Pleasure is the point. Feeling good is not frivolous, it is freedom.... Find the pleasure path for your life and follow it. Let it reverberate healing back into your ancestors wounds.
- Adrienne Maree Brown
The sweetness in life...
over the last few years I’ve been discovering different ways to find it. My dad is from Ghana and my mum is from a Western state of India called Gujarat. I grew up with a strong connection to the culture, ideals and tastes of Gujarat. My Mota Ba (grandmother), who’s name is Daya (which means Kindness), has always lived in my family home with my mum. As a child I remember her carefully oiling, combing and plaiting my wild hair, walking with me for the one and a half miles to and from school everyday, and cooking. So much cooking! Cooking was, and still is, right at the foundation of my family’s existence. Food is our way of being together, experiencing life and marking moments.
Food is the way we celebrate, the way we find belonging, connect, grieve and offer support.
With minimal verbal explanations but a whole life of embodied wisdom and experience, I learnt about the principles of Ayurveda, and the ways of food from my female lineage. My mum and Mota taught me the characters of different ingredients, and how each one needed to be treated to fully come out. They would peer into the pot, waiting for the cumin to turn pink, or listen for the popping of the mustard seed whilst doing a 100 other things around the kitchen. Always waiting, prioritising that perfect moment where the water, rice, ghee and salt were going wild in the pan and couldn’t take any more heat, before turning them way down to a simmer and silencing them with the lid. Mota would (and still does) measure ingredients by the size of her palm. Three generations of women, we smell and taste and observe our way through the cooking process and then we eat it with our hands, slurping the chass and mopping the plate clean with a rotli. Raised by The Flavour, I grew up in the kitchen.
Through my teenage years, food was a big way that I expressed and satisfied desire. I’d yearn for it, get wetter in the mouth for it, lose concentration on all else for it. Whilst finishing it in a frenzy, I’d be mourning the last mouthful before it was gone and when that last mouthful was swallowed, I’d sometimes wonder if I had even tasted it at all.
I didn’t get much steamy action as a teen, other than big hot, sweet, spicy bowls of dhal.
The main place I saw people expressing sexuality was on MTV Bass, and that shit was definitely not on show in my house, unless it was on a screen. I learned that sex was either slutty or intended to make babies. It wasn’t talked about or shown, but if it did come out it was in a joke. If it wasn’t a joke, then eyes would turn down and cheeks would blush. I was ashamed of my desire but that didn’t mean it wasn’t strong.
At the beginning of my college years I moved out of mum’s house and my relationship to food changed a bit. I guess you could say it de-culturised from my roots. I cooked a lot less, but I was still obsessed with The Flavour. All the way through college and uni I remember feeling really unattractive, lonely and desperate for intimate attention and sexual contact. I found it impossible to believe that anyone would ever find me sexually attractive and willingly want to bed me, without me pleadingly coercing them (which I did try a few times). Me: with my kinky hair and stocky brown body? No way. One of my coping mechanisms was to pretend that I didn’t really want sex and intimacy in the first place. (I also fabricated stories about distant lovers and hook ups to my friends so that they would think I was “normal”.) Another joyous, shameful, bitter, sweet coping mechanism of mine was FOOD. I used it to deal with the unnameable sadness that was under the surface. Food was an event. A way of experiencing pleasure, and a way of actually controlling what I was feeling for a moment. But I became uncontrollable and compulsive with food. (When I didn’t like how this was looking on my body, I spiralled my way through a year of speed-filled diet pill abuse and night terrors, but that is a story for another day.) I remember one teenage Friday midnight spent with a whole bag of dolly mixture, chased with a whole tub of ice cream and a couple bowls of Crunchy Nut Cornflakes. After finishing each food, I remember feeling this unbearable discomfort locked in my chest and desperation to taste sweet happiness again. I couldn’t take my mind off the thought of filling my mouth just one more time. I tore through the cupboards and Tesco aisles; I needed to ravage something else, right then and there.
This addiction went on for quite some time and was very secret. Even as a child I would hide food, but it became really intense when I got older. I couldn’t let anyone see that these sessions were happening, or I’d be called fat, gluttonous, and food would be policed, more often by men. On the flip side, food was actually taught as an emotional tool by the women of my family; it was presented as the main (or sometimes only) solution to tears. They would revel at being able to provide the solution to my problems with shaak and thepla; a positive affirmation to our identity as feeders.
It took me until the age of 25 to consciously experience the depth of my emotional world. I’ve always felt things deeply and noticed a lot of detail in life I guess, but until recently I had almost no language to share this. I used to believe that feelings were just these things that people “dealt with” alone, or turned into art by themselves. (Maybe this is why I was drawn to life as a Creative from such a young age.)
I stuffed my feelings of rejection, pain and sadness so deep, that sometimes I barely even knew I was feeling them, and then I ate to repaint my emotional world with pleasure.
I ingested the sweetness that I wanted to experience in sex, orgasm and sensuality in cake, cookies and ice cream.
When I was 15 I remember being at an extended family gathering from my Indian side. One of my older brother’s friends leaned in very close and smelled me. When I asked him what was wrong, he grimaced and said I smelled like Black people. I didn’t know how to respond so I sheepishly laughed, turned away and ate almost the entire buffet of Gujarati treats. I didn’t understand at the time that the eating was my emotional response to feeling rejected, but the pleasure of eating helped me to cope in the moment. When it was time to go home, my belly was aching so much that it was harder to breathe, but I felt empty, ashamed and teary.
As I got past 25, I started to experience The Flavour by other means than food. I still felt like I needed to hide the fullness of my sexual desire and when I was with sexual partners, I couldn’t tell them about The Flavour I wanted to feel; I’d also pretend I was experiencing The Flavour when I really wasn’t. But moments of deep Flavourfulness had started to burst from within me.
I noticed that the more Flavour I felt; in my hips, in my movement, alone and in hot glances with lovers or strangers, the healthier my relationship to food became.
In early 2017 when I went to see Chef, Wellness Educator and Culinary Nutritionist Heather Umlah to tell her about a health crisis I was having, exacerbated by my intense sugar habit, she asked me if I was having sex. Bashfully, I answered, “No, not really”; embarrassed that she had asked and embarrassed that I actually wasn’t having sex. I didn’t understand the link or why she thought to ask. By the end of the year I started to experience the answer.
they all feel very closely linked to me. The more I opened to expressing my emotional experience of life and the more I unravel myself as a sexual being, the less I depended on sugar to lead me to The Flavour.
The Flavour is presence.
The Flavour is embodiment and enjoying being alive.
The Flavour is in the sunrise,
the smell of peonies,
dhal and rice,
and (of course) orgasms.
Dolly mixture also contains some Flavour, but the Flavourific content of a thing is less if it makes you feel yucky afterwards (that goes for sex too IMO).
My journey with food has taught me that it’s harder to feel The Flavour when big chunks of you are suppressed. It was Brené Brown who helped me to put this into words: the despair of life can’t be selectively numbed in order to reach the joy of life. You either open to your experience of both or end up numbing it all. My experience of numbing sadness left me gasping and grabbing for sweetness and cramming it in, because it seemed harder to taste from a place of dissociation. The more pleasure and emotional truth I experience in life, the less I cry into cake.
The practises of feeling, and pausing, eating slowly, and also fasting have been a great help in my food recovery. When I give The Flavour the time and attention it deserves, it recalibrates the value of it. The practise of owning my sexual desire is also bringing fireworks of transformation.
Sex is pleasurable and divine, whether alone or with others and is nothing to be ashamed about. I’m actually starting to find talking about it pretty refreshing.
I’m grateful to Mota, my mum, our food culture and sugar for giving me a lifelong source of enjoyment, especially when I wasn’t getting it elsewhere. I’m also so grateful to the experiences and people who have opened up feeling, sensuality and sexuality for me, including my loving partner Sofia with whom The Flavour is celebrated in all walks of life.
Ava Riby-Williams is an Artist, Yoga teacher and curator of The Creative Soul Collective. She writes in order to heal, express and inspire others to do the same.