Sunday, July 24, 2011

My Life with Food: A Journey from Fear to Love

Terribly pretentious title, I know. And in my first (and probably last) post for sometime. I kind of figure that no one's really reading this any more and this is just an exercise in obnoxious public journaling, so really, why not be pretentious as hell? I'm sure it will fit in nicely when I one day find my angsty entries from my misspent youth.

I've recently taken a job in San Francisco. I was given three weeks between accepting the offer and my start date (which I'm sure I could have negotiated, but financially it would have been imprudent), which has left me packing up the apartment I've lived in for three years while serving out my notice. I've been less stressed before. Anyways, to help this little process along, my mother has kindly agreed to drive up to DC, lending her car, aggressive nature and monetary contributions to dinners out to this process. (By the way, if you're in DC and in the market for a couch, a bed, or glassware, do let me know.) Mommy dearest is bringing with her my niece and nephew because slave labor is what summer vacation should be all about, at least from this aunt's perspective.

So, a little bit about my background, which I think that actually very few are privy to: I grew up near Atlanta, Ga. and went from being an only child to the youngest of 8 step brothers and sisters when both of my parents remarried before I was six years-old. I started going to Christian school in the third grade because that's what you do in Georgia, where the public schools are failing, but no one much cares because only racial minorities and poor whites attend them. By the time I was in middle school, I'd come to realize that I was an atheist and a liberal, neither popular positions either at home or with my classmates, so I graduated as a junior and hightailed it as far away as I could get both ideologically and physically to university at Berkeley. When I reveal that I'm from Georgia, my accent long gone, most people find it shocking.

Not so with my siblings. Despite a couple's brief stints in such exotic locations as Manhattan and glamorous Columbus, OH, all of my brothers and sisters have wound up in the south. Most are still in Georgia, the oldest sisters live in North and South Carolina. No wonder my mother forcefully packed and sold the contents of my Berkeley apartment and practically forced me cross country to DC when I began to look for jobs--I was (and still am) the only one whose doorstep one can't show up on in an emergency. (To her credit, she's being very sweet about my moving back to SF.) My niece and nephew live in South Carolina with their parents.

Growing up in Georgia, well, not to traffic in stereotype, but your food options are pretty much fried and sides. When I got to Berkeley, a roommate was once ordering Chinese delivery for the dorm suite and asked me what I wanted. My reply of "chicken teriyaki" was met with peels of laughter. Georgia doesn't so much differentiate between Chinese and Japanese, and Thai, Indian, Vietnamese, Korean--these cuisines are almost unheard of. Point being, diversity: lacking.

To make matters of taste even worse, I have had, for most of my life, a fear of food. Not of becoming fat, not a body issue, a legitimate, visceral fear of foods that look or smell a certain way or appear to have a certain texture. This will surprise anyone who is aware of my longstanding love affair with restaurants, but it is absolutely true. When I was four, just as my parents were getting divorced, I went through a phase that many children experience--I refused to eat pretty much anything. Shrimp, pasta, cheese, peanut butter and bacon. That was all I wanted. Not together, of course. It's a wonder that I'm not 400 pounds. Few vegetables, a violent rejection of most meats, by all reasonable measures a prohibitively limited diet.

The pediatrician told my parents to let me be--that all kids go through this phase and that I would resume eating more food naturally. My mother took this advice to heart. My father had grown up in a "you'll eat whatever I put in front of you" household and would have none of it. Threats, spankings and lies were all tactics that he employed to get me to eat what he wanted me to, the last being the most damaging. After Scott's refusal to differentiate between meat sauce and marinara, I gave up tomato sauce all together. In fact, I became more and more suspicious to the point that, if I couldn't immediately identify what was in it, I wouldn't eat it. This precluded many of the best things in life--rich sauces and curries, anything baked inside a pastry shell...

Only through friends, loved ones and one particularly sympathetic sister's incredible ability to describe food and relate it to experiences that I could understand have I come, in the last 10 years, to be an adventurous eater (though to this day I have trouble with most meats and won't eat red meat or anything ground or sliced). Indian and Thai curries, sushi, all kinds of fish, asparagus, recently brussel sprouts, even pizza (which I had eschewed because of it's tomato sauce) are now all parts of my school girl crush (nay, obsession) with food. Where I once dreaded going to a friend's for dinner, I now choose restaurants for business lunches with gusto. Some friends have called me their own personal Yelp.

So when my niece and nephew arrive, aside from needing them to paint my bright blue apartment walls back to the institutional off-white that the building management prefers, I also have a desperate need to expose them to a world where "a nice dinner" doesn't mean Olive Garden. But in my desire to do so, I'm also tormented by my memories of "no thank you bites" and admonitions against leaving the table before my plate is clean. Clearly I can't throw them into the deep end right away. Sadly on this trip, there will be no Lebanese Taverna, no Indian food and probably no Vietnamese.

I'm starting small. The first night I'm showing them what pizza should be--not Domino's, 2 Amy's. The second night I'll play by ear. After all, I'm taking them to trapeze, they don't need to be scared of their food, too. But the third night I'm taking them to Dino. Dino is my favorite neighborhood gem--almost too reasonably priced, local, sustainable, fresh real food. Nothing processed, nothing fake. Accessible for them with pastas and simple fish, chicken and meat dishes, but everything a step above and beyond (complimented by my dear friends on the staff, one of which has consented to pollute his carefully selected craft beer menu with a Coors Light for my dear mother). And when the prosciutto wrapped asparagus arrives at the table, there will be no "no thank you" bites if my niece and nephew are reluctant to try it--that just means more for me.

Overall, food is one of the most purely enjoyable parts of life. It can be decadent, refreshing, emotional, soothing and life changing. We're lucky to live in a place where eating is an experience, not just an often unmet necessity. And our body knows what good food is. When you spend enough time away from fried, processed crap, you lose a taste for it, and your body doesn't want it any more. I'm glad to have come to a point where I eat what's good for me without effort, based almost entirely on craving, and my emotional response to the prospect of eating is delight, not terror. I hope that I can give some of that to my niece and nephew...ya know, before I run away across the country again.

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