The question of whether early gluttony for, say, corn on the cob is an innate or acquired trait is just the sort of debate that misses the point entirely. To paraphrase the elegant MFK Fisher: When I write about gluttony, I am writing about a gluttony for joy, a gluttony for excellence, and — frequently — a gluttony for any foodstuff bathed with melted butter.
The sheer force of all three desires acting in concert could make someone stuff themselves with, for example, joy-producing, truly excellent shrimp scampi, or any other butter delivery system, more shrimp scampi than they would have thought polite or possible — if shrimp were their particular game. My particular game showed up at supper one night when I was four: How many ears of corn could I eat at dinner? The first score was three. Three big ones plus whatever else we were having.
(The influence of my family played a huge part. Grandpa Pilbeam had sensitized my taste-buds before I could even form the words, “I want more corn,” by happening to grow and feed us the most spectacularly sweet and creamy bi-color corn that had subtle back-notes of nutmeg, honey, and vanilla, picked when the kernels were almost uniformly the size of a baby’s first teeth and each with that same pearly sheen. To this day, I know exactly what an ear of corn should look like and what it should taste like, even though this curses me with knowledge of what no longer exists. I had a bowl of fresh corn soup in Pt. Reyes Station a few years ago, at Osteria Stellina, that came close but even that hasn’t been replicated since. I should have eaten a gallon of it when I had the chance.)
A little context here: I’ve said on numerous occasions in my adult, non-eating life that children with disabilities, like me, deserve the chance to do what they do well (like eating with gusto, taste, and appetite) and one thing that didn’t help me was getting a whole lot of praise for doing what was not actually all that difficult for me. When this supper was eaten, I was still pretty new to walking, and life, upright, was a matter of considerable concentration and frequent falling down. I wasn’t a huge fan of playing in groups with most non-physically disabled children my age in part because their sudden movements made me uneasy that a minor shove would send me flying. A spindly, perpetually tired thing, I was a wall-hugger who couldn’t perform even that basic act of being a child: I wasn’t able to sit easily on the floor but instead suffered to sit awkwardly on some hastily produced chair, above the others and stiff as a Victorian royal at a beach barbeque. Though I loved it in other ways, I felt like an outsider even at my “special” preschool because almost every other girl used a wheelchair.
At this point, the best guess was that I had cerebral palsy atypical and, in the prior spring, I’d been fitted with my first Milwaukee back-brace to treat my scoliosis. I was a bundle of medical confusions. But although it sounds odd, I didn’t find being physically fragile, or talking to doctors, or having having body casts made, or being kind of tired most of the time, or tippy on my feet, or playing by myself, or having my legs gently stretched my mother and various physical therapists, or a bunch of x-rays taken, or even just the seemingly vast amounts of time spent waiting in little exams rooms or making our long way through hospital halls, down to the basement’s brace shop and whirring saws painful, scary, or difficult. (Starting to wear the brace was difficult.) Patience, chatting quietly with my mother, gamely going along with a boring set of exercises –these were not hard tasks for me. What made me feel uncomfortable and guilty almost immediately was what felt like unearned praise for what was easy. What was much harder was my mother’s occasional efforts to dress me like a…girl. Shudder. I knew who I was and who I was not. Like all people, like all children, I wanted to be excellent at doing something. Something of my choice. Something that gave me joy.
But there I was, in our knotty-pine kitchen in Greece, New York, planted in my booster seat, back to the window with the shutters I liked to play with, opening and closing them, but right now eating supper like we always did at 5:30, the four of us, my parents and brother with me in the easy light of an early evening in high summer, and at some point during the second ear, I felt myself settle into a new but comfortable state of mind. There was a deep and warm sense of well-being in my belly and, in retrospect, I feel the room around me falling back, blurred and quiet. It was just me and an ear of delicious, delicious corn. My hands, my teeth, my stomach were the finely tuned machine that I was fully in control of. No more than a beat after the gnawed-clean cob hit my plate, I said: “I’ll have another one,” to my mother who immediately appeared skeptical. My father laughed a little. My mother said, “Oh you can’t.” My brother scoffed.