by Shoshana Lepon
During the first months of my previous pregnancy, my friend Ruth found me wandering aimlessly down the aisle of our small neighborhood minimarket.
"Shoshana!" she hailed me. "How are you?"
"Famished," I confessed as I continued searching the racks of bottles, cans and packets. "But I'm not sure what I want."
It was too early to announce, but I didn't need to spell it out. Ruth smiled and pointed the way to the frozen pizzas.
In the visitors' lounge of the maternity ward, seven months later, we could laugh about it. I realized how despairing I must have looked. How despairing I felt.
This morning nausea hit the moment I opened my eyes. Once more I am caught between the conflicting sensations that food has become my adversary as well as my salvation.
I got dressed and walked over to the store. After a long search I settled on a can of chickpeas and a bag of chocolate milk for breakfast. It was the only thing that seemed even remotely palatable. Once I had gotten past the first meal of the day I had to plan for the next, but the thought of going into the kitchen to make my family lunch made my stomach lurch. Suddenly, I cannot bear the smell of cooking food.
Why hasn't my body gotten used to being pregnant by now? It's not like it's the first time (or the second, or the third...)! And yet as soon as morning sickness sets in I become obsessed with what to eat and where to get it.
"I'm so hungry," I tell my husband, but nothing he suggests appeals to me. I try to describe what I'm craving: it's not too strong-tasting, not too strong-smelling; nothing wet and runny; nothing made up of too many different ingredients; it's sort of neutral, filling, crispy...Aha! "You know what I want right now? Those little frozen potato puffs we used to get in the States!"
They and only they will do. A trip abroad is beyond our means (truthfully, so are Israeli frozen foods), but the next day my husband makes good. The small market near our home in the Old City doesn't carry such frivolities, so he takes a special trip into town and brings home the spoils.
The Israeli version of potato puffs turns outs to be frozen potato latkes with lots of pepper and parsley. They are spicier and greasier than their U.S. counterparts and probably three times the price, but they fit the bill. I fill the freezer and firmly tell the kids that these are only for Imma. Okay...you can each have one to taste, but we're not switching the whole family over to fast foods.
Tonight I got a call from a friend I have not spoken to in years. Judy from my old kibbutz.
"I was thinking about you, and I thought I'd phone."
We caught up on news, and then I asked if the kibbutz children still sleep in children's houses as they did when I was there.
"Oh, no!" says Judy. "They've been sleeping at home for years."
"And does your family eat in the communal dining hall?" By now my stomach is directing the conversation.
"No, most of the time we eat at home, by ourselves."
"You mean you COOK?!"
Judy laughs. "I mean I bring lunch and supper home from the main kitchen."
"But I do cook sometimes!" protests Judy.
"Listen," I assure her, "I don't blame you. There are lots of times I wish I could also bring home food from the kibbutz kitchen. It sounds like a dream!"
I hang up and go for the frozen latkes. The rest of the evening is spent reminiscing about the bland but dependably tasty fare that was served on kibbutz. There were no surprises: it had to appeal to six hundred different palates. But there were no disappointments, either.
My mind plays strange tricks on me during these months. We listen to reports about Allied troops in the Gulf, and I am off wondering what army rations taste like. Time magazine shows a triumphant First Family relaxing in the Oval Office, and I begin to muse...three meals a day in the White House. The best china; the best chefs.... Now I know living on Pennsylvania Avenue has its share of stress. But does Barbara ever have to worry about what to make for dinner?
Sometimes I think I'd take any job there is, accounting, secretarial, assembly line...just to be able to sit myself down in the company cafeteria once (or twice?) a day and be served a meal that I did not have to see in the making (and whose remains I would not have to reckon with).
You can look at it two waysthere's eating and then there's the "dining experience." Being escorted to a table and being served food with which one was previously unacquainted is like a romance. The thrill is in the moment; the past does not exist and the future is painted in vague pastels.
But when you have to rummage through the fridge to figure out what to cook...when you have to confront the dishes and the leftovers...that's a more familiar kind of relationship. The kind that weathers dirty socks and stubborn flus and muddy footprints on the kitchen floor. Real life things like that. Of course, I'm all for real life, but during these first months I often yearn for candlelit dinners in faraway places where courses appear in pristine loveliness and vanish later into oblivion.