An open love letter to Food.

Food, you’ve changed. You’re not who I thought you were. And neither am I. I’ve been wanting to tell you all of this for awhile, but I’ve just been so busy enjoying you and this place in life that I never got around to it. But now I’m ready to say everything I need to say.

When I was a little girl, you were just something that showed up on the table – and I never examined or questioned your purpose or existence. You were white bread, Duke’s mayonnaise, bologna, and iceberg lettuce – my favorite sandwich in preschool. You were the Little Debbie Star Crunch cake my mom handed me in between hours in the kiddie pool at Myrtle Waves – a caloric, sugary decadence that I never stopped to ponder because getting back to that one, red, rubbery slide was the only thing on my mind. That, and the epic wedgie that a too-large one-piece swimsuit can produce. You and I were friendly, but I was still so young. I was far too innocent to realize that you and I would have a very tortured and tenuous relationship, so very soon in the future.

When I was 10, someone called me fat for the very first time, and I blamed you. It wasn’t my fault, and it most definitely wasn’t the fault of simple changing pre-teen hormones that commonly put a little pudge on young girls and even some boys. It was all because of you. I decided maybe all the women’s magazines (which I poured over any time I visited my older sister) had to be right. I’d just have to stop enjoying you quite so much, and then things would be fine. Well, that and buy one of those oh-so-fabulous AAA-cup cream-puff bras at Walmart. Because while my hips might’ve been right on track (according to the “All About Growing Up” pamphlet mom gave me), the “Northern Territories” were still severely underdeveloped.

When I was 15, I went into the bathroom after a meal. I had big ideas. There was an easy solution to the problem that was still nagging me (not the bra size…though that hadn’t changed much). So there I sat, bent over the toilet, index finger shoved as far down my throat as I could get it. But nothing happened. I got so angry, I switched to the “longer” middle finger. Nothing. I was livid – this was supposed to work! Back to the drawing board, I guess…wondered for another few years if there was some trick to bulimia, some slight of the hand or proper form thing that I just wasn’t getting. Was never sure.

When I was 17, after 8 years or more of feeling like a complete mutant heifer (and actually being called that once, if I remember correctly…definitely one of my finer moments), I changed schools. A lot of things led up to it, but I suppose the social discomfort that colored so many boxes of my life was always stemming in some part from my relationship with you. It was still your fault. I was still blaming anything else. So away I ran, all the while pledging that “by this time next year, I will be thin and blonde!” I started working out. I went to parties. I even drank…a little. I got good grades. I started dating an athlete. I started running, kind of by accident. I found that I was good at it – that it made me feel powerful in a way I’d never experienced before. It also made my pants loose. And people noticed. And slowly, I wanted to spend less and less time with you.

It was really not that drastic at first. You remember, don’t you? I made simple, intelligent choices – fruit instead of french fries, water instead of soda. It didn’t take anything too complex to change my entire appearance – just the simple act of thinking about what I ate and getting off my butt and outside for a little while. When my parents moved me into college in Charleston, I continued running and eating like fairly normal human being – but I was already almost 30 pounds lighter than I’d been at that same time the previous year. And suddenly, guys paid attention to me. It was so surreal. Who was this girl – this runner, this girl with blonde highlights and thin thighs? I decided I liked seeing her in the mirror, and that the only way to keep her around for the long-term was to continue to push you away. Further and further away.

I wish I hadn’t.

As college progressed, my weight fluctuated, and my knee-jerk reaction was always to descend a few more rungs down the ladder into disordered eating. It was the natural progression of a lifelong propensity to go overboard. Overboard is what I do. Or at least, it was in that case. So I cut you out, food. First I cut out sugar – everything must be artificially sweetened. Then I cut out butter – it’s not good for you. Then I cut out all normal ice cream and bought only fat free or sugar free. Then I nixed cereal and rice because they have carbs and carbs are bad. Right? RIGHT?

And here’s the confusing thing – everybody has an opinion about nutrition, but the vast majority of people don’t know what they’re talking about. Oh, and here’s the irony – I thought that I wasn’t one of those people. Isn’t that a hoot? Total knee-slapper. But yeah, when everyone has a differing and forceful opinion, full of self-importance and/or self-assurance, it makes it really difficult not to try to make everybody happy. And somehow – because I hadn’t already forced myself into a corner when it came to failing the expectations of everybody around me AND myself (the worst critic I’d ever known) – it seemed really, really important that I do it exactly. right. to. the. t.

Whatever. When I met my husband, I was doing another carb-cutting diet and enjoying (as sick as it is) another 2-3 year span of having no periods because my body was so underfed. This is not to say that I was super skinny, because I was at a perfectly healthy weight most of the time. But my body needed you, food – it needed you, and I didn’t want to give you any level of perceived “control,” even if that just meant eating something with 20 grams of carbohydrate in it. My poor husband-to-be really did the best he could, but within months of our marriage, he realized that he had a huge project on his hands.

And let’s talk about the fact that until his most recent birthday (the fifth one that I’d been around to celebrate), on which I baked him a fabulous citrus-spice cheesecake, I never once made him a birthday cake. Never. Once. It makes me so sad that I was so selfish that I wouldn’t do that for him.

(In 2009 and 2010, his birthday cake was purchased. I ate cake those years, very happily, but was still a little afraid to try and bake my own. Still not sure why. Fear of failure, perhaps?)

After years of having no period, I began to really wonder if children were in the cards. Doctors blamed my condition on any number of things, but let’s just say I was never honest about my habits. Because I knew it was really my fault. I knew, deep down, that there were women out there who truly had reproductive problems, women who changed the things they could to help the process along, but who weren’t responsible for their problems. I was responsible. I was responsible when I pulled my tired body out of bed at 4 am to go for 8- and 10-mile runs in the dark in a city I’d never lived in before. I was responsible when I cut my calorie intake to somewhere between 800 and 1100 calories a day in the name of staving off the weight gain that seemed to happen no matter what I did (since my body was in starvation mode and literally stored every calorie I took in). I couldn’t put up the dominoes fast enough before they’d start falling again. I was falling apart. And I was responsible.

I remember feeling so hideous and blaming you, Food. But I finally started blaming myself, too. Then I blamed my family, or Jonathan, or “that skinny b**ch who clearly has an eating disorder.” You know the one! “Ms. I’ll-Have-a-Salad-and-an-Alli-Diet-Pill, thanks?” Yep, her.  Because, heh…pot, meet kettle. How disgusting is that? Who was I kidding?

Jonathan finally sat me down and conducted the one-person intervention that I think saved our marriage and my sanity. I was never sick enough to die – I was just sick enough, though, that I could’ve gone on for the rest of my life in a cycle of binging, then restricting my calories. I was sick enough that I would’ve been emotionally tortured by all of my iniquities and ugliness for the rest of my life, and I most certainly would’ve given any future daughter of mine a pretty serious complex about it, too. Granted, I would have NEVER said anything directly to her about her looks, weight, etc. God, I would’ve NEVER done that. But I was such a hypocrite that the whole time, I never realized that what you do matters just as much, if not more, than what you say or don’t say. I didn’t get that then.

Over a year or so, I stopped counting calories. I didn’t look at my scale, much less step on it. I didn’t work out all that much. It was difficult mentally, but I made myself eat any item I wanted. I still didn’t go overboard with you. I didn’t inhale my plate. I learned to slow down and just be a normal person. I learned that my dad was right all along about moderation. I was finally getting it. And amazingly enough…I stayed the same weight and size, maybe even a little smaller. I really found some peace. But I still kept you at arm’s length.

And then I got pregnant, and suddenly…oh my God, food, you were my best friend! I loved you! You’d never been any more delicious and complex and satisfying than when I was pregnant. It was as if I’d been asleep for years. I just didn’t understand the fresh, exciting, zingy, lip-smacking quality of a garden fresh, sea-salted tomato slice. I had forgotten how amazing a really good piece of milk chocolate could be. I sat on the end of my parents’ dock, in a maternity swimsuit, with a wide-brim hat and a huge belly, enjoying a cheeseburger and it DIDN’T FREAKING MATTER!! Do you understand how huge that was for me, food?! I didn’t care! Oh, my GOD, I cannot explain how freeing that was. I really can’t. I mean, apologies for the all caps, but GOOD GRIEF…it was a long time coming.

And then the baby came, and so did the food deliveries from women at church. Amazing, fabulous, strong, hilarious, intelligent women who could cook like nobody’s business. Women like Tina, who brought this amazing roast and these beautiful little potatoes and the most fabulous, creamy, fresh-cut corn. I was barely two weeks into nursing, and as much as I thought I loved food while I was pregnant, nursing was a whole new level of food adoration, food appreciation. Women like Allison, a girl my own age with a rocking personality and the most wonderful manner about her with children and babies, who brought us the most awesome, cheesy, Mexican tortilla casserole. We got so much great, hearty, delicious food, and it hit me like a lightning bolt: I wanted to cook. I was ready to cook. I was ready to cook whatever the hell it was that I wanted, that was fresh and cheap and locally grown and just sounded good to me or my husband or kids. There were no longer any limits there, just a world of possibilities.

Food, I love that you’re so available. I am so blessed to live in a country that has no shortage of food, yet I feel cursed sometimes that I have to live in and must raise children in a country that seems to favor the “starving Nazi concentration camp victim” aesthetic. Will that change? I hope so. I hope all those poor starving model-actresses get a taste of you that changes them. I hope people like Anna Wintour have a life-changingly good slice of pizza one day (One with loads of basil and capers and perfectly melted mozzarella cheese, maybe a grate or two of parm-reggiano? Or the kind with artichoke hearts and italian sausage and green olives? I can’t decide, either!) and say “Good Lord, what are we doing?! FEED THE MODELS!” I pray to the God of all that is tasty and delicious that a gaggle of body-obsessed people end up trapped inside a cupcake cafe and live to tell the story of how they were changed by the experience. Let them escape unscathed, three pounds heavier, and better for it, because I am not excited about having to undo this world in the eyes of my kid(s).

But at our house, there will be fresh apple crumble in the fridge. There will be meaty stew with cheese tortellini and fresh vegetables that I bought from Fisher’s Orchard in Greer. There will be crusty rosemary ciabatta, but you know I sure as heck ain’t baking it from scratch (well, er…maybe, one day in the future when I bring that absolutely gorgeous KitchenAid stand mixer home). There will be a cake plate, always occupied – with apricot-almond breakfast bread or little lemon cupcake miniatures with the piped icing from the ziploc bag with the edge snipped off. There will be a pot of fresh coffee. There will be birthday cake. There will always be birthday cake – every birthday my husband celebrates, for the rest of his life/my life (whoever kicks the bucket first). Because he is a good man who deserves to have the passage of his years celebrated, and he saved me from myself and from every negative person who ever told me I wasn’t good enough or wasn’t pretty enough, and most definitely every person who said I wasn’t skinny enough. He deserves cake, not because of some skewed food-merit emotional connection, but because it’s a special thing that I can give him that just says “Hey, I think you’re amazing and sexy and wonderful and you rock. Oh, and I love you. Cake!” That connection is so clear to me, as silly as it might sound.

My kids will not grow up on Mountain Dew and Pop Tarts, because that’s just not who I am. But they’ll have those things at points, I’m sure. But I don’t do a lot of pre-packaged stuff these days because, frankly, I’m enjoying cooking way too much. Some where, some smart alec is saying “Hmph, well let me know how that goes after you have more children,” but I won’t be paying those people much attention. I didn’t give up my beloved running (now tapered back to a more human 2-3 miles, several times a week) when I had my child, and I won’t give up cooking just because like gets a little crazier.

I’d much rather my kids learn to look at food the same way we look at songs or sights or smells that remind us of times in our lives. I want them to have that sensory connection, because it means something. I can’t taste caramel cake without lamenting how it will never be as good as my grandmother’s (she’s been dead for 22 years, so let’s say I haven’t had a good caramel cake in a loooong time – that’s next on the “to bake” list, by the way). I want my kids to have that – I want them to order a chicken piccata at a restaurant and think Oh, but this just doesn’t have any LOVE in it like mom’s does. I want those little girls and little boys to understand the value of fresh cut herbs from a pot on the back deck, the power of a fat pat of butter, browned perfectly and mixed in with the mashed potatoes (real potatoes). I want them to be in the kitchen as soon as they’re old enough to communicate, helping me measure and mix the cheesecake batter or the enchilada filling or whatever applies. I want them to get it, but not the way it took me so long to get it.

So, that’s what I needed to tell you, food. That I’m sorry I blamed you so long for the issues I needed to deal with, and that I am enjoying our new, exciting, blossoming relationship so much more than I could ever write here. But I will give you a home to enjoy, food. I know my little one-butt kitchen is a tight squeeze and can limit the leaps and bounds by which our adventures together can grow, but there is a larger kitchen and bigger plans on the horizon for us, dear friend! There are souffles and flaky pie crusts and creme brulee in our future, you just wait – and we’ll share each new adventure with the amazing family and friends that I’m so blessed to be able to cook for. And to be able to eat with.

And maybe one day, we’ll try to match ol’ Mary Belle’s caramel cake. I think she’ll send a little magic dust our way in the form of some brown sugar. Some flour and butter. A little love sprinkled in for extra measure.

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