extreme that spaghetti with marinara sauce, my favorite food, did nothing to stir my appetite. I desired nothing. I craved nothing. There would be days at a time that I consumed only air and the dry skin on my lips as I chewed them whenever the doctors would call with test results, which were usually bad.
“Mary, honey,” my mother would ask, coming into the living room. “What would you like to try today?”
Every day, it was the same. The proposition of selecting and then trying to get food down was as exhausting as flushing my four IR drains, which had to happen twice a day.
“I guess ice cream,” I’d say, my voice barely above a whisper.
But when the Haagen Dazs hit my tongue, even if it were praline pecan or butter brickle, which in former days I would’ve devoured, I never managed more than two bird-sized bites before I had to set down my spoon and sink back into the couch, weary, baffled, and still unfed, the cream turning sour in my mouth. I was down to 118 pounds, 117, 116 …
We tried bacon. We tried mac n’ cheese. We tried bacon mac n’ cheese. We tried pudding, crackers, chips. Lasagna, Cap’n Crunch, sushi, tacos. Everything was revolting, everything was too much. I missed my appetite, which is to say I missed being part of the human race.
Then one day, when my mother asked me what I might like to try to eat, for some reason I blurted out, “How about ramen noodles?”
I meant Top Ramen, of course. The brick of noodles you get six-for-a-dollar with the flavor packet inside each plastic pack. Mom ran to the store and got a bagful. When she brought me a bowl of the piping hot noodles, for the first time in months, I felt hungry.
The cheap ramen was salty and easy to swallow. It was fun to eat, too, those long, curly noodles and the bullion broth free of bits, chunks, or vegetal matter of any kind. It is a benign food substance, Top Ramen. There is nothing to avoid, nothing to pick out. One can surrender to simplicity, to plainness. It is the anti-foodie food. The nutritional value may normally be in question, but for an invalid like me, the 400 calories of starch and salt were 400 more than what I was getting before and for some reason, my body accepted Top Ramen. I wanted to eat it and eating it did not make me sicker.
Every day, I ate the Chicken or Beef flavored ramen for breakfast (never Shrimp, gross.) The life-force noodle soup was my sole meal of the day. I even looked forward to the moment when my mother would bring it to me after I had had another interminable night on the couch, vomiting into my bowl, leaking sh-t from my ostomy bag onto the covers. Not every night was that bad; some were worse.
It makes me cry to think of my mother, there in her red bathrobe, coming in with a chipper smile and the wooden tray with the big bowl of Top Ramen for me, a cloth napkin, a fork, and a wide spoon. She’d place the tray on the big trunk we used for a coffee table and say, “Bon appetite, sweetie.”
“Thanks, Mama,” I’d say, and I’d start to eat, slowly, bringing a forkful of noodles all the way up, high above my head. I’d tip back and open my mouth, lowering the ramen slowly down onto my tongue and the day would begin that way, looking up at the ceiling, tasting the rich, savory broth clinging to the noodles. I would let it all slip down my gullet, hardly needing to chew.