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.