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)



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

This time last year, I was making my first forays out of the house.  Even under “home care,” I took a daily constitutional, a walk to the curb or to the corner.  Ann or a PT supervised while I hobbled on my cane.  Spring turned into summer while I was in hospital, so everything looked sharp and bright.  This was the best part of recovery. Each day, I walked a little farther than the day before.  Progress could be measured in feet and yards.

Better is a bit of word magic that summons up positive thinking.  When I was still in the hospital, no one talked about normal. They talked about better. From the moment I woke up, they had me pushing my legs against the end of the bed to avoid blood clots and breathing into an “incentive spirometer” to help increase lung capacity. They had me doing exercises in bed, against a wall, with a walker, with a cane; they gave me a home therapist, individual sessions with an out-patient therapist, and a Pilates class where little old ladies with hip replacements outperformed me on every sidekick and stomach crunch.  They estimated that it would be a year before I really would be able to assess the damages, and it’s hard to spend all that time thinking that you’re doing all this work just to get back to may-or-may-not-be-normal. So you focus on better.

Better is whistling past the graveyard. I was actually excited by surgery.  Doctors said the gallbladder was probably just a casualty of septic shock, but they acknowledged that the “pre-gangrenous” nub of an organ, might have contributed to my current problems, and the stomach issues before it.   Long before the big bad, there was the little bad—stomach pain that lead to a string of hospitalizations.  After the third incident, they ran a string of tests but they were inclusive.  The best diagnosis that I could get was ulcers combined with diabetic gastroparesis.   That never sat well with me. I’ve been a type I diabetic for most of my life, so I would understand if I developed some form of neuropathy.  But this is supposed to start at the periphery.  Why would it skip the hands and feet and go straight for my stomach? A swollen gallbladder on the other hand, made sense.  It was a simple, concrete, diagnosis.  It was a ring of bright pebbles around it on the X-ray. So cut it out.  Take it away.  I’ll be better.  Better than I was before.

“You’re not supposed to be happy that they found something,” the doctor insisted.  I knew it was a long shot, but I figured I wouldn’t have to cope with the disappointment for a month or even a year, and I’d be in a much better position to cope with it then.

The day I left hospital, I threw up breakfast along with my Percocet.  I had a tummy pillow which I was supposed to clutch whenever I felt like I was going to sneeze;  it helped support my stomach and the incisions. I clutched it in the car all the way home.  We were terrified but it was really the best choice.  I’d have more control over what I ate. The only real dietary restriction I had been given was to avoid fats, but the gallbladder was really only one issue.  I was eating for recovery.  All those changes in your endocrine system and metabolism are a lot like grief.  You want to eat little or not at all.   So I turned mostly to congee.   The last time I had been a lively and energetic eater was in China.

Ann was teaching a course abroad through Saint Joseph’s University, and I tagged along.  Even then I was nervous about my stomach, and worried about how it would hold up.

When traveling, I have an almost uncontrollable desire to eat my way through every town and city, and our hosts eagerly fed that desire. We dined around large tables as our hosts gorged us on plant pollen, 1000-year old eggs, chickens with their heads and feet still on them, and enough baijiu to fell a water buffalo. We were told it was impolite not to drink when anyone made a toast, and that it was impolite not to make toasts. If you’re seated at a table for twenty-four that takes its toll.  After we had already drunk to our hosts, to international relations, to education, I once found myself toasting the free-range chickens, pecking the ground outside the window. But for all that, I never felt sick.

So I returned to life with Chinese food in general and congee in particular.  Congee, also known as Jook or Zhou is basically just boiled rice.  It sounds like the blandest most impoverished food in the world, but like Risotto—every grandmother seems to have their own recipe.  The simplest, used for medicinal purposes is just a few grains of rice boiled in water, but the actual quantity of rice used, how soupy it is, or how well cooked the rice is varies tremendously.  Congee actually served for meals is often garnished with peanuts, scallions, and ginger, along with any form of meat or vegetable.  The first congee I ever had was at the Congee Noodle House  in Vancouver, and it was served with Ostrich, so it goes without saying: congee is more flexible than most American comfort foods like chicken-noodle soup. It’s varied enough to merit its own cookbook, The Book of Jook: Chinese Medicinal Porridges.  It’s fed to children with sick stomachs, and equally important, it’s eaten during times of grief.  In Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, congee is all she can eat after the death of her husband. In Nicole Moyes The Last Chinese Chef, the protagonist eats congee with a family grieving for the loss of an esteemed elder cook.

She mixed her congee with her spoon and tasted it.   Oh, so good.  She shivered.  The salty and piquant flavors against the delicate fragrance of rice, the crispy fish against the tofu and the soft gruel. Sheer goodness.  She caught Sam’s eye and said one word, “Wonderful.”

The uncles agreed. “I would come back from the dead for this,” said Jiang. “What is that poem? The one that calls back the soul to the table?”

“Oh! From the Zhou Dynasty,” said Tan.

To their surprise, it was Liang Yeh who started to intone, in English.

“O Soul, come back!! Why should you go far away?

All kinds of good foods are ready:

Rice, broom-corn, early wheat, mixed with yellow millet –

Ribs of the fatted ox, tender and succulent;

Sour and bitter blended in the soup of Wu.

O soul, come back and do not be afraid.”

Okay, so “ribs of fatted ox” wasn’t exactly on my diet, but I’m fond of ginger in all it’s varieties, shredded, pickled, or fried.  As I recouped, I graduated to roast chicken and salmon. As long as Ann did all the crouching, pulling pots out for under the counter or vegetables from the crisper, I was okay.  I could slice thin bits of salmon and pour the congee over it to cook.

As my tastes grew more adventurous, Ann supplemented meals by picking up an order of xialongbao from Sang-kee Bistro in Wynnewood. These soup dumplings were one of the highlights of our China trip. They’re like traditional steamed dumplings, only they’re filled with broth as well as the obligatory ball of pork and chicken.

Soup dumplings are tricky to make yourself, and they are emphatically not the kind of thing you should learn to cook from a book.  But since I never found anyone in Xi’an to teach me, and since I had a lot of free time on my hands, I turned to  Brian Yarvin’s, A World of Dumplings.  This probably isn’t the most authentic source, but it taught me the two key things I needed to know. 1) Do not, under any circumstances, use store-bought wrappers.  Home made ones are far more pliable, far easier to seal than store bought wrappers, and that’s important if you’re going to be filling them with soup.  Besides, the dough is fun to work with.  You start with a simple mixture of flour and water that you endlessly stretch by hand. You form a ring of dough, and you gradually pull it through your hands like prayer beads. The loop of dough gets longer and longer, until it brushes the floor, at which point, for sanitary reasons, you stop and section the dough for rolling. 2)  You do not actually wrap soup in your dumplings.  I feel like a magician revealing a secret here.  You probably think that for centuries, Chinese chefs have been deftly injecting soup directly into premade dumplings with diminutive turkey basters. I hate to dispel that fantasy. But the trick is simple.  They use a stock that is so rich in collagen that it is solid at room temperature. It’s like jello and only melts into soup when the dumplings are steamed.

I was happy enough with the results, but Yarvin’s recipe convinced me that Xiaolongbao was best left up to the professionals.  It’s just too much work.  I could even put up with Sang-Kee’s vaguely obscene translation “steamed juicy buns,” if it meant not having to spend a whole afternoon rolling out dough.  That said, cooking was clearly a uniquely pleasurable form of occupational therapy.  If my home OT had taught me to make Xialongbao rather than giving me remedial lessons on buttoning my shirt, I probably wouldn’t have kicked her out the door.

My stomach and mood did not recover as deftly as the rest of me.  Long after my daily constitutional reached the grocery store and back, my stomach started to kick.  At first, I was just one of the 40% of patients that brochures say will have difficulty with digestion for up to a month or six weeks after surgery.  My doctor was not at all surprised that my adjustment might be slower than that due to my diabetes and everything else I had been through. He was more concerned with the rolling headaches and monitoring my Warfarin dosages.  But my stomach didn’t get better.  It got worse. It vibrated with a low voltage current, like a car battery was clipped to either end.  Whenever I ate, it fibrillated. Mornings were the worst. Breakfast led to cramps and other unmentionables. For at least a few hours out of each day, I felt clammy and depleted, as if I had motion sickness.

By the fall, I returned to my GI.  His first thought was that my gastroparesis had deteriorated.  This was unacceptable.  I had worked hard to get him to concede that I might not have gastroparesis at all. My stomach problems were supposed to disappear along with my gallbladder into a jar of formaldehyde somewhere, right?  So why was he insisting on this diagnosis now? I accepted diagnosis number two: bile salts.    Gallbladders don’t do very much. They moderate the flow of bile into the digestive tract, which aids in digesting fats.  Without it, bile keeps on flowing but haphazardly.  A small percentage of patients have ongoing problems with excess bile and bile salts after their surgery. That seemed appropriate somehow. I’m bile-impaired.  Doctors from Hippocrates through the middle ages associated an excess of yellow bile with sleeplessness and irritability.  Even today, “biliousness,” refers less to projectile vomiting than to those who are petty, snappish, ill-humored, or given to grumbling.  Now that I think about it, I’ve probably been bile-impaired since the age of four.  Can I get a disability card for that?  It would probably come in handy at work.

The problem is permanent, but easily treatable. All you need is a daily packet of orange resin, called Cholestyramine.  It looks and even tastes a little like Tang.  Sadly, that loose association with astronauts was the treatments only positive result. After a few weeks, I was back to square one. I supplemented my Protonix with new medications, started to eat steel-cut oats for breakfast, and things just seemed to get worse. Ann bought me a Vitamix for Christmas, hoping that if I couldn’t eat raw vegetables, at least I might be able to drink them. I was ecstatic to have a shiny new toy, but my first vibrantly green smoothie made me sick for days. I almost sent it right back to the store, but that was too much to bear.

I avoided milk for several weeks, then wheat-gluten, then fructose.  Each time I tried a new diet, I felt certain I was on to something. But a few days would pass, and the engine in my stomach would slip out of gear and grind.

Better is a lie.  We want to tell stories that lead from cause to effect, from conflict to resolution.  This is what makes stories coherent.  This is what makes us coherent.  I want to say that illness is an “out there,” kind of problem, and I want to tell a story about how I solve that problem.  By this reasoning, becoming better and becoming a better person were one and the same thing.  But chronic pain doesn’t submit easily to our expectations for narrative form.  There’s no beginning, middle and end, no peak action, no resolution. It’s about as likely to make a good story as watching waves break on the Jersey shore.

(To be continued).