A common joke is that the chore of pandemic cooking has reduced us to eating piles of slop. But for a weird, specific, tertiary reason, I actually was. In May, I burned my esophagus. My doctor prescribed a soft food diet, for which there is no clear definition. Finding a truly soft food is difficult. Polenta can be rough. Beans have scratchy skins. Greens are fibrous. Rice is unyielding, bread is dry, yogurt stings, vinegar burns. Ground meat feels gristly, herbs have pointy stems, and entirely too many types of ice cream come with bits.
I’d been getting through spring lockdown by baking crusty sourdough bread (like I have been since 2018, okay!), grilling spice-rubbed pork chops, and ordering takeout nacho kits with extra margaritas. The injury was sudden and scary; in its wake, having to spend months avoiding food with texture was horrible. But a real, urgent, all-too-tangible reason to restrict my diet revealed how many unhelpful rules I had for food. In the end, slop set me free.
My doctor’s advice was to be as conservative as possible: no to tofu, yes to soft tofu; no to rice, yes to congee; no to bread, yes to bread soaking up the broth of a soup. Looking back through my camera roll, it’s striking how quickly, and how persistently, I tried to weasel around these orders. I’ll have tofu, but firm tofu, and I’ll bake it. I’ll make pancakes with only half whole grain from a local flour mill. I’ll order the nachos but, like, really soak the chips in the queso. I’ll grill squash (??). Every single one of these photos makes the center of my chest clench as I remember how I felt eating these things. It wasn’t good.
Eventually, I had to give in to the mush. It felt dorky to be perpetually mashing potatoes or making gravy or tossing pasta in cream sauce. Sauteed spinach (the only truly soft green) and quick-cooked oatmeal were on constant rotation; an udon soup with peeled carrots and soft tofu got me through a lot of weekday nights. I slipped the skins off peaches, scooped melon with a spoon, and made gargantuan vats of applesauce. The best of those recipes are old-fashioned, and many of my meals were weird (I started eating sauteed spinach and a pile of tuna salad for lunch). Consuming one texture was tedious.
But I was injured and in pain, and as I ate the softest foods and the pain eased, I wondered why I’d been fighting it so hard. That rebellious, painful urge to eat something I wasn’t “supposed to” in response to food restrictions was familiar. Before my injury, I obsessed over whether I ate healthy enough. I’m fat, and only recently open to being okay with that; I started dieting when I was 10, and long after I stopped formally dieting when faced with its dubious evidence of success, I ate by ever-shifting, elaborate sets of self-imposed rules. Those rules grew a new set of rules when I took on a job that involved eating absolutely everything, including two dinners in a row. Fear of food thrums through the media dedicated to it — see every time a food writer calls a recipe naughty or jokes about having to cut off carbs around the holiday — as does fear of being seen struggling with that fear, maybe because these jobs rely on our fragile bodies and senses. From restaurants, I ate what was interesting (whatever my definition of interesting was), and at home, I ate what was healthy (whatever my definition of healthy was).
Giving up alcohol and coffee was easier than sticking to my soft diet, in fact, because I kept trying to force every meal into a “healthy” form. A dietitian I was working with suggested, reasonably, that I loosen those self-imposed rules and focus on eating whatever I actually wanted to eat that wouldn’t do harm, even if that was a pint of ice cream. I had never eaten a pint of ice cream as a meal in my life; I was convinced this was some kind of food rubicon I would cross, and that afterwards, all my meals would become pints of ice cream. But one Saturday, on my way back from the beach, starving and stuck in traffic, I dove into a convenience store and bought the only ice cream I could find, Haagen-Dazs in pints. While crawling down PCH (Malibu is… fun?), I ate my fill of dulce de leche ice cream with a plastic spoon as it grew cool and viscous at the edges and felt like I’d won a prize. Literally nothing bad happened. Instead, two good things happened: I was no longer painfully hungry, and I’d had ice cream.
So in addition to my parade of soups and pureed soups and chicken salad from the chicken carcass that had become soup, I ate a significant amount of Straus fudge swirl ice cream for dinner at home, and then I ate it again for a snack the next day, and I became my grocery store’s best Straus ice cream customer, because Straus is a great and underrated fancy ice cream brand. I ate a pint of Jeni’s for lunch before heading to a backyard hang, and another pint of Haagen-Dazs on my way back from a camping trip. I started riding my bike to the (closer) beach and stopping for ice cream at local shops. It was a big deal when I could even get flavors with bits.
If you fear or fetishize a food, the advice is to eat it so often it becomes normal and unremarkable to eat. Eating ice cream as my go-to soft food helped me finally understand an approach I’d read about and talked about and maybe even believed I’d undertaken but obviously never had: eating to take care of myself. Not eating to feel something, or not feel something, or learn something, or report something, or achieve perfect health, or perform perfect taste, but eating to satisfy hunger and to heal, with absolutely no other restrictions in place. On all my meals, the pressure eased. I could make the same chicken soup for weeks in a row, even if that was not something a “food person” (whoever that is) would do; I could go a whole day without eating fruit if I was out of melon and peaches; I could eat microwaved mac and cheese if I could not stand to peel another vegetable. Eating what your body can eat, and wants to eat, is sometimes called intuitive eating, which makes it sound easy, or mindful eating, which makes it sound annoying. It’s hard, and it’s not annoying, though it does involve surprisingly powerful flashes of anger and frustration and grief.
As I got better and the list of things I could eat expanded, the level of stress I felt around food didn’t rise back to where it had been, and I had a clearer sense of what I actually wanted, whether that was a pile of bitter greens or a Nutella sandwich. But “better” is a tricky proposition; a friend with a long-term condition recently described it as Zeno’s arrow, always halving the distance but never arriving. I still have some pain, and my meals tend a little soft. And parts of my mind want to set a date for when we’ll cut off the ice cream.
I’m angry, and I’m sad, that I used to powerfully fear a simple food, and that part of me still does, and that the only actual effect of that fear is to make me want to eat a painful amount of ice cream before it is taken away. At the worst of my injury, friends would say enviously, Oh, at least you get to eat all this ice cream. But guess what: We all do, whenever we want.
Meghan McCarron is Eater’s special correspondent