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A scathingly funny, wildly erotic, and fiercely imaginative story about food, sex, and god from the acclaimed author of The Pisces and So Sad Today.
Rachel is twenty-four, a lapsed Jew who has made calorie restriction her religion. By day, she maintains an illusion of existential control, by way of obsessive food rituals, while working as an underling at a Los Angeles talent management agency. At night, she pedals nowhere on the elliptical machine. Rachel is content to carry on subsisting—until her therapist encourages her to take a ninety-day communication detox from her mother, who raised her in the tradition of calorie counting.
Early in the detox, Rachel meets Miriam, a zaftig young Orthodox Jewish woman who works at her favorite frozen yogurt shop and is intent upon feeding her. Rachel is suddenly and powerfully entranced by Miriam—by her sundaes and her body, her faith and her family—and as the two grow closer, Rachel embarks on a journey marked by mirrors, mysticism, mothers, milk, and honey.
Pairing superlative emotional insight with unabashed vivid fantasy, Broder tells a tale of appetites: physical hunger, sexual desire, spiritual longing, and the ways that we as humans can compartmentalize these so often interdependent instincts. Milk Fed is a tender and riotously funny meditation on love, certitude, and the question of what we are all being fed, from one of our major writers on the psyche—both sacred and profane.
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
Chapter 1 CHAPTER 1
It didn’t matter where I lived—Mid-City, Mid-Wilshire, or Miracle Mile. It didn’t matter where I worked; one Hollywood bullshit factory was equal to any other. All that mattered was what I ate, when I ate, and how I ate it.
Every day at 7:30, my alarm went off. I’d remove the night-soaked piece of nicotine gum from my mouth, put it on the nightstand, and replace it with a fresh piece. I’d begun smoking at sixteen and was never without a cigarette. But when I started working at the talent management office, I was no longer able to smoke all day. I switched over to nicotine gum, which provided me with a way to “chew my cigarettes” and always be indulging. Now I was never without a piece of the gum. It helped me skillfully restrict my food intake, providing both a distraction for my mouth and a speedy suppressant for my appetite. I bought the gum on eBay, stale and discounted, so that I could afford it. At market prices I would have had a $300-a-week habit.
After popping a fresh piece, I’d get in the shower and drink a little water from the spigot, letting it mix with the coating from the gum. I preferred the coated varieties, Fruit Chill or Mint Blast, and did not count the coating in my daily caloric intake. Some days I worried how many calories the coating was adding. After the shower, I popped another piece of gum. Two more followed as I drove to work, heat blasting. This procession of gum was Breakfast One.
Between Breakfast One and Breakfast Two there was a stretch. Sometimes my blood sugar dropped so low that I’d feel dizzy and panicked. It was still worth it to postpone Breakfast Two, my first real food of the day, until 10:30 or 11. The later I started eating, the more food I could hoard for the back half of the day. Better to suffer now and have something to anticipate than to leave a big chunk of my day’s food in the rearview mirror. That was a worse kind of suffering.
If I made it to 11 with no food, I felt very good, almost holy. If I ate at 10:30 I felt bad, slovenly, though any negative feelings quickly gave way to the rapture of consuming Breakfast Two. The meal consisted of an 8-ounce container of 0% fat Greek yogurt with two packets of Splenda mixed in, as well as a diet chocolate muffin top that could only be purchased at Gelson’s supermarket. I was so emotionally dependent on these muffin tops that I feared what would happen in the event of a shortage. I bought six boxes at a time and stored them in my freezer.
The muffin top was 100 calories, and the yogurt was 90 calories: a perfect one-two punch of creaminess and sweetness, a symphony of flavor that couldn’t hurt me. My fondest time of the day was that instant I first put my spoon into the yogurt, just after having sprinkled half a Splenda packet on top. In that moment, there was so much left to eat, the muffin top not even touched, only a promise of chocolate. Afterward, I always wished I’d eaten more slowly, so I could still have something left to look forward to. The end of Breakfast Two was a sad time.
I ate Breakfast Two seated at my desk, directly across from another assistant named Andrew, who enjoyed NPR, natural peanut butter, and obscure Scandinavian films for the sake of their obscurity. Andrew’s head was one size too small for his gangly body. He had pinched nostrils, poised for disapproval, and he styled his hair in an ornate, indie-rocker shag that sat on his tiny head like a fright wig of cool. I knew he judged my use of chemical sweeteners, so I built a blockade with file folders, Ikea cacti, and a battalion of coffee mugs at the front of my desk to block his prying eyes. I at least deserved some privacy to fully enjoy my ritual.
Lunch was even trickier. At least two days a week, I was forced to join my boss—Brett Ofer—for lunch with clients, agents, and other industry people. I didn’t like eating with others. Lunch was the crown jewel of the day, and I preferred to savor it solo, not waste it on foods I hadn’t chosen. Ofer always made us go to the same restaurant, Last Crush, which shared a parking garage with our office. He insisted we get a bunch of small plates and split everything, “family style,” as though sharing a meatball made our clients feel like brethren. Who wanted Ofer as a relative? He acted like family was a good thing.
At Last Crush, I was forced to contend with macaroni and cheese, sliders, veal meatballs. Even the vegetables were tainted by interloping fats: Brussels sprouts choked with butter, mushrooms fried in bread crumbs, cauliflower lost to a shiny glaze. The arugula salad that I requested as my contribution to the smorgasbord was but a slippery cadaver: death by oil, goodbye.
On these outings, I would eat tiny portions of three of the dishes, assigning 100 calories to each portion and then adding an extra 100 to the total for anything I’d missed. While the algebraic formula was imperfect, it allowed me some illusion of control. But Ofer was always trying to haze me into eating more.
“Who wants the last slider? Rachel, I know youuu’re thinking about it,” he taunted, before breaking into chant. “Do it! Do it! Do it!”
Ofer was an eternal frat brother. He believed in loyalty, community—not because we had any real connection as individuals, but because we were part of the same something. As he extolled the virtues of our “collaborative office culture,” his bald head gleaming, a fleck of veal meatball on his lower lip, I imagined him delivering the same spiel to the Alpha Epsilon Pi pledges two decades prior.
“Do you know how lucky you are? You could be working at Management180, where nobody shares a goddamn lead on anything! You could be in Delta Upsilon, drinking your brother’s piss!”
Ofer had started in the mailroom at Gersh and worked his way up to agent. Nine years later, he’d left the cutthroat agency world to open a talent management company—The Crew—which made him think he had a soul. Worse yet, his wife had just given birth to twin daughters and he now identified as a “feminist.” Ofer was acquiring a perfunctory knowledge of social justice, as dictated by thinkpieces on diversity, inclusion, and equal pay in the Hollywood Reporter. He made constant references to his “privilege,” also our privilege to be working there. It bothered him that I didn’t feel lucky to be part of the family. Talent management was not my dream, and this hurt him.
When I wasn’t forced to go to Last Crush with Ofer and the clients, I was on my own for lunch. These were the good days. First, I would go to Subway, where they listed the calories for everything online. I would get a chopped salad with double turkey, lettuce, tomato, banana peppers, pickles, and olives. It was a magic salad, packing explosive flavor into a modest caloric total of 160. Most of the time, my sandwich artist was a cute USC kid who piled his dreadlocks on top of his head to give him four inches of extra height. He always asked if I wanted “sauce,” the word for dressing at Subway, and I always told him no. Thankfully, he never questioned my choice. But sometimes he failed to incorporate the abundance of lettuce that gave the Subway salad its crucial bulk.
Occasionally, I had another sandwich artist, a ginger-haired teen with Invisalign. This guy made a mean salad, the lettuce really flowed, but he was far too interested in connecting with me as a person. The moment I walked in the door, he would call out, “Hey! Double turkey!” and I’d be like, “Hi, thanks, no photos.” I didn’t have to tell him that I wanted no sauce, because he always remembered, muttering, “No sauce, no sauce.” But every few salads, he felt the need to interrogate me, asking, “Yo, why you don’t use the sauce? It’s free!” to which I would say “I just don’t like it.” “Too spicy? Too wet?” he’d ask. “Just salt and pepper, please,” I’d say.
I always ate the salad at one of the little outdoor patio tables outside Subway, though that wasn’t ideal. On the one hand, there was no way I was going to eat inside the restaurant with the sandwich artists watching me. But when I ate outdoors, I became prey for any of the passersby, including people from my office.
It wasn’t that eating a Subway salad was inherently shameful. But I liked my food rituals to be protected—fully differentiated from my work life as much as possible. This was mine and mine alone. It was not to be shared. So I ate outside facing a stucco wall. I ate hungrily and greedily, sometimes shoving forkfuls of the turkey-pickle-pepper mixture in my mouth, other times seeking out a single ingredient, like just one olive on my fork.
The triumph of my lunch was that it contained two courses: the grand salad and then frozen yogurt. I loved food that came in multiple parts, prolonging the experience. If I could be infinitely eating, I would be. I had to restrict my intake, or I’d never not be putting something in my mouth.
Subway was flanked by two frozen yogurt shops, Yogurt World and Yo!Good. At Yogurt World you got to serve yourself. No one manhandled your yogurt or toppings, and checkout was even automated. The grace was zero social interaction. At Yo!Good, you had to order through a server, but their yogurt made it worth it. Yo!Good had banana, caramel, and cake-batter flavors that were fat free, sugar-free, low-carb, and just 45 calories for a half cup. This meant that I could get a 16-ounce serving for 180 calories. At Yogurt World, the lowest-calorie yogurts were 120 calories for 4 ounces. I had to get the kids’ size to rival Yo!Good’s numbers. So I sacrificed privacy for mathematic soundness and quantity.
I was grateful that the counter boy at Yo!Good had little interest in talking to me. He was an Orthodox Jewish boy who looked to be about nineteen or twenty. He was very quiet, polite, and wore a blue yarmulke and curly peyos. His gentleness made me feel sad—also, the way he pronounced the word yogurt as yuh-gort. I felt like I could cry between the two syllables. There was an innocence there, an earnest desire to please the customer, a recognition of yogurt as a substance of great import, a calculated precision with the yogurt machine that felt like care. You didn’t find that kind of focus in food service every day. He also possessed a contained isolation, never handing me the yogurt cup directly, always placing it on the countertop in front of me, pointing to the counter to receive my money, no hand-to-hand, our worlds not to touch. It was as though he were a ghost from a lost time. Or maybe it was just a time lost to me.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Milk Fed includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Rachel is a lapsed Jew and obsessive calorie-counter. She’s overwhelmed by her attraction to Miriam, who works at the frozen yogurt shop Rachel frequents every day. Miriam begins to fall for Rachel too, but Miriam is Orthodox and takes great joy in eating. With a golem, an ancient mystic rabbi, a wicked mother, and some truly wild erotic fantasies, Milk Fed is a tender and riotously funny meditation on love, certitude, and the question of what we are all being fed.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. This book is partially about extreme dieting and disordered eating. As a group, discuss this phenomenon. Have you encountered other fiction about food, and how has it affected you?
2. Before Rachel meets Miriam, how do you feel about her?
3. What is Ana’s role in Rachel’s life? What do you make of Rachel’s mental state when you read about her fantasy involving Ana (pages 27–29)?
4. On page 18, Rachel refers to her mother “opening an emotional spreadsheet.” What does this metaphor mean? How does it compare to Rachel’s relationship with her father (chapter 13)?
5. What is Rachel’s impression of Miriam when she meets Miriam for the first time?
6. Take a moment to discuss the cadence of dialogue in Milk Fed. How does the author use it to reveal more about Rachel, Miriam, and the supporting cast?
7. On page 54, Rachel loses the sculpture her therapist asked her to create. What do you think is the significance of this?
8. In chapter 36, Rachel ponders how the Schwebels would react to Miriam coming out to them, and contrasts it with the way her own mother responded. What is the significance of the imagined differences in these parental responses?
9. Throughout Milk Fed, Rachel fantasizes about Miriam. Do you think there’s a big difference between her fantasy of Miriam and the actual, real Miriam?
10. Discuss the various appearances of Rabbi Judah Loew ben Bezalel. What do they signal? What’s happening to Rachel when she sees the rabbi in her subconscious?
11. How do Rachel and Miriam observe their Jewish faith differently? How does that layer of culture add to Milk Fed? Are there religious references that you were compelled to research?
12. How does her relationship with Miriam fundamentally change Rachel?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Read more of Melissa Broder’s books! Her first novel is The Pisces, another obsessive love story that’s both sexy and hilarious, but this time involving a merman.
2. Have a Yo!Good-style sundae buffet—the host can provide the frozen yogurt, and everyone else can bring their favorite toppings to share (see who makes the most Miriam-like sundae).
3. As the moderator in your group, obtain a copy of Melissa Broder’s poetry collection Last Sext. Have a reading party at the end of your book club and pass the collection around, each person reading a poem or two aloud. Nibble on some Twizzlers while you’re at it!