Defined by Want

In “The Food of My Youth” at The New York Review of Books, Melissa Chadburn describes a childhood in which getting enough to eat was a much bigger concern than it should ever be. Eventually, she was removed from her mother’s care and put into a group home. There were regular meals there, but three meals a day doesn’t erase the scars of a childhood defined by want.

It was lonely there, but at least I didn’t have to worry about going hungry. I didn’t like to eat food prepared by other people—I was afraid I would taste their emotions—so I learned to cook the food provided by the county. It was largely frozen, prepared in bulk. Salad was a sturdy iceberg with sliced carrot slaw; the ground beef came in a fat tube. The group home kitchen, with all its canned food, and dates on plastic containers, resembled a bunker in the Midwest, as if we were all preparing for the apocalypse.

Only, for us, the explosions had already happened. The places we’d called home had been lit up and burned to the ground, with nothing left save for the blackened foundations of our past. We kids were screaming for love, for touch, for home. But we found ourselves in limbo, guarding our hearts, biding our time before the Unknown, waiting to see where we would end up. In that place of permanent temporariness, food was the only thing we had some control over; the rest was all court dates and social workers and group therapy and anger management.

Read the essay