Recreational Eating

Hooray for the mouth. Sing its praises. Such a versatile capable orifice. Gateway to the stomach, conduit for food and drink. Home to the tongue and teeth. Framed by soft pink lips. The mouth speaks. Sings. Whispers. Shouts. Blows. Swallows. Sucks. Spits. Swills. Gargles. Kisses. Licks. Smiles.

Until it doesn’t.

I never gave much thought to my mouth until it started to fail me. The first glitch I noticed was an inability to speak crisply. Consonants began to sound sloppy, alarming for a person who has always prided herself on clear enunciation. Gradually, as the muscles of my tongue, cheeks, and lips have weakened and grown sluggish, the gymnastics of blowing and sucking and spitting and swilling and licking and swallowing have all become impossible too. Even mounting smiles and kisses is challenging. I think my mouth has become vestigial.

Although I wish this weren’t happening, I don’t mean to complain. It has been fascinating to observe this capable orifice becoming of little use to me. Tomorrow I will have a feeding tube inserted in my belly via laparoscopic surgery. It will allow me to bypass my mouth in order to effortlessly ingest food, medications, and water. Whatever I eat via mouth from now on is considered, by the medical community, “recreational eating.”

Recreational eating — what an unexpected and glorious term. Eating for fun! But hasn’t eating always been partly recreational, because it’s so often done as a celebration in the presence of others? Meals eaten on the run, in the car, on the street, at the office desk, are rarely satisfying. It’s the attenuated meals we remember, those shared with friends and family punctuated by talk and laughter. This past spring when visiting the San Juan Islands, my husband and I participated in such a meal. We were invited to lunch early on a Sunday afternoon. It was one of the first warm days of the season. A group of six, we sat outside at a table overlooking the ocean. We began the meal passing around a series of simple but delectable hors d’oeuvres brought by one of the guests, a man from Italy. Various cheeses. Pancetta. Tapenade. Homemade bread and crackers. We drank his homemade wine. As our plates emptied we rested for a while in the sun, telling stories and admiring the view, scanning the horizon for whales. The next course was grilled salmon, roasted potatoes, and salad fresh from the garden of our hostesses. We ooh’d and aah’d and agreed we’d never tasted anything so good, food seasoned by sun and friendship. More resting and talking ensued. Then we sampled some sweets: homemade Italian biscuits and dried fruit. The sun, low on the horizon by now, shed orange and gold light onto the water. We looked at our watches. We had been lunching for almost six hours. Recreational eating in spades.

I was a kid when the story of Karen Ann Quinlin was in the news. She was a woman who was in a comatose state, kept alive by a feeding tube. A debate raged about whether she should be disconnected from the tube. A feeding tube — how terrible, my sisters and I thought. Who would ever want to be kept alive with a feeding tube? What kind of life would that be? Certain things one never imagines for oneself.

I can’t deny that there’s a certain quiet drama associated with the end of eating as I’ve known it. Like most humans, I love food, and I’ve loved it even more because of having a husband who not only loves to cook, he’s a superior cook, a fact well-known around town so people place high bids on his meals as local fundraising auctions. He grew up in an Italian-Filipino family in which everyone cooked and days were often organized around the meals. Living with him, I’ve been spoiled.

Recently, maybe counterintuitively, I’ve been enjoying browsing through glossy magazine pictures of food and imagining eating all kinds of dishes, even those I never particularly liked before. This activity is surprisingly satisfying. I’ve had cravings, like a pregnant woman, for things I might still be able to eat. Wontons. Soft meal balls. French fries. On TV I saw a man eating a ham and cheese sandwich on a crusty baguette and I found myself swooning. I don’t remember craving such sandwiches in the past, but now I would adore one. So, my relationship to food had changed. Along with these cravings I am oblivious to the demands of a balanced diet. Whatever appeals and slides down easily is fair game. How adaptable we are as human beings.

So how does Thanksgiving, the quintessential recreational meal, look with a feeding tube? My husband and I have developed a plan not only for Thanksgiving but for any meal we will be sharing with friends. I’ll sit at the table along with everyone else, a plate before me. The plate will contain small samples of what is being served. A spoonful of stuffing. A dollop of mashed potatoes. A small cup of carrot soup. I’ll eat slowly, bite by bite, tiny portions so as not to choke. And between bites I’ll watch the others eat, applauding their zest and channeling their enthusiasm, because a significant part of the enjoyment of eating is slowing down and savoring not only the food but the company of fellow humans nourishing ourselves as a tribe.

Cai Emmons is the author of 5 books of fiction, most recently the novel, SINKING ISLANDS. Two more of her novels will be published in 2022.