“Tell me I’m sane,” I said.
There was a pause on the other end. And then he finally spoke.
I sighed. “Freddy, come on.”
“Give me some context, then.”
To be fair, I had not replied to his “hello” with my own “hello.” And I had not prefaced my mildly desperate command with any other explanation.
It’s just that…I had spent the weekend trying to figure out what was going on with me. And hoping that I was just imagining what was going on with me.
“I’m having auditory hallucinations,” I said. “My food is speaking to me.”
Another pause from Freddy, then, “I’m hanging up.”
“No! Wait! This is not…” I let out a sharp sigh. “This is not what I’ve been telling you guys all along.”
For weeks, I’d been going on and on about my new eating strategy. It was my new idea for how to get myself to cook more at home, and eat better, while still treating myself, and not denying myself anything, and not giving up on the whole thing and going back to eating out all the time.
Thursdays were for takeout. Takeout Thursdays. So every other day of the week, I had to prepare something at home. And to make it easy on myself, I had opened up my fridge and my pantry and asked my food to speak to me, tell me where it wanted to go, and what it wanted to be. I was just trying to get some inspiration. I decided that Fridays were pizza day, Saturdays were sandwiches, Sundays were sundaes (my favorite dessert, and for actual food I’d eat leftovers from Friday or Saturday). No imagination there. Mondays were mac n’ cheese, because I needed comfort food on the first workday of the week. Tuesdays were tacos—still no imagination. And Wednesdays…
It started with the cookies. So that would have been Wednesday. It was a package mix for chocolate chip cookies (I added some extra). They came out of the oven smelling sweet and buttery.
“You smell divine,” I had said.
And to my surprise, several sweetly voices answered, “Thank you.”
It startled me, naturally. My heart skipped a beat. And as the shock faded, I had looked at the cookies and laughed at myself. I glanced up at the second floor. The sound had obviously carried from up there. My neighbors were obviously watching a movie or something. And the response to my comment had obviously been a cute coincidence.
But then it happened again on Thursday. I got takeout, as per the plan. I opened the freezer to grab some ice when I heard a voice.
Not in my mind. But with my ears. I heard a voice.
“Do I have to wait till Sunday?”
I glanced over at the half-full tub of vanilla ice cream in the far corner.
I frowned and closed the door. I glanced up at the ceiling again, wondering if my neighbors were watching something again. They didn’t sound as if they were home, and even when I heard them, it didn’t sound so clear, and so distinctive, and from such a specific direction.
Still, I was able to dismiss it.
But Friday was when it really started up. I made my pizza dough and let it rise while I took a shower. I queued up the movie I’d already chosen to watch and put all my devices on “Do Not Disturb.”
I started gathering all the toppings for the pizza, and when I grabbed the pepperoni, a voice spoke.
“Again? Didn’t you say you were going to ‘mix things up’?”
I almost dropped the pepperoni, along with everything else I had in my arms at the time, the jar of sauce, the jar of olives, the new package of mozzarella, the container of chopped bell peppers.
I set everything down on the counter and stared at the pepperoni.
“Let it go,” the jar of pizza sauce said. “Mix it up. Don’t mix it. It doesn’t matter. Anyway, the mozzarella is a different brand. Did you notice that?”
“I am?” the mozzarella said. It sounded young, almost like a little kid. At this point my eyes were wide, and I’d taken a few steps back, only stopping because I’d backed into the counter on the opposite side of the kitchen.
“We just want a break,” said the package of pepperonis. “It’s been us three weeks in a row already.”
It wasn’t my imagination putting on a goofy little play. I could hear them with my ears. Each voice was distinct. The pepperoni was sharp and rich. The sauce was tart and sassy.
I shook my head. It had been a busy week. I had slipped a little with my sleep schedule. I was having a moment probably. I stepped back toward the pizza ingredients.
Saying nothing, only listening, I assembled the pizza and stuck it in the oven. I winced as I closed the oven door. I don’t know, maybe I was expecting the sounds of screaming and wailing.
But there was no more speaking.
The pizza was delicious. I noticed that even though I was distracted while eating it. I couldn’t remember what happened in that movie I’d been looking forward to watching.
I only ate one slice. I put the rest in the fridge and went to bed. I had hesitated when I opened the fridge. I glanced around at all the pizza ingredients I’d used, wondering if one of them—probably the pepperonis—would say “I told you so” when I put most of the leftovers in the fridge.
But there were no more voices that night.
I went to bed, on the verge of concern, but still hoping I just needed sleep, restful sleep.
The next morning, Saturday morning, still in my pajamas, I went to open my fridge and see what I felt like making for breakfast. I was hungry, having not eaten much at dinner the night before.
I was feeling like eggs. Scrambled eggs.
I pulled out the carton and placed it on the countertop. And it was nice of them to wait until I wasn’t holding them before they spoke.
I would have dropped them otherwise.
“I want to be scrambled. It sounds like fun.”
Maybe they knew that.
“No, pick me, you can make an omelet, and then put cheese in the middle, and toast up some bread, and make a sandwich. It’s sandwich day.”
“No, me. I want to be over easy, and then sprinkle some paprika on me, and put me on a piece of toast with butter. Butter, are you in?”
“Sounds good. I’m in,” a muffled voice said.
I glanced back. The voice had come from the fridge. The butter, I assumed.
I put a hand to my forehead. That’s when I decided that I had to do something.
I told Freddy all of this.
He sighed, and I could imagine his eye roll. “You know what this is, right?”
I nodded. I knew what he was going to suggest. “I’ve already checked for hidden cameras or mini-speakers. This is not one of our dumb friends pranking me.”
“Do you want me to come over and double-check? And if your food is really talking to you, we can see if I hear them too?”
Freddy came over, and my plans to relax alone that weekend were pushed back to whenever I solved my…thing that was happening.
I hadn’t had lunch, afraid that my sandwich ingredients would start clamoring for attention. So I was pretty hungry by the time he arrived in the late afternoon.
We decided to stick with my theme and make sandwiches. I opened my fridge, half-confident that I wouldn’t hear a thing, because someone was there, and half-worried that I would hear something but Freddy wouldn’t therefore confirming that something was wrong with me. And then there was a small part of me that wondered if my food would talk, and if Freddy would hear it too. I didn’t go far enough down that lane of thought to reason what that would mean.
I didn’t have to.
There was silence from the refrigerator. Silence from the pantry.
Freddy didn’t ask me anything. He knew I would tell him if I heard anything. We made our meatball sandwiches, heated up some frozen crinkle cut fries, and watched that movie together that I’d been trying to watch alone. I had a great time. It had been a few months since I’d had anyone over. And since it was just one person, I didn’t have much clean-up.
I slept well that night.
And the next morning, I wandered into the kitchen and sat down at the dining table. I drummed my fingers on the table, wondering if I should make some coffee or pour some orange juice.
“Don’t wait till dessert,” a voice said.
A spike of fear passed through my heart. I gulped and stared at the bunch of bananas in the basket on the dining table.
“I’m ready now. Ready to be the star attraction. You can’t have ice cream for breakfast and still feel good about the day. But you can have me.”
I could tell which of the three bananas on the bunch had spoken.
I reached over and snapped it off the bunch. I started to unpeel it, then stopped. But the banana was silent now. I took a bite.
“You look so good,” another banana said. “You must have gotten a lot of sleep. You look confident and strong. I was going to ask you to pick me for later, but it’s okay if you don’t. I have some suggestions, but we can talk about that later.”
But it sounded so sincere that I couldn’t help but to smile. I examined the banana that had spoken. It was spotted and brown. It was riper than the others.
You’re sweet, I thought.
Later that same day, I opened the pantry.
“I can be anything, anything you need, boss,” a dry but confident voice said. “So many different things. So many different possibilities.”
I glanced over at the canister where I stored my all-purpose flour.
“You know, I don’t know what to choose today actually,” the flour said. “Maybe tomorrow. Somebody else can take the stage today. I’ll think on what I want to be.”
“Eat me,” a silky voice whispered. “I’m easy, really easy. No preparation. No waiting. And you don’t have to add any heat. All you have to do…is undress me.” I glanced over at the milk chocolate bar sitting seductively on the tub of rice.
I slammed the pantry closed. I felt a blush pass across my face.
“This is ridiculous.”
I called Freddy again.
“What is your food saying?” he asked. “Is it telling you to do anything objectively dangerous, like hurting yourself or others?”
I frowned and shook my head. “No. It’s just telling me how it wants to be prepared, or when it wants to be eaten.” I wiped my brow with the back of my hand.
“Is it asking you to consume it in dangerous ways?” Freddy asked. “Like eating raw chicken?”
“Nothing like that. Just stuff like, like the chicken tells me, ‘make me into a pot pie, that’s what I feel like being.’ Stuff like that.”
“All right, well it sounds harmless so far, but it is unusual that you’re actually hearing words. Let’s keep an eye on it then. If something dangerous happens, like if your bottle of bleach starts saying ‘drink me,’ let’s watch for stuff like that.”
“I obviously would not listen to my bleach if it wanted me to drink it.”
“Yeah, of course, I’m just saying we should be cautious and vigilant. Monitor the situation. Have you been doing what the food asks you to do all the time?”
I paused a moment, thinking. “Well, I guess I’ve been getting around it. Like if I wanted scrambled eggs, and some of the eggs wanted to be an omelet, and some wanted to be scrambled, I would just the ones that wanted to be scrambled.”
“What are you doing if you have no choice? Say you have one chicken breast, and it tells you it wants to be chicken parmigiana, and you want something else—lemon pepper, or whatever. Have you ever tried not listening to what the food wants to be?”
“I guess I haven’t really tried that.”
So I tried it.
With a chicken breast, actually. It wanted to be boiled and made into chicken salad for a Saturday sandwich. But I marinated it with some lime juice and spices, and I cooked it up in a pan. It was going well, and I heard not a single word of complaint from the chicken breast. My sides were already done, so when the doorbell rang, I went to answer it, meaning to come right back. At the same time, my phone rang, and it was my sister. So I answered that too.
When I opened the door, it was a delivery. I waved my thanks to the driver as I said “hello” to my sister.
She had called to tell me she’d just gotten her first promotion at work. She hooted so loudly, I had to pull the phone away from my ear. She started telling me all about it, and I got so caught up in her excitement, I forgot about my chicken breast. It wasn’t until I caught the smell of burning that I realized I’d forgotten about it, and I ran over to the kitchen to pull the pan off the stove just in time to avoid triggering the smoke alarms.
I didn’t think much of it. What was a burned chicken breast compared to the news that my little sister was moving up in the world. She apologized as if it were her fault. I told her she could make it up to me by buying me dinner now that she would be rolling in money. And that was that.
Until the next morning, when the fruit puff cereal on the top of my fridge cried out to be consumed. But I wanted peanut butter toast. And I made peanut butter toast.
When I closed the fridge door after grabbing the cream for my coffee, the box of fruit puff cereal tipped over to the side. I must not have secured the top the last time I ate from it. The flap came loose and half the cereal poured between the fridge and the adjacent wall.
I had to move the fridge to clean it all up, and when I reached over to right the box, I hesitated for a moment, as if the box might bite.
I continued my defiance over the next few days, even if I actually felt like eating what my food wanted me to eat. Burning and spilling food were common household accidents, and not even serious ones.
Staining a favorite shirt was a little more serious.
I wasn’t supposed to be making pasta sauce. I had the ladle perched on the handle of the saucepan, while I went to go grab a bowl for my pasta. My elbow hit the handle, the ladle flipped up and tumbled over, and as it went, it spattered pasta sauce all over the right sleeve of my shirt.
But even that was nothing compared to what happened on the Mac n’ Cheese Monday. I made rice instead. With some beans and frozen vegetables in it. I planned to put cheeses on top. I was making rice in my all-purpose cooker. I thought I had my hand covered in a towel before I hit the steam release, but I didn’t. And I got a steam burn. It wasn’t too bad. But then after I removed the lid, I burned the same hand again, on the side of the still-hot steel bowl inside the cooker.
When Freddy called, I was holding a rag full of ice to my hand, while I sat at my kitchen table, having lost my appetite, wondering if all the kitchen misfortunes over the past few days had been normal, or if my food was striking back at me for defying it, or if was mind was doing all of it, generating the hallucination to help me and subtly causing the accidents to get me back in line.
Was my own mind resisting my resistance?
I let the phone continue ringing, trying to decide if I should answer. At the last second, I used my wounded hand to answer.
“Haven’t heard from you for a few days,” Freddy said, after our “hellos.” “I called to see how you were doing.”
I told him how I was doing. I told him all about the past few days.
“People hurt themselves while they’re cooking all the time,” Freddy said, and I nodded through his whole sentence.
“Yes, yes they do.”
“I know you know that. I’m just saying it out loud. To help make it real.”
“It’s real enough already, but thanks.”
“You know, you’ve been telling me that your food keeps talking to you, but you haven’t told me what you’re saying to the food.”
I blinked. “What?”
“What are you saying to the food, when it talks to you? How are you responding?”
I drew in my brows. “I’m not.”
“You’re not responding?”
“No, that would…”
“Make it real?”
“That would be crazy.”
“Don’t say ‘crazy’.”
“Well what am I supposed to call this?”
Freddy was silent for a moment. “Do you have a therapist?”
I frowned. “No.”
“Maybe it’s a good idea for you to talk to one. I’m not equipped—“
“If you don’t want to help—“
“I didn’t say that! I just said, in addition to talking to me. In addition. I really, really think you should talk to someone who’s studied stuff like this. I mean, if you broke your leg, you wouldn’t be calling me to fix it. You’d go to a doctor, and then you’d call me to come visit you and cheer you up. Right?”
I sighed. “Yeah, I see your point. But…I’m probably the one who’s doing it. You know how when you’re walking and you look at something off to the side, and suddenly you’re veering in that direction? Because your attention is there? Maybe I knocked over the cereal box because I was focused on it. Maybe I burned the chicken breast because I got overconfident that things were going well. Instead of turning off the burner to deal with other stuff, I thought I could juggle it all, and I was wrong. And maybe I burned myself for the same reason. I was trying too hard, because I want so badly for the food to stop speaking.”
“Have you tried saying stuff to you food like ‘I’d like to do something different today?’”
“No, Freddy, that’s dumb. I don’t want to acknowledge that it’s real. That my food is actually talking to me.”
“So let’s assume that it’s not and you are hallucinating, because you mind is…uh, not functioning the way it usually does, about this one specific thing. Maybe your mind is trying to work something out, like how it does in dreams. So maybe you need to play out this hallucination, humor it. The good news is that you are still seeing the distinction between what most people experience as objective reality and what you’re experiencing. You decided on that ‘one food for each weekday’ method to help you start making food at home more. And your whole thing was to let your food guide you, so you don’t have to jump over the hurdle of deciding what to do with so. So…maybe, this hallucination is your mind speaking to you and saying that it’s not just about your food telling you how it wants to be prepared. Maybe it’s time for you to decide. This may be your mind’s way of telling you you’re ready start making choices and branching out. Something other than tacos on Tuesdays. Maybe it’s time for you to take control and tell the food what you want to do, and ask it politely to wait its turn or work with you and cooperate.”
The whole time Freddy was talking, I could feel my skin crawl. “Okay,” I said. “Feels silly, but I’ll try.”
And I did.
The next morning, the complaints started as soon as I opened the fridge.
Someone was running their mouth.
“I’m done. I don’t want to do anything. I never get to do my own thing. I’m always doing what you ask. I’m declaring my independence today. You can’t say anything.”
It was the milk. I hadn’t realized there was any left. I’d left the carton in the fridge as a reminder to get more milk (which on hindsight I realized was not a great reminder method).
“We told you so,” the cereal said from above me. My old friends, the fruit puffs. “We tried to tell you, anyway.”
“I don’t have to get along with coffee if I don’t want to,” the milk continued. “I don’t have to just disappear in a cake batter.”
“What going on with you?” I asked the milk. And it didn’t feel weird.
“Can’t you tell?” That was the cool and smooth voice of the butter.
I reached for the carton of milk, opened it, and sniffed the contents. I laughed. “It’s spoiled. I get it.”
“What about what I want to do?” the milk continued.
“You always get to do what you want to do,” butter said. “Almost every day.”
“But it looks like I’ve neglected you lately,” I said. “So what do you want to do?”
“Set me free!” the milk said. “I want to be emancipated.”
I shrugged and dumped the milk down the drain. And it whooped as if it were riding a roller coaster.
Maybe this is my life now, I thought.
That night, I wanted to make a vegetable stew, a new recipe I hadn’t tried. But I’d made similar stews before, so I didn’t think twice about deciding to add a potato in it for some extra heartiness, and to thicken the stock a bit.
But when I start peeling the potato, a few of the other vegetables protested.
“Look, we’ve got nothing against potatoes,” the mushrooms said. “But you’ve read the recipe. There’s not a potato in sight.”
“Yeah, we’ve never tried this before,” the leeks said. “You should make it the way it says the first time. Maybe next time we can let potato in. Or not…it might not belong in this soup.”
“I don’t know, guys, maybe we should give potato a chance,” the two carrots said.
“Simmer down, everyone,” I said, and I chuckled, because, well, I’d be simmering them soon. “I’m with the carrots. What’s the big resistance about potato anyway? Potato is classic. And some of you are…exotic? Classic and exotic together makes for a delicious stew, I say.”
“We didn’t say potato wasn’t classic,” said the mushrooms. “Just…well it doesn’t belong.”
I frowned. “That seems…” I was going to said “prejudiced,” but that seemed strange to say to and about vegetables. “Everyone, I’m asking you to trust me. Stew is a comfort food. But to make a good one, I’m asking us of all to get out of our comfort zones. Let’s try it. Maybe it won’t work. But I think it will. Because I’m pretty sure you’ll all be great together, if you give it a chance. What do you say?”
There was a solid “yes” from the carrots. The rest of the vegetables murmured their affirmatives.
I smiled. “That’s what I like to hear,” I said. “Let’s do this stew.”
And my unintentional rhyme made those hesitant murmurs turn into chuckles.
I just gave my vegetable stew a pep talk, I thought. I shook at my head at myself as I sliced through a happy little potato.
I was still nervous about the stew though, especially once I put them all together.
I hoped that the burner flame didn’t suddenly shoot up, or that the stew didn’t bubble over. I’d come and check on it every now and then. The vegetables had stopped talking. The food that spoke usually spoke until I was about to eat it, then it would go silent, which was a relief, because I definitely would not be able to eat anything that was still talking to me.
I had to let the stew simmer for a few hours, so I sat close by, but I did have to leave once or twice. At one point, I went to the bathroom, and when I came out and approached the kitchen, I heard the murmur of conversation, and some laughter. And for just a heartbeat, I forgot about the food, and thought there were people in my kitchen.
I crept slowly toward the kitchen. I spotted the stew still simmering on the front burner. It smelled amazing and rich already. I had just hoped it wouldn’t turn bitter from any vegetable rivalries. But as I approached, I heard the veggies laughing and joking with each other, like people hanging out in a hot tub. They were telling each other stories about how they grew up. The veggies that grew above ground asked questions of the ones who grew below ground about how they breathed. The ones that grew below ground thought the ones that grew above ground were brave for being out in the open.
If I didn’t think I was crazy, this would be nice and sweet, I thought.
When I stood before them, they turned their attention to me. They told me they were glad I introduced them to each other, and that I convinced them to give potato a chance, because I had been right. It was awkward at first, everyone was nervous. But then they all started talking about their common purpose, to make the stew work, and from there, the conversation just took off.
And I decided to go for it, and ask them the question I’d only been asking myself till then.
“So, are you guys real, or are you in my head? Am I imagining you? And if I’m imagining you, why now?”
“What are you talking about?” the mushrooms said. “We hardly know what’s going in our own minds. We can’t know what’s going on in yours, am I right?”
The other vegetables chucklingly agreed.
I nodded. “My friend has been trying to help me figure it out, but he thinks I should go see a therapist. I don’t know though. Do I really need to? You guys seems harmless enough.”
“What’s a therapist?” a piece of carrot asked, bobbing up and down in the simmering broth.
I creased my brows. “I don’t actually know, really,” I said. “Should I give one a chance?”
“Is a therapist as fun as a potato?”
I laughed at the leeks. “I don’t know. Probably not.”
“Then maybe you should think twice.”
I crossed my arms and grinned down at them. “Or maybe I should trust my friend, like how you trusted me?”
“Maybe,” a potato piece said.
“I’m not supposed to be able to hear you,” I said. “It’s not typical. Not for me, or for anyone, as far as I know. So I definitely need to look into it.”
I pulled out my phone and started walking away.
“We’ll be ready soon,” many voices said.
I nodded to them, and held up my phone. “I’m calling my friend. I’m inviting him to join me for dinner, to have the best stew I’ve ever made,” I said. “And to get me some help, maybe, with my questions.”
Copyright © 2020 Nila L. Patel