Husbands and wives have probably been fighting about food, I guess, all the way back to Adam and Eve and the piece of fruit she plucked off the tree. When I was in grad school, I had to read The Book of Margery Kempe, another religious story about a woman who travels from Europe to the Holy Land in the 14th century wailing and sobbing and hallucinating from her intense love of Jesus Christ. Other than the fact that this woman was always crying, the only thing I took away from its 300 pages were the pleas of her husband: Eat meat again! Have sex with me! No sex? OK, well, at least eat meat again!
(Oh my god, I hated that book. Apologies to Professor Larry Sutin, in the extremely unlikely case he’s reading this.)
When I read the book, I was a vegetarian, and my husband was not. But we didn’t fight about food then—it’s only now, a few years after I gave up grain and sugar, that I find myself in Margery’s shoes, somewhat. I still think my husband would choose sex over sugar, but we clash so much over food these days that at almost every meal I find myself thinking about Margery and her husband.
This woman who couldn’t read or write dictated her pilgrimages to a priest and formed one of the first works of creative nonfiction, one of the first memoirs as we know them today, which is why my classmates and I were reading it en route to our MFAs. I think we were supposed to be looking at the pacing of time and the voice and style, but I got hung up on the meat thing. Why would the husband, John Kempe, care if his wife ate meat?
My professor’s answer was that I should consider more carefully the cultural norms and living conditions of the 1300s and 1400s. Women did all the cooking. Margery’s refusal to eat meat didn’t just change her diet, it changed that of her husband, too. Moreover, meat was a luxury, and she was apparently from a better-off family than his—he couldn’t afford his own meat any more than he could have nuked it in a microwave. Plus, there were no alternatives like Boca Burgers or tofu back then; you ate a meager bowl of vegetables and bread, and a lack of protein probably wasn’t great for lives that were more physically demanding than today’s.
I think about John and Margery when Jason and I argue over diet. Strangely, some of the same issues pop up, in different ways. Why does Jason care if I don’t eat carbohydrates? A lot of it’s because, like most women in the 14th century and still 600-plus years later, I cook for our family though Jason is able to–and often does–make his own meals. Like John might have, Jason also feels we too, are missing something our bodies need, though I argue—what? Not fiber. Not protein. Not vitamins. Not fat. Not aminos or omegas. Why do we need grains and sugar?
Of course, it also boils down to money: While John craved more expensive food, Jason wants cheaper food.
Margery justifies her abstinence from meat by her belief in her god almighty. I justify my abstinence from sugar, grain, dairy, processed foods, etc., from a belief that perhaps it helps my son’s autism, making it easier to calm himself and focus. The Book of Margery Kempe recounts the Lord Jesus Christ speaking to Margery—he is a full character in this work of nonfiction, as she sees him plain as day. I, too, see changes in my son plain as day. Was she crazy? Am I crazy?
I suppose if strong enough, our faith, at some point, becomes tangible. I take strength and comfort from the fact I am doing something concrete. Like Margery, I’ve traded comfort food (hers savory, mine sugary) for comfort faith.
(But unlike her, I doubt I’ll start roaming the countryside weeping until I turn blue. Seriously. This lady was always sobbing.)