girl with curly hair eating sandwich

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 people were saying “horses” not “oysters”) 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. 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.

And I loved it. 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 mean 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?

Then a few years after my first child was born, my appetite gradually took its leave. Where I had enjoyed my food so much that 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 felt like they were literally draining from my arms and legs. I took long naps even after a full night’s sleep.

I finally realized something was wrong, so I went to the doctore 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.

1960s portrait of two little girls in cotton dresses and mary janes
In spite of my vastly superior appetite, another couple of years and my little sister would outgrow me and leave me in the dust.
two little girls sitting on a curb in the early 1970s
See? My little sister outgrew me. Oh well.




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