Eating L.A. Before it Eats Itself: Eating reflected my feelings throughout college

Sophia Quintos | Daily Trojan

College is a place of undeniable learning — a hub of talented minds exploring their potential before entering the cruel, harsh world. It’s a place of education, esteemed education, where professors are selected and students are chosen, a cultivated environment of instruction that is designed to perfect the unpolished minds of high school students and fledgling undergrads. 

When I entered college, I expected to learn — and I did. I’ve earned my degree after four years of toil and labor. But more importantly, and at risk of being cliche, the most important education I received occurred outside of a classroom.

I learned how to eat.

And I learned how to grieve. 

And I learned that, at least for me, eating was grieving.

In college, eating became an important ritual for me. Mealtimes were unstructured, chaotic and often lonely. Eating with friends, and by proxy, eating in restaurants, became one of my only valued social activities. Food was an act of self-care, or self harm, an engagement with one of the most base human necessities in stressful times. 

“Are you eating?”

I learned to appreciate restaurants more than ever — how ingredients were gathered, how the menu was assembled, how the dishes were presented. Being independent meant also deciding which meals were worth spending money on, so I had a deeper appreciation of a chef’s work. Over the four years, I became more analytical about the food I was eating — its societal impact, its message, its authenticity to a particular culture or cuisine. 

But more than anything else, I learned about the emotional weight of food.

“Are you eating well?”

Along with many other young adults, college was my first honest experience with grief. I lost friends. I lost family. I severed friendships and made decisions that I also grieved over, in a milder way.

In grief, food becomes power. 

Sometimes, it is shunned, a creature of comfort selectively avoided as a result of tremendous pain. Eating becomes a chore, something meant to be enjoyed when life feels anything but joyous. Sometimes, food is embraced — a celebration of life, of yours and those who have left you. It can be a righteous stance against the incoming waves of sadness; in a moment of rebellion, you feed yourself.

“Are you eating?”

We are human, and we eat.

When I grieve, I can’t register my own emotions. Life glides by, glossy and unprovoked, and I am a spectator in my own story. 

I cry, but I don’t understand what triggered it. I laugh, and it feels like canned laughter in a sitcom, overblown and disingenuous. One of the only ways I can mark my well-being is what I eat and how I eat it.

Food is a remarkable litmus test for emotional status: “Are you eating? Are you eating well?”

In high school, after an acquaintance had died by suicide, I restricted my food. I counted every calorie. I subsisted on a diet of egg whites and baby carrots. And I continued to live, blissfully unaware of the emotional pain I was trying to control through my food.

In college, I binge ate. 

Sometimes it would be unassuming — shredded cheese out of the bag at 2 a.m., or an extra large batch of pancakes after a rough night. Other times, it was uncontrollable — after my friend was murdered, I only ate turkey burgers for a week, after months of being vegetarian. 

“Are you eating well?”

This is my last semester at USC. It has also been a particularly tumultuous semester at USC; nine students have passed away. Sometimes, I find myself crying. Sometimes, I realize I haven’t eaten all day. I realize, through what I eat, and how I eat it, that I am grieving.

But I’ve had all four years to learn that about myself. So my question to the rest of the student body is:

Are you eating? Are you eating well?

Christina Tiber is a senior writing about food. Her column, “Eating L.A. Before It Eats Itself,” ran every other Thursday.