Better III: The Opposite of Everything

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

In April I swallowed a camera.  This was a first for me.  I’ve eaten strands of pollen, jellyfish, and sliced tongue, but never a camera. Once, I tried to eat a drinking glass, but I was four then.  I know better now.  Certain things are not food.  So I was naturally suspicious when the doctor asked me to swallow a plastic capsule about the size of a .38 round.  The clear bubble-shaped window in the front reminded me of the submarine from the Fantastic Voyage.  The doctor assured me that the miniaturization process that shrunk the camera would not wear off in transit.

The doctor wasn’t sure the capsule endoscopy would reveal anything, but this was the only test left.  That’s a bad sign, right?  The last test. If they didn’t find anything, I’d be a medical mystery, a helpless case, or someone who was just ‘making it up’.  But I’m a diagnostic junkie, so I couldn’t pass up the opportunity to have 10,000+ photos taken of my insides.  I couldn’t pass it up. I couldn’t leave just one option unexplored.

“It might get stuck,” the doctor said.  “One percent of patients need to have the camera removed surgically.”  This risk was greater for me, because I was diabetic and presumed to have gastroparesis, a slow stomach. There was talk about taking Reglan to speed up my stomach, but he decided against it because of the potential side-effects, which include irreversible neurological damage.

This turned out to be wise.  He called me the next day, his usual nonplussed self.  “Not much to report,” he said.  Deep sigh.  He focused on the positives. The ulcers had cleared up.  Everything else looked clear and healthy.  “Oh,” he added as if it were an afterthought. “There was one surprise.  The camera went through your stomach in about three minutes.”

“Is that normal?”

Food is supposed to stay in your stomach for two to four hours. That is if you have a normal stomach. As the doctor switched from talking about  gastroparesis to tachygastria, a slow stomach to a fast one, I had to do a double take. How is this not new information?  How is this not the opposite of everything?  The doctor explained, somewhat sheepishly, that people can have both conditions. Basically, the stomach is controlled by pacemaker tissue, much like the heart.  If the contractions in my stomach are too fast, the stomach can’t keep up, so it may skip a beat, slow, or stop temporarily.  But he’s less concerned with whether my stomach is going fast or slow.  He’s more concerned about the symptoms,  and the fact that he still can’t explain the underlying cause.

I thought on this for a while.    No.  It still seemed significant. Through all my diets and diagnoses, gastroparesis was a constant, and the treatment was eat less fat, smaller servings, and more fiber.  For the last eight months, I spent forty-five minutes every morning stirring a pot of steel-cut oats.  I’m not a morning person.  I don’t deal well with the world until I eat or drink coffee, but there I was abstaining from both, stirring my oats and thinking good healthy thoughts.  I not only endured this ascetic ritual, I came to embrace it as a righteous cause.  I was doing what’s good for me, and steel-cut oats are so rustic, so earthy, so utterly devoid of earthly pleasures, that I can easily imagine monks in sackcloth eating it during prayer.  Please God, I would whisper to the pot.  Please Jesus or Allah or Buddha or that bearded guy from Hogwarts. Please accept this offering of my time and trouble and make my stomach better.

But God didn’t want me to eat oatmeal.

He wanted me to eat French toast.

Preferably made from brioche or challah.

To be fair, the doctor didn’t tell me to eat French toast.  He told me to separate eating and drinking, because even a sip of water could trigger the contractions.  But the additional fat from egg-based breads, milk and butter in French toast does seem to help slow things down further.  A little Cointreau or Grand Marnier probably doesn’t hurt either.  Alcohol is notorious for slowing digestion.  I also stopped taking Protonix.  All of these seem to have had a salutary effect.

Don’t get me wrong.  I stand by my last post.  The extended pleasures of food are more important than immediate gratification.  Growing your own food, gathering it, cooking it, sharing it with others gives you reason to eat in spite of suffering.  But you know what else is good?  Less suffering. Less suffering and more French toast.

I still don’t like the word better.  When people ask, “You’re better now, right?” I say yes, but it catches in my throat.  I have to explain.  The heart of my stomach still runs too fast.  It still flutters like a wounded bird.  It’s not better.  I’m just not provoking it anymore.  I’m feeding it what it wants.  I eat more and hurt less.   Maybe that is better . . . I roll the word over my tongue and try to get used to it.  It feels right in my mouth.  Just not in yours.

After several weeks of the French Toast Diet, I decided to really test out my new stomach.  It was May fifth, which Ann insists on calling “Cinco de Ted,” because it was the day I woke up in hospital.  It’s also my parents anniversary, so we’ve often spent that day eating out; now we just have a new reason to continue that trend.  For our first Cinco de Ted, we decided to go to the newest addition in Jose Garces’s empire, JG Domestic.  It’s probably not his best restaurant, but I find its awkwardness endearing.  It tries to combine the idea of local, American food with small-plate, tapas style eating.  Since when have American’s been into small plates?  Or for that matter, since when has a clientele of mostly suits and ties wanted to unwind by throwing back drinks and sharing miniature fondue pots with their almost exclusively male co-workers?   But I like to think Garces, with his regularly rotating menu, might eventually find a way to make it work.  The restaurant has many charms, not the least of which is a tasting menu chock-full of foods that I have been avoiding for the last two years.  I started with an “Adirondack,” a bourbon drink flavored with rosemary agave and mezcal and let it settle in before tackling the meal.  You have to pace yourself with Garces meals.  They start quietly with a few snacks and a salad that should only be picked at tentatively.  They’re good, but unexceptional.  From the Peekytoe crab croquettes onward, the meal seems to get increasingly rich and decadent.

Hickory smoked pecans with maple and bacon; house charcuterie and cheeses; seasonal salad with local mixed greens, seasonal baby vegetables, and citrus vinaigrette; peekytoe crab croquettes with avocado and pumpkin seed; wood oven flatbread with black trumpet mushroom, truffles, shaved cheddar and farm egg yolk; baby artichokes with potato dumpling, black truffle, smoked ricotta; Creekstone natural adobo rubbed rib eye with refried rancho Gordo cranberry beans and Vidalia onion rings; Barnegat light day boat scallops with cauliflower, black truffle, and kumquat; Bourbon beignets with bourbon vanilla mousseline, and Marker’s Mark butterscotch; Richter Farms rhubarb-swirl ice cream & jam with crème fraiche parfait and pickled rhubarb.

Sure, I felt full about a quarter of the way through, and I had to forgo the final bit of gelee served at the end, a dark reminder of Mr. Creosote and his wafer-thin mint. My stomach sounded like a garbage disposal, and I wanted to throw up for at least two hours.  But you know what?  So did everyone else.  That’s what’s important, isn’t it?  Feeling better and eating better is good for the everyday, but it’s nice to know that once in a while, if the occasion demands it, I can still compete in a no-holds-barred bacchanal dedicated to the pleasures of excess.

Speaking of Garces, Marisa McClellan won the Latin Evolution giveaway. She’s been giving away stuff on Food in Jars for years, so it’s nice that she gets to win something too.  Check her site out if you’re interested in all things preserved.

Coming soon:  Seasonal Cookbooks