Books

Sam van Zweden
Eating with My Mouth Open

I grew up thinking there were seven fundamental flavours: suān, tián, kǔ, là, xián, xiān, má. The first five translate easily – sour, sweet, bitter, hot, salty – but the other two don’t own a home on the English tongue. It was a shock to realise that something as material as flavour could be coloured and even erased by language.

But eating has many dimensions beyond what happens in your mouth, as Sam van Zweden chronicles in this thoughtful debut, Eating with My Mouth Open. Food is both sentiment and sustenance. It’s steeped in heritage, memory, morality, love and hierarchy. It’s joy and shame, celebration and suspicion – not two ends of a seesaw, as she explains, but qualities that seep into each other.

Blending memoir and cultural criticism, van Zweden examines food culture and body politics from her unique vantage point as a foodie from a family of chefs, a survivor of self-harm and disordered eating, and a woman often called to answer for her size.

It takes a little while for the narrative to warm up. Some of the early observations seem obvious or generic, and I could do without the strings of unanswered rhetorical questions. If you’re looking for a searing indictment of fatphobia and the wellness industry, this book is not that. Instead of mounting an argument, van Zweden offers open palms, candour, self-doubt and quiet grace.

Her writing is strongest when it’s visceral and specific, serving up the sensory images of tangy Dutch potato salad, the magical abundance of Oma and Opa’s garden, and stretching time by making preserves. On dissolving gelatine leaves for marshmallows with her dad, she writes: “The stiff, clear sheets seemed to disappear, as though they had just relaxed and given themselves over to our pursuit of the delicious.” Another vignette unpacks the sexy horror of eating offal as we press another animal’s organs to ours and confront the fleshiness of our own bodies.

Van Zweden brings us into all the kitchens she has known, and it feels like a privilege to lean on the counter as the air grows fragrant. Eating with My Mouth Open folds together joy and shame and everything else that food can mean, and serves up the very sensible idea that we might be a little kinder in how we approach eating, lest we cannibalise ourselves with punitive and retrograde notions of health. 

Jinghua Qian

NewSouth, 240pp, $29.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Feb 20, 2021 as "Sam van Zweden, Eating with My Mouth Open ".

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Reviewer: Jinghua Qian