August 16, 2013

If Loving Food is Wrong, I Don’t Want to be Right. ~ Ann Nichols

“The more appetizing foods are made, the more is eaten and the worse for the health of the body.” ~ Helen Nearing, Simple Food for the Good Life

With all due respect to Ms. Nearing, falser words have rarely been written. Bring on the seductive smell of baking bread, the sweetness of roasted carrots and the chewy brown crust at the edge of the casserole! Food is not our enemy, but a source of nourishment for body and soul—the more appetizing, the better.

I found Nearing’s cookbook while looking for new vegetarian recipes, and I knew immediately that it was going to infuriate me. I read it anyway and its insistence on spice-free, no-frills, anti-appetizing food made me bristle (don’t even get me started on the whole “nobody would ever need to drink water if they stopped eating all those spices and all that salt” thing.)

I cook for a living and I am passionate about food as a cultural tradition, a community builder and a creative outlet.

Until recently, I have struggled with my weight and the idea that the path to wellness is by eating only things that don’t taste good is… cockamamie. Because I’m getting to a healthy weight eating things that taste wonderful and I preach the gospel every time I hear about someone sacrificing all pleasure in the pursuit of thinner thighs.

Like many women, I have followed diets that demonized whole groups of food. I have been an Atkins, a fat-free and a 1000 calorie a day dieter and I have subsisted on nothing but bars, “shakes” and frozen meals. Nothing tasted good or satisfied my cravings; I lost weight and gained it back with interest. A lot of times.

Between diets, I numbed my emotions by stuffing myself with unhealthy, processed foods. When I dieted, nothing really tasted good or satisfied my real cravings. When I ate junk, I lost my ability to feel real hunger or to taste the honest goodness of real food through the salt, cheese, sugar and batter.

I had to make a change when I was diagnosed with Type II Diabetes. First I felt incredible self-loathing and judgmental about myself as fat, sloppy, and gluttonous. I would—at that time—willingly have agreed with Nearing’s philosophy that tasty food is the enemy of good health. I put myself on a low carb, low flavor regimen that made food something to be hated and feared. I would not take a bite of my niece’s birthday cake or eat a serving of the lasagna lovingly prepared by my Italian neighbor.

Like those times when you stand on the edge of a high place and obsess about how you might just make yourself step over that edge; I was terrified that the smallest “transgression” would lead me to buckets of fried chicken and boxes of Krispy Kremes. I held the line, aside from the necessary tasting of the things I cooked and served at work (but which I did not eat.)

My blood sugar dropped down to normal, and my doctor was thrilled.

Then I hit a rough patch in my life and ate everything in sight. I rebelled against the months of denial. My blood sugar went way up—my doctor was not thrilled—and sitting in her office, I could see the whole pattern repeating as an infinite loop for the rest of my life. I could not—you should pardon my French—fuck around with my weight or my blood sugar when the cost might be my vision or one of my feet.

What I needed was a middle path, a way to approach food that was moderate, healthy and still delightful.

Like The Buddha, I found that eating carelessly and indulgently kept me from seeing the wonder of healthy food and that eating the punitive diet of an ascetic, made me too obsessed with the contents of my own fork to pay attention to anything else in the world.

Enter my growing Buddhist practice—which gave me that needed middle ground—turned out that mindfulness, cooking and eating were a natural and sustainable threesome. From the wise words of Edward Espe Brown and Thich Nhat Hanh, I learned to respect the warm, pulsing, current of love and energy that moves from the growing things of the earth to my hands when I cook.

I could—I discovered—use my skill as a cook to create meals that were healthy for my body and balm to the soul. A piece of salmon, a little quinoa and steamed broccoli is healthy. Salmon marinated and grilled outdoors, quinoa sautéed with toasted almonds and broccoli roasted with a little salt and olive oil is healthy and delicious.

I bought interesting new grains, fruity olive oil and vegetables I had never heard of and… played in the kitchen. I thanked each ingredient for its life-giving nourishment, and turned them into something that looked, smelled and tasted heavenly. Oh and I used spices—lots and lots of them. Because—with all due respect to Ms. Nearing—if spices are recognized as desirable and even medicinal in many Asian cultures, they are good enough for me.

I am the lightest I have been since high school. My blood sugar is completely controlled and in a normal range. I am a novice yogi, taking pleasure in my leaner, healthier body as it stretches and lengthens more each week.

I can eat the birthday cake or the homemade lasagna with gratitude and joy, knowing that sharing food with friends and family is one of the best things this life has to offer. And I can adjust for those extra carbs and calories with a flow class, a walk and fewer carbs and calories for the next couple of meals.

I am leading an appetizing life. And I have never felt better.


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Assistant Ed: Gabriela Magana/Ed:Sara Crolick

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