My urges for certain foods are completely clear to me—I loved to eat saltines and tomato juice when I was in nursery school (much nicer to say than pre-k, which introduces children to the harsh world of consonants and attenuation—we don’t have time, even then, to say kindergarden) and I like to drink tomato juice and eat crackers now. Lots of salt, and tomato juice seemed novel when I was a child. Some adults drank tomato juice, it seemed, before expensive meals. This is a cultural fashion that has passed. I don’t recall the last time I was in a restaurant and witnessed a Heinz apertif. But when I was a boy, and still now, it gave and gives tomato juice a bit of juice. Some people have an aversion to tomatoes, especially children. My own son looks at a tomato, sliced, juiced (I never understood the exception for sauced) as a food horror, perhaps the seeds, in the slices, waiting to invade, and the texture of the juice, unfit for a drink. Sometimes I’ll go several months without having tomato juice and a strange need will overtake me. I’m not sure if it’s emotional or physiological necessity, some combination. But I have to rush out and buy and drink several glasses of tomato juice at once, like some kind of tomato junky. I have visions of being found, sprawled, with a can of V-8 beside me, detectives shaking their head: “He got a bad case. Up from Mexico. Tomato Cartel.”
Other urges from my childhood are more resistable. I think of having liver every so often. I used to love liver. If you really needed to, you could say I was a liver lover. You could even taunt me by saying that. Liver lover. But apparently I don’t crave it enough to yield to the desire. Will I ever again eat liver? Not chopped, but an actual cooked piece of liver, with onions. I’m working myself up into a yen by writing about it. “Yen” is a word that isn’t much in vogue anymore. I love “yen.” I’d love to bring yen into vogue through the good offices of liver.
I like very fresh bread, and slightly stale bread. Slightly stale rye bread from a bakery, with butter. My father used to say that he liked stale bread, and he did, very stale bread, capable of crumbling, for birds. This intrigued me as a child, and I’ve inherited a modified version of it, as though the grip of the Depression were lightening generation by generation through the relative freshness of foods of we consume. I like to put a single slice of slightly stale rye bread, well-buttered, on a plate, and eat it while watching an old sitcom, like Bob Newhart, or Dick Van Dyke. Then the difficult decision of whether to have another is muted by the involvement of the show, which I’ve invariably seen. I frequently decide to have half a slice, because to have another full slice would be too self-indulgent. Little pleasures pushed too far fall over the edge and land on the carpet, butter side down.
Eating anything very late at night . . . I have to eat alone—that’s the essence of guilty pleasure in food. I can’t experience guilty pleasure eating with anyone else. It’s completely masturbatory. I sometimes worry that my son will catch me eating something after he’s gone to bed. When he finds out that I’ve eaten something after he’s gone to bed, he sometimes acts betrayed.
I frequently don’t eat what I really had the urge to eat, and I’m filled with regret. And I don’t understand why I didn’t order, buy or make what I really wanted. I don’t understand why I sabotaged my pleasure. And then I dislike what I’m eating, and my meal or snack becomes work-eating. I have to just get through it. And I’m annoyed at myself, because the idea of interrupting the meal to reclaim the desire is more than I can muster. It must be put off for another time! I must be disappointed! And the idea of beautiful, moist egg salad, warm of course, sits on my pleasure hope chest and whimpers, mutters.
Right now I’m thinking about herring. It’s the first food I remember eating, creamed, the herring, not me, with my grandfather in his kitchen. I must have been five or so. I like to buy the little jars and dip crackers into them for a day or two. I do that two or three times a year. But why not more, why not less? Why do our urges press when they do, and then recede?
Many of our urges are charmingly regressive. Some less so, no doubt. Some best left unsatisfied, less the urge curdles. I’d love to go to the circus again! But the odds are it would leave me dyspeptic if it were the standard Barnum and Bailey run. The circumference of my amazement and the standards of performance have both changed too much. This is true with certain foods, too, which can no longer be replicated. Or my own taste too far down a certain road. I shiver at the salvers of sliced tongue we used to have on Sundays, piled onto sandwiches alongside potato sandwiches, and occasionally have the urge to try again. But I just know this one wouldn’t go anywhere if tested. The conceptual tide has turned. Tongue is best—sorry—licking the contours of memory.
Sometimes one experience can fuel a lifetime of urges. Before I had moved to California in the late nineteen seventies, I had never tasted an avocado. Mexican restaurants hardly existed in New York in the sixties, and they weren’t in our cultural milieu. I was in grad school in California, and riding home from the supermarket with my bag and stopped along the way. I took out the avocado I had bought, and used my pocket knife to cut the oval top off, and ate the fruit from the skin. It was the most orgiastic taste experience of my life. I devoured the whole thing. I loved eating that avocado so much that I kept the pit for a few years. Avocados, to me, tasted like nothing else I had ever eaten—I couldn’t find a category for them—neither quite sweet, nor tart, when perfect they were soft but had texture. O the avocado! I’ve kept eating them since, my urge for them unabated, trying always to recreate that first swoon. But, interestingly, the pleasure so strong, both in tasting again, and in memory, that disappointment, even when the occasional unripe agent of my urges appears, isn’t a cause for alarm. I suppose that’s the definition of mature love when it comes to urges, and food that is, my avocado love.
David Lazar‘s books include Occasional Desire (Nebraska), The Body of Brooklyn and Truth in Nonfiction (both Iowa), Essaying the Essay(Welcome Table). Powder Town (Pecan Grove), Michael Powell: Interviews and Conversations with M.F.K. Fisher (both Mississippi). Forthcoming are After Montaigne (University of Georgia) and Who’s Afraid of Helen of Troy (Etruscan Press). In 2014-15 he is curating a digital chapbook on nonfiction editing for The Conversant.org/Essay Press. Six of his essays have been “Notable Essays of the Year” according to Best American Essays, the latest in 2014. He created the undergraduate and Ph.D. programs in Nonfiction Writing at Ohio University and directed the creation of the undergraduate and M.F.A. programs in Nonfiction Writing at Columbia College Chicago where he is Professor of Creative Writing. He is the founding editor of the literary magazine Hotel Amerika, now in its thirteenth year.