by Annabeth Leong
Midnight, and the older man I lived with was working the night shift. I couldn't sleep. All I could think about was the food in the freezer, the mushrooms in particular. Large and breaded, they came out of the oven crispy, salty, and filled with a rich juice that I craved.
Twelve mushrooms were left in the half-full bag. I got out of bed and stepped into the darkness of the empty house. I preheated the oven, took out the bag, and placed one—just one—on the baking pan.
The bag had to last, so one was all I could allow myself.
I have lived without sufficient food several times in my life, always for no good reason. When my parents got divorced, there was a while where my father forgot to feed me and I was afraid to ask him to. Though there could have been food, there wasn't, and I eventually got bold enough to make a habit of searching the house for money until I found enough to order pizza. Perhaps not the smartest solution, but I was a pretty small kid and that was the best I could come up with.
In this case, I'd run away from home as a teenager and wound up living with this man. He worked as a manager at a 24-hour gas station, and I worked an illegal number of hours after school and on weekends, so there ought to have been enough money for food. However, I was utterly under his control, and I turned my paycheck over to him as soon as it was cashed. I had no money of my own, he was able to eat food while at work, and he'd proven strangely unwilling to buy food for me. About once a month, he grudgingly took me to an all-night grocery store and bought oatmeal packets, frozen food, cartons of eggs, and canned soup. Then the game commenced.
Usually, I had one packet of microwave oatmeal in the morning before leaving for school. Then at school when lunchtime came, I shamelessly begged boys to buy me something from the cafeteria. My favorite was the chicken rice burrito, which cost $1.75 and would relieve my hunger better than anything else I was likely to get. I'd never thought of myself as the type of girl to ask guys to buy me things, but I was desperately hungry enough that I didn't care anymore.
After school, I begged some more, and if I was lucky the man I lived with would pick up a sandwich at a fast food place and allow me to eat half of it for dinner. What I didn't get was my own plate. I had to content myself with bites off his, and he salted everything he ate so heavily that his meals seemed covered in frost.
When the oven timer went off, I ran to the kitchen. The mushroom had expanded from the heat, puffing up into something delicious and golden. I knew I ought to cut it into tiny pieces to make it last as long as possible. I was weeks away from the next grocery trip, and I'd already eaten half the bag of mushrooms. Instead, I couldn't resist. I popped the mushroom in my mouth whole, caring nothing for the way it scalded me, my heart and soul focused entirely on the juice of it washing over my tongue as I bit in.
It wasn't enough. I was starving, and I had to feel that sensation one more time. I got out the bag again and eased one more mushroom onto the baking pan.
Hungry as I was, I had no self-control. I am very aware of how poorly I calculated my actions.
My mother gave me $10 once when I went to visit her—enough for a lot of dried oatmeal at the grocery store—but instead of trying to make the bill last, I took it to an Italian restaurant downtown and spent it on a meal of homemade focaccia bread, house salad, fresh pasta with marinara sauce, and a cup of tea. I performed precise arithmetic to figure the most food I could order while still leaving a fair tip. I chewed as slowly as possible, caught up in the transcendence of butter, flour, and tomato sauce, and for a brief time I felt free. Still, within the space of an hour the money was gone, and I was hungry again so soon after that.
When people criticize the buying decisions of those on food stamps or other government assistance, I remember that pasta. I knew it was stupid to buy it, but I can't explain how compelled I felt, how starved I was, not just for food, but for that experience of food. My brain chemistry seemed to change when I was desperately hungry. It was as if the future didn't exist. There was only the endless now of my trembling hands and cramping gut.
Fuck. The second mushroom gone in another single bite.
I needed the moment of eating it to stretch out longer. Why had I swallowed? Couldn't I have instead held it in my mouth until it utterly melted?
I went back to the freezer and got out the bag again. The mushrooms poured from it freely. Ten, and the bag was empty. I counted the ten on the baking pan, arranging and rearranging them, struggling with myself.
If I eat them now, I won't have them later. If I eat them now, I won't have them later.
I put them back in the bag. I put the bag back in the freezer. I paced the house like a caged animal, then rushed back to the kitchen.
One mushroom, gleaming on the baking pan, crowned in ice crystals, object of my unutterable desire.
The mushrooms took a long time to cook, so I'd been at this now for over an hour. I knew I'd suffer in school the next day. In a rush of abandon, I reached for the bag, and four more mushrooms joined that single edible jewel. Five. Half of what remained. I told myself that was a reasonable compromise, and stuck the tray in the oven yet again.
I knew he would be angry if I ate all the mushrooms. The man I lived with was often scolding me for taking two oatmeal packets instead of one, for wanting to boil a second egg when the one we'd shared had left me wanting, for taking money from other men so I could buy food.
There are 157 calories in a packet of instant oatmeal cooked with water. There are 78 calories in a boiled egg. There are 24 calories in a single breaded mushroom, and the packaging for the kind I used to like lists the recommended serving as eight.
I was no glutton, I was simply hungry. And even if I was a glutton—even if I was—what sort of sin is it to eat 16 breaded mushrooms when the package says eight will do?
I slowed down and ate the next five mushrooms as if they were the finest red caviar. Tiny slices, tiny bites, counting the times I chewed, and yet my hunger did not abate in the slightest. Anger flashed through me. I didn't care anymore whether I would be scolded. I didn't care if there was no food left in the house at all after that night. In a flurry, I cooked the rest of the package of mushrooms and made a packet of oatmeal. It was after two a.m. and I ate that food with nervous relish, getting away with it for the moment because I was alone.
I knew this meant I would have no mushrooms the next night, or the night after that, or the night after that, but I just couldn't think about that anymore. When desire overwhelms, the only time that exists is now.
Much later, after I got away from this man, I went to the grocery store and bought myself seven packages of the mushrooms. I wanted them available to me with no barriers. I wanted to eat them until I got sick if that was what I felt like doing.
I'd had a little while to recover by then. There had been enough to eat for a couple months, and I'd already gained thirty pounds. I could think straight for the first time in years.
I went home and poured one entire package onto a baking pan, shivering from the luxurious rumble of that multitude of mushrooms hitting the surface. I was so excited to finally be able to do this, a thing I had dreamed about on so many nights with such great intensity.
The oven timer rang and I arranged the mushrooms on a plate and took them to the table. I took a bite of the first one, closing my eyes in anticipation of that rich burst of juice, but it never came.
There was a little salty water and an anemic crunch to the breading. The mushrooms tasted of cardboard and little else.
That was the worst moment. It was then that I realized that these mushrooms I had craved and fought for, this food that was my ultimate indulgence, this thing I would have sold my soul for if given the chance—it wasn't really very good at all. I'd just been that hungry.