Feasting on the succulent, juicy Colombian beef sitting in front of me on a platter of glory was all that was on my mind. And chomping on the potatoes, perfectly crunchy on the outside and pillowy soft on the inside, while I sipped on a glass of dry red wine.
On this day nearly two years ago, I’d spent hours at the Bogotá Wine and Food Festival listening to chefs from all over South America — Santiago, Medellín, Lima — talk about the challenges of being female in professional kitchens. I left inspired, hearing women who loved food as much as I figuring out ways to honor cultural foodways in a way that felt true to them. But now, I was at El Chato in the Quinta Camacho barrio with other chefs and writers.
My cellphone had been on airplane mode all day, and I asked our waiter for the WiFi password. Instinctively, I checked my personal email, quickly scanning the subject lines. Delete, delete, delete. Archive, flag to read later. My eyes narrowed on one subject with the name of my best friend, Precious, combined with other words that shouldn’t have been in the same sentence — killed, fatal, car, accident.
I froze. Something unintelligible escaped my lips. I ran from the table in a stumbling daze to a nearby restroom. Shutting the door, I sat in the corner on the cold tile floor as I attempted to come to grips with what seemed unbelievable.
Moments before, I had been salivating at the food that lined the tables, and, just like that, in an instant that felt like an eternity, a raw, metallic taste settled in over my tongue. I’d lost my appetite.
*** *** *** ***
Food has always been my thing. Most of my childhood memories are intertwined with what I ate and how it made me feel. As I grew older, messing around in the kitchen for hours became a ripe field for creativity and a way to nurture myself. But, ironically, for food to be my thing, in the past few years as I navigated becoming a full-time freelance writer, I barely ate. I ignored my hunger, and I ignored myself.
What was most important was work. Toiling away for as many hours as possible. Pitching, writing, researching, filing invoices, following up on invoices, re-fielding rejected pitches. I repeated the following so often it was a mantra: I needed to work hard to prove how good I was. There was always something else to be finished. And then another hour would go by, another hour I neglected my hunger.
When I finally paid attention to the monster of my stomach, the last rays of sun would be disappearing. I’d cave and rush to get takeout. What I ate was rarely truly nourishing or fulfilling. It was, instead, a bridge. Something to get me through.
*** *** *** ***
I had never known how it felt to carry the weight of a bottomless void until my best friend’s death. Precious had been such a huge part of my life for almost a decade, when I was leaning into my voice and trusting my writing more.
We met, after all, as students in a graduate writing program. Her friendship was a combination of wisdom and vulnerability. I shared my depths and felt more empowered, more real, for doing so. We bonded over similar family histories. Often we laughed and cried over food, as she introduced me to new spots around Atlanta, where we lived. She often hinted that I cared too much about all the voices around me but my own, that I didn’t listen much to what I needed, what I hungered for. Her death shattered me because it reminded me how easy it was for me to feel alone, to catapult into that groundless space of not being truly known by another living soul.
In the most immediate days, weeks and months following her death, I sat stoically, staring into space, unable to think or even feel clearly. I’m innately a crier, but very few tears fell. Working was out of the question because my mind felt cluttered yet empty and unsettled. I drank more than I should have. When I should have been leaning on other friends for emotional support, I was cutting most of them off because it was too much to deal with. I felt more isolated than ever. My grief became a rock-hard cocoon I dared anyone to interfere with. And no one did. I mostly grieved alone.
It was then, within the doldrums of grieving and trying to trudge forward through numbing, expansive disbelief, that I noticed something. I was hungry all the time.
And I hungered for many other things it had become second nature to ignore. I wanted more travel, more experiences like that one in Bogota, where I could immerse myself in the food, people and stories of other cultures. Instead of being mindlessly busy, bored and expertly distracting myself, I wanted to feel more in awe of my life.
Finding my way came slowly. I had awakened with feeling so empty and forlorn, the least I could do was fill myself with something. Nourishing food was a bare minimum start.
I stopped shrugging off the concept of meal prepping and started thinking ahead to what I would eat every day. I grocery-shopped strategically rather than randomly giving into whatever craving struck me at dinner, my sole meal of the day. I may not have been removed from the morose cloud that hung over me, but at least I was treating my hunger with respect, not background noise.
*** *** *** ***
I don’t look back on the past two years with self-admiration. Because all I have done is persevere through the depths of my pain. I have survived a disappointment that not even time, and the supposed healing that accompanies it, can soothe. But I have unearthed a new perspective.
I have spent more time traveling than wondering what my life would be if it were fuller and brighter. I learned about bees and manuka honey straight from the source in New Zealand, traveled back to Colombia and ate empanadas in Medellín, noshed on Lyonnais cuisine in an old-school bonchon in Lyon. I ate fish and chips in London, marveled at sunsets in Lisbon while eating as many pasteis de nata as I could fathom, and danced with old ghosts — and tortilla española — in Madrid, where I had lived years ago.
On an average day now, I eat twice. Sometimes I fail at my quest of eating more and settle on the one meal that was for so long a standard. But those days have become fewer and fewer. I’m no longer afraid to listen to myself. I know that only I can take care of myself in the way I need. I’ve achieved a balance, where I work to sustain my life and needs, but I also take the time to breathe.
I’m positively exhausted with all the traveling I’ve done, all I’ve seen, eaten and experienced. But I am filled with all the right things. And my hunger no longer spirals out of control.
Okona is a freelance travel and food writer based in Atlanta.