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What It Means to Stop Eating (and Enjoying) Food

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"The last time I ate real food, actually chewed and swallowed, was six years ago," opens novelist David Wong Louie's captivating essay in the August issue of Harper’s Magazine, in which he writes about his struggle with throat cancer. Below, a small portion of the piece has been excerpted exclusively for Food52; you can (and should) read the full essay here.

The neck is crowded real estate, dense with activity and structures; more systems of the body converge, commingle, here than anywhere else. It is the site of biological and social essentials such as breathing, speaking, and swallowing. The nurses had warned me that radiation to the throat area is the most painful of cancer therapies. It damages soft tissue, causing ulcers to erupt in the mouth. Food tastes strange. Appetite leaves you. Eating becomes hell. [...]

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A month earlier, my wife and I had been at dim sum with friends when my ENT, Dr. H, phoned with the pathology report. My wife took the call outside, turning her back to the restaurant as if to shield me from the inevitable. I could see her tilt her head into the phone and roll her shoulders inward, shrinking from the news. When my wife returned to the table she stared at the dishes: shumai, har gow, rice-noodle rolls, taro-root cake, jook with pork, and thousand-year-old egg, all getting cold or congealing. I pointed at her plate, urging her to eat the lotus-wrapped sticky rice, our favorite. She shook her head, too upset for food. Then she arched her eyebrows and said, “You eat it.” Which, being a pig, I did.


I am astonished, now, at how many of my first memories of places are related to food: goose in Hong Kong, lardo in Florence, cherrystones in Boston, pizza in New York. And milestones, too: my fortieth at ABC Seafood, my son’s graduation at Lupa, my mother-in-law’s seventieth at Providence, my daughter’s haircut party at Hop Li. I fondly remember the ham-and-Swiss sandwich at Bay Cities, the crispy-skin cubes of pork belly at Empress Pavilion, the roast-duck noodles at Big Wing Wong, the grilled prime rib at Campanile, those perfect bites of charred, almond-and-olive-wood smoky, tapenade-smeared meat dabbed in flageolet beans and braised bitter greens.

With the G-tube, I did not eat—I fed the tube. My mind did not equate the formula with food, as other patients do—how could I confuse the two? Goose in Hong Kong is a meal, not a feeding; the table is laid with utensils, not a syringe; one dines, not feeds.

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Do I miss it?

I can tell you that eating nice food and drinking good wine with my wife was the best thing ever. In my memories of dinner together we are enveloped in gilded light that seems to emanate from the table’s 720 square inches and the plates of food and glasses of red wine between us. “Communion,” “spiritual,” “intimacy,” come to mind as words to describe these moments.

I can also tell you that chewing was glorious. Swallowing was king. I can remember specific dishes and name the ingredients, but I can no longer tell you what it felt like with a platter of Dungeness crab on the table, what the sight of the orange carapace, the aroma of garlic, ginger, scallion, aroused in me. I can’t relate to the old, eater version of me. I don’t remember how it feels to be in the presence of food and crave it, want to own it, or how it feels to know its pleasure and anticipate having that pleasure again. I can’t relate to that kind of beauty anymore.

The Ingredient All Steaks Need In Order to Be Steaks
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The Ingredient All Steaks Need In Order to Be Steaks

I am told that cancer has not changed the essential me. “You’re still David,” my wife says, tactfully omitting the rest of the sentence: despite physical damage and eroded quality of life. As much as I love her for saying that she sees me past the wreckage, I think she’s lying, at least a little, because from in here things have changed. Five years without a morsel of food passing between my lips has made me a stranger. Seeing food now doesn’t make me hungry; neither does reading about it or thinking about it. Drop a steak in front of me and what am I going to do?


Read the full essay here.

Tags: magazines, cancer, literary