In Chana Porter’s novel The Thick and the Lean, there is a pill that rids you of your desire to eat. It was developed by a cult devoted to “flesh martyrdom,” the idea that hunger is merely an animal instinct to be overcome, and that by surpassing it one becomes closer to God. Members of the cult, Seagate, are just the most extreme practitioners of this ideology in Porter’s universe: Across the planet, eating, and bodies that look like they have been eating, are taboo. Seagate is now developing an implant instead of a pill, and this could help erase one’s desire for food permanently. There is no mention of health, just the promise that no one will ever have the burden of hunger again.
The Thick and the Lean does what the best genre fiction does: It follows certain cultural proclivities to their terrifying but logical conclusions and mirrors them back to us. Set on a colonized, alien planet, the story follows Beatrice and Reiko. Beatrice is a member of this cult, raised to believe sex is a beautiful indulgence but food is something that should be as shameful and restricted as possible — no flavors, no consuming it in public, and no more than the bare minimum you need to function. Secretly, she yearns to cook, and upends her life to pursue her passions. Reiko is a member of the planet’s Indigenous population, forced to assimilate to the colonizers’ ideas around food, and trying to fight her way into an upper class where the rules are more lenient.
The two are united by their love of The Kitchen Girl, a forbidden memoir and cookbook that reveals the true secrets of the planet’s history. They each navigate different parts of a stratified, hypocritical world, where business and religion merge to control the populace. It’s a world in which the mere existence of a restaurant can be revolutionary, and where not even a fortune can buy you justice. Again, sound familiar? I spoke to Porter about bodies and hunger, about writing a world so different and so close to our own, and about how caring for the land and caring for ourselves have always been intertwined.
Eater: When did you first start thinking about the universe that this book takes place in? And what ideas did you initially want to explore with it?
Chana Porter: I wrote what turned out to be the first five pages about Beatrice struggling with preparing these foods secretly in 2016. There was something that I connected to about being a teenager and struggling with various hungers, and feeling like my desires were too big and I shouldn’t be in touch with my own hungers. So it was kind of a queerness allegory, or just about being a sexual being. But at the same time, it was very connected to hunger and appetite. I thought that I was going to write a short story, maybe a novella, pulling at this thread of, What if there was a culture where eating had this taboo? How would that impact things that I struggled with as a younger person, and to a certain extent still do? And the more I kept pulling at this, there was just more and more there.
We have these two characters who are really affected by the restricted ideology in very different ways. Starting with Beatrice, she’s growing up in this cult that has a lot of dietary restrictions to it. Did you take any inspiration from real-life religious or cultural influences when building that religion?
Definitely. Beatrice’s journey is very much a mirror of my own teenage time. I was one of those ’90s kids. I went on Weight Watchers, doing points. I wrote something that felt really true to me, and then as I worked on the book for many drafts, I looked at some documentaries of weight loss and self-improvement. I watched the Nexium documentary and I was really taken aback by the idea of people going on all these late-night walks and jogs with the head of that cult. It confirmed something for me that I had already put in the book that felt quite true — this idea of a perfect body, perfect control of this self, and having that be a path to salvation.
But I just read some of the New Testament, and one of the first things that Jesus’s disciples ask Jesus is “What should we eat?” This idea of knowing that our bodies are part of our connection to God, and then wanting to support that, I think it’s a very, very old question.
One thing I loved about the book is when Beatrice is thinking, “Wait a second, if all these fruits and vegetables come from the earth and God made the earth, then how could it be bad to experience all those flavors together?” It’s such a strange message sometimes to hear that here’s all this bounty. Here’s all this beautiful stuff, but also the best thing you can do is restrict yourself.
That was a really toxic thing about ’90s diet culture. And I’m glad that there’s been some change; people don’t seem as scared of dairy that has not had all the fat taken out. This idea that I was supposed to consume a sugar-free jello with Reddi-Wip on top as a “healthy” choice. I don’t think I had butter rather than margarine until I went to college. I can’t tell you what it was like to have butter and be like, “This is a really distinct joy of being alive.” We’re taught not to trust what our actual impulses are, because we’re given these paltry substitutions.
Beatrice’s narrative of getting out of this restrictive cult could have been a book in and of itself, but you also have Reiko’s story, a character who’s Indigenous to this planet and who doesn’t have the same relationship to food as the colonizers do, but is also in many ways forced to participate in this society where food is taboo. What made you want to explore this world from that perspective?
I knew that I wanted to find a way to explore the upper part of society. And I just thought about this character who was kind of a grifter, and it made sense to me that she would be outside the ruling class as a member of an oppressed Indigenous population.
That really made sense to me with the tie-in that both of these women are inspired by this [banned] text, The Kitchen Girl — to show the origin of all these beliefs and what things were like in this place a thousand years [prior], and how culture gets built up through people trying to amass power more than trying to speak the truth or help people.
I want to talk about The Kitchen Girl excerpts that you have in there, because we learn that this is a forbidden text in society; it challenges the dominant societal origin story. But you read the little chapters that you put in there, and it feels like such a soft, quiet memoir that then suddenly has the power to dismantle entire power structures. What made you want to include those excerpts?
By 2018 I had written both of the main characters’ plots, and I knew that they met, and I knew that it was really a story about both of these women trying to reclaim body autonomy. But I wasn’t really sure more than thematically what linked these people. And I think that my process is really one of just following joy. I was like, Oh, what if there was this Regency-era story, knights and kings and queens and mistaken identities and court intrigue? I just thought that that would be so fun. I’m someone who likes to read recipes from the Renaissance and stuff, so that was really fun for me to research. One of the menus that’s in there is from a Chinese banquet from a thousand years ago.
But it really came back to, where does this taboo flip come from? What made it profitable and powerful for people at some point in time to say that growing your own food and having a relationship to the land and feeding yourself and your family well is bad? And in a story that’s so much about climate change, where having fertile land is such a powerful thing, it became a very personal and character-driven way for me to dig into the historical and political beginnings of all of these constructs.
We do see people who are pressured to not lean into pleasure or people who are asked to have a very broken or complicated relationship to food. Why do you think that the powers that be have essentially made it that way? Who benefits from telling people you shouldn’t be eating so much, or you should be eating certain things and not other things?
I think that some of it is from a place of care that we are trying to figure out. I’m someone who considers myself in eating disorder recovery now. But it’s complicated because unlike people I know who are sober, say, from alcohol, it’s not like I can abstain. In fact, the problem is that I would abstain. So how do I nourish myself in a way that is loving and gentle, but also does have a container and does have boundaries? Because going too far the other way and trying not to be in a mental cage of anorexia can sometimes lead to using food as a different kind of coping mechanism.
The larger themes of the book — agriculture practices and who controls the land — these things are very much driven by money and power. The company that is being looked at in the book is an amalgam of Monsanto and Amazon. The plot point about how farmers are being targeted for reusing seeds rather than purchasing them annually — that’s something that Monsanto actively does. And when the colonizers came to America, many tribes had really rich agricultural practices that were about being in a relationship with an abundant land. I feel like there’s a major reckoning coming with how our food is sourced. It’s a larger labor rights question because a lot of the people that grow our food in our country are here on these temporary visas and they’re not given rights or care, and then they’re sent back to their country. And that’s how we get out of paying people these living wages.
“Pleasure” is a tricky term. I’m talking about the ways that we are present in relationship to our own bodies, to our own souls, and to our own environment. And that means being a part of a larger system and knowing whose land we are on and how we could possibly contribute more to its care instead of to its harm.
You have these really amazing descriptions of food. There’s a traditional noodle dish with fried fish that I was salivating over every time someone described it. You mentioned that you really love looking at old recipes and old culinary texts. Were there any culinary traditions you were thinking of when designing the meals?
I am someone who follows all kinds of food bloggers and vloggers, and I read food magazines and I love recipes. This has been a passion of mine since I was a teenager. And then there’s different ways that things seep into my life. One part of my family is from China and being at my cousin’s table and having him cook me Chinese food has always been a special thing. Both of my grandmothers, one of them who lived with me when I was a kid, were wonderful cooks. One of them was from Indiana, and then my other grandmother is a single mother brought up deep Brooklyn/Coney Island Jewish. And a very dear friend of mine married this Polish man and they started making me sour pickle soup and I got [really excited by] it.
Aside from the sour pickle soup, were any of the other recipes or dishes that you put in the book that you attempted to cook?
There’s an important meal towards the end of the book, all of those things are things that I feel very familiar with. The book is about gardening as much as it is about cooking. So the final meal, that’s really a return to a celebration of the garden. Those are things that I felt very inspired by. When you have a really good tomato, all you need is a little bit of salt and a little bit of olive oil.
Has writing this book affected your own relationship to food or your body?
The food stuff is ongoing. I can do things like throw my scale out, but part of it is I don’t want to ignore my body. I want to treat my body with a lot of care. Everything in moderation, including moderation. I want my body to be something that can help me celebrate and help me connect to other people. And I think food and cooking and restaurants are such wonderful things to do to celebrate those kinds of joys. It’s an ongoing... I’m not going to say struggle, but I would say curiosity.
Beatrice’s story, I’ve had readers say to me, “Is she really fat? Did she really get fat or did society just see her as fat but she’s not really fat?” And I’d just like to say, she’s fat and there’s nothing wrong with that. She can be a healthy, happy, lovely fat woman. And if that ruins the book for you, then I think that you have a little bit of work left to do.
This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.