Names have been changed in this piece to respect people’s privacy.
I was a greedy kid.
Or so I was told. I know I had urges and I let them run free, until societal expectation and a sprinkling of shame brought me into line.
Food was yummy, and I liked yummy. I was a round, rosy-cheeked, squishy, pale face with a mop of curly brown hair, who wore turtlenecks and purple velvet overalls. My passions were mummy, all that was yummy and pushing out my luminescent tummy with three-year-old reserves of brute force – to the endless amusement of my family.
The two years I had mum to myself before primary school (when my brother had already started school), were filled with many food-centred routines. We would go to a particular Yellow Bakery (although it wasn’t officially called that), watch our egg salad sandwiches being made up, then eat them watching the locals pass by.
Sometimes we’d visit the bakery at the other end of the suburb - where I would have a sausage roll and mum a spinach quiche. While mum read the latest Home Beautiful magazine, I starred at the brown mural that spanned the bakery’s wall, wondering how a mammoth 19th century harvest scene found its way into seaside suburbia.
Once a month, mum attended a Friday morning discussion group, which I (being four years old) would often tag along to. I attempted to busy myself with books, puzzles and colouring sheets in the corner, but these all too quickly became incredibly dull. They were not as alluring as the cream filled biscuits, cakes, berries, dips and cheeses that sat on a coffee table in the middle of the adults. A family friend has reminded me on numerous occasions - when musing about how I’m still into food - that when I was called over, my eyes grew wide with the volume of choice before me. Taking a singular cream-filled biscuit back to my drawing station, my eyes wandered back to the buffet in longing, as the crumbs bounced off the page.
That was perhaps one of my first encounters with the torturous restraint double-standard that applies differently to adults and children. The adults could add Orange & Poppyseed Cake squares, Florentines and Passionfruit Yo-Yos to their tea saucers as they pleased, whereas I was held at arms-length, mouth salivating as my constantly hungry little body had one of her first lessons in moderation.
From the moment I graduated into ‘big people chairs’ at the dinner table, I was told to hoover everything up on my plate, vegetables especially, in order to be offered dessert. Yet at the same time we’re thrown in the metaphorical deep end of the world’s most unfair lesson, of restraint.
No, you can’t have a Chocolate Hot Cross Bun, you had that giant Caramello Koala Matthew gave everyone in the class for his birthday.
You’ll spoil your dinner if you have that Banana Choc Chip Muffin, Phoebe.
Save room for dinner Phoebe!
Phoebe, you just ate!
So much holding out for promised future eating opportunities, which meant nothing to my wriggling little body, when I was hungry now!
Perhaps it’s the first rule we learn about food that makes us aware of our bodies in a negative way. That they’re not on our side.
Our bodies tell us we want more of something that we’re not allowed have. We have to ignore it. Bad body. We’re too young to connect this new icky self-consciousness, with our over-whelming choice capitalist market that through clever marketing, advertising and the cosmetification of food, muddles a very normal and healthy hunger equation.
We still see food with an infantile innocence, a muscle memory that wants to reach for, grab and shove it in our mouths to test it out.
When I was a little older, a couple of publicly shameful instances knocked the last of my greedy, toddler-like tendencies right out of me. One occurred in grade three when we were tasked with decorating our own shortbread cookie in the staff room. It was a special end-of-year activity and strict Mrs Hunt didn’t allow us to forget it. She was explaining the various decorative choices we could personalise the pre-baked biscuits with.
I had been allowed to help out in my parents and grandmothers kitchens from an early age. I’d baked many biscuits, and so, come the ‘cookie-customisation’ exercise, I was eager to start.
Mrs Hunt reached a lull in her explanation of the ‘rules & expectations’ and I took this as a cue to begin. I reached my chubby little hand into the bowl of Smarties, to be told in a terrifyingly loud British accent what a grubby little girl I was, putting my dirty, unwashed hands straight into the food bowl, before being told we could start. My rosey cheeks blushed crimson as I shrunk away from the food, and I thought how much better cooking with Grandma was. Where we fetched ingredients out of crinkly plastic packets and scratched Tupperware containers with stiff lids, rather than cold little glass bowls.
Towards the end of primary school, on one Saturday evening dinner with family friends, I flooded my slice of Sticky Date Pudding with a sea - rather than restrained dribble - of thickened cream, only to find the father of the other family’s eyes on me, asking you got enough there?
It came out of the jug quicker than I expected, I said. Both of us knowing I’d poured it in a slow, controlled stream.
Growing up, my family attended the local Uniting Church every Sunday. This was an exercise in patience and restraint if ever there was one. With tea and coffee consumed in the hall afterwards, the whole affair ran right up to lunch time.
No matter how much breakfast I ate, my stomach growled loudly the whole drive home. Getting mum to wrap up her conversation so we could finally go was a weekly struggle. Over the years (before I was old enough to walk the kilometre home myself), I became dangerously bored. On one occasion I made my way into the church kitchen, where I made myself one of my first cups of tea. I poured a splash of ultra-concentrated Lipton from the giant metal teapot with twelve tea bags dangling over the sides, then attempted to weaken it with hot water from the urn. I added a splash of milk and swirled everything together with a clattery teaspoon, before tapping the tinny implement twice on the rim and taking a sip.
The beverage was lukewarm, everyone who wanted a tea or coffee had already consumed it, with most parishioners now filing out into the car park. My body felt floppy and my head a little furry in the glaring hall - like I had just spent all my physical and mental energy focusing on a lesson in school that had slowly drained me of all my energy.
Uninspired by my tepid tea experience, I glanced around to check that no one was taking any notice of me. The half-empty, yet to be washed mugs and saucers lay scattered on the bench before me. I added a spoonful of sugar into my cup and swirled the granules around until their crunch could no longer be felt at the bottom.
Finding this as good as any pastime while my mum gas-bagged, I added another spoonful of sugar, and then another, seeing how much would dissolve into the dishwater concoction. An elderly man stuck his head around the corner of the kitchen counter startling me.
Are you going to drink that?
I think I was too embarrassed to take a curious sip after that, feeling shamed once again that my etiquette around food wasn’t restrained enough. Never mind that I couldn’t help it, I gravitated to experimenting with ingredients early on and seeing what more of this, less of that did to the end result. So what if I made a grossly sweet tea with the leftovers, I would know that’s why people stop at one-two teaspoons from then on!
Each time I was ‘caught out’, I was pulled out of my own fantastical foodie reverie and slapped back to reality, reminded of society’s expectations around food.
My not-so-private rebellion I suppose is taking back the control in adulthood meal-making, by playing around with ingredients under the guise of ‘recipe development’. The freedom and often pure delight I can take in the end result, allows me to hold onto that chubby enthusiasm for food I had as a kid - as I’m not convinced you can make good food without knowing her intimately.
So, I take note from my inner greedy baby body, who had her mouth wide open as soon as the aeroplane spoonful of puree took flight, eyes bulging forward with concentration, expectation and excitement as she waited for landing.