I was always a tiny little kid with an appetite like a farmhand.
My younger sister outgrew me early on, and I was the smallest of all the cousins, so everything I wore was well used, and I never grew out of a thing—it all just wore out.
But I had an endless appetite and a rapid-fire metabolism so I stayed and stayed and stayed tiny, even in college, which is just not fair, I know.
My grandmother used to put a meal in front of me and say she’d rather feed ten hungry men than one “with a coming appetite.” I didn’t understand what that meant and just kept asking for more.
Fortunately, the food at home was great. It was the 70s, so we could have been eating a lot of TV dinners and other new-fangled, freshly invented convenience food, but nope, we ate homemade country food. I loved meatloaf, pork chops, green beans, lima beans, black-eyed peas, spinach, beets, fresh corn, corn soup, fried apples (not sweet, but savory, by the way—they’re a Virginia thing and are amazing), fresh tomatoes, fresh cucumbers, and on and on. My eyes lit up at the thought of my next meal.
But hey, I don’t think my mom and grandmother were trying to prove anything. That’s just the way they cooked, and the great majority of what I ate growing up was pretty damned healthy, country cooked or not. But I’m not gonna lie and tell you I didn’t like me a little Cap’n Crunch now and again back then, too. I was just fortunate that sort of thing was the exception instead of the norm.
When I was fifteen, our mother remarried, and when she would fill my dinner plate with piles of food, my brand-new stepfather would say, “She can’t eat all that.” Poker-faced, my mom would reply, “Watch her.”
My sister recalls that every time she turned around, someone was making me another grilled-cheese sandwich. There was little I didn’t like, though, and ate our usual Southern fare with enthusiasm, but not at the expense of unusual foods—I’d try anything.
For example, I didn’t grow up on the coast, but I loved oysters from an early age (even though I thought they were called “horses”) and fresh asparagus (I didn’t taste the canned kind for years) and freshly steamed artichokes. I mean, in the seventies artichokes hadn’t reached the level of familiarity that they have today—they were weird yet, but that didn’t stop me.
My favorite foods weren’t treats and chocolate, but instead I liked a full-out meal and could eat a steak the size of a dinner plate and still polish off the vegetables and bread. My sister was muscular and athletic, but her appetite was only so-so, and I was a bookworm built like a cotton ball but ate more like a football player. It made no sense, and no one else in the family had an appetite like mine. I was a freak of nature, I guess.
One time while on a date in college, my date shook his head and said, “You have a good appetite.” I was proud to say, “Yes, I do,” and kept eating.
Another college date’s father said that I ate too much and told his son that I’d “have a problem” some day. Comments like that one and other hateful tidbits of societal conditioning propelled me to worry about my weight for years, when clearly I could have spent my energy more wisely. I’ve recently looked at pictures from my college years and my post-baby years and was stunned to see that I looked terrific. But I thought I needed to lose five or ten pounds! What the hell could I have been thinking?
But then a few years after my first child was born, my appetite gradually took its leave. Where I had enjoyed my food so much and my mother recalls that I was a pleasure to feed, food had lost much of its appeal. Nothing was all that exciting.
Eight years earlier, I’d married a skinny man, a grazer, who couldn’t eat like I could, especially at one sitting, and I’d finish his meals, but that went away. Then I got tired and cranky and was on edge much of the time. My hair appeared to be what I referred to as Sherwood Forest green. My strength and energy literally felt like they were draining from my arms and legs. I took long naps even after a full night’s sleep.
I finally realized something was wrong and was diagnosed with hypothyroidism, for which I received treatment and began to feel a great deal better. My appetite picked up somewhat and is now more normal than freakish like it was, but I so miss the sheer pleasure of absolutely loving to eat.
Except for during a glorious second pregnancy when my eyes lit up over a good meal, my appetite has never really been the same after my thyroid gland went off kilter. I joke and say that it’s a good thing because otherwise, I’d be as big as a barn.
But I can’t help but wonder what went wrong. I can’t help but imagine that if I still enjoyed my food as much as I assumed I always would, my body would still be capable of handling it.
When I was in my twenties, a co-worker said that I was one of those people who would always be the same size, and while that’s thankfully been more or less true, it sure would be a pleasure to give my metabolism a run like I used to. Those were some mighty good times.