This article appears in our 2014 Winter issue, Food. Subscribe today!
While on her way to get cheeseburgers with a friend, Samantha Irby decided to start a blog, mostly to impress a dude she had just met on the internet. Since she was at that very moment loosening her belt to accommodate said cheeseburgers, she decided to call her new blog Bitches Gotta Eat. Four years later, the blog has outlasted the relationship. Between her online writing and her performances at literary events all over Chicago—including opening for Baratunde Thurston on his “How to Be Black” tour, performing at the Live Lit on the Lake reading series, and up until last summer cohosting the Sunday Night Sex Show—Irby has amassed a following for her gutsy, visceral, and brash takes on everything from ball sweat to tacos.
This fall brought the publication of her first book, Meaty, a Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers Award–winning collection of essays that Irby describes as “gross single-person stories.” In Meaty, Irby cops to still sucking her thumb, gets into the nitty-gritty of life with Crohn’s disease (like having to describe to her “supermodel hot” GI doctor the consistency of her last stool), and confesses everything from what’s in her fridge right now (“Campari, club soda, orange juice, and High Life”) to the fact that she still owns two VHS tapes. Even while promoting her book, performing, and keeping up her super-popular blog, Irby works full-time at a veterinary hospital. Still, she was kind enough to take a few minutes to answer my questions.
Which came first: blogging or performing?
The blog came first, then the performance. I never wanted to perform, but my friend was hosting a live literary series called the Sunday Night Sex Show, and when he asked me to perform, I couldn’t refuse. So I got up in front of a bar full of people and read a piece about this personal trainer I had dated who was obsessed with making women fat. The crowd ate my shame up with a spoon and I haven’t stopped reading my work since. Although, the shit is super stressful and I’m about to take a little break from it because one, book tour, and two, talking about my private parts in front of a live audience gets boring.
In Meaty, you wrote about the experience of taking care of your mother after she was disabled by a car accident when you were 9 until she moved into a nursing home when you were 13. You mentioned some of the specific foods you prepared during the years that you were her caretaker: “ramen noodles, cheap hot dogs, instant coffee, grape Kool-Aid.” Do you have a permanent association between that time and those foods? Are there any other foods that you associate with a specific time and place in your life?
My first year of college, my roommate and I drank nothing but Tang and imitation cola from the Walmart in DeKalb, Illinois. And we used to stockpile ice cream sandwiches from the cafeteria. I ate so many that I haven’t had one since, and that was in 1998. Just looking at an ice cream sandwich reminds me of twin-XL sheets and skipping class to watch The Young and the Restless. The animal hospital where I’ve worked for the past 11 years is across the street from a Thai restaurant, and every time I even smell panang curry I feel like I should be punching a clock. Needless to say, I don’t eat a whole lot of Thai food.
When I read about you eating your “delicious, delicious feelings” as a child, I thought of Caitlin Moran’s observation in How to Be a Woman that “overeating is the addiction of choice of carers” because “it’s a way of fucking yourself up while still remaining fully functional.” Do you agree with Moran?
I agree, for sure, but I don’t think that’s why I overate then or why I continue to now. Food is soothing, and my drugs of choice are the foods that feel the best. I’m not a potato chip girl, but ice cream, pudding, warm bread? HELL YES. This is not to say that I don’t like vegetables (I roasted some brussels sprouts last night) or meat (and made a pork loin to go with them), but those I eat like a normal person—like, controlled portions eaten with a knife and fork at a sensible hour of the day. But give me a pint of salted-caramel gelato and I am in bed with a spoon and not getting up until it’s finished. It’s such a hard fucking habit to break, using snacks to make myself feel better—even though it sometimes makes me feel worse, like when my thigh teeth eat through the crotch of my jeans. Old habits die super hard. Still figuring out how to kick this one’s ass. We’ll see what I come up with.
How does “putting the intimate details of [your] butthole on the Internets,” as you put it, affect your love life?
Here’s how it works now: If I meet a person and I am interested in him or her romantically, I try to never mention that I write this dumb thing for as long as humanly possible, which is helped a great deal if homie doesn’t have a Facebook or isn’t tweeting all the goddamned time or doesn’t get all Google-y the minute he finds out my last name. This is one of the many drawbacks of meeting someone on the Internet: With a dozen keystrokes, my blind date has unfettered access to the last four years in the life of my vagina. Some people can handle it. Most of these motherfuckers cannot.
Because of your Crohn’s disease, food and poop have elevated positions in your life, ones that you explore in detail on Bitches Gotta Eat and in Meaty. When did you decide to be so frank about all the ramifications of your disease? Is poop the last taboo?
I don’t have the luxury of seeing poop as taboo, and not talking about it has never occurred to me. I don’t have a whole lot of shame when it comes to my gnarly bowels, and it’s so weird to me that people are embarrassed about it, considering that it’s something we all do. Every single day. My body doesn’t allow me to be that adorable girl who never poops at her boyfriend’s house. Instead, this meaty precorpse I’ve been burdened with is crapping into a plastic grocery bag behind said boyfriend’s car in the parking lot on our first date, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
How has having Crohn’s affected your relationship with food?
It hasn’t, really. Crohn’s is weird. You basically have to try things and figure out what works for you. Like, I can eat ice cream but not oranges. My disease is stress triggered. I have never had a flare-up from something I’ve eaten, but I have totally ended up in the hospital for weeks at a time due to stress. It’s another reason that I can’t mess around with ill-fated romance—my guts can’t handle it. I haven’t had a flare-up since my last boyfriend. Real talk: Dudes are bad for my health.
Why did you include recipes in Meaty?
I included recipes because occasionally I post them on my blog. I do it to make fun of the jerks who chastise me for writing a blog called Bitches Gotta Eat that isn’t about food. Also, people are always asking me what I eat, so now they know.
One of the things you do best is pick on people exactly like me—your typical guilty white Upworthy fan with a bone for Ira Glass—in such a way that I’m like, “Hahahaha, those people!” then laugh so hard that I spill organic hummus on my clogs before realizing that I am basically the butt of the joke. Has any white person ever gotten pissed and been like, “I don’t even like farmers’ markets!” or anything?
I don’t really care what white people think. White people don’t have to take white jokes seriously because it’s not personal and it has no aggregate effect. It’s not a microaggression in the same way as a joke about anyone who isn’t white. I’d say lots of people probably get pissed? And those are people who don’t read my blog. But the thing about well-meaning, socially aware white people is that they like to feel like they “get it” or that they, at the very least, want to get it, and they want recognition for that. Making them the butt of the joke does that. One of the big identity crises about being white is that white people never get to feel special or unique, but making them the butt of the joke does that in a generally benign way, especially because I’m a black woman up there telling that joke. I think that because it comes from a place of understanding—I grew up in a progressive white community and have a ton of super-white, kale-eating, feces-composting friends—people are less likely to get bent out of shape about it.
You wrote in Meaty that you’re glad Lena Dunham didn’t write a Black character in the first season of Girls “because when you’re Black, it’s your reflexive response to monitor Black people in white Hollywood, just in case some jagoff writer is trying to slip some casual racism past your ass.” You also list several shows with no diversity in their casts that haven’t been criticized for it as widely as Girls has. Why do you think that particular show raises so much ire?
Because Lena Dunham is a 27-year-old woman getting to do whatever the hell she wants with big-time HBO money and exposure. Everyone is obsessed with her, and I think what she’s doing is incredible. I think a lot of criticism stems from, one, jealousy, especially since everyone everywhere is so goddamn entitled all the time. People are mad because she’s young and hasn’t paid her dues or whatever, not because her show is unwatchable trash. She didn’t have to spend 20 years working her way up from the mailroom. So what? She is young and female and accomplishing amazing things, so I’m going to get behind that. I would never want to be that bitter asshole sitting around pissed off because some kid succeeded where I haven’t. Good for her. I hope she makes a dozen shows.
And two, people are salty because she has the nerve to be unconventionally attractive and show her real-woman boobs on TV while also pretending to bang super-hot dudes. “The nerve of her to have a belly during prime time!” That is the dream of my life, to have Christian Bale or someone equally handsome spreading open my thighbacks to give it to me dirty. You wouldn’t want to see The Samantha Irby Show. Every episode would be some hot piece of beef holding up my stomach while going down on me for 27 consecutive minutes. Believe that.
I don’t know how to say this any other way: You’re gay now. Can you elaborate?
I’ll take love in whatever package it comes. I’ve had girlfriends in the past; I’ve had boyfriends, too. I try not to write nasty things about women, which is why I don’t skulldrag them in my work. Also, my negative experiences with women pale in comparison to the ones I’ve had with dudes. Ladies have just been cooler to me. With the exception of a few internet crushes I’m nursing, I don’t really want to get naked with anyone at the moment. I don’t want to think about relationships, or getting cheated on, or not being good enough, or not getting it right. Dating makes me feel stressed out and anxious. Mostly I just wish it were socially acceptable for me to settle down with a cheese sandwich.
Do you identify as a fat activist?
I’m a fat person trying to eat food, fuck responsible dudes, keep my eyebrows under control, and make jokes about dumb shit. Activism sounds exhausting, but if I get to be some cult antihero for attempting to do all of these things while also being overweight, I can accept that shit.
Do you identify as a feminist?
Hell yes, grrrl. I’ma need my social, political, and economic rights to be equal to those of men. Forever. But I’m also Black, which means I gotta be on the lookout for racism first; then I can focus on sexism. Being a brown woman in this current sociopolitical climate is a hard goddamn job. That shit is why I can’t be a fat activist: because I’m too busy defending Blackness and my vagina.
In Meaty, you wrote that your favorite foods are brunch and tacos. Important, hard-hitting question: What about chilaquiles? Are they a great brunch food or the greatest brunch food?
GREATEST. But not every place does good chilaquiles. I once went to a place that served it with soggy tortillas and I was like, no ma’am. This business needs to be crunchy. SABROSO.