Truth: I’ve Been In An Abusive Relationship For 30+ Years.
I’ve been thinking a lot about food lately.
Particularly, I’ve been thinking a lot about my relationship with food. We’ve been seeing each other for over thirty years now, and I think it might be getting serious.
We pretty much threw away the first year because I didn’t have any teeth and, once I did, my post-infant palate was hardly refined enough to appreciate the intricate flavor profiles of a perfectly roasted Brussels sprout or a delicately layered tiramisu. As a kid, the very act of eating was a burden. It annoyingly interrupted rousing bouts of street games with my neighbors, fort-building in the stairwell, and pretty much any other interesting engagement whose sole purpose wasn’t to fuel my active little body. “Your daughters eat like birds!” my parents’ friends would exclaim, grabbing our scrawny wrists and flailing them wildly through the air. “Tell them to eat more.”
The truth is, I knew we didn’t eat like birds. Birds had to work for their food, and ours just appeared, magically on the table, and our natural instinct was to eat until we were satisfied — not until we were full. Except on special pizza nights, my family always ate around the table. Sure, the tiny kitchen television was almost always tuned to the evening news followed by Wheel of Fortune. And while I would often try eating as quickly as possible so I could excuse myself, clear my dishes, and run back out to the empty lot behind our house to meet my friends and skin my knees and use that fuel for fun, our family eating format still forced me to slow down, at least a little, and experience my food.
In college, the relationship turned abusive.
Meal plans and dining halls and snack bars and bar bars compelled me to take advantage of food in a way I’d never thought possible. I marveled at its quantity. Its selection. At the fact that I could sneak my reusable coffee mug into the dining hall for that extra creamy cappuccino and a Tupperware container for a second helping of breakfast cereal, mashed potatoes, or chicken parmesan. Food, no longer a burden, provided a heady break from all-night term papers. A hangover prevention with a 3-a.m. drunken stumble to the on-campus Taco Bell. A bonding experience at sorority meetings and social activities and, whenever a friend was kind enough to invite me to their family’s home for the weekend since mine lived so far away, an excuse to binge on the tranquilizing effects of a home-cooked meal.
If Food felt beaten by my vicious attacks, it didn’t let it show. It hid the bruises behind the preservative-laden wrappers of “healthy” granola bars and the Omega-3 boasts of “low-fat” peanut butter and dammit, if Wheat Thins are supposed to be full of grains and grains are supposed to be good for me, why am I still gaining weight?
Food’s stealthy counterattack was swift and perverse. I gained thirty pounds my freshman year, and when I went home for the summer, no one compared me to birds.
I hated Food.
And obviously, Food hated me.
We didn’t speak for at least three months while I drowned myself in supplemental Slim Fast, the occasional piece of fruit for a snack, and a between-the-two-waitressing-jobs lunch of popcorn chicken and a peanut butter shake from Sonic. Surprisingly, the pounds melted away, but Food was not a pleasure. It was a burden once again, to be choked down between two nine-hour shifts, and my few solid staples of fast food fried chicken or some starchy pasta from one of the restaurants where I worked did nothing to make my admittedly slimmer physique feel the least bit healthy.
It wasn’t until I moved in with Justin that I actually wanted to start learning about Food. I approached the kitchen of our tiny wooden duplex the way one might approach a nest of wasps — with a healthy dose of caution and an ample amount of fear. Our meals, at first, were what we remembered from home. Cheesy hamburger noodle casserole, sweet ‘n spicy sausage spaghetti, and boxed Betty Crocker Sour Cream ‘n Chive potatoes with ground beef. We were a makeshift family now, and this was what families were supposed to eat.
But my Life ADD made me bored. It wasn’t for health reasons that I started changing my approach to food — the chocolate, butter, and cream could attest to that — it was the fact that there are so many choices and I can’t make a decision to save my life. I started reading food blogs and buying cookbooks. We splurged on a nice set of stainless steel pots and pans, and then a cast iron Dutch oven and a Wüsthof knife. I’m still not sure how it happened, but eventually Food became a nightly Event. We still enjoyed it in front of the television, but the prep work was significant and the flavors diverse.
Though we’d bought lots of new toys to use in the kitchen and spice up our relationship, Food and I didn’t get really serious until recently, when I started to learn the difference between it and its nutrients. See, America has become a culture obsessed with nutrients. If a food label tells us its contents are “healthy” because it boosts our “good” nutrients or doesn’t have “bad” nutrients, we eat more of it. Lots more of it. Which is great for the Food Industry, it turns out, but not so great for us. Aside from the obvious facts that science still has a long way to go when it comes to understanding nutrients and vitality and that things like preservatives and pesticides probably aren’t the best substances to put into our bodies, eating, as a science, is not nearly as satisfying as eating for fun.
We eat something “healthy” and then stress that we’re not losing weight. We steal a cookie off the tray someone brought into work and berate ourselves for the rest of the day. We eat a Lean Cuisine in front of the tube and feel drab, lifeless, and flabby. And we ask ourselves the question:
If I have to eat to survive, why does it make me feel so terrible?
Well. There’s no easy answer. But my theory is, like any unhealthy relationship, we give Food too much credit. The truth is, most of the time, we’re not even eating real “food.” We’re eating boxes and jars of highly scientifically refined substances with thirty-seven different ingredients that are just posing as food. This “food” never loved us. It was faking it the entire time. We don’t eat enough vegetables or fruits. We eat too many meats. We inadvertently digest hormones and toxins and other nasties all. day. long.
It’s no wonder we feel disgusting.
It’s not easy sharing my history with Food because it forces me to admit that I’ve wasted far too much time on an abusive relationship. But that’s starting to change, my friends. No more faking it. I’m starting to eat more Real Food. Organic veggies and fruits. Fatty butter that makes me feel full when I should feel full. This is not a fad diet or something I’ve been convinced to try by an industry now banking on organic products. In fact, if you shop local, it’s possible to find farmers raising clean crops who can’t afford to become organically certified. There’s still some sugar. And there’s still some wheat. And there’s definitely still a little meat. Because I enjoy the diversity of food – Real Food – too much to quit anything. But the bread I eat will come from bakeries and have only a few ingredients, like bread is supposed to be. My chocolate will be rich and indulgent and come in the form of brownies I baked myself.
Because if I have to work for it, I won’t abuse it.
I’m taking more time to relax. To sit at the table and enjoy my Food. We’re getting to know each other again and starting to feel things we haven’t felt in a really long time.
Already, my body feels better.
My mind feels better, too.
There will be cheating, of course — restaurants and potlucks and little indulgences that make life so grand.
After all, you can’t turn the Titanic on a dime. But by committing to buying things with only five ingredients or less and loving my food for what it really is, it’s starting to turn.
And that’s all that really matters.
Some of my favorite food therapists so far:
In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto by Michael Pollan
And a few recommended by my nutritionist friend Kerrie that I haven’t had much time to explore, but they look phenomenal:
Kimberly Taylor Images: Life on Blackberry Farm (This is actually hilarious because her most recent post features a strawberry feta salad very similar to the one I consumed last night and shared on Instagram and the Facebook Page. Just a coincidence! I swear!)