I fell in love with food at my grandmother’s apron strings. The minute I entered her kitchen I was wrapped in the warmth of an old world charm that I’ve only just begun to fully appreciate. There was always something cooking or ‘growing’ on Grandma’s stove top. Beautifully crafted loaves of bread sat nestled in great big ceramic bowls, rising under tea towels, warmed by the sunlight streaming through the windows. I loved the sound of her sizzling skillet and the aroma of garlic permeating the air. I was soothed by the rhythm of her big old tarnished knife chopping carrots, fennel, peppers and onions.
My grandmother filled my childhood with the flavors of Sicily. While my friends were eating wonder white bread slathered with peanut butter and oozing grape jelly, I was feasting on crusty loaves of homemade Italian bread with sautéed spinach and garlic. My grandmother used garlic in just about everything she cooked, except maybe her lemon cake.
My mother’s kitchen wasn’t nearly as enticing. My dad and I did our best to enliven our food life with weekly trips to the Columbia Market where we sampled olives marinating in lemon infused oil and marveled at the big rounds of Provolone cheese hanging from the ceiling on scratchy knotted ropes. Cheese that smelled like cheese. From butcher, to bakery, to the produce aisle at the local market, my father turned grocery shopping into an art form.
But pretty soon we had to tear ourselves away and meander on home to see what my mother had planned for dinner. We braced ourselves for the shoe leather steaks that you could chew for a full twenty minutes and still not swallow. My mother liked her meat well done. Hamburger Helper, Shake-n-Bake and TV Dinners were the convenience foods of my youth. Is it any wonder I lived for Sunday dinners at Grandma’s? We lingered over those dinners: slow simmering sauce, vine ripened tomatoes, lemon cake, lemon pie, lemon cookies.
And then, there were the diets. My mother had a lifetime membership to Weight Watchers, with Diet Workshop as back up reinforcement. She counted calories, points, fat grams, whatever the collective was counting at the time, further complicating my food life because then I began to scrutinize everything on my plate. She even got the doctor to prescribe diet pills for my dad because, according to her, he needed to lose some weight, too. I don’t know when I started hoarding food but years later my parents told me they would find candy wrappers under my bed, in my closet, in a dresser drawer. I’m certain that habit came from the fear that one day there would be no more treats. Ever.
Eventually, I mirrored my mother’s food behaviors. At about age nine I decided I was ‘fat’ so I started dieting, too. And so began a deprivation binge cycle that nipped at my heels for years. I remember coming home from school to an empty house where I parked myself at the kitchen counter and consumed mounds and mounds of frozen waffles slathered with butter, powdered sugar . . . and shame. And then, for days, I would eat only cottage cheese and cantaloupe to punish myself for my transgression.
In my twenties I became a champion diet and exercise queen. My diet history included the M&M Diet, the Diet Coke and Peanut Butter Cracker Diet, and the Don’t Eat Anything ‘til Dinner and then Eat Everything in Sight Diet. I also tried the Compulsive Exercise to Give Myself Permission to Eat Diet. And those were just the diets I made up. I tried all the trendy diets, too, convinced I would eventually find the perfect system and achieve the perfect body composition. I taught aerobics during those years and I would think nothing of teaching two to three classes a day, in addition to forty-five minutes on the life cycle to warm up. I exercised to earn the right to eat.
Before long, my extreme dieting gave way to living life in the extremes. I was a first order perfectionist. Nonstop, type-A over achiever. In my teaching life I thought dedication meant living and breathing my job. I entered the school building before the sun rose, and left long after dark. Weekends were never about relaxation, they were an opportunity to catch up on paperwork, research, and reports. That work ethic earned me the distinction, Teacher of the Year, but it wreaked havoc on my health. Food during this period in my life was grab and go, only instead of the Hamburger Helper and Shake-n-Bake of my childhood, I was grabbing ‘healthier choice’ convenience food: Lean Cuisine and Kashi Breakfast Bars. I believed the labels.
Fast forward. The year is 2006. I’m jolted awake as my car veers off the road in the midst of DC rush hour traffic. I’m about as far away as I can get from the warmth of Grandma’s kitchen. The word linger isn’t even part of my vocabulary. I’m going about my life in my usual nonstop, copiously compulsive manner, ignoring the soul crushing exhaustion that had taken up residence in my body and I drove right off the road. Fortunately, I drove into the shoulder instead of oncoming traffic but it was just the wake-up call I needed to get myself to a doctor to find out why I could barely pull myself out of bed in the morning. I was diagnosed with Hashimotos thyroid disorder, adrenal exhaustion and osteoporosis. An endocrine train wreck.
Taking on a health crisis was, for me, just another project. I attacked it with tenacity. I started studying things like cellular rejuvenation through raw food nutrition. I climbed into bed with The Autoimmune Epidemic instead of my favorite memoir.
My body became a human laboratory. And I healed.
But old habits die hard. Even in healing mode, I found a way to live life in the extremes. I adopted the most rigid wholesome diet I could find. There I was, following an alkaline, gluten-free, dairy-free, vegan, (crazy sexy) raw food diet. In the dead of winter. Snowflakes clinging to my eyelashes. Psyche yearning for Grandma’s soup.
I went back to school. Not one school, but four different schools over the course of three years. I set off to study every form of mind-body-health and nutritional science I could get my Type-A hands on. I even built a whole new career around food as medicine. I wanted this current state of ill health to be about the food in the ‘eat this, not that’ sense. Because that was something I could control. But my beautifully complex life needed more than just the application of glorious greens and fresh vegetable juices.
What I learned in the years that followed is that nourishment has many layers. Interestingly enough, my body flourished when I stopped looking for the perfect diet or nutritional system, abandoned my rigid food rules, and called on my roots and all that I knew and loved and savored in my grandmother’s kitchen. Chopping vegetables became a moving meditation. Planting a garden reminded me to slow down and savor not only what I eat, but also how I live my life. I put the ‘doing self’ away when I’m in my garden. I tend both my vegetables and my psyche.
I’m calling this second half of my life a return to food. I’m enjoying beautiful, fresh, wholesome fruits and vegetables, wild greens, fermented foods, fresh herbs. On any given day you might enter my kitchen and notice seeds sprouting, kombucha brewing, herbs growing and, perhaps, even a loaf or two of sourdough bread, rising under tea towels.