(Reposted from blogspot – Jan. 13, 2012)
I’ve spent my whole life learning how to eat. Growing up with a Mom who wasn’t interested in cooking much less forcing a late-in-life child to eat her veggies, I had been raised a spaghetti-tarian. Before going to school, this was never much of a problem. I ate at home, and I was free to graze on Kraft American Singles and Apple Jacks as I pleased. My best friend and next door neighbor would come over, and we would liberally sprinkle sugar on Wonder white bread, roll it up and mash it so the sugar stayed put, then we’d dine on the crunchy goodness of our creations. It never occurred to me that this wasn’t normal.
In grade school, I was faced with the lunch line. Alien foods that I’d never tried were spread before me, and I was not interested. I learned to eat around a lot of things. I could get chicken noodle soup, for example, and eat around the chunks of meat. I could eat rolls and butter, and wash it down with Tab. I don’t remember any of this being an issue for my friends or for the lunch ladies.
I do remember Passover when I was in third grade. My rolls were replaced with matzo. When I questioned this phenomenon, it was explained to me that to eat matzo one should smear it with butter and sprinkle it with salt. For me, this was heaven. I was disappointed when the week was over and the rolls returned. My friends assured me that the matzo would be back next year at Passover. I didn’t know what Passover was, but it had become my favorite time of year.
This was also the time in my life, age eight, when I was aware of this thing called “minorities”. It was clear to me that since everyone else knew how to eat matzo, and since everyone else knew when and what Passover was, I must be in the minority. It only made sense. They shared something in common and I was the outsider. The rule in my home had always been never to speak of money or religion, so I had no concept of these things whatsoever. I never connected the word “religion” to attending Sunday school at St. James, and it certainly never occurred to me that a religion could be a minority, or that food and religion could be intertwined. Minorities were the outsiders, and my experience thus far simply taught me that I was an outsider.
When I was moved to a Catholic school two years later, St. Joseph’s a block and a half from my house, lunches ceased to be an issue. I was able to walk home for lunch and take as long as I pleased if I was willing to skip recess, which I was. This was a coed school, there were boys. I’d had limited and mixed experience with boys, and I wasn’t all that interested. So I’d eat lunch and then stroll back via the candy store, where I would supplement my spaghetti lunch with Sunkist sugar coated jelly fruit flavored slices. More sugar crunchy goodness.
Sugar was the theme of my life, especially when my impish Irish Grandmother had been alive. She’d had two strokes and was bedridden. My Grandfather, a true American rags-to-riches story, was in a position to allow them stay home with round the clock nursing care when they grew old and infirm. They lived directly across the street from my bedroom window, but up in the penthouse apartment. As we were at the end of a busy thoroughfare, the street was quiet, and I could cross to go visit at any time my mother was willing to watch me from her second floor balcony facing the street. This delighted my Grandmother who would teach me naughty nursery rhymes, and make me bacon “just right”. Her kitchen was many times over the size of my Mothers little strip of a room, with a hand crank meat grinder made of steel and stamped with the manufacturer’s name attached to the cupboard, and a shiny silver coated hand towel rack that had four arms on a hinge and could swing in and out independently of one another. It smelled of the cupboards being painted over too many times, so much so that they would stick closed in the summer humidity of the City. There was a little table by the window that faced the stove and when she had been healthy enough to cook for me, I’d watch my grandmother’s small frame as she fried the bacon.
I’d always wanted her to be something she wasn’t. I wanted her to be the gramma who imparted the wisdom of the ages to me over fresh baked cookies and milk. Instead she was devilish, taught me nursery rhymes in ways my Mother was sure would get me killed in the streets of New York. When she became ill, she would harass the Irish nurses who, because of her, formed a group that became a nursing agency providing private home care to those who could afford it. She fired them with great regularity but they never left. She became unstable, or maybe more puckish, and would drift back and forth between being present and being senile. After my Grandfather died, for example, she would ask questions of his whereabouts. My Mother would sometimes make something up, and sometimes she would remind my Grandmother that he had died. My Grandmother had random fits of anger, but never at me. It got to the point where my mother put two statues on the table in the foyer where the elevator opened. One was a raging hostile bull, one was more demure. The nurses were instructed to place them according to my grandmothers moods so that my mother could see upon arriving whether she wanted to get out of the elevator and go in to the apartment, or just press the button for the lobby and go home.
When I visited my Grandmother she would ask me to make one of my “special” coffee milkshakes for her. At first I would make them in one of those old Ovaltine brown plastic cups with a light brown plastic domed lid. Put the ingredients in and shake until smooth. Somewhere along the line, I transitioned to a blender which never had the same feel to it. It felt too much like a short cut. She had made me bacon herself with her own two hands, standing over the hot stove turning and moving it until it was perfect. I had been able to return that to her with that plastic cup. The blender was insincere but the nurses insisted so I complied as it allowed me to be able to make us both a milkshake at the same time. My special milkshake, as you probably could have guessed, included Haagen Daaz coffee ice cream, a splash of whole milk, and probably a full cup of sugar. If I didn’t put in enough sugar, my little frail elf of a Grandmother would send it back for more. If she was trying to irritate my Mother, and she often was, this was not an effective method.
It’s amazing I have teeth.
When I was twelve, it was decided somehow that I would go to summer camp. Sleepover summer camp for the entire summer. Of all the glossy brochures laid out before me, Camp Red Wing was not among them. Yet this camp, set on Schroon Lake in the Adirondacks was the one I chose because one of my playmates in the building also went there. I had turned down the pretty Swiss chalet style cabins for this place because I knew someone there already. For many reasons, this was not the best criteria upon which to choose ones living situation for three months.
Food was an immediate issue. There were rarely dinner choices that were devoid of meat. Pasta was a rarity. At this point, rice and potatoes were not a part of my diet, unless the potatoes were French fried and came in a cardboard cup. We did have short field trips up the road to the general store, and I was convinced by friends that I would not die if I ate Freihofers chocolate chip cookies that were for sale there. This proved to be true. In fact, Freihofers chocolate chip cookies were a form of heaven. I’m willing to bet they still are, but at the time I had a new addition to my diet. In the mess hall though, I ate a lot of bread and butter that summer, and the following two summers that I attended camp in the mountains.
My second year at camp, their nutritionist called me aside to discuss my eating habits. She told me that I needed a balanced diet, and that without protein from meat I would not be healthy. Somehow I knew by then that my hair and nails were the result of protein, and I had a full head of thick wavy hair down past my waist. My nails, I showed her, were also thick and strong. She shook her head and gave up on me.
The third year they sent a bill to my mother in September charging her for the additional loaves of bread they had allegedly had to purchase because of my diet. It didn’t take me long to point out that they had probably saved a ton of money on meat, which is how my mother responded to their demands. By then I was pretty much done with that camp and those people and did not return for the fourth and final year.
I was now back in a private school, five miles from our apartment, a trip that prohibited going home for lunch . At this Quaker school, I somehow always managed to find something in the lunch line, always supplementing with two cartons of milk which had to be approved by my Mother due to the additional cost. For as few items as I ate, I always seems to be incurring additional cost. Soon it was a possibility to leave the school building with my Mother’s permission, so I would go with friends to Joe’s coffee shop on the corner to eat toasted bagels with butter, or grilled cheese and French fries with a thick chocolate milkshake – devoid of an added cup of sugar.
In the summer after high school, reunited with my best friend after her family had moved to Chicago, I learned to eat pizza. I also learned to eat some vegetables. And in my subconscious Jewish mind I was starting to understand this treatment of food called “kosher”. I was initially told that kosher food was any food blessed by a Rabbi, which even at the time seemed frivolous and like an oversimplification. Now I knew what Passover was, and why people eat matzo, and I was very moved by the story. These were not the same Bible stories I’d learn at St. James. They were far more human somehow.
Kosher food aside, I was headed for college, knowing that once again I’d be facing the cafeteria line. A friend from high school had a girlfriend who would be attending my same college, and she was a vegetarian, and very health minded. I hooked up with Michelle and she promised to teach me how to eat like a real person, and still remain vegetarian. Thankfully, the college had two cafeteria lines, the regular one, and the vegetarian one in the back. Hooray for hippie colleges! Michelle’s first task was to rid me of white bread, over processed pasta, and butter. These things were replaced with whole wheat bread, whole wheat pasta, soy sauce and parmesan cheese, then again with Dr. Bronner’s sauce and rennetless cheese. We worked on food combinations, and balancing fruits and vegetables I was willing to eat. She introduced me to rice. I ate potatoes that were not in a cardboard cup. Then she became a fanatic.
Michelle was changing her own diet in more extreme ways, aiming at becoming like the guru she had read about who lived on a mountain top and was rumored to subsist entirely on air via a special method of breathing that was supposed to bring him all the nutrients he would need. Michelle cut out processed foods. Then she cut out cooked foods, becoming a “fresh food-a-tarian”. Her next step would be to only consume liquids. I departed from her dietary advice at this point. A year later her skin was as pale and thin as rice paper, she was so gaunt I wondered how she could walk, but she still professed that this was the way to go and believed she was healthy.
Years later, here I am, converting to Judaism, far more aware of kosher dietary rules and my own health. When talking with my Rabbi about being kosher, there weren’t many places I needed to change anything. We decided that I should try to become “eco-kosher” meaning that I will try to eat foods that are not only grown responsibly, but are also processed and packaged responsibly. Again, I try to be fairly aware of these things normally, but I made a more conscious effort nonetheless. It helps a lot that I have moved to Colorado where food is grown all around me and farmer’s markets are abundant. Also as I have grown in my awareness of food, Whole Foods Market has grown along side of me, making certain things much easier to acquire.
I still eat way too much pasta, I never really fully developed that special taste for whole wheat spaghetti, and the Dr. Bronner’s is long gone, but there are so many alternatives now that it’s not much of a problem. I confess that my fruit intake is still pathetic. The two fruits I am most likely to eat are apples and oranges. My vegetable intake is dependent on my laziness quotient. It’s a lot of chopping and dicing for one meal. Give me a good salad bar any day and I am perfectly happy, but making my own salad is another story that usually ends with mushy gushy vegetables at the bottom of the produce drawer of my refrigerator.
Yet I persist. I’m closing in on 50, I’ve had two children, and I am definitely soft around the middle, more so than is healthy, though my dietary choices are so limited. I like food, and I love pasta. Being kosher and vegetarian is easy. Being healthy, not so much. My relationship with food is not unlike my relationship to money; seriously messed up. I think food was subliminally included in my Mother’s list of taboo conversations. At least I’ve sorted out the religion thing. I’m a third of the way there!
This year begins a new relationship with food. This relationship will involve portion control, a return to some of the things Michelle taught me, continued eco-kosher choices and an awareness of what my body actually needs. Being as sedentary as I have been, it hasn’t needed much. If I want to exercise and regain muscle, my body will require more. 2012 begins with charts and graphs and careful tracking. I’m not about to start some fad 500 calorie liquid diet or starve myself. But I am going to be aware of how much I move, and how that relates to what I put into my body. I think I am closer than ever to knowing how to eat properly. And it only took 5 decades.