Thursday, December 04, 2003
Repatterning Your Food Life
posted by Julie |
Rethinking feeding yourself and your family
I was lucky. I learned to cook by watching my mom, whose own cooking was informed not by a lineage so much as by her own research and interests and memories, avid reading from Julia Child and M.F.K. Fisher, and world travels that began for her at a very early age.
Then my oldest brother went to work at the elbows of chefs in grand kitchens and brought home more skills.
Our dinners at home were the subject of great speculation and adventure, ranging from opened cans of Chef Boyardee to complex, old-world Chinese cuisine to pot roasts and green beans, to Indian curries hot enough to tickle your earbones.
The interest we have always taken in our food led to a lifelong habit of collecting cookbooks, collecting restaurants, watching and rewatching cooking shows, working in kitchens, and absorbing and reabsorbing the lessons of master chefs.
All this focus on food has been a double-edged sword. On the one edge, we are big, adventurous eaters, hankering for not just any food, but great food. We are food-centric. Foodies. On the other, we have the skills to make healthy, low-calorie, high nutrient food taste great and look gorgeous.
When I took on my final, extreme weight loss, I gave up cooking for a long time. I ignored my kitchen and my tools. Stopped baking altogether. Over the past two years my kitchen and the whereabouts of my tools, dishes, pans, have become a mystery to me. My knives have dulled from disuse. Chefs' tools catalogs come and go, unopened in my house. Flour company and spice company catalogs meet the same fate.
Over the past 3 years, we have repatterned our eating habits, responsibilities for buying and preparing foods. The foods we buy are completely different these days from the ones we bought before we began focusing on our health.
We have never once wondered if all these changes are "worth" it. We look at one another's healthy, fit bodies, consider the far fewer times we've visited doctors or lost time to illness in the past year. We've noted that we haven't lost friends or bothered loved ones with our new habits. We've put food in its place, for the most part.
For me, taking a complete break from food focus and cooking has been extraordinarily helpful. A great eye-opener for me and for my family. We've learned so much by disrupting our patterns. All of our food decisions now are made with great care. Disruption for us has brought a new mindfulness to our food lives.
This past holiday, we gathered the biggest food-heads in the family around our table. And it was a reasonably traditional feast. The bird, of course. The stuffing (made with a great sourdough bread, sausage, pecans, fresh herbs, etc.), natch. But then, creamed baby onions, barely steamed haricots verts, a salad of the freshest baby arugula, spinach, raddichio and edible flowers, yams baked with fresh pineapple, sugarless cranberry relish, a Waldorf salad (apples, grapes, nuts, celery). Healthy stuff. We also served mashed white potatoes and gravy. At the end of the meal, the leftovers mainly consisted of stuffing, mashed potatoes, and gravy.
We boiled that carcass down for two days into a turkey-and-wild rice soup with baby tomatoes and spinach, and loads of fresh herbs and garlic and cumin seed. So good the memory of it haunts. We're talking defatted turkey soup here, folks. One of the greatest soup moments we've ever had.
We didn't apologize for the new foods, introduce them as "diet" food, or in any way prepare people for change. We just served them healthy stuff, and they loved it. They felt good, even the next day.
I have experimented with serving people healthy food without fanfare for the past couple of years, and I find that every person appreciates it, no one ever complains. No one feels cheated. The other stuff is there, too, sometimes. Most people, given the choice, fill up on the healthy stuff first. We're not idiots. We know what is good for us. If what is good is available, we eat it. Even kids do, oddly enough. Or at least, they eat enough of the good stuff that they eat less of the nutrient-free calories.
Soon, I'm going to reclaim my kitchen. Run through the whole place, cleaning and reorganizing it, turning it into a kitchen any health spa owner would be proud to have. I'm moving the toaster from its center of focus, and putting the juicer in its place. Maybe I'll invest in a new veggie slicer, a few new pieces of equipment specifically built for transforming precious vegetable oil into spreadable aoli. That sort of thing. I feel ready to get back to cooking. But a new kind of cooking.
I don't expect to change my history, my interests, my nature. But I do expect to make as many changes within my world, my family as I can to help us all lead healthier lives, make healthier choices. I have the luxury of an eclectic tradition to work from. Because no one knows what to expect at our table, no one expects anything.
Many of you, though, are living within cultures that place requirements on foodstuffs during most dinners, or at least during holiday dinners and traditional feasts. Instead of throwing up your hands at the impossibility of making healthier changes, or upsetting the applecart by refusing to have or serve these foods, consider some options.
Consider adding new foods to the holiday table, filling vegetable dishes and soups that give people more nutritious options. Think veggies, fruits, nuts, beans.
Think about tweaking the ingredients of your traditional foods to remove trans-fats and saturated fats, adding instead vegetable and nut oils. Bake with real butter or lard rather than any hydrogenated fat. You might be surprised to learn that your traditional recipes were changed by enterprising cooks back in the 40s and 50s when margarines, highly processed flour, and manufactured lard-like products were introduced. Get MORE traditional by scouring up the original recipes, using more traditional ingredients.
Making healthier eating work within your family doesn't have to be enormously disruptive. It doesn't have to be an all-or-nothing affair. Making incremental changes, offering healthier choices, moving in the direction of better living bit by bit may be the saner choice.
You might need to take a radical break from your habits for awhile, as I did, to get your weight and health under control, but you don't have to make that break permanent. (Unless that sort of freedom appeals to you, and then why not?) And when you're ready to come back, you will know you're ready. My break took 3 years. Now I'm ready to move back into my kitchen creatively, with control, with a goal of better living well within reach.
Diana Kennedy, Exploring Traditional Mexican Cuisine
Marcella Hazan, on Traditional Italian Cuisine
Martin Yan and PBS exploring many Asian Cuisines
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