In person

Today I had the fortune of having lunch with a woman whom I met through this larger world of blogging, and I must say that, as she was the second person to have stepped out of my computer and into my life, that the experience quite agrees with me. Thanks, Emily Jolie.

It is heartening to see my circle expand, and to realize that the words that I put out into the world -- these flimsy, fragile tones -- can come back to me in flesh and blood, in communion and blessing. As I type these slim paragraphs I may be alone in my apartment, my husband gone to the library to study with his classmates, but I feel accompanied in my journey towards wholeness and healing.

Thank you, to all of you who have left me comments here, who have encouraged me to continue writing; to those of you who have written me private emails, who have shared snippets of your life to me; and thanks to the few who have gotten up the courage to suggest meeting in person, and for being as delightful in real life as through your online identities.

And now, back in New York, this rainy night greets me, and I must attend to other business.



I am not sure where my food cravings come from these days, or if they can even be called cravings -- they are softer and quieter than my old desires, and are more of a general "point-me-in-the-right-direction" than a compulsion towards a particular food or another. Lately, I want to cook and eat Japanese food. My plan for home-made udon noodles is temporarily on hiatus, as the abundance of left-overs makes extra cooking superfluous, but I am still ogling Japanese food sites and wondering which cookbook I should buy next (as my husband, I am sure, bemoans the cookbooks already encroaching on our shelf space) and reminding myself that no, I don't really need a plastic bento box set.

I often write here about the different countries that I have lived in or traveled to, and the foods that I associate with those places. Brazilian pao de queijo, Argentine polenta, Italian borlotti beans, and Chinese dumplings have already received mention on these pages. My latest fascination is with Asian food in general and, more specifically, with Japanese cuisine, although I have never been to Japan and have no foreseeable plans to visit. My liking for Japanese food seemingly comes out of nowhere, for apart from my occasional Zen practice, there is nothing that draws me to Japan, no previous hint of Japanophilia to explain this current craving, this avid search for Japanese fare.

Perhaps I like Japanese food for its simplicity, its spectacular presentation, and its preciousness. But there are other reasons to love it, too: the unusual pickles, the seasonal delicacies, the strong seafood flavors, the abundance of colors and tastes. The part of me that likes my food neat and orderly, presented in small portions in exact rituals, gets very excited by the idea of Japanese food. That part of me also smacks strongly of obsessional eating, and so I have to find other ways to love Japanese food and other ways to eat it, such as in hearty noodle dishes and enormous, messy bowls of soup. These items are hardly dainty, and yet they couldn't be more Japanese!

In terms of other Japanese dishes, I am not too fond of sushi (too much grocery-story take-out has soured the genre for me), but I love the cooked pumpkin salad that I bought at Katagiri the other day, and I would eat smoked eel over rice and thick bowls of miso soup every day if I could. I imagine that, once I learn more about Japanese cooking, I will prefer the homestyle over the high-end, the comforting over the calibrated. Until then, I am not really sure what Japanese food is -- if indeed it is just one thing -- or how far I will go to get to know this foodway. For now, I'll content myself with the learning, this wonderful stage of exploration that I find myself in, when all foods Japanese appear titillating, quixotic, and revelatory.


The day after

Good morning!

Today is the day after Thanksgiving.

If you are still feeling queasy about the amount of food that you ate last night, or basking in the triumph of having eaten much less than others, please: that was yesterday. Today is a whole new day.


On being hungry

When I met Twisted Barbie last week, something that she said about fat girls and hunger has stuck with me. Her words, paraphrased: "I wasn't supposed to want to eat, because fat girls aren't supposed to be hungry."

What a strong injunction! To pretend that you are not hungry, or not interested in food, merely because you look a certain way. Yet, I have also had similar feelings about hunger in my day, like my belief that I had a terrible metabolism and just couldn't eat the way that other people seemed to eat. Dessert was for them, never for me.

Now, when I look at what other people eat, I always remind myself that I just catch glimpses of their diet: a spot of food at lunchtime, an after-dinner snack, a coffee-break midafternoon that I happen to share with others. My husband, whose diet I know best besides my own, possesses entire culinary worlds that are unknown to me once I leave the house in the a.m. Most days I would be hard-pressed to tell you what enters his mouth before dinner, so when it comes to guessing what other people eat -- really, I have no idea. It is such a partial picture that I receive that to venture a guess is just plain foolishness. After all, you can never tell if your companion is eating seconds because she ran 10 miles that morning, or if she is picking at her dinner because she ate a late lunch.

This kind of reasoning has helped me to stop comparing what I eat with what other people eat, so that I can just focus on my own plate and my own food. It is so much more satisfying, in the end, to eat for me and not for those others; to eat to fill my own gut and not to impress them with how much or how little or what kind or how fast or anything like that. I have also learned to stop feeling ashamed of my hunger, meaning that if someone asks me, I will admit to being hungry if I feel that way. There's no shame in it! Moreover, I have learned to bring up the topic (my hunger) if it seems like a meal is about to be pushed away.

Learning to own my hunger also means that I have to be responsible for feeding myself now. I have to plan ahead each day to know when I'll eat, how much, and what it will be. I can't let myself go hungry for long or I will grow irritable and despondent, and it will be all that much easier to eat too much at the next meal, and start off a cascade of feelings and actions that I'm not so fond of anymore. It is much easier to look my hunger in the eye and come to terms with it: I will be hungry every day, for the rest of my life, so I might as well make peace with the fact that this is my body's way of reminding me to take care of myself.

These next few days are tricky for those of us recovering from eating disorders, and although I wouldn't wish hunger on any of us in the midst of such bounty, I think that cultivating an awareness of fullness, hunger's complement, also has its place.

Happy Thanksgiving!

~Ai Lu



We have been eating many noodles these weeks, my husband and I, and I thought that I might tell you a bit about them.

Our favorites are the Asian noodle dishes that we have found in cookbooks and online sources; they are quick to make and, to my husband at least, taste like home. One of the satisfactions of cooking Asian food with an Asian spouse is that at least one person in the kitchen knows what the food is supposed to taste like. Take the dan dan mian, above, which my husband grew up eating from time to time, but I first sampled in Chengdu, Sichuan. Plain wheat noodles are topped with ground pork, cabbage, pickled vegetables, and a spicy sauce of Sichuanese peppercorns (prickly ash), red peppers, sesame paste, soy sauce, and sesame oil. Sprinkle a few green chives or scallions over the mess and you have dinner in a bowl, and an appreciative husband across the table. He made the sauce, I chopped the vegetables, and we could not get over how much these noodles tasted of China -- how much they were China, right there on our little table.

Our chap chae was less successful -- but then again, neither of us really knew what it was supposed to taste like. Our Korean food comes out of recipes, not memories, and perhaps for that reason it fell a little flat. We were missing the notion of how much soy to use, how much sugar and how much shrimp, and though the vegetables were beautifully cut and the noodles were slippery, something was lacking. I liked the dish in any case, but Chuan couldn't hide his disappointment.

Next up for me, when my sister joins us here in Minnesota tomorrow, are home-made Udon noodles. I have a hankering for Japanese food, and found a tidy recipe for the noodles at Cook & Eat. The recipe calls for both regular flour and bread flour, and because I have never made noodles from scratch before, I went to the grocery store this afternoon and purchased a bag of bread flour. I cooked with a wise chef this summer who taught me that it is best to follow the recipe to a T the first time around; after that, if you improvise, you'll know why it worked or why it didn't. I am more of an improvisational cook to begin with, so this dictum is often hard for me to follow, but when I do follow the recipe it does make all of the difference. This is especially the case, I have found, with Asian food, as I have yet to develop a sense of what "works" in a dish and what doesn't. My husband finds the idea of measuring ingredients while cooking Asian food to be very strange, but until I develop the intuition that my mother-in-law has in the kitchen, I will stick by my measuring cups and teaspoons.

Future culinary endeavors: Udon noodles, roast chicken (as I will not be roasting the turkey this year), and onigiri (Japanese rice balls). All this, and I have no idea yet how I will contribute to Thursday's feast!


home come coming home homing come home

This week has been a coming-home of sorts, in ways both literal and figurative.

As I write this, I am at my laptop in my parents' home in suburban Minnesota, back visiting for the Thanksgiving week. As always, coming back home (is this my home still? or in my home in New York, with my husband? ah such questions) is a strange combination of familiar and foreign. My bedroom, while not quite a shrine to my adolescence, is filled with shelves upon shelves of the books that I read in college: Borges, Neruda, Fuentes, Mistral, Arenas -- books that I read when I thought that I would become a professor of Latin American literature, and planned my career accordingly. What got in the way was an eating disorder that made me reflect on what I really wanted out of life. Would I live my life surrounded by books that no one else had ever read, attending literary conferences to debate over obscure topics, and spend my weekends memorizing poetry? Or would I -- as I considered later -- dedicate my life to understanding, to the best of my abilities, the origins of distress, of disease?

I know that I am not alone in saying that my eating disorder changed my life. The obvious ways: I chose psychology instead of literature, empirical study instead of postmodern critical theory. My Ph.D. is a means to an end: I want to do research that matters. I want to bring all that I have witnessed and experienced to bear on my work as a therapist. I want to have an impact that goes beyond my tiny circle. These are the goals that changed after having an eating disorder. And I know that I am not alone in rearranging my priorities, because on Friday night I met up with three other women who have struggled with eating disorders, and all of us are caught up in larger plans that have to do with healing. Twisted Barbie is studying to be a social worker; Stephanie produces films and plays about eating disorders; and the third woman in our group is studying to be a physician's assistant. Wounded healers, all of us.

That encounter was another sort of home-coming, because I haven't spent so much time, in person, with ED folks since leaving college. My ED changed my life, and even though I am not ashamed of it, there are few new people in my life with whom I would feel comfortable talking about what I went through. There are always "easier" explanations to give for why I study clinical psychology, and along the way I certainly have found other reasons to continue in the field. ED was my entry point to so much more, and most of the time I am content to talk about that so much more and take pleasure in the fact that there is so much more to my life right now than the fact that I had an eating disorder. Still, I had it. It marked me. I changed because of it. My eating disorder set off a transformation in me, or metamorphosis if you will, that has yet to end. There is no end to healing and learning from this thing, no limits to what we can do with our experiences. And this week I am coming back to that, reminding myself of where I have been and where I am going.


Subjectivity and science

I am becoming a scientist. I am trained in research methods, statistics, and in the critical analysis of empirical data. As a researcher, I want to study mental health and physical health; mental illness in developing countries; immigrant communities in the United States; and religion and well-being. It would seem like I would think twice before taking on another research topic. Yet that is exactly what I did this week, as I prepared a brief paper on eating disorder classification and the revision of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. For once, I wanted to study eating disorders face to face, peruse the most recent literature, and put all of my scientific training on a topic that is perilously close to home.

What have I learned from this experiment/experience? I am a bit disappointed at the outcome. My scientific training has prepared me for reading correlation tables and understanding casual relationships, but it has not taught me what to do when the topic that I am reading about pertains to my own life.

The issue of "bias" crept up on me as I read about eating disorders, but not in the way that I expected. I have strong views about eating disorders based upon my own experience, but I am willing to put those aside in the face of strong empirical to the contrary. It was not this kind of bias that I struggled with as I put together my paper, but rather the kind of bias that directed my attention towards those topics that had the most personal relevance.

Usually, when I read scientific articles, I pay attention to things like the methods used, the sample size, the statistical analysis, the significance of the results. With eating disorder research, my initial reaction was different: I read much more selectively. For example: I often struggle with anxiety, so when I came across a few articles that linked eating disorders and anxiety through family studies, I was eager to understand everything that I could. There are similar studies that show connections between eating disorders and obsessive compulsive disorder, and eating disorders and mood disorders -- but because I have been trying to get my own anxiety under control, those were the articles that most caught my attention. This kind of selective reading is most decidedly not the objective approach I have been taught in school, and yet I wonder if it isn't helpful, in its own way.

One drawback to empirical studies is that they often lack a clear sense of their own meaning. What does it matter if people with anorexia are more likely to have anxiety disorders than your average Susan? To scientists, such connections teach us more about the origins of mental illness, but to individuals who suffer from anorexia, knowing that anxiety may be par for the course may be immensely reassuring, in its own way. Going back to my own example: I have recovered from my eating disorder, but I feel that I still have something to gain from addressing my anxiety. Knowing that anxiety often accompanies (or precedes) eating disorders is reassuring in that it tells me that there is an order to this mess of my mind, that it may behave in predictable ways even as it feels chaotic to me. In fact, knowing that anxiety is linked to eating disorders makes me more inclined to treat my anxiety seriously, not just as a remnant of my eating disordered past, but as something that might be worth understanding better in the here and the now.

I am curious: if you have had an eating disorder, how do you feel about reading research about them? Do you have trouble drawing the line between personal experience and scientific evidence and, if so, how do you reconcile the two? I suspect that my attitude towards ED research will change as I learn more about it -- in the brief span of writing this paper I became noticeably more focused on the data, and less on my own experience -- but I would like to know how others deal with this problem, too.


So this is what it means to really eat

Lunch today may have been the most satisfying meal that I have ever eaten.

That is a big statement to make, but it is hard to feel completely satisfied with food when you have a history of overeating, as I do -- when you are one of those people who always wants more, more, MORE! It still takes some effort for me to stop at the end of a meal and not feel saddened by its demise. So lunch today was notable because, as I ate, I could only think about how good, how absolutely satisfactory, satiating, and satisfying the food was. And I left it at that. I enjoyed the fifty or so bites that were my allotment, and I moved on.

What was this lunch? you may ask.

Beef stew and biscuits. Plane Jane American food (or Irish or French, if you look a little deeper). Leftovers, to boot, from a party last night. The beef stew wasn't my own making, but precious leftovers that were foisted upon us by the host. She used the best short ribs that she could find, and the depth of the meat's flavor transformed the simple potatoes and carrots that accompanied it into the best stew that I have ever eaten, bar none. I rarely get so excited at leftovers, but if you can believe it, I think that the stew was actually better today than it was last night; overnight, the flavors melded together and the flavor became meatier, the tendons softer, the vegetables heartier. And this is what I made my lunch with today!

The biscuits were my own making, and they were everything that biscuits should be: light, flaky, butter, and herbacious to boot. I adapted a Gourmet recipe for sage biscuits by substituting dried Herbs de Provence for the sage, and they were quite extraordinary. I don't usually think of biscuits as interesting in their own right -- too often they serve as backdrop for more interesting stews and gravies -- but these biscuits could hold their own and then some. A slab of home-made butter was the finishing touch. It has been too long since I have eaten biscuits with butter. Too long since I ate with my fingers. Too long since I loved food so much -- or have I ever loved food so much as I do today? I am finally freed from its obsessions and free to take it for what it is: the most essential substance of our lives, the source of flavor and joy and communion and satisfaction. Food.

What more can I say about lunch today? I ate it slowly like the simple meal it was, now using my spoon and now my fingers, alternating between beef and biscuit, juice and crumb, bowl and plate. This meal was more mine than any meal that I have ever eaten. I ate it in complete awareness of every bite, of every flavor. I ate it in gratitude for the mere fact of food, and in gratitude to the animal who fed me. I ate it alone but happy in this complete meal, a bowl and spoon and plate and nothing else.


Pit stops and purple potatoes

I have been thinking about all of the small stops that I make, in the course of a week, to buy special foods. My schedule takes me to so many different neighborhoods in New York that, like yarn shops, I have New York mapped out by its good food stores: Fairway Market at West 74th St. and Broadway; Italian groceries at the Bronx's Arthur Avenue; and the Sunday Greenmarket near Columbia University, to name a few of my favorites.

Yesterday, as I came back from the hospital where I work, I stopped at Katagiri Japanese market, on East 59th St. and Third Avenue. I was walking with a half-Japanese colleague, and she was delighted to see the collections of fresh mochi and the refrigerated sushi section. My next stop was a non-dinner party (you know the kind: lots of good food, but appetizers and alcohol do not a dinner make), so I picked up a tofu and seaweed salad, a container of pumpkin pudding, and a triangle of flavored rice (onigiri) to eat beforehand. I ate my simple dinner on a bench in Central Park before heading uptown to celebrate a friend's one-year anniversary in the United States.

This morning, as I came back from a run in Central Park, I noticed a small farmer's stand that I had never seen before, on the corner of Morningside Park. I must have arrived just as they opened, because the signs weren't yet up on the vegetables, and I had to guess which kinds of greens they had, which was rather difficult because they had an extraordinarily diverse selection, the best I have yet seen outside of the Union Square Greenmarket. Sadly, this little market will only be open another couple of weeks, so we are now facing the prospect of a long season without any fresh, local vegetables or fruits -- except apples. As Chuan points out, the city's farmers markets will be selling apples until March, when we are sick of apple and pork roasts and apple sauce and, even, apple pie.

We had such a beautiful lunch today, Chuan and I. I used some purple potatoes that have been lying await in our pantry to make an easy, half-baked potato gratin. Once sliced thin, I boiled the purple papas until they were just soft, then transferred them to a baking dish, sprinkled 1/2 cup of grated parmesan and gouda cheeses, a few tablespoons of buttermilk, pepper, and baked until the cheese was melted and the potatoes had absorbed the buttermilk. We ate them along with a pinto bean stew and sauteed red kale with raisins.

My cooking these days is inspired more by Deborah Madison (a vegetarian chef) than by Asian food, but I am hoping to get back to those cuisines again after Monday, when I'll be in the neighborhood of Kalustyan's, and can finally get my hands on some mustard seed, coriander, and other Indian spices that I have been dreaming about. My nighttime reading this week, after my studies, has been Madhur Jaffrey's World of the East Vegetarian Cooking; my next goal is to make a good, spicy dal and finally get around to making paneer, Indian cheese.

Tonight we'll be eating dinner at an old friend's house near Lincoln Center, and Chuan and I are in charge of the salad. We'll be delivering the fruits of this morning's market: a mixed lettuce salad with a smattering of baby rocket, clover sprouts, dried figs and sliced almonds, dressed with a simple oil-vinegar-honey dressing of my own devising. I feel so content after today's lunch, though, that dinner seems far away, and in the meanwhile I'll spend this rainy afternoon tucked into my books and charts, leaving food for its own time and place.

Enjoy the weekend.
~Ai Lu


Squash at home

When cold weather strikes, I find that I crave carbohydrates, and that, for me, is the time to stock up on root vegetables and other fruits of the earth, like squash. I am of the opinion that wanting to eat carbs isn't a bad thing, and so on Sunday I went to the small farmer's market near our apartment, and came home loaded down with four different kinds of squash. We had, from lower left and moving clockwise, buttercup squash, delicata squash, acorn squash, and sweet dumpling squash.

Eating pumpkin or squash in the fall reminds me of living in South America, especially Chile, where large slices of zapallo are often added to simple chicken broths to make a hearty lunch. Zapallo makes our jack-o-lanterns look miniscule; it is a truly enormous squash.

In Chile, when you buy zapallo at outdoor markets, the seller comes armed with a machete, ready to chop it into the size of your choosing. Here in New York I often seen such squashes for sale at Dominican bodegas, cut into large, seran-wrapped slices for easy purchase.

Another reason why squash reminds me of South America is because of the universal bewilderment of Argentines and Chileans towards the idea of pumpkin pie. For them, pumpkin and squash are savory foods, more often consumed with heavy meats than baked with sugar and cinnamon. Twice I made pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving in South America, and both times my pie languished in the refrigerator for lack of an appreciative audience.

I doubt that Chileans or Argentines, however, could resist what I did with my multicolor squash this weekend. Once peeled, cored, and chopped, two small squash joined two cups of fresh apple cider, two tablespoons of butter, and one tablespoon of curry powder, salt and pepper in my cast iron skillet. After simmering for half an hour, the squash took on a sweet, complex, earthy flavor, and was the perfect complement to hearty mixed greens and pan-fried cod.

And that's how I have my carbs, thank you very much!


Why I no longer restrict my diet -- or do I? (Part 3)

I have been restricting my food intake ever since I was ten years old, when I became tired of teachers and uncles always harping on me to eat meat. As long as I could remember, the taste of meat and seafood was abhorrent to me, hot-dogs and chicken nuggets aside. I have horrible memories of my kindergarten teacher begging me -- nay, forcing me, almost -- to eat a fried fish stick for lunch one day. I gulped it down in two bites, hating her for making me eat something so repellent to my taste buds. (In retrospect, I think that the problem may have been a lack of exposure to good quality meats and fresh seafood, living in the Midwest, and less an inherent dislike of animal products.)

In order to gain control over what I put in my mouth, I decided to become vegetarian and persisted at it, despite my parents' consternation and the criticism of other adults, for nearly eight years. At seventeen, I became an exchange student to Chile and, along with a desire to embrace a new culture and all things that came with it, I decided to start eating meat again. My first meal was, ironically enough, fried fish -- but nothing could be less like the fish sticks of my childhood. Chile has been blessed with one of the world's longest and most fertile coastlines, and their seafood is extraordinary. The fish I ate was a white-fleshed merluza, battered in eggs and flour and parsley, fried on the grill (a la plancha), and served with a wedge of lemon.

Fresh fried fish can make a convert of any vegetarian, and I fell for it hook, line, and sinker.

Since then, I have often felt beguiled by the prospect of restriction. For a period, I avoided anything with sugar or processed sugar, spurred on by the book Sugar Blues. In college, as I stumbled into my eating disorder, the categories encompassing restricted foods became larger and larger: first no whole milk, then no dessert, then no caloric beverages, then only veggies and yogurt for dinner. At the height of my restriction I tipped into bulimia, and have spent the years since emerging from that particular compulsion. In the meanwhile, my digestive system tied itself in knots, and I emerged completely unable to digest wheat and other glutenous grains until this fall.

So now is the first time that I have not restricted my food for nearly 15 years. And I am facing the prospect of yet another restriction, one which I am ambivalent towards: taking caffeine out of my diet.

At the worst point of my restrictive eating, I used caffeine to give me the energy that I was not willing to get from calories. I frequently drank caffeinated beverages before meals in order to stave off my desire to eat and postpone the meal itself. In recovery, I relied on caffeine as a sugar substitute: that is, when my body wanted to binge on sweets, I drank coffee instead, or bottles and bottles full of diet soda, willing my body to stop wanting sugar. It may have worked at the time, but it left me with a potent caffeine addiction that I have had a difficult time weaning my way out of.

The reason that I am considering doing so now is that my breasts have felt tender and rather lumpy lately. I had everything checked out through the proper channels this week; my symptoms are benign so I'm not going to make a will any time soon. But the bad news, if it can called bad, is that this discomfort may be due to my high caffeine intake. And here we go again: to restrict or not to restrict. No coffee? No black tea? No chocolate? (I suspect that the last one is going a bit far -- how much caffeine can there possibly be in an ounce of chocolate?)

I have a few thoughts about this. The first is "Oh, yay, now I can finally have a good reason to end my energy dependence on foreign fuel." Caffeine makes me jumpy and irritable, interrupts my concentration, and turn me into an insomniac. I'm not sure what the upside is to it. But my second thought is "Waaaaaaaaaaaaaiiiiiiiiitttttt a second. W-w-w-what? No caffeine? Ever? Again? How am I going to get through graduate school?" That is my instinctive fear: that I will have to end something, to let something go that I am not ready to say good-bye to. Addictions are never easy to relinquish, but to make matters worse, I live in a city with a Starbucks on every other block.

And my third thought?: "My breasts are definitely worth it."

I'll take it slow, go cold turkey for now, and then see how a cup (no more) of joe affects me from time to time. But there will be no drastic end to the chocolate: the caffeine in chocolate is miniscule in comparison with coffee and tea, and I'm sure that a chocolate cookie from time to time would be just what the doctor ordered...

Note: None of my own images this time around. Click on them and you will be re-directed to their Flickr pages.