J1 begun: the inevitable loss of food

“Remember that time you had the apple?”


“I was thinking of doing that this week.”

“Might join you.”


I believe in food the way Bonasera believed in America. I revere Brillat-Savarin, both the man and the cheese. When I need to buy people presents I don’t think past Le Creuset. For my eighteenth birthday I asked for, and received, a marble pestle and mortar and a giant Japanese knife. I worship at the lofty altar of gourmandism. In a white chocolate covered Macadamia nut shell, I think food is important. At the very least, we need it to survive. It is key to life, in both the basest and most exalted definitions of the word. It is an investment in self, both physically and spiritually.

Why then, given my high-minded adoration for the culinary arts, have I spent the last two summers (in New York and Paris) existing exclusively on a diet of kebabs and alcohol? This is a problem. The first paragraph wasn’t fluff; I genuinely believe that. It just seems that whenever I go away for the summer, I essentially give up on food and end up doing my utmost to live exclusively on its more fluid cousin, “the prince of liquids” for three months.

It would appear that I am not alone in this. It would appear that the Summer Hunger is a thing. The J1, the most infamous of student summer work visas, that allows thousands of Irish to swarm into the US, does odd and awful things to your diet.

Based on my own J1 and accounts of others, even the most discerning of foodies, never mind the students who live off Pot Noodles and radiator water for the majority of the year anyway, lose the taste for food for the summer and then try and drink themselves back to Ireland and September. I ask, why?

In my experience, it has come down to three things:  copious amounts of alcohol (really it comes down to this alone, and yes I recognise that this is both cause and effect), poverty (relative) and bar work.

Perhaps the following scenario is familiar. You arrive, fresh off the boat, with neither work nor accommodation. You get a job in a bar and a one-bed apartment. You then invite everyone you know to drink in your bar and stay in your flat. The result is you end up living in bars (yours and theirs to reciprocate); partly because the floor of your apartment is always full of people you don’t actually know.

You get paid minimum wage, your rent is extortionate even though it’s being split between eighteen people and for some reason, you don’t quite know why, it seems like a given that you should spend the bones of your pay on drinking. This leaves less than would be desired to live upon and again, you just don’t know why, you need most of that money to go drinking. Even though that’s the money you have left after going drinking. What?

Something has to give, and something does: Food. Somewhere, deep down in your whiskey-addled brain, some class of a cell made a decision that food should take the hit. Not less alcohol, never less alcohol, but food. One of the most primitive instincts we have as sentient beings is to eat to stay alive. That is an instinct that awakens in us the moment we leave the amniotic sac to the moment we go on a J1.

Stripping the frills, the problem is you drink so much you forget what food is. The bar work leads to excessive drinking, the excessive drinking leads to poverty and the poverty leads to a shortage of food. Also the excessive drinking leads to wrath of god hangovers that also leads to an inability to eat food. Welcome to the circle, it’s vicious.

The cycle takes hold of you. The J1 is a self-induced famine. We used to have to go to America because there was no food in Ireland. Now we go there and with an irony the 21st century does so well and drink ourselves into a state of post-hunger. How very modern.

But man cannot exist on drink alone. We have to eat something at some point. And when you’re drinking like you’ve taken the castle most nights of the week, that something is often a kebab or something equally fast. Whatever culinary code you lived by before you landed is left behind, to be replaced by the axiom “I kebab and I K.O.”

At the start you’re just going with the flow, having fun, passing out in various stages of digestion. You don’t even realise that you can’t remember the last time you didn’t eat with a fucking plastic fork. Usually you don’t even remember eating at all because you seem to dine exclusively at 6am. It doesn’t occur to you that pulled pork isn’t a valid breakfast option. Ribs at dawn is de rigueur.

But as the hangovers get worse, by virtue of the heat and your personal vendetta for beating your own rising tolerance, you lose the will to eat completely. By mid-July, breakfast doesn’t exist. You can’t even remember a time without heartburn. Your health, as you might imagine, suffers as a result of this lifestyle, the diet of a drunken racoon. You wake up hungover, work hungover, drink, eat a kebab, and repeat ad infinitum.

There are some days that you actually want a proper dinner but you can’t physically stomach it. You don’t know if you’re hung over or malnourished or fucking clinically depressed but you know that if you were to try and eat that baked goat’s cheese with chorizo cream, toasted brioche and sweet sherry caramel you’d puke your ring up.

You will try to rise above it, to be healthy. You’ll buy grapes for the house. And yoghurt, you think yoghurt will save you. But it never does. Like a fruit fly, you still hover near that which is fresh and green and living, but you can never actually claim it. You give up and instead make token gestures like telling yourself martini olives are one of your five a day. You reckon that the lime slice in your gin and tonics is enough Vitamin C to stop your teeth falling out.

By August you can’t remember the last time you didn’t have the Cure for lunch. You say things like “Jesus I’d love a Guinness, I haven’t eaten all day, I’m starving” and “Breakfast? I haven’t even had Jaeger yet.” Your gums are bleeding from scurvy and your staple foods are McDonalds and bar nuts. Your nights end with you snorting Cointreau off the bottom of a shot glass and eating a kebab off the ground, hoping it’s yours and that you haven’t already finished your own and are now just eating scraps off the floor.

The J1 will knock you the fuck off whatever perch you’ve been selecting your Brie from thus far. I’d love to offer some advice. I can’t. It’s what you’ve signed up for. Bon app.

Follow D’s stateside adventures here.