When I was an undergrad, money was tight. My parents didn’t have much in the way of income, so I was able to get a lot of grants and scholarships for school covering my tuition, room, and board. But, fun fact: scholarship money is only tax-deductible if it goes toward tuition and fees. Which meant most of what I earned from my part-time work tutoring and TA’ing had to be saved to pay a multi-thousand dollar tax bill each April.
Now, I was by no means in dire straights, but I had very little money to work with for personal spending. I usually had it all planned by each September, a necessity if I wanted to make my paycheck last until summer. Two cross-country flights– once during winter and once during the summer– made up the majority of my budget. I didn’t wear make-up and I never bought clothes; by senior year most of my tops were company-branded tees I’d gotten at career fairs.
And yet, there was always one thing I made sure I had a little bit of fun money for: food.
Starting in my junior year, when I had a little more pocket money from dropping my university’s meal plan, I let myself get takeout once a week on Fridays. I remember, there was a tiny sushi shop right by the engineering buildings where, for right around $12, I could get a feast of a lunch that was more delicious than it had any right to be: chirashi laid over a perfectly seasoned bed of sushi rice, a deeply umami miso soup, a small salad with a light sweet ginger sauce, and a couple of pieces of tempura and shumai to round out the meal. Or on days I was feeling like something really hardy, I’d get a plate as big as my head of unaju-don. Everything delicious and salty and decadent, I’d eat my food at the counters out front looking to the tall trees lining campus as little rays of sunshine streaming through the tall windows warmed my arms and face.
Little moments like these have gotten me through years both good and bad. Making myself chicken ginger soup with spaghetti when I’m sick, getting that french apple pie from the local baker after a rough day, celebrating with friends over hot pot. Even eating a single fried egg over steamed white rice is like experiencing a moment of peace, sending me back to my childhood when meals, like everything else, were simpler, slower, and meant to be savored.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become less price sensitive to the types of meals I eat. Which is great insofar as I have been able to have interesting and delightful gustatorial experiences. But it hasn’t been so great from the perspective of my monthly food spending.
Sometimes I wonder how much of this spending comes from the pure joy of food and how much of it is using food to do my emotional labor for me. Like I could deal with my growing sense of burnout at work, or… I could ignore that and cook my CSA box instead. I could map out my next career step, but I think I’d rather go try out the new Mexican-Korean fusion restaurant down the street.
This becomes particularly acute when it comes to bad days. Bunch of deadlines looming? Maybe I should “treat myself” to sushi. Had to sit through a set of emotionally difficult meetings at the office? Well, I was going to get the ground beef but maybe we’ll upgrade to the lamb chops.
To some degree, food is a convenient distraction. Everyone needs to eat, most of us do it multiple times a day. But it’s also something from which I derive great pleasure. It’s no wonder that the food and my emotions would become inextricably linked, both in times happy and ill. Good food is like a friend to me; I’ve never had troubles with eating too much or too little. It’s just always been there, as supportive and comforting as can be, saying, I know things are hard right now but here, savor this, you can always take it slow.
Do you have an emotional connection to food? What sort of hobbies or things do you use for emotional self-care?