A Riveting Memoir of Life as a Chef with an Eating Disorder

In her 1998 book, “Wasted: A Memoir of Anorexia and Bulimia,” Marya Hornbacher writes that “some people who are obsessed with food become gourmet chefs. Others get eating disorders.” From that neat and logical dichotomy one might envision two opposite genres of food memoir: the warts-and-all chronicle of life as a restaurant chef and the self-searching literature of life with an eating disorder. What, then, to make of Shaina Loew-Banayan’s new book, “Elegy for an Appetite,” a memoir of a young chef with an eating disorder? Shaina Loew-Banayan, now the chef and owner of Café Mutton, in Hudson, New York, isn’t the first writer to scramble the notion that food obsession can be either professionally constructive or personally destructive. There exists a small subgenre of gourmand-with-an-eating-disorder accounts, including Hannah Howard’s books “Feast” (2018) and “Plenty” (2021). But Loew-Banayan (who uses they/them pronouns) is the first writer I’ve encountered who pounds the two genres together into a substance so singular and true to itself that they seem to forge their own language, a code integral to the telling of their story.

Before I say more about Loew-Banayan’s book, I should say that I’m a former professional chef who had an eating disorder from the ages of fifteen to nearly thirty, on and off. But, unlike Loew-Banayan, I kept mine a secret, swinging silently among bouts of bulimia, anorexia, and binge eating. The only time that I’ve spoken about it professionally was during a conversation with the writer Susan Burton, the author of the 2020 eating-disorder memoir “Empty.” It all feels like a long time ago now. Mostly, I didn’t think that anything useful or beautiful, and certainly not transformative, could come of the disclosure—until I read Loew-Banayan’s book.

“Elegy for an Appetite” centers on fifteen years in Loew-Banayan’s life, beginning in adolescence. It is written in forty-eight short chapters of sprinting, irreverent stream of consciousness that is only scantly punctuated. The first sends up a chef named Jonny, who made poop jokes and lisped the word “demi-glace.” In the second, Loew-Banayan introduces their anorexia sardonically: “To be honest though what I hadn’t tired of was the idea of cake the eating of it was a separate issue I had crawled into the snare of anorexia never ate much cake no never much of anything at all.” They are darkly funny when describing their inculcation into the despairing land of body shame. “At my birthday party a girl told me that the whipped cream on my ice cream sundae would make my butt fat. I don’t think I really knew what that meant or that I even had a butt but I could tell that a Fat Butt was very bad.” Out of a determination to fit in with the other teen-age girls, Loew-Banayan establishes the mechanics of their eating disorder, the “calories per gram,” “& some other crap things like fat free bologna,” the hours on a treadmill “marching toward the knobby knees of my peers.” We infer that Loew-Banayan’s mother bore helpless witness: “I can play your ribs like a piano,” she tells Loew-Banayan once, after a hug. Loew-Banayan doesn’t spend time situating their home life, or the socioeconomics of their family, but they let us see that there was enough money for upper-middle-class indulgences, like a late-night trip to Blue Ribbon Brasserie: “We ate bone marrow with challah and matzoh ball soup at two in the morning. The following day, back on my hunger.” That homespun idiom, “back on my hunger,” evokes various expressions for practicing good habits and lapsing into bad ones: “back on the wagon,” “back on the horse,” “back on my bullshit.”

As I read Loew-Banayan’s book, I found myself in the grips of my own analogous memories. At the Hawthorne Diner, when my friend’s boyfriend reached out and poked my stomach with his index finger, saying, “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 thin. You look gorgeous, though.” Loew-Banayan’s description of tasting food during a college kitchen job was so familiar that it made me cry. As in restaurants, used tasting spoons in Loew-Banayan’s kitchen were deposited in their own bain-marie. “The dirty ones faced down how many of the downward ones were mine & of those downward spoons how many were worth it probably none,” they write, adding, “Mornings when I’d gained a pound or two I would call out of work for fear of the spoons.” When I was a chef in Georgia, I would hide my jar of used spoons to calm my own panic, and swear to myself that I’d eat nothing other than what I had to taste during service.

Loew-Banayan uses pseudonyms for the restaurants that they worked at after college—identifying these would pin our flimsy attention to the wrong things—but, as digital natives say, IYKYK: if you know, you know. For readers who’ve worked in fine dining, Loew-Banayan’s writing has a thrilling insider quality. In a chapter describing their job at what they refer to as the Best Restaurant in The World, they describe the molecular fussiness of early-two-thousands cooking with delightful contempt: “If you are not aware of xanthan gum it is a powder that turns any liquid into snot we made pear snot every day plum snot even sea urchin snot they made us blend our snots in the walk-in so the guests wouldn’t hear the ingredients shrieking as they whizzed into slobbery jizz.” At the same restaurant, they’re late for work one day. Recalling their panic, they write:

My minutes my minutes. The ones I spent vacuum sealing carrots in
plastic bags and writing all the labels that said

12/3/2013 Carrots 7:23 AM 90 C
12/3/2013 Carrots 7:23 AM 90 C
12/3/2013 Carrots 7:23 AM 90 C
12/3/2013 Carrots 7:23 AM 90 C
12/3/2013 Carrots 7:23 AM 90 C
12/3/2013 Carrots 7:23 AM 90 C . . .

In the book, there are fourteen more identical lines, but you get the idea. Passion for the work of restaurant cooking coexists with an awareness of how ridiculous it is. You hate that you have chosen to spend your one precious life vacuum-sealing and labelling carrots, and yet you hate yourself if you are not able to perform the task in a timely and expert manner. In Loew-Banayan’s repetition, one hears the drone of tedium and also the palpitations of their heart. And perhaps here, too, we find the psychological blueprint for both the ambitious chef and the anorexic—a double edge of rigid discipline and knowledge of its futility. It isn’t until midway through the book, when Loew-Banayan lands a job at a restaurant run by a female chef, that they describe food with uncomplicated tenderness: “Rabbits & veal breast & sweetbreads & marrow & buttered steaks & trout meunière & mushroom toast & anchovies & sardines & garlic & garlic & rawest garlic & shrimp toast & butter & butter & wall-to-wall butter & omelette & oyster & powdered sugar & blue cheese toast with butter & butter & butter. & rösti.”

Over time, Loew-Banayan’s compulsion to force their body into submission abates. They begin dating a woman, then get married to her. They leave the city for upstate New York and find a measure of self-acceptance. But the tension between food as pleasure and food as torment lingers: “even though I stand sixty pounds heavier now than at my illest weight I haven’t stopped thinking like I did only there’s someone else in there playing devil’s advocate.” In a chapter titled “Splinter,” they narrate the fractured internal monologue that guides their experience of appetite: “Bread crusts but not the whole slice. A heel is god in goatskin. Cheese is scary but a must for goodness.” There is an invisible condition that many survivors of eating disorders face: looking healthy, eating and acting healthy, while on the inside continuing to wage a battle. One can side daily with the devil’s advocate, but it is exhausting to be in constant litigation. In the last chapter before an epilogue, Loew-Banayam recalls working a job that they hated at a restaurant that they call the Silly Goose, unable to shake feelings of self-loathing. In one passage, they channel in achingly beautiful language the tempations of suicidal ideation: “I would be on the mountain which is rocky & sparsely tufted with moss . . . & and then I’d launch myself, arms to panic-colored sky, and I would fling up gone.”

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