In her 1998 book, “Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia,” Marya Hornbacher writes that “some food-obsessed people become gourmet chefs. Others have eating disorders. From this stark dichotomy And logically, one could envision two opposing genres of culinary memoir: the chronicle of a restaurant chef’s life and the intriguing literature about living with an eating disorder. , “Elegy for an Appetite”, memoir of a young chef suffering from an eating disorder? Shaina Loew-Banayan, now chef and owner of Café Mutton, in Hudson, New York, is not the first writer to blur the idea that food obsession can be professionally constructive or personally destructive. There is a small subgenre of foodie accounts with an eating disorder, including Hannah Howard’s books “Feast” (2018) and “Plenty” (2021). But Loew-Banayan (who uses the pronouns they/them) is the first writer I’ve met who reconciles the two genres into a substance so singular and true to itself that they seem to forge their own language, an integrated code to tell their story.
Before I say more about Loew-Banayan’s book, I must say that I am a former professional chef who had an eating disorder for fifteen to almost thirty years, from time to time. But, unlike Loew-Banayan, I kept mine a secret, oscillating silently between bouts of bulimia, anorexia, and binge eating. The only time I spoke about it professionally was during a conversation with writer Susan Burton, the author of the 2020 eating disorder memoir “Empty.” Everything seems a long time ago now. Most of the time, I didn’t think anything useful or beautiful, and certainly not transformative, could come from disclosure – until I read Loew-Banayan’s book.
“Elegy for an Appetite” focuses on fifteen years of Loew-Banayan’s life, starting as a teenager. It is written in forty-eight short, sprint chapters, an irreverent stream of consciousness that is only sparsely punctuated. The first sends in a chef named Jonny, who made poo jokes and lisped the word “demi-glace.” In the second, Loew-Banayan presents their anorexia sardonically: “To be honest, although what I hadn’t gotten tired of was the idea of the cake, eating it was a separate issue that I had crawled into the anorexia trap. I never ate much cake no. never much at all. They are darkly funny as they describe their inculcation in the hopeless land of body shame.” birthday girl told me whipped cream on my ice cream sundae would make my butt look bigger. I don’t think I really knew what that meant or even had an ass, but I could tell a big ass was very bad. Determined to fit in with other teenage girls, Loew-Banayan works out the mechanics of their eating disorder, “calories per gram,” “and other shitty things like fat-free bologna,” hours on a treadmill “marching towards the gnarled knees of my peers.” We infer that Loew-Banayan’s mother testified helplessly: “I can play your ribs like a pianoshe once said to Loew-Banayan, after a hug. Loew-Banayan doesn’t spend time siting their home life or their family’s socioeconomic status, but they did let us see that there was enough money for upper-middle-class indulgences, like a late-night trip to the Blue Ribbon Brasserie: “We ate bone marrow with challah and matzoh dumpling soup at two in the morning. The next day, back on my hunger. That homemade idiom, ” back on my hunger”, evokes various expressions to practice good habits and fall back into bad ones: “back on the cart”, “back on the horse”, “back on my bullshit”.
As I read Loew-Banayan’s book, I found myself grappling with my own analogous memories. At the Hawthorne Diner, when my friend’s boyfriend reached out and pricked my stomach with his index finger and said, “Is that your shirt or your body?” My grandmother, looking me up and down and calling me bumpy. My grandmother again, years later, saying, “You’re too skinny. You are beautiful, however. Loew-Banayan’s description of tasting food during a college kitchen assignment was so familiar it brought me to tears. As in restaurants, used tasting spoons from Loew-Banayan’s kitchen were placed in their own bain-marie. “Dirty ones face down, how many of those down were mine and of those spoons down, how many were probably not worth it,” they wrote, adding, “In the mornings when I had gained a pound or two, I called out of work for fear of spoons. When I was a chef in Georgia, I hid my jar of used spoons to calm my own panic, and swore to myself not to eat anything but this which I had to taste during the service.
Loew-Banayan uses pseudonyms for the restaurants they worked at after college — identifying them would draw our fragile attention to the wrong things — but, as digital natives say, IYKYK: if you know, you know. For readers who have worked in the food industry, Loew-Banayan’s writing has an exciting insider quality. In a chapter describing their work in what they call the best restaurant in the world, they describe the molecular turmoil of the kitchen of the first two thousand with delicious disdain: “If you are not aware of xanthan gum , it’s a powder that turns any liquid into snot, we made pear snot every day, even sea urchin snot, they made us mix our snot in the walk-in so that guests don’t hear the ingredients scream as they turn into slobbery cum.” At the same restaurant, they are a day late for work. Recalling their panic, they write:
In the book there are fourteen other identical lines, but you get the idea. The passion for restaurant kitchen work coexists with an awareness of its ridiculousness. You hate that you choose to spend your precious life vacuum sealing and labeling carrots, and yet you hate yourself if you are unable to complete the task in a timely and expert manner. In Loew-Banayan’s rehearsal, we hear the hum of boredom and also the fluttering of their hearts. And perhaps here, too, we find the psychological pattern of the ambitious leader and the anorexic—a double-edged sword of rigid discipline and knowledge of one’s futility. It’s not until the middle of the book, when Loew-Banayan lands a job at a restaurant run by a female chef, that they describe the food with simple fondness: “Rabbits & veal breast & sweetbreads & marrow & buttered steaks & meunière trout & mushroom toast & anchovies & sardines & garlic & garlic & the rawest garlic & shrimp & butter toast & butter & wall to wall butter & omelet & oyster & powdered sugar & toast with blue cheese with butter & butter & butter. & rösti.”
Over time, Loew-Banayan’s compulsion to force their bodies into submission diminishes. They start dating a woman, then marry her. They leave town for upstate New York and find some self-acceptance. But the tension between food as pleasure and food as torment persists: “Even though I weigh sixty pounds more than my lowest weight, I haven’t stopped thinking like I did only a few years ago. someone else in there playing devil’s advocate.” In a chapter titled “Splinter,” they recount the fractured internal monologue that guides their experience of appetite: “Bread crusts but not the whole slice. A heel is a goatskin god. Cheese is scary but a must for goodness. There is an unseen condition that many eating disorder survivors face: looking healthy, eating and acting healthy, while still struggling on the inside. You can side with the devil’s advocate on a daily basis, but it’s exhausting to be constantly in litigation. In the final chapter before an epilogue, Loew-Banayam recalls working a job they hated at a restaurant they call the Silly Goose, unable to get rid of feelings of self-loathing. In one passage, they channel in language of painful beauty the temptations of suicidal ideation: “I would be on the mountain which is rocky and not very thick with moss. . . & then I would launch myself, my arms towards the sky the color of panic, and I would fly away.