In 1927, E.B. White began a piece for The New Yorker with this sentence: How wars start. The author of ever-lasting children’s literature was referencing a different kind of war than mine.
My war with food and later with sleep did not begin with a declaration of intent to fight or with failed diplomacy, it simply snuck in and slowly reshaped the landscape. One segment of my life was filled with delicious and healthy food, prepared by my Mom and by the time I was in college, food was the devil and I was determined to master it.
I inherited an enviable metabolism and a love of sweating, and I grew up in a home with a Mom who cooked meals full of vitamins and flavor and a Dad who enjoyed sweating with us, coaching us, or cheering us from the sidelines. We moved our bodies as a family and then we fed them nutritious sustenance. I never gave food much thought.
Two of my closest friends in High School practiced two faiths different than my own, one a Mormon and the other a Muslim. Their discipline over food that other teens consumed was intriguing to me. They each explained that food serves the body and by mastering some cravings, we were disciplining our bodies. I was a varsity athlete so this discipline thing sounded perfect and I chose to give up red meat—no easy feat in 1986 when turkey or veggie burgers were not a thing and fast food reigned supreme in the lives of teens. If one could go without soda and iced tea and the other could go without water or food during the day for a month of Ramadan, then I could give up a burger and pepperoni pizza. Not exactly shots fired, but I recall it being the first time I considered food something to be controlled. Battle lines were drawn.
Paying zero attention to nutrition and 100% attention to my wallet, my college roommate and I treated our stomachs like garbage dumpsters: Velveeta cheese and a can of Rotel tomatoes passed as food, veggie pizza, fries, all of the cheap carbs went down my gullet and the freshman 15 was not cute. I wasn’t moving, running, or doing much of anything (Badminton for a P.E. credit does not count),except sitting in class, studying and helping grade papers in the English Dept of my university, as part of my job on campus. When the clothes were no longer fitting, I knew what to do…and it was not over-exercise. I am not hard wired to be anorexic but I could abstain from food for three days straight-I was disciplined. Just as I had been in High School, I was telling myself to be the boss of food, master my body. By my sophomore year, I had stepped firmly into bulimia and held onto to that grip until I was 33 years old. Shots had been fired, casualties would be expected.
Being at war with food ends badly. Very. Counting calories, carbs, obsessing over protein intake or fat consumption, mixing foods, intermittent fasting, macrobiotic, juice cleanses, being a vegan, being a vegetarian, South Beach Diet, alkaline water- I think I’ve tried every single way to control food. It took me decades to understand that food is not to be controlled. I was becoming depressed as food consumed in shame and isolation must also be eliminated under those same clouds.
In all of those years and all of those battles, I lost a few pounds, years of joy and a great deal of perspective. I’ll never get back the hours I wasted obsessing about food or my body. When I am an old woman, I will lament the times a number on a scale or the size of a dress defined how I felt about a strong, capable, healthy, able, disease-free body.
As food and I began to sign treaties with one another, I realized that, unlike an alcoholic, I could not navigate my future without food, but just like an alcoholic, I could take this one day at a time. I could make one change each day or each week. More water for my organs, more food that grew in dirt, less food with feet. I step on a scale only once a year. I cannot tell you what I weigh now but I do know that the jeans I bought when I was 32 still fit me 16 years later. I know when I feel some extra flab around my waist or hips. I know when my upper body strength needs some attention, my leg muscles need to be worked in a different way, or whether or not my skin has a glow to it when I am not wearing makeup. I know when my cheekbones are visible,my hair shines, my endurance is improving and I also know when I am glad I am not in a bikini. Food affects my breakouts and time spent acting as if I am being murdered by the aesthetician as she unclogs my pores. My sleep is affected by food, the laxity or firmness of skin will tell the secrets of my meals, and the kitchen where abs are made? I’m close to finding it. How could food not affect every part of my body from skin to sleep? To quote my friend Marion Roaman, “it is the most intimate relationship we have—we put the stuff IN our body to make our LIFE happen.”
My Mother-In-Law teases me that I can tell you the nutrition content of every green drink I blend or meal I make. She is not wrong.
Americans spend less of our incomes proportionally on food than almost any other developed nation. Many in this country buy food while still in their cars and cram it in mouth holes as they drive on to the next errand. Michael Pollan wrote that “Fire gave us cooking, cooking gave us the meal and the meal gave us civilization.” Business relationships are deepened over meals, milestones in families are marked, holidays with loved ones, celebrations with friends—we do these things over meals. We sit down. We look at one another as we lift forks, talk, laugh and bury those moments deep in our memory bones.
Each Holiday Season, I practice a form of meditation around food. I carefully plan the menus if I am hosting. I look at my spices, consider which dishes are family traditions and cannot yet be changed (my grandmother’s cornbread dressing) and which can be made healthier. I shop in shfits, saving the fresh vegetables from farm stands in East Hampton or small markets for the day before and I am so grateful for the bounty of fresh food. Lastly, I plan what should be cooked or baked in advance and which dish each family member will enjoy preparing as I delegate and we all participate. I consider the music, the scented candles and lighting. Some chefs have made food an art form, but food is not art to me, nor is it the enemy anymore-it is the fuel for this one body, a gift of riches because I am not hungry, a way to look into the eyes of those I love, feed the bodies we’ve been given.
The timing of making certain a meal this large has taken me years to master. Some of our family jokes come from the whipped cream mishap, the entirely too much sage in the dressing year, or the “she had too much sangria and burned the gravy”; but more thought goes into the nutrition value and whether or not this is good for the person who is battling diabetes or heart disease and whether or not something will make us all feel like napping or hiking after we consume it, Hint: if the food makes you feel like napping, it’s not good for you. You deserve high grade fuel, not nasty sludge.
Being Thankful starts with whispering prayers of gratitude as I shop, chop, simmer and sip wine, knowing that memories will be made and bodies nourished.
We’re plant-based eaters now and I abstain from dairy because I’ve learned it causes inflammation in my body and I feel better when at least six plants cross my tongue each day. We’ll still make a turkey but as our tastebuds have changed these last few months and our desire to feel good and sleep well is more important, so recipes have been modified. The yams will be roasted, or maybe butternut squash will be, but marshmallows are off limits. Pecans or walnuts can be toasted in bourbon before baking into the freshly baked yams and that flavor is better than white sugar goo. Mashed potatoes were long ago kicked to the curb for cauliflower mash and now I sprinkle bread crumbs across the top and I bake the already mixed dish and almost no one can tell the difference. Fiber and Vitamin A for everyone! The green bean casserole of my youth has been substituted for a healthier version of all fresh veggies, no MSG, high sodium or gross goo. Maya Angelou said, “When you know better, you do better” Zero Butterball turkeys are allowed and veggies don’t get disguised in flour and cheese.
Chopping, simmering, tasting, planning—these are the things our grandmothers did with food, and in the 21st Century, we realize that we prefer a FARMacy over a PHARMacy.
If your biggest concern is What to Eat and not Will I Eat? Then you are doing better than most on the planet. If your body is healthy, strong, is not confined to a wheelchair or you are not missing limbs, don’t take that for granted. Take that for care. If you didn’t bury a loved one aren’t missing a spouse at the table, don’t pop a klonopin over the relative whose politics will make you ragey. Mix up some Harvest Margaritas or Thanksgiving Sangria, declare the holiday a no politics zone, listen to music, wear silly aprons, be mindfully grateful for heat, health, homes.
Don’t make too much food, thinking that leftovers are wonderful for three days–make less food and vow to not throw any of it away, thinking of those who will stand in line to be served by strangers for their meal, or Mamas and Daddies who worry how they will stitch together a holiday on the pennies they are counting.
Gratitude, not gluttony.