Think of the last time you felt hungry. Truly hungry. Maybe you unintentionally skipped a meal and felt the cramps your stomach gives when you’ve gone too long without eating. Maybe it was intended for the sake of feeling thin, or because someone suggested that you shouldn’t eat that helping. Sadly, given economic difficulties, hunger on college campuses is a significant issue as well. Whatever the case may be, I hope you eat every chance you get, because I didn’t learn how to appreciate a meal until I couldn’t take a bite.
For six weeks and a half weeks I went without eating solid food. It wasn’t a choice nor something I was willing to endure. Born with a severe underbite, food restrictions weren’t foreign to me as anyone who ever had braces could tell you – but the only way to correct maxillary hypoplasia is with surgery. To go without it was to risk future problems according to my orthodontist. He described it as a life of excruciating pain, as though the sessions I had with him digging into my gums didn’t prepare me for such.
It was summer of 2008 when I had my corrective surgery and I wish I could say that my final meal before having my mouth wired shut was a feast to end all feasts – a buffet of my favorite dishes. A cornucopia comprised of anything out of the ordinary to keep memories of the array of tastes and textures that food holds as I lived on without it. Instead, the last solid nourishment to go down my gullet was carnival food. Fried dough under a mountain of powdered sugar served on a flimsy paper plate at the Dutchess County fairgrounds.
I’ll spare the details of the surgery and the brief hospital stay. Not like I could do any great reporting on the Westchester Medical Center’s cuisine. The only necessary detail is knowing that my mouth was wired shut to help heal and stabilize the jaw. It sounds traumatic and I can’t deny that it wasn’t, but just imagine braces that held your mouth shut by looping wires through the top and bottom brackets. The tension was tight enough to prevent any leeway or budging.
The first week of recovery was the easy part. Appetite was non-existent and I spent most of my time sleeping through the pain. The following weeks seemed to also play in my favor with my diet essentially consisting entirely of milkshakes and jello or any other semi solid-liquid I could suck through my teeth. Yet I shed all the pounds I felt that I needed to lose, roughly 15 pounds on my then 150-pound frame. Entering my senior year of high school was ensured to be at the very least a good fresh start. But I wasn’t expecting Atlantic City.
I had never related more to Dracula in my life as I had when walking down Atlantic Avenue and being hit with the tantalizing aroma of meat cooking, primarily that of beef products. A hunger that I can only describe as gut wrenching took hold of me and remained with me for the remaining three weeks of my teeths imprisonment and with that hunger came a new wave of frustration.
A walking Snickers commercial, that’s what I was. Bitter and easy to irritate all on account of my stomach. Family dinners that were once a minor disruption became unbearable. It’s one thing to not have food to eat but it is an entirely different beast having to sit at the table and watch as others enjoy and not being able to have even a lick of it. I soon found myself moving away from chocolate and peanut butter milkshakes to blended up hamburger helpers. Spoiler alert, it’s really unpleasant attempting to suck up pulverized meat juice through your teeth and I don’t recommend consuming any meat in that fashion.
Eventually the day came to have the wires removed. Weak from not being used in a month and a half, my jaw was slack. Talking wasn’t pleasant, but neither was perpetually muttering through clenched teeth. I got a lot of weird looks and a few nicknames for my circumstances with that, lockjaw was my favorite pet name by far – but with the freedom to move my jaw once more I was ready for a plate.
A stack of pancakes was my first meal in my eating rehabilitation. Perfectly golden homemade pancakes with a dollop of butter and drenched in Aunt Jemima syrup. I doubt any meal, no matter how well done, could ever compare to the splendor that those pancakes gave me. Each bite was perfection, painful as well, but worth every bite. Little by little I worked my way up with food consistency, but the weight I lost over the course of nearly two months came back within a couple of weeks. Consider this testament as my anti-endorsement for liquid diets – they don’t work.
That whole ordeal has changed a lot about the way I look at food now. I’ve essentially sworn off anything that is a semi solid (Jello may never find its way into my digestive track again), and textured food has become a value to me and I would argue that I am far more adventurous of an eater now than I was before the operation. The bigger the crunch the better. But it’s also in many ways made me a more empathetic eater.
I know I’m fortunate in a great number of ways and that this recalling of mine might seem like a joke. There are people around the globe who don’t know when their next meal is coming, where I had a date circled on a calendar with enough nutrients in me to keep my health stable. According to Feeding America, a hunger relief organization based within the states, over 37 million Americans struggle with hunger each day. Eleven million people of that population are comprised of children.
Given my own experience, it’s truly incredible to me that people willingly fast, be it for health, their faith, or for reasons of higher understanding. Whatever the case may be, it’s a personal call that only an individual can make, but I’ll never consider going without food again if I can help it. There are some food experiences that are easily shared through stories and the written word, but for this – I’m not sure if someone can understand going without until they’ve actually gone without. And I don’t wish that on anyone.