I’m currently reading the book Keeping the Feast: One Couple’s Story of Love, Food, and Healing in Italy by Paula Butturini about the curative powers of food, love, and daily rituals. And it got me thinking about food’s impact on my own life.
Being a Russian Jewish American (I immigrated to America with my family when I was seven), the foods that cross my family’s table are eclectic. When we go out to eat, we love Italian, Greek, German, and Thai cuisine. I love sampling new foods and will try anything once. On a side note, I truly believe that I could eat pasta every day and be very happy.
But this isn’t a post about my favorite foods (though that would be yummy!). It is a short story about food, family and how having a healthy relationship with food helped a once shaky sense of self grow some roots.
I used to be a terribly picky eater, especially when I was a little girl in Russia. I distinctly remember my parents putting me in the corner because I regularly refused to finish my meals. Sometimes I’d stop after a few bites or a turn of my nose and a “no thanks” nod of my head.
In kindergarten in Russia, it pained me (i.e., made me feel sick to my core, as I remember it) to eat some porridge concoction. I remember being the last one to finish it.
Even the girl who usually was last to finish her food finished hers before me. I recall sitting there defeated and pushing its gooeyness around the bowl, only prolonging the inevitable terror of finishing that thing. (When you’re little, it’s amazing the piddly problems that feel like boulders demolishing your whole world.) I can’t remember the outcome, but I think it included a lot more sitting and anxiety on my part.
As I grew up, so did my appetite and appreciation for food. I suspect that it was kick-started by my first bites of pizza in America. I did live in NYC after all.
My palette has always preferred fruits and vegetables (I still feel super-charged and refreshed after feasting on these foods). But I started trying new foods and adding more favorites to my list. (Gefilte fish is still a no-no in my book. So is a Russian dish consisting of meat surrounded by a mass of gelatin. Picture pieces of meat forever frozen yet oddly floating in a sea of yellowish Jell-O. Yes, many Russians swoon over this meal.)
When we still lived in NYC, our family — the eight of us, including my parents, grandma, uncle, aunt, and cousins — would get together every weekend and have our own feasts with Russian salads, chicken cutlets, fresh veggies, chocolates, several layered cakes, and bowls of fruit.
Russian cuisine isn’t just about interesting combinations of foods (beet salad with walnuts and mayo or shredded carrots with raisins and sour cream) — its bright colors look like a modern still life painting. They’re enough to dress up any table.
Then, I rarely, if ever, paid attention to calories. That started in my teens and early 20s. That’s when I developed a love/hate relationship with food. I wanted so badly to enjoy food, but I worried and felt guilty.
Many foods contained too many calories, I’d read and heard — too many numbers that would no doubt pack on the pounds on my already less-than skinny silhouette, making me enormous, unattractive, and unpopular.
My thoughts sang this similar tune many times either before or after I finished eating. It was also during this time that I started becoming even more insecure. On Weightless, I’ve described before how my sense of self was as shaky as a leaf in the wind. The slightest disturbance sent it bending, bowing, folding, and falling to the ground.
Even if I knew what I liked or disliked, I was too insecure to admit it, too insecure to have or express a strong perspective, too insecure to let others know when they were pushing past my boundaries.
Rather, I was focused on being liked and thereby looking a certain way. Food became an obstacle in that equation. Family gatherings were challenging, as I fought between wanting to enjoy food and wanting to be “good,” and then overeating while distressed later.
As I became more easily swayed by what others thought of me, I was more easily influenced by stupid magazine advice about the dangers of food, the ills of sugar, the benefits of labels such as low-fat, non-fat, fat-free and low-carb, and started subscribing even more to the thin ideal.
There were days that I became paralyzed when contemplating eating another apple in the evening after I’d already had one for lunch.
As my relationship with food became healthier, I formed a better relationship with myself. I started being more flexible about life, not so rigid about getting everything “right.”
I was more comfortable in my own skin (probably because I was nourishing my body with wholesome, flavorful foods and listening to its hunger and fullness signals). I savored life’s moments. I started believing in myself.
The more I became excited about trying new foods and eating mindfully, the more respect and kindness I found toward my body and myself.
I wasn’t shoveling in foods like I did when I was overeating. I wasn’t having “the last supper” before some ridiculous diet. And I wasn’t punishing my insides by eating bland — mediocre, at best — faintly nutritious substitutes of my favorite foods.
Now, when I visit NYC and eat out with my loved ones or stay in, I feast with excitement, curiosity and pleasure.
On the table, there’s Russian blintzes with cheese, oil-drizzled tomato and cucumber salad, apple pancakes accented with a dollop of sour cream (though my dollop looks less like a spoonful and more like a mountain), marinated shish-ka-bobs, roasted red potatoes or sliced-and-cooked-on-the-skillet potatoes. Sometimes, there are potato latkes, and always, Russian black bread with several sorts of salami and cheeses.
These foods are delicious, familiar and comforting. They’re the foods I used to eat with my grandma, who’s not with us anymore. The foods I watched my dad, who passed away about a year and a half ago, eat slowly and happily, with an ear-to-ear grin on his face, telling my aunt how she was the best cook in the world — right after my mom, of course.
These are the colors and smells of my childhood, of my diverse background, of our time with family, of my and my parents’ trip to Russia in 2001, of just a few years ago with my dad.
Food, like a certain piece of music, a whiff of a cologne my dad used to wear or an episode of the Golden Girls (my grandma seriously had Betty White’s same laugh, sweetness and silliness), brings me back to these moments.
Food has become a celebration of old traditions and new, a way to connect to people, a way to reminisce and a way to nourish my body, mind and soul.
What are some of your favorite dishes to eat? How has food positively impacted your life? What memories do you have with friends, family and food?
Photo by Daniel Simpson, available under a Creative Commons attribution license.