Is breakfast a difficult meal for you?

Is it the one that you rarely think about, the one that you linger over the least? I was never one to skip breakfast, but I still find it a hard meal to wrap my head around. I rarely get to lavish the attention on breakfast that I pay to lunch and dinner: hunger, and the morning rush, conspire to make my breakfast as simple as possible. But "simple," I find, is often pre-made and repetitive: store-bought yogurt and granola; toast with peanut butter and banana slices; fruit and cottage cheese. Those are my staples, the ingredients that I always have on hand to make my morning meal in a pinch. I rarely give them a second thought. So what's wrong with that?

Part of the problem with these kinds of foods is that they are sugary and flighty, often leaving me hungry later in the day. And they get boring, day after day, the same combination of dairy and grain and sweetness. There is only so much granola and yogurt that I can take before going batty. Yet I have never been one to yearn for bacon and eggs in the morning -- so what to do?

I have found part of the solution to what-to-eat-for-breakfast in the insight afforded by Asian cuisine which, it should be pointed out, does not draw clear distinctions between "breakfast food" and all the rest. Breakfast, at least in China, may be sweet, or it may be savory; it may have fruits, or eggs, or soup, or rice, or all of these things. Breakfast is like lunch or dinner, only smaller. Just think of all the things you can have for breakfast if you follow this approach! Not just eggs -- pork! Beef stew! Tofu! Vegetables! Are you someone who can't stand another day of bagels with cream cheese and frozen orange juice? Don't you agree that breakfast is the most wasted culinary opportunity of the day?

I'm trying my best to change things around here, and I am taking my cues from Asian cuisine. My breakfast may be a bowl of rice with coconut milk and fruit, as in my first photo, or a sticky rice bao filled with sweet pork, shitake mushrooms, peanuts, and dried shrimp (picked up in Chinatown); black imperial rice with coconut and bananas; mung bean porridge with tangerines; or any other strange and wonderful concoction I happen to dream up or stumble upon. This is what I am eating, more often than not. And I can't think of a better way to start my day with a breakfast that is just a little beyond the ordinary -- even if all porridges look the same.


Hot pot! (火鍋)

Tonight we went to Chinatown in lower Manhattan to eat huo guo (火鍋)-- Sichuan hotpot -- with some of my husband's classmates. Hotpot is something like fondue, except that instead of oil or cheese, you get a large pot of spicy, steaming broth (and small gas burner) to cook your ingredients right there on the table. Hotpot is one of my favorite Chinese foods; we ate it often in Beijing in late-night dinners that we shared with friends, and Chuan and I even traveled to Sichuan during our time there, before the devastating earthquake. I love the variety of ingredients, the two different ma and la flavors (one makes your lips tingle; the other clears your sinuses), and the communal feel of huo guo.

The one problem with hotpot, for me, is that there are no portions, no courses, and no end to the meal. Even now, when I eat hotpot in New York, I have to remind myself to take my time. And even then I keep telling myself to slow down, to look around, to engage in conversation, to focus on the company, all throughout the course of the meal. Tonight was difficult in that respect, because I didn't know my company very well, and I felt more like a wifely appendage than a dinner companion in her own right. But focus I did, and I got through the meal, occupied more by reminiscences of China than by the conversation.

Coincidentally, the weather today in New York City reminded me of Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan, which is known for its humid, foggy weather, its beautiful women, and its spicy foods. Lower Manhattan was covered in fog and mist this evening; we could have been eating hotpot in any Chengdu eatery, and no one would have known the difference by stepping outside onto the city streets.

All of Sichuan, in my memory, appears wet and flowing, its rivers and fragrant broths confounded. In Chinese, "sì chuān" means "four rivers," and the province is indeed criss-crossed by waterways. Sichuan, even inland, is a land of water. (My husband's name, Chuan, comes from the same word: 川 in Chinese.)

We ate wonderful mushroom hotpot in Chengdu's restaurants, and visited poetic shrines and ancient battlegrounds, but we both agreed that the most interesting part of Sichuan was further north, closer to the border with Tibet, where yak's milk replaces tea as the most common drink.

These photos are from Jiu Zai Gou ("Nine Villages"), a scenic area in the mountains of Sichuan. Most of the people who live there speak a language that is closer to Tibetan than to Mandarin, and many are practicing Buddhists. We visited in autumn, right before the trees changed colors, and spent several days living with one of these families in the foothills of the Himalayas. I remember waking up early in the morning, seeing my breath hover above the comforter, and hearing the faint sounds of gongs -- monks in prayer.

In China, we visited Buddhist shrines and paid our respects to the ancestors (Chuan's ancestors) wherever we went. I remember standing side by side with the man who would become my husband, burning incense and lighting candles as offerings. I knew that it was right that we were there together, a man born in China showing a woman from Minnesota how to approach the shrine. And then I told him something, about what the Buddhist images meant -- the wheel, the lotus, the knot-- and how Tibet and China fit together (or didn't) in Buddhist history.

These things were going through my head tonight as I watched the last pieces of mutton go into the hotpot; as I debated whether to eat more or to stop; and as I paid polite attention to the conversation around me. All of these things made up my meal, in Buddhist fashion, the past coming to greet the present, the present looking towards the future. And if that isn't a good meal, a pleasant communion, I don't know what else is.

-- 艾鹭 (Aì Lù)


Finding food

(This is in response to a few comments on my last entry.)

Food and emotions. Do you have a hard time separating the two?

I used to. I still do, sometimes. But I'm learning to tell the difference, which is actually a pretty cool skill to have. I know plenty of non-eating disorder folks who haven't gotten the memo on it yet, either.

There is a big difference, I think, between using food to stand for your emotions and having emotions about food. The first can be problematic, but I think that the latter -- recognizing and expanding our emotions towards food -- is part of healing itself.

I know this is not clear yet, so let me give you a few examples, starting with all of the meanings that food have (an anthropological perspective). Food may mean fuel to you, or warmth, or love, nourishment, pleasure, guilt, reward, sin, happiness, delight, punishment, satiety, sensuality, taboo, connection, home, embodiment, blessing, or burden.

Any more? Please do share.

I think that part of what happens with eating disorders is that the meanings that food can have are severely reduced, just as the actual food consumed may be restricted or limited in variety (hell, we always binge on the same old things -- don't we?). For example, to someone with an eating disorder, food rarely means pleasure or nourishment. In fact, food is more often a burden or a sin to them. But even people who don't have eating disorders may have difficulty connecting with the delights and blessings of food, so trapped are we in a culture that equates denial with virtue.

One reason that I have turned to food magazines and other food media is that they have helped me to expand (diversify!) my attitudes towards food. Food is not uni-dimensional: quite the contrary. Food has so many meanings, not only here in the United States, where I write, but in the thousands of cultures that exist across the world. Food should be diverse, as anyone who has ever consulted a nutritionist knows. We are made to eat many things, at many times, in many moods. It is not bad to have emotions about food. What can be harmful is when food replaces emotions, or when we have too few emotions about food.

People who are in recovery from eating disorders are often told "Don't focus on the food!" I was, and I have had plenty of time to think it over. In conclusion, I don't quite buy it. I think that part of recovery is learning to cultivate a new relationship with food, not to exclude it from one's thoughts altogether, nor to eat like an automaton. When we are having a problem with someone we love, we usually don't solve the problem by exiling that person from our lives; and yet, recovery from an eating disorder is often painted as a sort of exile from food, or from food-as-emotion, without realizing that there are so many different emotions that can surround food, and not all of them are harmful.

This is what I have learned to do in recovery, and here is my challenge to you: find a new meaning for food in your life. Add it to the ones you already have. Right now. Pick one that I listed above, or add a new one of your own. Maybe you lean the other way: you already enjoy food, but you don't think of it as physical fuel or nourishment, or you are disconnected from the sources of your food. In any case, look at food from a new angle. Visit epicurious or culinate or the slow food blog. Pick a recipe or an ingredient, a cuisine or a cause, a farm or a feedlot. Learn something new that you didn't know about food. And then think about where you are, and how that knowledge is changing how you feel about the food that you eat every day.

And let me know how things are going, OK?

~Ai Lu

P.S. GRM, Tiptoe, Emily Jolie: I had so much to say to your comments these last few days! Thank you for giving me so much to think about.


What work is there but this?

These days I have been thinking a lot about recovery, as I receive comments and emails from readers of this blog, encouraging me in my unabashed rediscovery of good food.

When I sat down to write my personal bio on this blog, I struggled with setting a date to my recovery. It was important for me to indicate to you, my readers, that I was writing from a place beyond the disorder, I wanted to offer some of what I have learned in the process to other women who are going through what I went through four or five years ago. I felt that there are simply not enough models for life after recovery, and I wanted to be one.

So that was the confident side of me, the one who thought she knew everything about recovery and how to pass it on.

It surprised me a bit to realize, over the course of the months that I have been writing, that my recovery is not a staged event, but an ongoing revelation. Since I began to write and participate in the ED blog community, I have changed. The ways that I look at food have changed. I am eating wheat again. I have fewer digestive problems. I am weighing myself less. I am less anxious about getting "enough" exercise. I look at women who are heavier than I am and don't feel sorry for them; and when I look at women who are thinner, that doesn't seem so appealing anymore, either. I am learning to rest with myself.

Perhaps writing is healing, in this case: through writing, I bring the past closer and find some way to integrate these disparate parts, these disparate countries, all of this whole and this emptiness that contain me. I am learning to be humble in this renaissance, to accept that this is not the end of the path, after all.

And if this is not the end, then it bedazzles me to think of how deep we can go. Life is an interminable onion, layer after layer after layer.

And yet -- what work is there but this?


Second ode to bread

I haven't left my apartment all day -- oh, what a marvelous Sunday! In between bouts of neuroscience studying, I made Chinese sweet buns (bao zi):

Now that I am eating wheat again, I can return to baking. My husband used to joke that the fact that we used our oven exclusively for storage meant that we were just like the typical Asian immigrant household. Most Asian food is cooked exclusively over the stovetop, so many Asian immigrants in the U.S., like my mother-in-law, devise other uses for the oven space. For a long time, when I was staying away from wheat, I didn't use my oven, either.

Dough rising
All of this lead up to say that I wish that I had baked something wonderful in our oven today, but the buns that I made were steamed -- a perfect example of how ovens are completely expendable in Chinese cuisine. Nevertheless, they gave me the satisfaction, at least, of letting me pretend that I was baking, as I kneaded and coddled the dough for a couple of hours before filling and steaming the buns.

Steaming the buns
I made two sweet pastes to fill the buns: red azuki bean paste and black sesame seed paste. This recipe, from The Essentials of Asian Cooking, provided me with the excuse to use the red azuki beans that we got in Flushing last weekend and to try the freshly-milled flours from Wild Hive Farm, courtesy of the Union Square Farmer's Market on Friday. And I can never pass up an opportunity to eat sesame:

Filling the buns
I haven't kneaded bread since I was a high school exchange student in Chile and a friend's father taught me to make pan amasado. Chile has been on my mind a lot recently. September 18 is the Chilean Independence Day, a time when Chileans get together with friends and family to fly kites and eat barbecue; I was reminded again of this on Friday, when we had a Chilean couple over to wine and cheese. I spoke Spanish the whole night long. It is always a great joy and relief to me to be able to return to Spanish and find it as much unchanged as when I last left off. And Chilean Spanish I may understand best of all, for it was in Chile that I learned to speak Spanish, and I still sometimes betray a bit of their accent despite all of my time in Argentina later on.

I also found out, just yesterday, that my Chilean host father is terminally ill, so he was on my mind, too, as I went about my tasks today. As I kneaded the bread I thought of my host family, and their lives, and my family, and our lives, and all that has happened since I came back to the U.S. for the first time, seven years ago.

I wanted to write more here about China, and Chinese breads, and what I did for lunch (which you can see above), but it seems better to leave off now with a few verses from the Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda, and call it a night:

Ode to Bread

you rise
from flour,
and fire.
Dense or light,
flattened or round,
you duplicate
the mother's
rounded womb,
and earth's
How simple
you are, bread,
and how profound!
You line up
on the baker's
powdered trays
like silverware or plates
or pieces of paper
and suddenly
life washes
over you,
there's the joining of seed
and fire,
and you're growing, growing
all at once
hips, mouths, breasts,
mounds of earth,
or people's lives.
The temperature rises, you're overwhelmed
by fullness, the roar
of fertility,
and suddenly
your golden color is fixed.
And when your little wombs
were seeded,
a brown scar
laid its burn the length
of your two halves'
you are
mankind's energy,
a miracle often admired,
the will to live itself.


News gets around

My thanks to the anonymous reader who sent this link my way -- Tara Parker-Pope, for The New York Times, on "Eating Less or Eating Better." Her article reports on a sea change in the diet wars, as long-time dieters who are tired of the yo-yo effect are turning to simpler, more pleasurable ways to enjoy their food. 

This "new" philosophy is very much the one that I have embraced in my recovery from an eating disorder, though no mention was made of eating disorders per se in the article. Although I don't necessarily use weight as an indicator of health, I was interested to learn that the more time that people spend preparing and cleaning up their food, the more likely they are to be at a middle weight, as opposed to "underweight" or "overweight." In my own experience, preparing my own food has been absolutely central to recovery from my eating disorder -- but I had no evidence for this other than my own experience, until reading this article.

The truth is, I don't read a lot of research regarding nutrition or eating disorders, but this article has me asking myself if maybe it is time for me to pay a little more attention. 

Although I don't write about it much here, in my other life I am a doctoral student in clinical psychology; I spend most of my time reading scientific publications about mental disorders and their treatments. It is certainly within the realm of possibility for me to spend a few hours researching the most current news on eating disorders. But, until now, most of what I have stumbled across in the way of eating disorders -- both in the journal articles and in the persons of the researchers themselves -- has been less than appetizing. 

A few years ago, I worked briefly as an intern in an obesity research clinic whose main project was to enroll participants in a liquid diet and monitor their weight loss while providing "supportive" counseling. Their secondary project was to give group therapy to patients considering bariatric surgery. Fortunately, I did not have to work there long, because I had a lot of misgivings about liquid diets, bariatric surgery, and the attitudes of the researchers towards the patients ("People are obese because they overeat. Period.").

Before that, I had applied for a job as a research assistant at a prestigious center that studied eating disorders. In my application for the job, I was forthright in revealing my past history -- having an eating disorder had made me very interested in eating disorders, after all, and very motivated to work in that field. I ended up in one of the most uncomfortable interviews in my life when a psychiatrist on the team asked me, while looking me up and down, if I had been "a normal-weight bulimic." The nerve! I withdrew my job application immediately and wrote a terse email to the study director, who had gone to my same alma mater, telling her that I had considered her colleague's behavior in an interview absolutely inappropriate.

And that was the end of my great career as an eating disorder researcher.

I got another job, in public health, and haven't looked back. Within psychology, I love studying health psychology -- understanding the connections between mental and physical health -- and I'm not likely to give it up to pursue eating disorder research at this stage of the game. What I write on these pages is personal, not scientific. I form a sample size of 1, hardly a reliable study design. My words are the stuff of clinical anecdote; at best, I am a case study. 

And yet, and yet -- I have the tools at my disposal to find and understand the research that is coming out. I may disagree with much of it, especial with nutrition science, but that's no reason for me not to look it in the eye and evaluate it for what it is, flaws and all. One thing that I love about the scientific method is its willingness to test out its hypotheses, even if they might be wrong. Although I am trained in this method, which is designed to examine external phenomena, my body has always been my first site of investigation -- as it is for all of us. 

These last three or four years have been an exercise in getting to know my body better, in empirically testing what works for me. If you have been reading, you know what I have found: eating whole foods that I cook has been the best form of therapy that I could imagine. Do I have the evidence to back it up? Not now, but I'll look into it.

Until then, will you accept the following? A breakfast of mung-bean and coconut porridge and tangerines, taken around 7:00 am this morning:

The proof is in the pudding, as they say.

~Ai Lu


Facing our fears

Last week I played around with blogger a bit and discovered the "survey" function. A few of you responded to my survey on "foods you are afraid of" -- thank you! -- but, being a social scientist myself, I realized that I started with the wrong kind of study design in the first place. What I should have done was to first elicit answers from you, my readers, and then compile a long list of "food fears" divided into major categories, perhaps things like "food contamination," "foods that are perceived to be unhealthy," "food exotica," etc. Instead, I started with some of my own fears -- past and present -- and assumed that yours would be the same. Are they? What are you afraid of eating? What do you avoid? Which labels do you read? Feel free to leave comments below. If I get enough responses, perhaps I can even venture a few generalizations...

I'll confess myself: I read labels to see what is so chock full of preservatives that it would last a nuclear winter; to guestimate the number ingredients are in the food (too many scare me); and to see if anything in the first few ingredients says "hydrogenated" or is otherwise unrecognizable as food. But I don't buy that many packaged foods anymore, so this is less and less of an issue. I owe all of this to Michael Pollan's influence. (If you are interested in food and our "national eating disorder," as he would say, The Omnivore's Dilemma should be required reading. But you don't need me to tell you that, now do you?)

As for other fears: I have been known to drink the water in foreign countries without a second thought; 
I used to have a terrible fear of ice cream because it was so difficult to stop eating; antioxidants are good but they aren't everything; and I never much cared for French fries past the age of 13 or so. You won't catch me eating bugs -- yet -- and industrial meat scares me but I still eat it because we can't afford to shell out the extra money for free-range moo-moos and oinkers, like the ones at left. (By the way, more people voted for "industrial meat products" as a fear-inducing food than anything else.) I prefer my vegetables organic (who doesn't these days?) but I don't terribly mind conventionally-grown products. 

In my experience, every effort to restrict food comes with its own madness. And so I prefer to expand my palette, to focus on what I can have and want to have, as well as what I can make with my own two hands, rather that what I cannot eat (for invented, monetary, or biological reasons). Fear can expand in strange and unexpected ways, taking up far more of our attention and energy than was our original intention when we first decided to "cut back on cholesterol" or "eat only raw foods." I would rather nip such fear in the bud by facing it head on -- by making the foods that once scared me, such as ice cream and butter, wheat bread and chocolate cake. Cooking is my remedy for food fears.

I don't have any experimental evidence to back up my claims yet -- my research interests in food are still limited to my own narrow experience -- but I believe that cooking food for oneself and others is one of the best ways to jump out of the diet rut that we too often find ourselves in. Cooking has also allowed me, perhaps ironically, to stop obsessively about what I think is in the food (fat, sugar, wheat) and actually take part in the food's making. Butter, sugar, and eggs seem a lot less frightening when you are putting together a cake for a loved one, and not thinking about your waistline. Ditto for meat and salt: when you're participating in a collective barbeque, a fear of bloating should play second fiddle to your delight in the conversation and the smell of the grill. For me, this is what cooking has allowed me to do: pay more attention to the food itself, and less attention to my fears and my obsessions.

Perhaps this is why, of all the possible food fears, packaged foods feature so high on my own list: devoid of character, practically devoid of origin, they are disorienting and deceptive; they are, I think, what got me in trouble in the first place, what spurred on my eating disorder. There is not much of the libertarian in me, but when it comes to industrial products, I feel the urge to go down to Times Square on a Sunday afternoon and wear a sandwich board that reads "GET OUT OF MY FOOD." Perhaps I won't be as entertaining as the Naked Cowboy, but at least I'll have had my say.


Another one bites the dust

Tonight I went to a potluck dinner, bringing a nice cheesy bread that I found in the new Bon Appétit, and leaving with someone else's brownies. 

"Please somebody take these home with you. I cannot have them lying around my house," another woman said. And so, as nonchalantly as I could muster, I scooped them up. Why not? I knew that they would freeze well, and make an easy dessert with a side of vanilla ice cream. (Besides, I had a husband waiting at home who, poor dear, had been studying all night and had only had a wee sliver of my cheesy bread before I left. I think he ate pre-frozen dumplings for dinner.) These weren't particularly special brownies -- I think I heard someone mention that they might have come out of a mix -- but something in me was just tired of letting other people worry about food around me, of letting other women air so many of their food problems in public. And so I wrapped them up in left-over tin foil, and brought them home. 

I know very well why I "shouldn't" have taken those brownies. First, I used to have an eating disorder which, in its most severe form, was the kind that made me want to lock up everything in sight so that I wouldn't eat it first. In those days, potluck dinners would have been a real no-no, an easy excuse to eat all I wanted to with no one knowing any better. And, if I had taken the proffered brownies, I would probably have made short work of them on the way home, arriving at my own doorstep in utter panic and guilt. Those were the days, eh?

Second, if I should ever want brownies, there is nothing keeping me from making them myself. I don't even need Duncan Hines to do that. 

But tonight, I took the brownies without concern, for probably the first time in years. And, true to my promise to myself, they went right into the freezer when I got home, with nary another bite. I'll mention them to Chuan tomorrow, see if he wants them; if not, I'm content to just let them sit there, until we find a good pint of vanilla bean ice cream, or freezer burn destroys them.  

So, I say: another myth bites the dust, and another, and a third. I can have my cake without eating it, once in a while. I can free someone else of her brownies and be no worse for the wear. I can wait until another day to have a second helping.

Those brownies are safe in my freezer, and they'll come out only when and if I really want one.

And who said that brownies for breakfast were a bad idea?


Mid-Autumn, Mooncakes, and Fermentary Madness

We will be spending this weekend at our in-laws', where we'll celebrate the Chinese mid-autumn festival in great style (I imagine), reciting poetry and eating special cakes under the moonlight as inhabitants of the Middle Kingdom have been doing for at least four thousand years. My mother-in-law knows how to prepare all sorts of delectable Cantonese dishes and sides, and I can only imagine that, as always, the spread and board will be abundant for the four of us.

This year, the timing for the Mid-Autumn festival couldn't be better, culinarily speaking: in the last few weeks Chuan and I have sampled almost every Asian culinary tradition except his own. We have eaten pad thai and bubuh injin (Indonesian black sticky rice pudding, above), soba with mushrooms, beef satay, kimchi and ramen noodle soup, daikon pickles, Japanese zucchini salad, and Korean-style vegetables (below). These recipes are all courtesy of Corinne Trang's Essentials of Asian Cuisine,and were all made in a New York kitchen the size of a mid-size SUV. But oh what flavor! And what surprise, too, for both of us, that such meals should be so easy to prepare. 

This happens to me again and again: I imagine that a dish or cuisine that I have eaten at a restaurant is somehow impossible to replicate on my own, as if those chefs or cultures held some special knowledge that I don't possess. Now I know the truth, and it is so simple: if I can find the ingredients and read the recipe, I can make just about everything -- and it is usually better than what I find in the stores. 

With Asian food, unlike some forms of European cuisine, it is not the recipe that presents the difficulty here, but rather sourcing the ingredients. It makes all the difference in the world, I have found, to have the right kind of soy sauce and to have, on hand, all the sorts of things that a pan-Asian kitchen calls for, such as: fish sauce, tamarind, sesame oil, Thai chilies, mung beans, etc. I went to a lot of effort last week finding these ingredients in different neighborhoods in Manhattan, from the little stretch of Japanology on Stuyvesant Place to Kalustyan's Asian emporium in Murray Hill ("Curry Hill"). I had never been into most of the stores that I visited, so part of the fun was being able to wander the aisles and discover things that I had never imagined eating before. Have you ever tried candied squid? Fermented plum paste? Pink sea salt? When I think of the American diet, the variety and the fusion of different cultures always comes to mind, but stepping into a Japanese or Korean market and seeing the staple foods of these communities makes me aware of just how much more food is out there, and how many more ways there are to eat.

I am especially intrigued by the use of fermented foods in Korean and Japanese cuisines. Not only are they easy to make (Can you slice vegetables? Can you pour water? Can you measure salt? Then you can make Asian pickles -- seriously!), inexpensive, and tasty, but they supposedly aid in digestion. All that, from cabbage and carrots and peppers and bean sprouts! You can just see our pickled daikon in the upper right-hand corner of the photo above, peeking out of a white ramekin. I'm sure we'll finish the lot off tonight, along with some beef broth and bean starch noodles.

When my digestive problems first began about four years ago, at the same time that I was emerging from my eating disorder, I received advice from a dietician to eat as many (naturally) fermented foods as I could, to help stabilize my digestive enzymes. Whether or not this actually did anything to get my juices moving again, I'll never know for sure, but a funny side effect was that I was probably the only person living in Brazil who was making huge vats of kimchee (Korean pickled cabbage) for her own consumption. I love this about cooking: that by making food from another place, you establish a connection with that place, no matter where you happen to be, geographically- or metaphysically-speaking. In Brazil I made Asian pickles; here in New York, I long for the scallion pancakes and mutton skewers of Beijing's streets, the coconut moqueca stews of Bahia, and the polenta of Argentina. 

The kitchen beckons. What will I make tonight? Where will I visit? Which memories will I stir up?


What if Julia Child was bulimic?

Consider the following (hypothetical) scenarios:
  • What if Julia Child was bulimic?
  • What if Martha Stewart is a food hoarder?
  • What if Mario Batali is a binge eater?
  • What if Ruth Reichl had anorexia as a teenager?
Disclaimer: I don't have any inside information here, and these aren't guesses so much as "what ifs." I could have mixed up any of these names and any of these conditions, and my point would have been the same: could you feel the same way about them as you now do? 

I am assuming, of course, that you feel anything about them at all; assuming that you even know who they are (that you live in the United States); assuming that you, like me, grant them greater power over their plates and their love handles than the rest of us have. 

How would you feel about the way that you eat if you found out that some of the greatest cooks and food critics have struggled with similar issues? How would your image of the food industry change if you suddenly started to see pathology, instead of pleasure, every time you opened up a glossy food mag?

I, for instance, when I read Ruth Reichl's food memoirs or her editorial welcome in Gourmet, invent a story in my head that she is one of those rare people who have no food problems. I imagine that she's the kind of person who can eat out every night, enjoy seven-course tasting menus at the drop of a hat, and ignore the early-morning alarm clock the next day urging her to get up and go to the gym to work off all of that goose fat. Her food writing -- like most out there -- is so awash in whimsy and delight that I can hardly believe that her food is the same as my food.

My food -- what is my food, exactly?

My food is hard won and hard gained. I swung back and forth on the seesaw of divine restriction and vulgar abundance before coming to rest here, somewhere in the middle -- some days higher, some days lower. Just nudging back and forth, gentle-like, like a pendulum in a light breeze.

My food takes effort. I could tell you about the times I beat egg whites by hand, and kept a low oven on overnight to dry apples, and gathered blackberries by the side of the road. My food is worth the labor that I have put into it, the dints of exertion, and the disappointments.

My food takes love. It is about nourishing the people I love, and learning to love the food that nourishes me.

This love of food took a long time coming. Anorexia, bulimia, call it what you will -- I am no poster child for food, I am no Thomas Keller or Alice Waters or Lynne Rossetto Kaspar. I don't own a trendy cupcake shop or eat at New York's most fashionable restaurants. But what if -- and this suggestion came by way of a friend who had worked in the high-end restaurant business -- my problems are not unknown among them? What if someone or other of these great food people has also found herself on the edge of alimentary madness, staring deep into the abyss of just another bite

These are the things I wonder about, when I borrow a recipe of theirs or plan my meals in advance or take secret pleasure in the color of an eggplant. Is this new just for me, this joy? Or have others struggled as I have, to at last see and touch and smell and taste, at long last? Were they born with something that I have had to acquire through long toil? Finally, does it matter whether our passion for food came from a lucky set of taste buds or a disorder, if we all find a way to love our food in the end?


Where food is medicine

This week my husband and I both started our doctoral programs. We have five (+) long years ahead of us, and already our lives are busy like they haven't been since our undergraduate days: long study sessions in the library; excuses when friends suggest meeting up; little time for day-dreaming; and meals grabbed on the fly.
This last point, as some of you may know, is of particular worry to me. I have spent so much time learning to pay attention to food that I cannot easily give up the central place that food, and its preparation, have played in my life during the last few years. I know that my studies will cut down on the amount of time that I can be a butcher, baker, and candlestick maker, but I am not quite ready to cede that time.

Thus, right when I should be focusing on other
 things, I find myself absolutely fascinated with Asian cooking. My bedtime reading of Corinne's Trang's Essentials of Asian Cuisine certainly is not 
helping matters, nor is the amazing Korean kimchee soup that I made last week, or the pad thai and watercress that were tonight's dinner:

My husband and his family are from China, and although he grew up eating Cantonese fare, most of what we cook together is Western in inspiration -- a bias that I am working actively to change. The months that I spent in Beijing with Chuan before we got married were amazing, foodwise and otherwise, and I am surprised that it took me this long to decide to try to replicate some of the recipes that we had there, like noodle soups and dumplings, sticky rice with pork and green bean congee. My first forays into food exploration (rather than restriction) began in Beijing, where I must have been the only foreigner who didn't long for ketchup and cheese and wine; indeed, I felt no inclination whatsoever to eat any of these foods, and set my sights on more interesting dishes, like jiao zi (dumplings), Peking duck, 
huo guo (Sichuan hot pot), and skewed beef and yogurt, Uiguhr-style. We lived in a neighborhood near Tsing Hua university, where lots of Japanese and Korean students studied, and so we learned how to eat Korean barbeque and consume large bowls of udon soup. In short, we ate well.

Perhaps the food in Italy this summer was so beguiling to me that I overlooked how deeply Asian food -- its preparation, presentation, and consumption -- speaks to me. From scallion pancakes made by street vendors in Beijing, to the pungent aroma of Korean pickles, to the austerity of Japan's sake and soba, there is something -- what is that? -- that I love about Asian cooking. 

I love the sense of balance that the cook strives for in every meal, the attempt to include sweet, salty, bitter, sour, and spicy tastes in every banquet, and various textures and colors, too. I love the idea, inherited from traditional Chinese medicine, that food is medicine, that food is 
the first medicine, and everything else is a second resort. I love the way my in-laws drive half-an-hour for groceries in order to find the freshest fish and right kind of dried mushrooms and shriveled scallops, and the way my husband slurps his soup and always, always, has second helpings of rice.

In China, where most meals are served in banquet fashion, one large plate after another placed on the table for all to nibble on, I learned to pace my meal and eat only what I needed (what some call "eating intuitively"). I began to listen to what my body really needed when I sat down for a meal, instead of planning out every 
morsel ahead of time. Often I didn't even have the words to order my own food, so when the meal came, I had to eat what was before me. Not knowing what to expect, I loosened up a bit. So what if I ate something that I didn't want to eat? So what if that dumpling was made of wheat, not rice? So what if I over-ate or under-ate at one meal? I would get another chance, and the next meal would be something different, likely something that I never had eaten before. 

And so my eating changed, bite by bite. I left China and never looked back -- until now. In our home, Asian food is comfort food, and so I'm back to scouring the shelves of supermarkets looking for mirin and chili paste, dried shrimp and rice noodles, just as classes start and more responsibilities pile on. We are far, geographically speaking, from the rice paddies of our photos, but could not be in greater need of the reassurance afforded by a simple bowl of rice.


On not feeling afraid (of food)

This morning, as I prepared my breakfast -- a simple parfait of yogurt, blueberries, cereal, and honey -- I noticed that it is becoming harder and harder for me to identify foods that I "can't" or "won't" eat. 

Meat. Milk. Sugar. Chocolate. Wheat. Butter. Eggs. Slowly, these foods have come back into my diet, until my meals are no longer intricate dances around what I can't have. I have known that these changes were occurring, with every meal I have prepared for myself, or every restaurant excursion that didn't scare the daylights out of me, but it is interesting to stop here, in September 2008, and realize that there isn't anything that I am avoiding. 

A part of me feels sad to let these restrictions go, as if I were a bit naked without them. On the one hand, checking for restricted items in my diet was a way to reflect on what I was eating. I couldn't wantonly shove food into my mouth if I had to be concerned about whether or not it contained gluten, and might give me a massive stomach ache afterwards. On the other hand, food restrictions had become such a chore lately, especially in Italy, where I scrupulously avoided wheat pasta and morning brioche

Today, I can eat everything. Can is the operational word here, for while I can eat everything, I won't eat it all at once, nor will I eat it every day. But I still feel a little at awe to realize that, for perhaps the first time in six or seven years, I am not leaving anything out of my diet. Now, the foods that I avoid, if any, are the ones that I never liked in the first place -- hamburgers, canned olives, thousand-year-old eggs -- but I am more likely than ever to occasionally give these foods a try, too.

This experiment is somewhat frightening -- I am sure that some of you know all too well the comforts of sticking to a particular diet -- but I am trying to concentrate on the feeling of liberation instead of fear. Liberated from food fears, I can attend parties without worrying that I will scarf down every object in sight or eat something that will give me stomach pains. I can read restaurant menus and nod "Yes, yes, yes," to any number of items, instead of heading beeline to the low-fat, no-wheat options (and there are only so many raw salads that my digestive system can take before it rebels).  I can cook bread and biscuits and cakes for myself, make butter and mayo and salad dressing from scratch, prepare roasts and eat well. If this isn't recovery and happiness and eager fun, than I don't know what could be better.

And what of an expanding waistline? And what of the health consequences of so much cholesterol and fat? And what about simple sugars and -- and -- and -- ? 

There is only so much fear-mongering that I can take right now (we're in election season, after all). As for all of the rest, I will believe it when I see it. All I know is that by eating more, and by eating more widely, I am healthier and happier than I have been in years. 

So take that, diet gods!

P.S. See the new poll to the left -- which foods frighten you?


Steamers, soft-shells, quahogs, the like

My mother would be proud.

Make that: my mother and my grandmother and all those women who clung to the coasts, forever and ever, back and back, would be proud.

Yesterday I made clam chowder for lunch, with clams caught fresh off of Long Island.

Let me explain. 

I come from a long line of New England women, from coastal Maine to be precise (date of entry: c. 1630): hardy Puritan types who attended church every week and grew their own vegetables and, undoubtedly, knew how to make every kind of seafood that their husbands could pull from the rocky Atlantic. I practically have clam chowder in my blood, and you know how things in the blood come out at the oddest of times. Moving to a new apartment must have stirred in me some ancestral longing for the fruits of the sea, because I had the oddest urge to buy a dozen steamers from the Costa Rican fisherman at the greenmarket on Sunday. And this is me, the woman whose idea of "seafood" is frozen shrimp!

Growing up in the land-locked Midwest, my mother took my sister and me to Maine every summer, to learn about things like blueberry crumble and high tides, lobster bibs and whoopie pies, abandoned shipyards and haunted houses. A notoriously picky eater as a child, I must have saved my parents hundreds of food-dollars as I studiously avoided all attempts by concerned relatives to feed me lobster, preferring instead to nibble on dinner rolls and french fries at our annual reunions. 

Now, I feel no regret at missing those crab-cakes and scallops -- all in good time, I tell myself, all in good time. Some day, once I have gotten over the fact that I have actually made clam chowder in my own kitchen, I will set out to make these other things. And they will be even better than memory -- they will create their own memories.

For now, a simple, completely invented recipe for clam chowder, Manhattan-style:

1 dozen large steamers (clams)
2 ripe tomatoes, diced
4 small, new potatoes, halved and sliced thin, with skins
1 onion
2 T. butter
1 1/2 c. red wine
1/2 c. cream
1 c. white rice
fresh basil
salt and pepper to taste

Utensils that might not be lying around: steaming rack and medium pot to go in

1. Melt butter in a large, chowder-sized pot and add onions. Stir constantly, until lightly browned, then add the diced tomatoes and the potatoes. Cook for several minutes more, stirring to incorporate. 

2. Add the wine, cream, and rice to the vegetable mixture, and bring to a boil. Add more water if necessary, to maintain a runny broth, and keep at a simmer until the potatoes and the rice have nearly cooked through.

3. Meanwhile, lightly rinse the clams to remove grit, and discard any whose shells have cracked or are gapingly open (a sign that the poor animal may already have met its demise). Add the clams to the chowder base and cook, stirring often, until the shells have opened and the clamlet is swimming in the broth. (See image above.) Add fresh basil, and salt and pepper to taste (keeping in mind that the clams release a lot of salty brine as they cook). Serve with home-made bread or other delectable carbohydrate.

Bom apetite!


He stuck in his thumb and pulled out a ----

Today I wore white for the last time this year (if you believe in such things) and made a plum clafoutis for a friend's Labor Day barbecue. We gathered on a rooftop in Brooklyn to welcome newly-married friends to their first apartment, and to celebrate the end of summer. If you were in New York City today, you know that the weather was everything that Labor Day should be: blue skies, hot temperature, a slight breeze blowing through the boroughs. In short, perfect. 

I repeated a concept that I have been playing with this summer: stone fruits and custard. In June I wrote about a clafoutis that I made with fresh apricots in Umbria, but the fun won't stop until the last fruit falls.

It is always a struggle to find stone fruits that my husband will eat -- he has an aversion to that particular combination of smooth or furry skin and juicy, pitted interior -- but peaches and plums and apricots and pluots, when cooked, go down smoothly enough even for him. As for me, I have never had strong feelings about these beauties, until I ate my first Italian apricot, and learned what summer is supposed to taste like. (You can see a bowl of Italian plums behind my blog's title; they came to maturity over the course of our month there, ripening in our last golden days in Umbria.)

I love how a clafoutis has just enough of a pancake about it, and just enough of a custard, to hold the fruit together in the most delicate, sensuous way. Even the preparation is a joy; the brandied plums stewing on my stovetop were so carelessly aromatic that I could forgive my oven for not working this morning. 

(It was also so delightful just to be in my kitchen, using my Brazilian knives and the All-Clad pots, arranging our things to and fro, that anything that I might have produced this morning was bound to be a success.)

I have knocked out quite a few things from this New York-sized 
galley in the last few days: coq au vin and chocolate mousse, homemade bread and cantaloupe pasta, tuna souffle and clam chowder. I have visited the 114th St. greenmarket twice now (Thursdays and Sundays), run down to the deli to pick up an extra stick of butter, and tracked down the best Minnesota flour I could find (Pillsbury, if you were curious). But, apart from racking up more trophies on the home cooking front, why does any of this matter? Why does it matter that, instead of bringing Brownie Bites (who ever wants just a bite, anyway?) from Whole Foods and bags of kettle-fried potato chips to the barbeque this afternoon, Chuan made cabbage and fig coleslaw, and I composed a clafoutis? Why do I feel so happy every time we make something for ourselves that someone else could have made -- or bought -- for us? And, more even than making food for my husband and me, why do I yearn to cook for others, to feed them even as I heal myself? 

Perhaps there is an inkling of American self-reliance that comes out in me from time to time, that satisfaction in knowing how to provide and sustain myself. But I think it is even deeper. There is more than a little alchemy in all of this: that which harms also has the capacity to heal. Food was my burden, my secret, my despair; now cooking is my comfort, my medicine, my communion. 

I shocked myself today when I realized, suddenly, that I like to cook more than I like to eat. I don't mean to dismiss my love of a good meal, nor the cultivation of a certain homemade palate. What I mean to say is that the whole process of cooking -- from the moment a recipe pops into my head or onto my computer screen, to the purchase of groceries and the first slice of the knife -- is ultimately more satisfying to me than any single instance of its consumption (though I have certainly benefitted in that regard, too). My stomach has limited capacity; my fancy and imagination do not. My summer whites may only last until midnight, but I can plan future clafoutis, astounding cobblers, lattice-topped pies and stone-fruit shortcakes until the sun goes down. I can live with food, with its idea, without losing myself in its consumption. And I can look forward to the next season, even as this one winds to a close, knowing that there will always be more, there will always be more.