Elegy for an AppetiteShaina Loew-Banayan
Pank Books, 2022 $18.00
Society has a way of building conflictual, arbitrary structures around basic truths: sex, love, beauty, food. The basics of survival come laden with enormous baggage, so much so that hardly any human manages to survive to adulthood without developing conflicts they need to untangle.
Consider the case of Shana Loew-Banayan, whose passion and talent for fine food came hand-in-hand with an eating disorder. The chef/owner of Cafe Mutton in Hudson, Loew-Banayan (who uses they/them pronouns) loved food and studied cooking from a young age, but learned early that peer pressure and restrictive cultural concepts about body image complicated the purity of that passion.
They tell their story eloquently in Elegy for an Appetite, an insightful, freeform, and lyrical memoir that traces their trajectory from earliest culinary experiences through the kitchens of elite New York eateries and up to Hudson. “To worship starving and cooking side by side was to dance compulsively around a circle of longing and loathing,” they write of their internal conflict, “but we don’t always consider those things before apprenticing ourselves to the mind’s twitching jigsaw.”
Anybody who’s been a tween will relate to the body image stressors and pressures to conform that led Loew-Banayan to confound the simple joy in cooking and the turmoil of eating. “Chubby began to stalk me like a shadow does just nipping at your heels as though if you stop moving it’ll consume you & even if you don’t it might swoop around and face you anyway at the fickle whim of the sun,” they write. “At my birthday party a girl told me that the whipped cream on my ice cream sundae would make my butt fat. I don’t think I really knew what that meant or that I even had a butt but I could tell that a Fat Butt was very bad.”
By 15, Loew-Banayan had “begun to swap out food for words and pictures & my brain devoured information about all I desired to eat but couldn’t.” The skills and knowledge base they acquired were the foundation for a career that led to progressively higher-end jobs, and the bright and shiny world of Michelin-starred restaurants proved to add still more layers of complication to an already complex relationship with nourishment.
It’s not news that behind the orderly, glittering facade of a highly rated restaurant lies the hot and hectic world of the kitchen, where egos clash like knives amid high expectations and challenging realities. Through Loew-Banayan’s sharp eyes and incisive retelling, we get a sense of the dynamics that are sometimes hilarious, sometimes heartachey. They’re all about seeing through the pretentious, pointless aspects to the flavor at the heart of the matter: “Chef said ok so cooking is work not fun. Jesus Christ what a douche I had thought in that moment but it didn’t really matter either way I had tried his desserts; they tasted so precise almost like he could hear the ingredients,” they write of one experience. “Most people couldn’t hear them too drunk too nourished & therefore too distracted but I was so hungry I never missed a note.”
Through it all, the tension of their own relationship to food adds layers of uncommon insight—along with a thorough condemnation of the sexism and fatphobia rampant in that milieu. Even as head chef, walking into a high-end kitchen “packing a vag” means condescension, kisses on the head, and lingerie for Christmas. It’s absurd, and they call it out deliciously.
Loew-Banayan offers no oversimplified solutions because there are none. (They were once told by a therapist that being a chef with eating issues was impossible and just never went back.) Their journey to Hudson, a joyful marriage, and a kitchen where the rules are their own will fascinate foodies in particular; their insights into becoming one’s own person are fresh and delicious, sticking to the ribs like a perfect stew.
—Anne Pyburn Craig
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