Ellen Conford’s Classic “If This Is Love, I’ll Take Spaghetti”

Update, 3/27/15:  A week ago, on Friday, March 20, Ellen Conford died at her home in Great Neck, NY.  We can’t think of a better tribute to this star of YA than to repost this wonderful short story that shows off her trademark humor and insight.  YARN will be thinking fondly of her for a long time to come….

{Originally published on YARN on June 30, 2014}

“If This Is Love, I’ll Take Spaghetti” is the title story of a collection of wise, hilarious YA short fiction all written by Ellen Conford, and published in 1983.  We think you’ll agree that it more than stands the test of time (although kale has  certainly come a long way in thirty-one years!).  You can still order an old copy just like the one Kerri had on her bedside table for years, or you can wait until Lizzie Skurnick Books reissues it! 

And don’t miss our INTERVIEW with this YA titan, out today as well!


Image © Dave Crosby (https://www.flickr.com/photos/wikidave/7440588732)

Image © Dave Crosby (https://www.flickr.com/photos/wikidave/7440588732)

“Pizza,” I moaned. “French crackers.  Big Macs.  Thick shakes.  Eclairs.  Spaghetti and meatballs.”

“Carrot sticks,” said Judy.  “Celery.  Green pepper strips.  An eight-ounce cup of bouillon.”

“You don’t offer a drowning man a glass of water!” I cried.  “I can’t stand it anymore.  I’ve got paper cuts all over my fingers from opening those bouillon packets.  If I eat one more carrot stick I’m going to turn yellow.  That can happen, you know.  Too much Vitamin A makes you turn yellow.  Listen to me.  I’ve got to have something that doesn’t crunch when I eat it or I’m going to die.”

“Bouillon doesn’t crunch,” Judy pointed out.  “And you’re not going to die.  You’ve got to put food in its proper place.  It’s just not that important.”

“When you’ve got enough, it’s not important. When you’re starving—”

“You’re not starving.  You’re on a perfectly adequate diet of twelve hundred calories a day, and no one starves on that.”

“I do!”

It was true.  I’d only been on the diet three days, but I was ready to throw in the sponge.  (Sponge cake.  Devil’s food cake.  Pizza.)  The doctor had given me that “perfectly adequate diet” and told me I could expect to lose two pounds a week.  Since I had to lose twenty pounds, that meant ten weeks of carrot sticks, bouillon, and broiled chicken.

“I’ll never make it.”

“Of course you’ll make it,” Judy said.  “I have faith in you.”

“I don’t know why.  I never made it any of the other times.”

This wasn’t the first diet I’d been on.  I’d been overweight ever since sixth grade, and every attempt at losing my excess poundage had been a dismal failure.

I’d tried the grapefruit diet, the kelp diet, the Miracle Alfalfa diet, the Beverly Hills diet, the Scarsdale diet, the Oshkosh diet—if it was written up in a magazine, or had “miracle” in its name, I’d tried it.

Nothing worked.  By the second day I’d get discouraged.  By the third day I’d be depressed.  By the fourth day, visions of Mallomars danced in my head.

So I always ended up saying, “What’s the use?  I’ll never lose al that weight.”  Looking at myself in the mirror and knowing I’d never look the way I wanted to depressed me so much that the only way I could cheer myself up was to eat an entire box of chocolate chip cookies.

After which I got depressed all over again because I hated myself for eating an entire box of chocolate chip cookies.  And what was the point of going back on my diet when I’d already ruined it by eating all those cookies?

“This is different,” Judy said.  “Everybody knows crash diets don’t work.  Those others were all faddy things.  This is the first time you’ve tried a normal, sensible diet.  I mean, look at all the things you’re allowed to eat.”

“Are you kidding?”

The doctor had given me this mimeographed list with two columns of food on it.  The first column was headed “Foods to Avoid.”  The second column was “Permissible Foods.”  The first column had about a hundred things in it, eighty-nine of which I love.  The second column had about fifteen things in it, and every one of them was either bland or blecchh.

“Somehow I can’t work up a whole lot of enthusiasm because I’m allowed to eat all the kale I want.”

“Why don’t you stop thinking about the food you’re not allowed to eat and start thinking about something really important?”

“Like what, for instance?”

“Like Jeff Nugent, for instance.”

“How come,” I asked, “when you say that all I can think of is Fig Nugents?”

“Cut that out!  Look, you’re the one who’s madly in love with Jeff Nugent.  You’re the one who—”

“I never said I was madly in love with Jeff Nugent!  I said I found him mildly attractive.”

You said—and I quote—‘He makes my toes curl.’  You said ‘If only I could lose twenty pounds—”

“You know what, Judy?  At this very moment, if you said I could have my choice between Jeff Nugent and a bowl of spaghetti and meatballs, I’d take the spaghetti.  It isn’t worth it.  Not for Jeff Nugent, not for any boy.”

“What about for yourself?”  Judy asked quietly.  “Are you worth it?”

I hesitated.  “I never thought about it that way before.”

“Well, think about it.  You don’t have to lose weight for me to like you.  You don’t have to lose weight for your parents to love you.  And for all I know, you wouldn’t have to lose weight for Jeff Nugent to be interested in you.  The question is, how do you feel about you?”

I didn’t answer.  The truth was too depressing.



No thin person can ever understand the torture of loving to eat and hating to be fat at the same time.  All the circles in my math book reminded me of pizzas.  How could I concentrate on my homework when all I wanted was to draw anchovies and mushrooms on it?  Triangles looked like ice cream cones.  And it certainly didn’t help that half the problems involved pi, which equals 3.1419.  I kept thinking, “Blueberry pi r squared . . . pi r squared à la mode.”

By dinnertime I thought I was going nuts.  (I wasn’t allowed to eat them, either.)  I went to the kitchen to set the table and looked at the picture of Cheryl Tiegs I had taped to the refrigerator.   (The idea was, every time I was tempted to open the refrigerator, I would see thin, gorgeous Cheryl, and that would motivate me to look like her, which I could only do by not opening the refrigerator.)

My little brother, Barry, had erased her eyes and drawn little red dots in her eyeballs and fangs sticking out from her mouth.

She still looked better than I did.

We sat down to dinner.

“My, my, doesn’t everything look delicious,” my father said encouragingly.

“I know what that green guck is and you can’t make me eat it,” Barry threatened.

“Oh, goody, kale again.”  I was too weak from hunger to make myself sound as sarcastic as I felt.

Image © Alice Henneman (https://www.flickr.com/photos/alicehenneman/7329772640)

Image © Alice Henneman (https://www.flickr.com/photos/alicehenneman/7329772640)

“Just because she’s on a diet,” Barry said, “why do I have to eat this crummy stuff?”

“It’s not crummy stuff,” my mother said.  “It’s healthful, nourishing food.  We’re all eating more sensibly thanks to Jamie’s diet.”

“I’m not,” said Barry, pushing his plate away, “because I’m not eating.”

My father pushed the plate back.  “If you don’t want to eat the kale, don’t eat the kale.  But there’s nothing wrong with the chicken or the baked potato or the salad.”

Barry held his nose.  “I can’t eat anything with this green gunk all over my plate.”

My father jumped up and got a clean plate.  “Here,” he snapped.  He put the chicken and the potato on the clean plate, and took away the one with the kale on it.  “Now keep your mouth shut and eat.”

“How can I eat with my mouth shut?” Barry asked.

“Barry,” my mother warned.

Another pleasant family dinner.  “I’m sorry to cause all this trouble,” I said softly.  “It doesn’t seem right for everyone to suffer just because I—”

“First of all, nobody’s suffering,” my mother said.

“I am,” Barry whispered.

“Second of all, you’re not causing any trouble.  And third of all, even if you were, it’s worth it.”

Was it?

I looked down at my plate.  Even though I was weak from hunger, the sight of a naked baked potato with no butter melting into it, no sour cream oozing over its little bumps and dripping into its little crevices, did nothing to perk me up.

The broiled chicken breast at least looked nice, but it was so dry.

The only thing that was moist or otherwise juicy was the kale.

We won’t discuss the kale.

I looked over at my mother’s plate.  She had butter on her potato.  My father had butter and sour cream.  Barry was mashing his up with butter and a little milk from his glass.

I took a mouthful of dry potato.  I washed it down with a sip of 99% fat-free milk.

Is it worth it?  I wondered.  Judy’s question echoed in my mind. Am I worth it?

I still didn’t have an answer.   And what happened the next day didn’t make the question any easier.



I was in the supermarket, picking up a few things for my mother.  I personally thought that sending a dieter to the supermarket constituted cruelty to fat people, but my mother had to work late, and I didn’t want to give her a hard time.

I was reaching for the container of fat-free milk when a voice behind me hissed, “Not that one.  Take one of these.”

I turned around, and there was Jeff Nugent, in a white apron, standing over a plastic crate of milk cartons.  He thrust a container at me.

“Jeff!  What a—uh—surprise.”

Which as putting it mildly.  I didn’t know whether to be thrilled that I’d run into Jeff like this, or embarrassed because he saw I was buying fat-free milk.  I certainly would rather have run into him in the cat food aisle, but we don’t have a cat.

I wanted to say, “Oh, this fat-free milk isn’t for me, it’s for my mother,” but that would have been a little obvious.  As it was, I couldn’t think of a thing to say.  Not with him standing so close to me so unexpectedly.  My stomach did something funny—and it had nothing to do with hunger.

“See, this is the fresh stuff,” Jeff said confidently.  “That stuff on the shelf is going to be outdated in about five minutes.”

“Well . . . thanks.”  I took the container of milk from him. The tips of our fingers touched.  The carton slipped out of my hand and fell into the shopping cart.  There was a sharp crack and several softer crunches as it hit the carton of eggs on the bottom.

“Uh-oh,” said Jeff.  “I think I broke your eggs.”

“No, no, it’s my fault.”

He reached into my cart and took out the egg carton.  Little drips were beginning to seep out the sides.  “Shh,” he said.  He took the eggs down the aisle, picked up another carton, and stuck the broken ones way in the back of the display.

“Well, thanks again,” I said as he put the eggs in my cart.  There was nothing else I had to get, but I didn’t want to leave.  I smiled because I couldn’t think of anything to say, and he smiled back, sort of shyly.  I think my toes may have curled.

“I—um—didn’t know you worked here.  I mean, I’m here all the time and I never saw you before.”  I was babbling, I knew it.  Why did I have to say that about being in the supermarket all the time?  I could almost hear him thinking, Well, no wonder you’re so fat.

“I just started last month,” he said.  “And I only work from four to nine on school days, so I guess our paths just never crossed before.”

How romantic that sounded!  Our paths never crossed before . . .

“Did you do the reading for English yet?” he asked.  “I didn’t even get a chance to look at the assignment, but it sounded like a lot of pages.”

“Well, it’s just poems, so it’s not that much.”

Jeff made a face.  “Ugh.  Ten pages of poems, I hate poetry.  I can never understand it.”

“It’s not so bad.  There are pictures on a lot of the pages, so there’s not that much to read.  But it must be hard, being here till nine and then having to start on homework.”

“Yeah, kind of.  Especially homework I don’t understand.”  He looked at me sort of shyly.  “You’re really good in English, aren’t you?”

My heart began to thump, and I got this funny tingly sensation at the back of my neck.  Was Jeff hinting around, working up to asking me for help in English?  Or was he just making conversation?  If he was just making conversation, why?  Why was he standing here talking to me when he should have been unloading milk crates or stacking cottage cheese or raising yogurt prices?

I gripped the handle of my shopping cart hard, hoping that would keep me from showing all I was feeling.

“If you want . . . I mean, I’d be happy to—I mean, if you’re having trouble . . .”  I just stood there and stammered.  And tried to uncurl my toes.

“Would you?” His face lit up.  His adorable, sweet, shy face.  I was suddenly light-headed, and I knew this wasn’t from lack of food either.

“Sure.”  My voice sounded squeaky.  “You could come over after work if you want.”

“It wouldn’t be too late?”  He looked so pleased, so eager, so hopeful.  Could he be that excited about getting help with the assignment?  Or was that look on his face because I was going to give him the help?

But how could that be?  How could Jeff Nugent, the cute, want to snuggle up to Jamie Wade, the plump, and discuss Robert Browning (the poet)?

Maybe, I thought wildly, my diet has worked already.  Maybe I’m not fat anymore.

“. . . yeah, nine-fifteen’s okay.  See you then.”

Dazed, I checked out my stuff, practically sprinted home, and ran upstairs to weigh myself.

I’d lost one pound.

Could one pound have made that much of a difference?



“It’s crazy,” I told Judy on the phone.  “He does like me.  I mean, he’s been here four times and we only spend about fifteen minutes on the homework.  The rest of the time we just talk.  I mean, I really think he likes me.”

“I think he does, too,” said Judy.  “It sure sounds like it.  So what’s so crazy about that?”

“He wasn’t supposed to like me until I lost twenty pounds.  What does he see in me?”

“What do you mean, what  does he see in you?  You’re nice, you’re fun, you have a good personality—and twenty pounds overweight is not exactly like being an elephant, you know.  Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.”

“I wish you’d stop talking about meat,” I sighed.

“Still hungry?”

“I’m always hungry.  You know, it’s a myth that being in love takes away your appetite.”

“Yeah?”  Judy laughed.  “Remember when you said if you had a choice between Jeff and a bowl of spaghetti, you’d take the spaghetti?  Would you still take the spaghetti? . . . Jamie?  Jamie?  Didn’t you hear what I said?”

“I’m thinking, I’m thinking.”



I didn’t have to make a choice.

The next week Jeff suggested we go to the movies.  After the movie we stopped at McDonald’s.  I hesitated only a second before deciding that a Big Mac and a thick shake were just what I needed.

I took one bite of the Big Mac and one sip of the shake and fell off my diet with a crash.  I’ll make up for it tomorrow, I told myself.  I won’t eat a thing tomorrow.  Or Monday either.  I know there are five million calories in a Big Mac and ten million in a thick shake.  So I won’t eat Tuesday.

But at that moment, with that first ambrosial taste of gloppy sauce and pickle and lettuce, with that first nectar sip of a thick shake . . . it was heaven.  Of course, food always tastes better when you eat it with someone you love.

Especially if you’ve been starving for ten days.

On Sunday, Jeff asked if I wanted to go to the nature preserve at the state park.  How romantic, I thought, walking through a deserted forest of bare trees in November, just the two of us . . .

It was wonderful.  Jeff casually took my hand in his, and, when the wind picked up he sort of held me against him so I wouldn’t be blown away.  I was hardly thin enough yet to be blown away—especially after last night’s binge—but maybe Jeff saw me that way.  Maybe I didn’t look as heavy to him as I did to myself.

You know, you can work up a whale of an appetite walking for miles through a deserted forest in November.  The way I figured it, I must have worked off the calories I’d taken in last night, so when Jeff wanted to stop to get something to eat, I agreed enthusiastically.

After all that good exercise, I hardly felt guilty about wolfing down my fish and chips.  (Fried.  Both on the “Forbidden” list.)



I spent the rest of the day alternating between moods.  After Jeff dropped me off at home, I mooned around my room for about half an hour, replaying the soft kiss he’d given me at the preserve, just before we went out for fish and chips.

Image © Classic Film (https://www.flickr.com/photos/29069717@N02/13113019125)

Image © Classic Film (https://www.flickr.com/photos/29069717@N02/13113019125)

Then, for the next hour, I hated myself for eating the fish and chips.  I felt guilty, stupid, and weak.

Which made me hungry.

I went downstairs to the kitchen and yanked the refrigerator open.  I looked inside, then slammed it shut.  I glared at the picture of Cheryl Tiegs.   I imagined I saw reproach in her eyes.  (Which was silly, because all she had in her eyes were those little red pin points that Barry had drawn.)

“Jamie,” I could hear her saying, “how could you?  Don’t you want to look like me?”

I ripped the picture off the refrigerator door.

“Why should I want to look like you?  Jeff likes me just the way I am.  He doesn’t care if I lose twenty pounds or not.  And the only reason I started this stupid diet in the first place was because I thought he’d notice me if I was thin.  Well, I’m not thin and he likes me, anyway.  So I don’t have to lose weight for Jeff.”

And then, eerily, I sort of imagined Cheryl’s voice and Judy’s voice blending together, and this voice said, “What about for you, Jamie?  What about for yourself?”



“I don’t know,” I told Judy on the phone, “it’s very hard to diet and be in love at the same time.”

“You mean, you still can’t decide whether to dream about Jeff or spaghetti?”

“Well, sort of.  But what it really is . . . every time I think about Jeff I can’t help thinking about all that food I eat when I go out with him.  So I start to feel guilty and then I start hating myself and then I can’t think about Jeff anymore.”

“Sounds to me like what you really mean is it’s hard to be in love and not diet.  If you suck to your diet, you wouldn’t feel guilty and hate yourself, and you could dream about Jeff all you wanted.”

“If I stuck to my diet I’d probably be too hungry to dream about Jeff.  I’d be dreaming about hot fudge sundaes.  And besides, I don’t want him to know I’m on a diet.”

“The way you’re eating now, he’ll never know, that’s for sure.”

“Thanks a lot,” I said sourly.

“But why does he have to know?”

“What am I going to say if he asks if I want a Big Mac?”

“How about ‘no thanks.’  Or is that too simple?”

“But what if he asks how come?  I mean, all of a sudden I don’t like Big Macs?”

“Tell him you’re not hungry.”

“Listen, Judy,” I said bitterly, “a good relationship is not built on lies.”



I struggled through the rest of the week battling hunger pangs.  I was back on my diet again, but it didn’t seem to be any easier.  I tried substituting thoughts of Jeff kissing me for thoughts of spaghetti, French fries, and devil’s food cake, but it didn’t work too well.  As I saw it, the problem was that I knew I could have my devil’s food cake and Jeff, too.

But for some reason, I felt this determination to stick to my “Permitted Foods” list.  Maybe it was like punishing myself for the binge I’d had over the weekend, but whatever the reason, by the time Jeff and I went out again the next Saturday, I’d lost three pounds.  (I was sure it would have been four if I hadn’t slipped off the wagon.)

We went to a party at one of Jeff’s friend’s houses, and along with the usual potato chips and stuff there was this huge, five-foot-long hero sandwich.  You just cut off a piece for yourself whenever you get hungry.

I looked at it longingly.  There were all kinds of good things in there.  Cold cuts, cheese, olives, peppers, onions. . .

After we’d danced a couple of times Jeff said, “Let’s have some of that sandwich.  I’m really starving.”

I looked at the hero and I looked up at Jeff.  Even slow dancing works up an appetite—well, let’s face it, anything works up my appetite—and that huge hero was about the most tempting thins I’d faced in two weeks (Except, of course, for Jeff.)

“Isn’t that a great idea?” he said.  “A five-foot hero sandwich?  Only, it’s not five feet anymore.  I think there’s only about two feet left.  Come on, Jamie, I’ll cut us off a couple of pieces.”

Oh, why not?  I asked myself.   It’s a party.  It’s special.  Just this once.  I’ll make up for it tomorrow.  How often do I get a chance to demolish a five-foot hero sandwich?

“No,” I said, before I even realized I was going to say it.  “No thanks, Jeff.  You go ahead and get a piece for yourself.”

“You sure?” he asked doubtfully.

I’m sure that I made those same excuses for gorging last week.  I’m sure that I’ll hate myself if I eat so much as a mouthful of that sandwich, just as I hated myself all week for the Big Mac an the fish and chips.  I don’t want to hate myself anymore.

“Yeah, I’m sure.”

Image @bionicgrrrl (https://www.flickr.com/photos/bionicgrrl/6217265585)

Image @bionicgrrrl (https://www.flickr.com/photos/bionicgrrl/6217265585)

Jeff came back with a big chunk of the sandwich.  “It’s fantastic,” he said.  “here, try a bite.”

I turned my head away quickly, before I could get a good whiff of the strong cheese, the pungent peppers, the fragrant oil . . .

“I can’t, Jeff,” I said bluntly.  “I’m on a diet.”

“On a diet?  What for?”

“To lose weight.  I have seventeen pounds to go.”

“I mean, why do you have to lose weight?”

“Oh, come on, Jeff,” I said impatiently.  “I’m twenty pounds overweight.  At least, I was.  Don’t pretend you didn’t notice.”

“I’m not pretending anything.  I like you just the way you are.”

Oh, Jeff . . . that’s such a nice thing to say.”  I felt my heart melting and hoped it didn’t mean my determination was melting, too.

“I’m not just saying it.  It’s the truth.  To me you look . . .”  He hesitated a moment, then said shyly, “. . . really good.”  He took a big bite of his hero and chewed hard.

“But to me I don’t.”

That was it, I realized.  That was it in a nutshell.  Jeff may like me just the way I am, but I don’t.  And I didn’t want to hate myself anymore.  Not for the way I ate, not for the way I looked.

I wasn’t losing twenty pounds for Jeff, or for the doctor, or for my mother or for anyone except myself.  I knew the answer to Judy’s question now.  I’d probably really known it all the time.

“You’re the one that counts,” Jeff said.  “If it’s important to you that’s what matters.  I think it’s great you have that much will power.”

“Oh, Jeff, I don’t!” I wailed.  “It’s so hard.  I mean, right this minute I want to rip that sandwich out of your hands and wolf the whole thing down before you grab it back.”

Jeff grinned.  “You just try it, Jamie.  Just try it.”

“You wouldn’t let me?”

“Not if you don’t want me to.  You helped me with poetry, didn’t you?”

“You mean, you’ll help me with my diet?”

“If it’s what you want,” he said, “I’ll help you any way I can.”

“Oh, Jeff.”  I looked into his eyes.  Hew as gazing down at me so gravely, so intently, I forgot all about hero sandwiches and potato chips and stupid, unimportant things.

I sighed.

“Oh, my,” I murmured.  “I think you’re helping me already.”

ConfordSince editing her high school’s humor magazine, Ellen Conford has become one of the most prolific and successful authors of young adult fiction. In addition to the popular Jenny Archer and Annabel the Actress series, Conford has written over thirty novels. She has received numerous awards, notably an ALA Best Book of the Year Citation for ‘The Alfred G. Graebner Memorial High School Handbook of Rules and Regulations.” Several of her novels have been adapted into television specials, including “And this is Laura” and “Dear Lovely Hart: I Am Desperate.”

She attended Hofstra College and lives in Long Island with her husband, David Conford.

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3 Comments Post a Comment
  1. Tamanna Das says:

    I have always loved this story so much.

    Very few stories manage to capture the “butterflies in the stomach” feeling of teenage crushes accurately. This is one of the few.

  2. CLM says:

    I don’t usually like short stories but I agree that this is a great collection! It reminds me of two books by Kate McNair; one is a YA novel called A Sense of Magic and a short story collection called A Book of Directions. Has anyone read these?

    My favorite Conford is Dear Lovey Hart, I am Desperate. I still think it is one of the funniest books ever, along with the sequel.

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