Better II: The Pleasures of Eating

(This is the second section of a three part essay) Part I / Part II / Part III

By winter, my obsessions with eating were starting to get the best of me.  Eating healthily isn’t usually a problem for me. Cooking is always about making do with what’s available. If it’s December, you don’t spend your time dreaming of asparagus; you think of new things that you can do with Kobacha or with beets and bulgar wheat. If your doctor tells you to cut back on sugar, or fat, or sodium, than that further limits you, but limits can be generative, like the edges of a poem.  They push you to be creative.

At least that’s what I’ve always told myself.  This winter, my usual platitudes failed me.  I simply didn’t know where the limits were.  I didn’t know what I could or could not eat. I’d go through long periods of resignation.  Then I’d get some new lead, advice from a friend, a medical journal, and I’d be convinced that a cure was just around the corner. Fructose malabsorption—Eureka! I’d read labels and frenziedly try to extract every last bit of fructose from my diet.  This is a dangerous path. Fructose is in everything.  You start with high fructose corn syrup and fruit, but by the end you’re finding it hidden in wheat, brown rice, ginger or dill.

Even when I was tested I had doubts. I spent several hours in a hospital, blowing up balloons, until they called to tell me that this was a dead end too.  But could I trust them?  The balloon test has only 60% accuracy.  I might as well have flipped a coin.

I tried diets for things no one suggested.  I ate steel-cut oat for breakfast thinking the fiber might help.  I cut back on wheat-gluten thinking I might have celiac.  I thought I might have illnesses that I didn’t even have the symptoms for. Why not?  When I thought I had an earache, it turned out to be meningitis.  When I thought I was having back pains in college, it turned out to be pneumonia.  A nurse actually diagnosed me with heartburn and sent me home with Tums; the next day I was coughing up blood.  It’s all about deferred pain, right?  My nerves must be wired wrong.  My stomach pains have nothing to do with my stomach.  Maybe it’s bunions.

Not surprisingly, all this gradually chipped away at my appetite.  The only time I felt at my best was when I was fasting for a test.  Did I even like food anymore?  Did I still like to cook?

By March it was clear how far down the rabbit hole I had gone.  I thought of food almost entirely in terms of what I shouldn’t eat, rather than what I should.  I read labels for saturated fats, wheat-glutens, and sugars.  I was thinking only in terms of consequences, never in terms of the pleasures of anticipation, the sizzle of the pan, the curves of a pepper, the smell of fried ginger.

Spring Risotto with Asparagus and Peas (Fields of Greens Cookbook)

As the first asparagus or field peas showed up at the farmer’s market, I tried to elevate my spirits.  Maybe I couldn’t fix what was broken, but I could eat to make the rest of me happy.  I could try to eat in the moment, rather than thinking about what I might feel like an hour  later. I could for my overall health and well-being, rather than the health of my stomach.  I turned to simple foods, focusing on what was local and seasonal. I went with Ann to Pete’s Produce in West Chester to pick out vegetables for the garden.  Ann was willing to forgo planting flowers this year, so we could devote most of our four beds to heirloom tomatoes, zucchinis, peppers, cucumbers and a miniature forest worth of herbs.

That said, eating simply did not come easy for me.  For the last decade, my guiding principle has been, “That’s delicious! How can I make it more complicated?”  Cooking is an art.  It’s about transforming raw ingredients into something else—a gift for our appetites, a meal for family or friends, a visceral part of our culture and identity.  As such, it takes a little effort, skill, and creativity. Pulling greens and eating them with olive oil and vinegar isn’t cooking; it’s grazing.  Adding Roquefort or truffle oil to your salad is just a snootier form of grazing.  I still don’t understand why David Chang got into so much trouble for his condemnation of post-Chez Panisse restaurants in California.  “Fuckin’ every restaurant in San Francisco is just serving figs on a plate.  Do something with your food.”  Wasn’t he just saying what everyone else was thinking?

Yet here I was, eating simple, natural, earthy things that would make Wendell Berry wax poetic. I didn’t dig around in the dirt much myself.  For the most part I sat at the kitchen table, sipped tea and watched Ann work with her trowel through the sunroom windows.  But sometimes, I put on slippers and pad around in the backyard, pretending that I’m attending to the garden’s progress. I admired the bell peppers, which really did look like bells on the vine. I watched the great leafy squash and the creeping cucumbers with their star-shaped flowers. I planned for their future with cookbooks such as Nigel Slater’s Tender, Andrea Reusnig’s Eating in the Moment, and yes, even David Tanis’s A Platter of Figs.

Perhaps we invested so much in the garden this year because vegetables were the only thing that didn’t remind us of the big bad.  We only planted a few tomatoes the year before, and they withered and died.  So while pollen, humidity, and rising temperatures reminded me of rehab, the garden just seemed healthy.  Azaleas creeped me out a little.  All that color, all at once. But cucumbers were just cucumbers.  Voracious climbers. They had tendrils reaching out in all directions. All you had to do was put a stake in the ground and they’d find it, coil around, and hold tight.

Growing stuff, it turns out is doing something with your food.  It takes time, technique, and a little creativity. If Ann and I are standing over squash blossoms, thinking about whether we should fry them, make soup out of them now or wait until all the zucchini fully developed, then we were involved with those zucchini in ways we wouldn’t be otherwise. When the woodchuck nibbled on them, I didn’t even think.  I just grabbed one of Ann’s shoes by the door, ran out and winged it at the chubby demon as he shawshanked his way under the fence. Why?  I was never fond of zucchini.  Many of our zucchini have gone straight from our crisper to the compost heap. But I would defend these with every one of Ann’s shoes if I had to. And Ann owns a lot of shoes.

zucchini blossoms

I find a partial answer in Wendell Berry’s essay, “The Pleasures of Eating.”  I used to feel as indifferent to Berry as I did to zucchini.  Most of what he says is right, I’m sure, but the delivery was always a little bland.  Even when he writes about pleasure, he sermonizes, devoting the bulk of his essay to the sins of industry and consumerism. But pleasure appears eventually:

The pleasure of eating should be an extensive pleasure, not that of the mere gourmet. People who know the garden in which their vegetables have grown and know that the garden is healthy and remember the beauty of the growing plants, perhaps in the dewy first light of morning when gardens are at their best. Such a memory involves itself with the food and is one of the pleasures of eating. The knowledge of the good health of the garden relieves and frees and comforts the eater.

I cling to this passage now.  I’ve always thought of eating locally only in terms of the quality of the food, and not the quality of the locale.  I know that tomatoes picked from the backyard taste better than ones from the store. Michael Pollan tells us why:  store-bought tomatoes often travel long distances; they are picked before their time, and ripened with ethylene gas.  This means the natural sugars in the tomatoes were never allowed to develop properly. But this is still about the way that tomatoes taste, not the associations that go with them. These are the concerns of a gourmet, and these are the pleasures of eating that are most easily worn down by a sour stomach. The “extensive” pleasures of eating, however, are all about process. They intimately coil around the communal spaces of a garden, a market, a kitchen, a dining room. They are about being part of something larger than oneself, and this is what keeps me cooking, keeps me eating, even if it hurts.

So the first thing I do in the morning is walk into the sunroom and see the tomatoes peeking out over the windowsill. I’ve watched those tomatoes grow from tender little plants to bushy, leafy things barely contained by their cages. They will taste better because I know the effort that’s been put into them, and because it was Ann’s efforts.  They’ll taste better because when the green globes finally mature, we get to decide who to share them with and how.  We’ll get to decide whether we eat them right off the vine, whether we slow roast them overnight, or whether we blanch, seed, dice, and otherwise torture them into a Heston Blumenthal Bolognese.  And they will be glorious.

Unless the f*cking woodchucks get them first.

(To Be Continued)