Monday, April 8, 2013

Do You Eat What You Are?


I’ve been wondering lately: If it’s true that we are what we eat, is the reverse also true? Do we eat what we are?

When I was a child visiting my grandmother, a thrifty Scottish woman in rural West Virginia, we ate directly from the garden and the fields.  In the summer, we feasted on corn on the cob rolled in butter, hot mixed peppers simmered with fresh tomatoes, juicy blackberry and rhubarb pies, salad greens wilted with hot bacon dressing. In winter, we ate fruit and vegetables that had been “put up” in the cellar.

I was also the daughter of a Tokyo-born mother and a struggling, blue-collar father, a combination that gave our budget meals a slight Asian twist. Chili con carne was served over Uncle Ben’s rice.  A can of Campbell’s chicken noodle soup became egg drop soup after my mom plopped a raw egg into the pot.

At the same time, I was a hometown girl of Clarksburg, West Virginia, a surprisingly diverse town with thriving Lebanese and Italian populations.  Our neighbors, the Thomas family, supplied us with wide, flat sheets of Syrian bread. Mom scrambled eggs with stinky wild ramps and then we rolled the concoction into the flatbread, burrito style.

When I went off to college in South Carolina, I was a scrawny teenager desperate to add curves to my boyish figure. Grits with gravy, hot rolls with butter (consumed by the half dozen) and deep-fried everything guaranteed that I immediately gained the “freshman fifteen.” When I wasn’t refilling my plate in the cafeteria, I could be found at Sir George’s, an all-you-can-eat buffet that we affectionately called “Sir Gorges.”

After college, I moved to California and became a busy fifth-grade teacher and a grad student struggling to make ends meet. I lived on Bisquick biscuits that I made two at a time and generic cans of soup. 

Not long after that, in the 80s, I morphed into a full-fledged yuppie, working in downtown LA as a marketing manager at what was known then as “the phone company.” For the first time in my life, I had disposable income and non-disposable time. I dined at restaurants specializing in “California cuisine” (think miniscule portions at maximum prices). When I wasn’t dining out, I was dropping in to Bristol Farms, a Whole Foods precursor, to purchase pricy, premade items.

When I quit my job in the early 90s to become a full-time mom, my cooking and eating habits once again changed. I learned the beauty of the stir fry and how to wok this way. While my toddler was occupied for minutes at a time, I chopped an onion here or diced a pepper there or thin sliced a chicken breast. When Dad got home for dinner, I threw everything into a sizzling wok.

But when the toddler grew into a picky preschooler and I became a harried housewife juggling writing, home duties and volunteer work, the stir fries disappeared.  I’ll never forget the moment when I looked down at the grocery cart loaded with convenient blue boxes and processed orange slices that passed for cheese.  I groaned to myself, “I’ve become white trash!”

Fast forward a few years, and I became a cancer patient at the City of Hope. I took to heart the words of a wise dietician: “Eat nutrient-dense foods.” From that moment on, I started examining the nutritional punch of everything that went into my mouth. Instead of faux wheat bread, I chose dense, multi-grain loaves. And brown rice took the place of the nutritionally vacuous white stuff I'd been consuming. I couldn’t get enough fresh fruits and vegetables.

Shortly after my stint as a patient, both in and out of the hospital, I joined a community called RIPE, an Altadena-based group that swaps and shares home-grown organic fruits and vegetables. The sharing soon went well beyond surplus citrus and zucchini. I saved my leftover citrus rinds as treats for a nearby family of goats. The goats’ owners shared with neighbors the nutrient-packed soiled hay, which we used as mulch for our vegetable gardens that produced food that we shared with one another. It was a perfect circle of sharing and caring.  Who I was and what I ate became closely intertwined.

And now I’ve entered yet another chapter, a stress-free life in Scottsdale, AZ, filled with hiking, writing, volunteering and cooking. I haven’t yet figured out how to grow vegetables in our hot, arid climate, and produce sharing would be difficult (if not impossible) among the endless chain of gated communities.

But I’m slowly making friends who love to share their knowledge, experience and kitchen bounty. One friend spent an afternoon with me making orange marmalade from the citrus that I'd carted in from the Altadena backyard. Another new friend brought over a jar of homemade limoncello that’s far superior to the batch that I made last year.

And I’m taking pleasure in feeding the new “picky eater” in my life, a boyfriend who doesn’t like pasta from any country, shellfish from any sea, fish (other than salmon) and a long list of vegetables.

Hope you’ll join me in this new phase of my life as I explore who I am and what's on my plate.

9 comments:

Barbara Roth said...

I can't wait to follow the new chapter of your life. Your stories always captivate me, make me smile and see things through new windows.

Susan C said...


And, Barbara, we've been through a few adventure together in our day!

Pasadena Adjacent said...

Good to see you up and blogging again. What an interesting way to look back at one's life. I'm to frightened to do such an inventory. Might reveal a significant lack of growth in that department.

I did go out and purchase a Pomegranate tree and a few grape vines. Plan are to train them against a chain link fence. Might be dead by the time they start producing.

Lori Elliott Webster said...

I'm so happy to see you writing again, Susan!

This post is great, and I can identify with your past food preferences - I do believe that what you eat is heavily influenced by where, and what, you are at the time.

I'm eagerly awaiting to see where this new path takes you, your plate and your pen.....

Mary Long said...

I was so excited to see you in my list of reads today! Welcome back Susan!! I look forward to following your new journey in life.
I think we eat the way our life dictates. I am trying to plan my meals out a week in advance so that I make sure they are good for us and not processed, out of a box and had a shelf life of years on end. Once it's safe to plant veggies here in PA, I will be expanding the variety. My daughter has even shown an interest in helping this year!

Susan C said...

PA, good luck with your pomegranate tree. I tried growing one in Altadena, but it quickly kicked the bucket. I've had good luck with grape vines as cover for chain link.

Lori, thanks so much for the encouragement!

Mary, I've been doing the same kind of meal planning during in this new phase of my life. A Pasadena friend who visited here made fun of the way I had to stop everything to get buy steak on sale and then cut it up into various shapes and sizes for chilli, stew, fajitas or stir fry. How fun that your daughter is getting into the gardening act with you.

Thank you all for reading, commenting and your encouragement!

Margaret said...

So glad to see your writing after a long wait. I will definitely follow your journey. I live with two picky eaters. If you find a way to please yours, let me know.

Mary Bergfeld said...

It is good to have you back. I can't wait to hear about this new chapter in your life. Patiently waiting. Blessings...Mary

Pasadena Adjacent said...

it's time to put in another yearly post (just a reminder)