Since spending six months abroad in Madrid, I often follow the Spanish method of enjoying breakfast. Instead of scrambled eggs and bacon, I dive right into thinly sliced jamón Ibérico on freshly toasted bread and chunks of cheese. I continue to fall hard for manchego, large croissants slathered with butter and a dollop of a fruity jam. It brings memories of a host mother who spoke very little English but knew food to be the universal language.
“Quieres un sandwich, Heather?” she asked as I rushed to get out the door. I would take her up on the offer of tortilla Española on soft bread. She put butter on that, too, and offered it up with a grin.
I share this anecdote as a way to show you how far I’ve come. You see, I used to be afraid of butter. Being asked whether or not I would like butter for a roll, or on mashed potatoes, caused a panic. I would hear the word “butter” and my chest would tighten. My face would become hot from the shame. I literally could not hear the word without tears springing to my eyes.
From middle school to high school I was called “Butter.” Rumor has it that this was due to me being too fat to fit through a door and butter would be required to maneuver my sizable 12-year-old ass through such a narrow space. In case you’ve forgotten, in middle school and high school a sense of popularity is paramount. Never mind good grades; if that cute boy with the side-swept hair knows who you are, even if it’s as the result of some cruel joke, well then, so be it. I laughed along and smiled when hearing them — the popular kids — bellow: “HEY! BUTTER!” from the top of the stairs. They liked me, is what I would tell myself. They know who I am.
At one point I was gifted a hat with the word “butter” embroidered on it. The lettering was yellow and “b” and both “t’s” had a dripping effect. I put it on and thanked the giver for a present. See? I was important. I was cool. I found out later that he had spit in it.
From my experience, many friends and family who have deep aversions to a particular food can trace that aversion back to a moment in time. My now 28-year-old little brother spent our childhood hiding green beans throughout the house. Each day was a scavenger hunt to find the green vegetables. It turned out that he was force-fed them in daycare. My mother doesn’t do mayonnaise and has to avert her eyes when making her stellar potato salad — she too had been forced to consume the condiment at some point.
“Tell me if I’m using enough,” she’ll ask with her head cocked back and turned to the side. She holds her breath.
“Just look at it!” I demand. Some 50 years later she prays silently before placing a jar of Hellmann’s into her grocery cart.
“Mortification due to dairy product” isn’t found in the DSM V. In fact, this is the first time I have given much thought to the very real cruelty of adolescence. Like many young women, my feelings about food were complicated, only to be exacerbated by schoolyard taunts under the guise of making me feel included. Which leads me to this moment, discussing my tenuous relationship with butter. There isn’t a moment where you sit down in front of your therapist to get to the root of why you cannot handle the sight of Land O’ Lakes. Much like anything from the tween to teen years, there is the fight or flight response. The “flight” came in the form of moving to D.C., five states away from my little town in New York, the day after graduation. I vowed never to return (however thanks to a job offer I found myself returning to New York. That didn’t work out either, though, which leads me to believe that perhaps I should just stay away… but I digress) and to never feel that way again.
After high school I briefly wondered if others — random strangers standing next to me at the grocery store — knew what I had been called. Did my discomfort show on my face as I stood in the dairy section? Did I show fear when trying to remember if a recipe called for salted or unsalted? Probably not. I soon realized that my move to a new place granted me a new a sense of perspective: I guess it was “Out of sight, out of mind.” Those who inflicted pain upon me were nowhere near by. Thankfully, there was no Facebook to force constant reminders of the past. More importantly, my move allowed me to be something new — someone new — other than Butter. Sure, I would still hear that word under the most innocuous of circumstances and I still felt a twinge of humiliation. But slowly the consuming humiliation dissipated as I learned to make my way around Capitol Hill and Georgetown and fell into a routine with new peers who knew nothing of my past as they became my Butter-free present.
I’m not gonna lie. I still had an ass on me, but in the “Chocolate City” that was a commodity. The secret was to wall off my middle to high school years. Confessing much of this now feels like I am telling someone else’s story.
I walk up to the counter of a local movie theater. It’s one of those art house places with an old-time popcorn machine. They use locally sourced products which means that when the woman at the counter asks if I want butter — possibly made from the milk of cows just a mile away — for my popcorn I have to reply with, “Yes. Please. Extra butter.” It’s the fresh, creamy kind. I pat myself on the back for being able to enjoy the simplest of life’s pleasures. Oh, if she only knew how far I’ve come.