December 17th, 2011eating
As I wrote last month, the winter holidays seem to be a time of freaking out about food sensitivities. I went into Thanksgiving unconcerned about the possibility of being glutened, despite my extreme sensitivity, partly because I was busy writing, partly because I knew I was in very good hands with my friend Jaime doing the turkey-day cooking. Mostly, though, I just can’t be bothered to worry about every little detail, because I’ve been gluten-free for almost a year, and I’ve found that whether I scrutinize the details of every ingredient and dish or not, I’m pretty much equally likely to get sick. So I usually do a basic check and focus my massive anxiety on something else, like my writing career.
But Thanksgiving is just one day, and if the internet is to be believed, the holiday season presents itself as an endless train of parties and gatherings that will culminate in large dinners that many food blogs would have you believe are meant to terrorize those with dietary restrictions. I’ve read so many blog posts about surviving holiday gatherings at which a person can’t eat some of the dishes that I’ve begun to wonder why people show up at these shindigs in the first place—Is the food on the plate the point? What about the gathering? The people? That electric holiday spirit that only comes around once a year?
I love Christmas, and I always have. I expect that my parents will have the house decked out with Christmas decorations, as usual. I can’t wait to see them, and my brother, and my grandparents. We’ll have a special dinner on Christmas, I’m sure, but I can’t even remember what we usually eat. The point is that we’ll all be there. Maybe I won’t be able to eat everything, or maybe I will. I’ve sat at that dining room table as a vegetarian and a vegan, choices I happily made. I’ve been picky my entire life. One year, I think I even had to eat a small, fat-free dinner because of a gallbladder surgery coming up on the 27th. Who cares? I don’t fly across the country for the meal. I fly because I love my family very much and I want to spend my vacation time with them.
Martha Stewart has recently caused a fuss with her comments about accommodating dietary restrictions, offering advice to those wishing to entertain guests. From the Daily Mail article:
‘Oh my God! Don’t ask! My rule is do not ask about dietary restrictions,’ she says, clearly averse to making an extra effort for certain guests.
‘We had a charity dinner – we had every single kind of restriction. It was horrible!’ she recalls to the newspaper.
The cooking maestro, seemingly so welcoming and in control, does make one minor concession.
‘You have to be semi-prepared,’ she says of picky eaters. ‘But don’t fret about it. Everybody can miss a meal.’
The remarks sparked controversy among food bloggers and their readers, many of whom immediately jumped to the conclusion that Martha Stewart doesn’t care about serious allergies and intolerances and doesn’t have any interest in accommodating them. But I don’t think this is the case—I think Martha expressed her point without being as clear as she could have been, but she may have been trying to say that if a host invites all guests to volunteer food preferences when RSVP’ing, that can open up a world of headaches when entertaining a large group. Not only celiacs and those with nut allergies and any of the other serious allergies that might be represented in the group might respond, but perhaps those sometimes-pescetarians might decide to speak up, and maybe a person who really doesn’t like green vegetables might feel empowered to call it an allergy, and so on. By making such an invitation, the host puts the responsibility on him/herself, whereas those of us with food sensitivities are accustomed to being responsible for our own well-being. And to volunteer to make sure that everyone is fed safely and can eat the majority of the food on the table is an enormous commitment. This, I believe, is what Martha is talking about. Besides, she never said she doesn’t believe in having allergy/intolerance friendly dishes available. If someone is truly concerned, that person can always contact the host.
And the missing of a meal doesn’t necessarily mean that the person is sitting there, foodless—It’s the difference between, perhaps, being half-full and leaving overstuffed. Maybe it’s a Thanksgiving dinner where the turkey, unfortunately, has been stuffed with wheat-bread stuffing, and the gravy has flour in it, but a celiac person has some brussels sprouts, a hefty glob of sweet potatoes, and mashers with butter. Is that so bad? Special occasions of all kinds are great opportunities to serve up special foods to special people. I know that. I’m lucky enough to benefit from that mindset all year when Jaime serves up kitchen amazements. Holidays can be made better by good food, for sure. But the food isn’t the reason for the gathering. It’s the peppermint icing on the cake.
Being diagnosed with a gluten issue will mean that things are just going to be different. Maybe the most enjoyable meals start happening at home. Maybe you have to start standing up for yourself when people give you crap about the way you eat—I find a firm but friendly “Sorry, I can’t eat that” works, but I’m from Jersey, so I know how to be direct. If you’re having trouble with social situations because of food, maybe you need to stop overthinking the food and start thinking about the reason you’re showing up. What are our reasons for eating? Are they different this time of year? Why should eating be so stressful?
I’m not stressed. I have two cans of soup and a package of pasta in my suitcase to get me started. If you’re feeling stressed, just watch this:
Since my doctor told me it looked like I might have celiac and I should stop eating wheat, I’ve missed pizza sometimes, but going back to New Jersey, I expect to miss it acutely. And cookies aren’t the same. And the bread I bake goes stale right away. But I’ve lost 30 pounds and realized just how little the ritual of food matters to me. On the Daily Mail article, in the comment section, there’s a note from Ian in London that ends, “for gods sake, don’t let it define you or your family. There is a difference between care and paranoia.” There: that’s it.Tags: Christmas, gluten-free, Martha Stewart, New Jersey
July 15th, 2011food
The above, taken on April 15, 2001 (Easter Sunday), was one of the first food photos I ever took with a digital camera. I was sixteen years old. My parents had given me a digital camera for Christmas, and such a thing was rare and special back then. A camera in a cell phone was unheard of—no one in my family even had a cell. The camera was huge and clunky, couldn’t zoom or do the macro thing, and everything was pixelated. It took AA batteries. It was just about my favorite thing on earth. I tried to take artsy photos of everything.
By the way, you are looking at a photo of a lamb made out of butter.
This particular Easter was a special one. I’m not sure why, but my family was especially geared up: my mom made me a new pastel pink dress, I picked some hyacinths to tuck into my hair, and we scattered decorations around my grandparents’ house. Mom and Grandma packed a basket (see above) in the Polish tradition with ham, kielbasa, the butter lamb, a babka, salt, some eggs, and probably some other things. They covered it with linen and brought it to the church for a blessing. Neither my mom nor my grandma is of Polish descent, but that really is not the point at all, because my grandpa is, and so my dad is, and my brother and I are, and the whole family attends weekly mass at a Polish Catholic parish, and we were having some of the special traditional fixings of the Polish Easter dinner that year.
Everything in the basket has a symbolic meaning. The babka is the bread of life. The eggs mean new life and resurrection. Kielbasa signifies God’s generosity, ham means abundance, salt means prosperity and justice. I did not take any photos of the ham, or of the kielbasa.
I was a picky eater back then. If I didn’t know better, I’d think I might have given myself celiac disease by overdosing on gluten, because wheat products were the basis of my diet. I hated Easter dinner because I hated ham, kielbasa, and babka (yes to bread, no to raisins). That left the salt and the butter, so Mom would usually make me some plain macaroni to go with them.
The butter lamb, of course, represents the Lamb of God and reminds us of the good will we should have towards all things. Don’t get me wrong—I don’t think I was ever upset to be eating macaroni and butter at Easter dinner, because macaroni and butter was all I ever really wanted to eat. Give me some baked pineapple pudding on the side and I’m set.
Butter lambs aren’t available everywhere, but I’ve seen quite a few tips online for creating them. In New Jersey, we could buy them in any ShopRite grocery store. These little creatures are the centerpieces of the Polish Easter dinner table, but as soon as we sat down to eat that year, the little guy lost his head, then his shanks. He got stuck in the fridge, and over the next few weeks, we whittled him down to nothing. But I had my grainy photo to remind me of his molded perfection.
Two days earlier, I had taken a set of author photos of myself (see one of them at left, a later one at right). I’m not really sure who was meant to see these photos, as I had no immediate plans to publish a book, but I definitely knew that if I wanted to be a Poet—or, better yet, a Poetess—I should be able to look the part. So, as I uploaded photos of animal-shaped food, I also uploaded photos of me looking artsy, sensitive and thoughtful, and even though I’ve replaced the clunky old digital camera many times, I haven’t been able to shake either habit. I’ve hovered over many other odd culinary creations that I would or would not eat and set the timer many more times before twisting myself into some pose that was meant to look like it wasn’t a pose at all, or at least, like a pose that someone else captured.
I still wear that sweater just about every day. Those Chucks are still on my bedroom floor, although I now know I prefer to wear them a half-size down. I’ve probably gone through at least half a dozen black plastic glasses frames since the photo on the left was taken, and my hair is a little wavier now, but it’s really something to have a digital archive to show me how I saw the world back then, and how I wanted the world to see me. I wanted to look like a poet, a modern-day hippie who communed with the ground and the leaves and the flowers. I tried to train my lens on hyacinths and tulips and mushrooms outdoors, knickknacks indoors, mostly wanting to capture the strange things I would want preserved on my hard drive for as long as possible, like my now-senior cat’s kittenhood, the half-gallery half-lair bedroom I grew up in, the Eastern springtime I’d miss so much when I rolled West. Back when a megapixel was a big deal, the old digital camera didn’t capture enough sharp edges to take postcard-worthy shots, but it’s more important to remember seeing the tree than to actually see the leaves in the shot.
This is how I feel about the butter lamb. There’s nothing to remember or forget about butter. All food writing, really, is this way. We write around it enough that when we read it over, we approximately remember what the food was like, and the readers approximately figure it out, too.
The best kinds of traditions are the ones you don’t even realize you’ve been carrying all along until you look back, like the author photos. Not only do I look like a teenager, but at twenty-six, I’m basically no different than the sixteen-year-old who lobbed skulls off butter innocents and chose macaroni over ham, except my macaroni costs double because it’s made of rice flour.Tags: celiac, New Jersey, writing
April 27th, 2010eating
When I was a little girl, my parents had two rules for me: Don’t eat the cat, and Try three bites of everything. Not eating the cat wasn’t a big deal—his skin condition made him dandruffy and unappetizing. But three bites? Three bites of salmon, venison, chicken parm, lima beans? No.
My parents said that when I was a little kid—the first of their two—they didn’t want to burden me with a ton of rules. They let me upend the furniture to make forts whenever I wanted. But, not wanting the household to be completely lawless, they plucked one important dictate from the show Alf: Don’t eat the cat. I took this rule very seriously and never did snack on Ziggy.
The other rule, the Three Bite Rule, was my parents’ invention, a product of my refusal to eat not only deer meat and lima beans, but, as my dad told me, “generally, anything we had.” I wouldn’t eat meat (except hot dogs in mac and cheese), didn’t want to try new things, and was usually too busy playing to sit at the table or make time for meals. Halloween candy would sit untouched in a pillowcase until Easter; Easter candy remained nestled among green cellophane shreds in a basket till Halloween. My lack of interest, my dad tells me, wasn’t really food-specific: I didn’t have an interest in any food all that much.
In an effort to introduce good nutrition, cut down on the number of different dinners my mom had to prepare each night, and get me to eat something other than mac and cheese and casseroles, my parents introduced the Three Bite Rule. They didn’t find it in a parenting book; they just used common sense. One bite wasn’t a fair sample, and any more than three would be pointless.
I asked my mom and dad, Did it work? Did I ever decide I liked whatever was for dinner? Ever keep eating?
No, they said, they didn’t remember that happening more than a couple times.
I’m a grown-up now, and I eat salmon. I broil it (fail), slow-roast it (low pass), or cook it for 13-15 minutes at 450 degrees (A plus!). I also have no trouble eating three bites of anything, even foods I don’t like—I know I hate mushrooms, but had three bites of a portabella last weekend, just to check in and see whether my tastes had changed (They hadn’t. No way). The dinner table still makes me uncomfortable. Mine, a beautiful assembly of sturdy pieces of stained, matte wood, functions as extra book storage now that I’ve filled all my bookcases.
And, like many grown-ups, once I have my three bites, I have a hard time stopping. In fact, when I googled “three bite rule” to see whether any other parents had tried it, I found that there are people out there who are indeed following the Three Bite Rule: adults, including Posh Spice/Victoria Beckham (I grew up in the nineties—she’ll always be Posh to me), who attempt to curb overeating by stopping after the third bite. The idea is that three bites is all you need to be satisfied.
This sounds nice, until I think about it a little more—then it sounds like torture. After three bites of my last “cheat meal,” a sludgy chocolate baby bundt cake ala mode, saturated near-black cake showing off while vanilla ice cream drizzled with some kind of pink syrup sweetly vied for my attention, I was damn sure I was going to finish the whole thing. Mindlessly? Maybe. If you’d asked me to pass it around the table and watch everyone else pick at it, I might’ve cried. Three bites would have been just enough for me to be sure that the dessert was awesome, but not enough time would have passed to allow the feeling of fullness to kick in. I know that I don’t get full until a little bit of time has passed after the meal, so three bites might only be enough thirty minutes after I have them, and until then, I’ll be craving bites four through twenty.
What about you? Did you follow any food rules as a kid? Do you now? Let me know in the comments.Tags: New Jersey