Why we eat

Joe rolling out dough

The night my new eating regimen was supposed to start, I mostly ignored it. Friends had us for dinner, and there was pizza, stretched thin and slathered with homemade sauce and juicy olives, and cheese to beat the band. We sat around a table outdoors, passing slices over wineglasses and olives and little tot heads until everything was gone. I couldn’t really do anything else; when the choice is eating and sharing and laughing and righting the day or not eating at all, I’ll always choose the former.

But suddenly, with this diet thing, having dinner with friends doesn’t seem like an option. And it’s killing me.

Let me just clarify something for you here: if you meet me, say, for the first time, you will not know I have lupus. In fact, yesterday, I ran the loop around Seattle’s Discovery Park, and when I slowed down on one of the hills (to a walk, if you must know), a giant furry grey owl buzzed my head, interrupting my ponytail’s swing at the base of my neck. I craned to see it roosting on a high branch, where it simply hooted at me until I started running again. Not even owls sense it, and owls are very knowledgeable.

Lupus comes and goes. But the medicines that help keep lupus at bay in my body—things like cellcept, prednisone, plaquenil, and maybe someday benlysta—leave me susceptible to things like shingles, and food poisoning, and goodness knows what else. The goal of this crazy elimination diet is to put lupus into remission, instead of repeatedly falling into these weird tailspins. I know there is a goal.

The thing is, I don’t know for sure that I need the diet to feel better, and so far I don’t feel anything but deprived. I keep waiting to feel somehow different. It’s like waiting to fall in love with someone you don’t even know. (Thank goodness mine was not an arranged marriage.)

In general, what I’m eating now feels more like hospital food than hospital food did, when I was there for days and days and days surrounding Graham’s birth. Perhaps that’s telling of the state of culinary affairs at Swedish Hospital, where the short entrée menu at the time boasted nachos, fettuccine alfredo, and a Philly cheesesteak—all very healing foods, if you’ve been admitted for a hangover. Or maybe it’s just the difference between eating for enjoyment—which Swedish fully endorses, if the milkshakes are any indication—and eating for nutrition, which is the assignment I’m currently complaining about.

Beet green chips

But I’ve been doing it. With the exception of caffeine—I’m still desperately holding on to half a cup of coffee each morning (with coconut milk creamer, naturally)—and a piece of Kate’s pie, and a snatch of potato chips that snuck up on me at Uli’s without warning, I’m doing it. I’ve made a kale version of saag paneer, minus the cheese, which turned out silky-smooth, rich with coconut milk, and the perfect consistency for napping over curried yellow split peas with leeks and garlic. There have been gorgeous salads with avocado and sunflower seeds, drizzled with new-to-me oils that give enough flavor to only require the tiniest amount of vinegar (which I should now avoid). And last night, I actually tested recipes for Dishing Up Washington—a beet and arugula salad (I avoided the goat cheese); seared, roasted king salmon steaks; and cauliflower with cumin and pine nuts. I’ve made chips out of beet greens, roasting them in a hot oven after slicking with olive oil and sprinkling them with sea salt. These are not foods associated with suffering. But I’d be lying if I said it hasn’t been hard.

I’ve ordered mint tea at one of Seattle’s best cocktail bars. I’ve spent two hours watching other people eat oysters. The worst part, though, is with Graham. The diet means that when we sit down for dinner as a family, we rarely all eat the same thing. Take Neanderthal Night, which means whole-wheat spaghetti and Bolognese for G. Dependably, a naked 2-year-old who still refuses to eat spaghetti with a fork inadvertently smears sauce over his entire torso, then offers me some—and I have to say no. Or I pretend to eat it and toss it over my shoulder. This morning I fed raspberries to the dog under the table while he wasn’t looking. Raspberries. If you’ll permit me the moment of pure crankiness, nothing sucks more than refusing your child when he offers to share his food with you.

Unless, maybe, it’s eating anywhere outside the house. On day two, we agreed to meet some friends for dinner at Whole Foods. I’m a food writer in a city of culinary wonders, and I’m eating at Whole Foods? They’ll have something, we decided. But the thing is, they didn’t. There was literally nothing in their mammoth prepared foods arena I could buy, except Vietnamese salad rolls I ate with the rice paper, until I remembered I can’t have rice. (This was day two, remember.) I ate carrots (technically too high in sugar for me, but people, it’s a fucking carrot) and hummus and weird $7 kale chips that I’d pay $7 for someone to now take out of my kitchen. And I drank coconut water. (It’s good, by the way. Coconut is my new BFF.)

But beyond that, going out to eat has been a disaster. Today, I’m supposed to meet another writer for lunch. We’d planned to meet at Dot’s Delicatessen, a new Seattle joint that may soon be famous for charcuterie and sausages. No worries, I thought. I’ll just go, and eat whatever there is that I can eat. Like the salad, which is the only green thing on a menu I’d otherwise champion. Only I’ll ask them to hold the vinegar, tomatoes, and carrots. So really, I’ll be ordering oiled lettuce, in an establishment bred to honor all things meaty. And water, please, but hold the lemon, because I can’t have that either. Goodness knows where and what we’ll end up eating.

The point of all this meandering is that I’ve been taken, this last week, with the concept of why we eat. We eat for taste, of course, and perhaps for nutrition as well. But a huge part of why I eat is about sharing, and about feeding others. When I eat, I want to eat the same things everyone at the table is eating. When I shop at the farmers’ market, I want to taste the things the vendors hand me. I’ve missed fruit immensely, but on that run yesterday, I started pulling fat, ripe blackberries from the vines lining the paths and feeding them to my dog. Somehow, that connection—watching my dog look at me anxiously, waiting for another berry, hoping I’d share—filled part of the space that’s been empty, these last days. And she’s a dog.

An empty dining room table

I knew, when I started hogwash, that there would be months like this. That’s why I subtitled it “on food and life;” for me, sometimes life is more important than food. But when lupus makes my body hurt, I usually don’t talk about it much, because there are always things that override it—food, friends, family, etc.

But this. This. This is not fun. And the things that normally help me through tough times—passing a cheese knife between two hands, or breaking a chocolate bar in two to share—just aren’t there. In a couple weeks, I’ll have a birthday, and I still haven’t figured out how there can possibly be cake.

The good news is, I think I now understand why the table feels so empty, even with all the foods I can still eat. That’s huge. As a editor of mine recently said, once you understand why you’re stuck, you have a place from which to get unstuck. Or at least start.

So I’m stuck. So what? Stuck happens. Soon–as I’m able to add foods in, one by one–I’ll be back at the party.

Sweet Rosemary Cornbread 1

For now, an old favorite. It’s a sweet rosemary cornbread from last summer-something I’d love to have right this moment, so I could slice and butter it, then serve it grilled, with grilled nectarines fat with the kind of juice they only have in mid-August. Make it for me, will you? And enjoy it, with someone else.

Sweet Rosemary Cornbread (PDF)

If you’re giving the bread as a gift, or just want it to look extra adorable, pop a sprig of fresh rosemary onto the batter before the bread goes into the oven. Then hurry it to the lucky recipient while it’s still warm, with good butter and a jar of creamed honey.

TIME: 10 minutes active time
MAKES: 2 (8” by 4”) loaves

Vegetable oil spray or butter, for greasing pans
2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar
1 cup cornmeal
2 teaspoons baking powder
2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup half and half
3/4 cups whole milk
2 large eggs
1 stick (1/2 cup) butter, melted

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease two (8” by 4”) loaf pans, and set aside.

Whisk the dry ingredients to blend in a large bowl. Whisk the wet ingredients together in a different bowl, then add to the dry ingredients, and stir until no dry spots remain.

Divide the batter between the prepared loaf pans, smooth with a spatula, and bake until brown at the edges and just cracking in the center, about 30 to 35 minutes. Cool 10 minutes in pans, then transfer to a cooling rack to cool completely.

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10 Comments

Filed under bread, Breakfast, lupus

10 responses to “Why we eat

  1. Hi Jess

    First off, congratulations on winning a Greenbrier scholarship! Well deserved!
    Second, I understand your dieting angst. I have recently figured out that wheat and me are not so good together. So when we go out to eat, I tend to get pretty crabby. All that lovely pasta and pizza and bread and…well, you know. But the results are what matter, and I know I FEEL so much better when I’m careful and avoid certain things. I am trying to embrace the good feeling, instead of the “can’t have it” feeling. It’s just a part of life. And food.

    Thanks for the encouragement!

  2. Hi Jess,

    A friend introduced me to your blog and I’m so glad I found you! I’m 29 and was recently diagnosed with lupus. I hear you on the Prednisone and Cellcept and Plaquenil. I’m also on a super restrictive diet (just low sodium for now, nothing as strict as yours) but I’m excited to know there’s someone else out there on a similar path. I’ve started my own blog to try and help me wrap my head around everything! I’ll be checking on your blog often!

  3. I completely understand all of these feelings. I too live in Seattle (just moved here actually) and am a total foodie. I work as a freelance writer and dietitian so eating for nutrition is what I preach…but, I was recently diagnosed with MS and as I try to wrap my head around that and how it will affect my husband, my 21 month old son, and myself, I am also trying a restrictive diet before the injections. Very limited saturated fats for…less than 10 grams/day and that is SO hard! Ironic to be in the world of food and to have to learn new tricks to please the palate.
    Thanks for your words. Glad to have found you.

  4. Just returned from Seattle. So you run Discovery Park? Now I feel feeble. I’ve been merely turning to other diets to ward off aches and pains that have come with age. I salute your will to share with family and friends as well as your will to keep your body healthy. And then that gorgeous beckoning cornbread – you just shared with friends. Thank-you.

  5. I love this post, Jess. You’re such an amazing writer and an inspiration.

  6. Oh boy. What can I possibly say to make any of this better? When people are struggling, I like to offer them food but clearly that isn’t what you need or can have. I would suggest a coffee date but you can’t have coffee. I guess the one thing I hear with people on restrictive diets is that it does get easier, not any more fun, but easier. I’m here if you need a shoulder, an ear, whatever.

  7. andreadevon

    This is a great bit of writing… I am sorry that you are struggling with the restrictive diet, but I wish you well on this journey that will hopefully leave you more vibrant and healthy than you already are today!

  8. I so feel your pain in not being able to be part of something that connects us on so many levels. I have a post it note with the word Convivial and it definition written on it because just reading the word and the definition makes me remember the pleasures I have making the food and sharing the food. Convivial: Enjoying companionship and the pleasure of feasting and drinking.

    • Russ, this is an excellent point. In fact, I’ve been trying to find the corollary for smell. What do you call it when you learn to smell, just for the smelling, but don’t need to eat it, the same way you’d love to smell a flower but don’t necessarily have to eat it?

  9. Pingback: Rosemary Cornbread - An American Cupcake in London

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