“Food is everything we are. It’s an extension of nationalist feeling, ethnic feeling, your personal history, your province, your region, your tribe, your grandma. It’s inseparable from those from the get-go.”
– Anthony Bourdain
“People confuse me. Food doesn’t.”
– also Anthony Bourdain
A pachanga of shrimp from a coastal restaurant in Mazatlán, Mexico.
Salt, Fat, Acid, Shame
Anyone who knows me well knows that I have a complicated history with food. But when I think about this history in its entirety, I find that it’s not so complicated after all. The fact of the matter is, I just really love food.
During the latter half of my time in high school, I developed anorexia. The reasons for this are various, but– another very long story short– I started restricting because I was lonely, and thought that if I was more conventionally attractive, I would have an easier time making friends and *meeting boys*. Like many others who suffer from anorexia, I was immediately drawn to the feelings of control that restricting provided me, especially at a time when I felt entirely unable to control many aspects of my life.
A significant portion of those who suffer from anorexia are smart, high-achieving types from middle and upper-middle class backgrounds; I fit that profile in many ways.* But, fortunately, I made a (mostly) full recovery. Given that research suggests that anorexia has the highest death rate of any psychiatric disorder,** and that the thought patterns associated with the disease are difficult to eradicate, I consider myself lucky. At the time I was sick, I experienced the dual privileges of having supportive parents and undergoing an outpatient treatment plan that included working with a therapist and a nutritionist. Ultimately, I ended up gaining weight, growing my hair back, and reclaiming my previous quality of life.
All of that being said, I continue to struggle with eating. Now that I have stopped restricting, I tend to eat too much. Indeed, when I grappled with anorexia, the compulsion to overeat was always waiting in the wings of my attempts to deprive myself of food. This may seem a bit confusing to some readers, so I will explain.
Since I was a little kid, I have loved the taste, texture, and experience of eating food. Both cooking and eating are vastly comforting activities to me. My childhood hero and first real crush was Anthony Bourdain, and (aside from a brief period of time in middle school, when I tried to teach myself to become ambidextrous, so that I could be a neurosurgeon someday) all I ever wanted to do was travel, write, and eat.
I used to be ashamed of the fact that food is so influential in my consciousness that some of the happiest moments in my life are richly textured with the memories of what I ate on those days. But I’m no longer ashamed of that; in fact, it is one of the big truths of my life.
I spent many perfect days of my childhood, for example, in Sinaloa, Mexico, eating fresh shrimp with lime, pescado zarandeado wrapped in foil, and beachfront tacos that I scarfed down while covered in sand.
And later, in Tulancingo: the most crispy/saucy chilaquiles the world has ever seen, dozens of tacos al pastor, and a variety of guajolotes best consumed at night (In Tulancingo, guajolotes are not actually turkeys, but the most incredible tortas made with fried bread and a myriad of toppings).
In San Francisco, as a teenager: transcendentally flaky pastries from the Mission Tartine, which my boyfriend and I would eat in Dolores Park while we sat in the sun, and enormous carne asada burritos from Los Pericos that would fill you up for the entire day.
In Spain, studying abroad: cold tintos de verano in the summer, hot rosquillas with cinnamon sugar in the winter, and–of course– the most amazing jamón, all strung up in shop windows like salty Christmas angels (Note: I once had a conversation with my host mother about jamón in Spain. I asked her if there were different words for different cuts of ham, because the kind that we often had at nice dinners looked a lot like prosciutto. She insisted that they were all “just jamón.” I love that woman).
In Greece, while visiting family: thick, silty Greek coffee, melty moussaka with a bubbly, golden-brown top, and crab caught that afternoon in the teal Mediterranean. Also, souvlaki. You should know that in the village where my family comes from, Komnina, there is an old legend about the water fountain near the town square. They say that if you drink from the fountain, you will fall in love with the next person you see. That week in Komnina, the joke among our relatives was that I laid eyes on a plate of souvlaki after I drank from the fountain, and the rest is history…(insert shrugging emoji here).
Is Mastering the Art of *Moderate* French Cooking an Oxymoron?
I wish I could write a beautiful transition here, one that shows my impressive personal growth. But the truth is that there really isn’t a neat end to this narrative, nor this little walk down a gustatory memory lane. I still don’t really know what I am doing when it comes to food. Though I have a much better idea of how to eat healthily now, I still have a hard time occupying the space that exists between bingeing and starving. In The Recovering, a beautiful and extremely well-researched book by Leslie Jamison (who struggled with both alcoholism and eating disorders), Jamison briefly discusses the misconception that people with anorexia don’t enjoy eating; in fact, for many of us, it’s quite the opposite– we restrict because we like to eat so much that our only method of control becomes stopping the action altogether. It’s messed up, but it makes a kind of sense.
I know that Socrates could be a long-lost ancestor of mine, but I’m definitely not a follower of all of his maxims. I’m probably never going to be one of those “eat to live” types. Sorry, Grandpa Socrates. However, as much as I love food, neither do I really want to live to eat. “Everything in moderation” has become something of a nutritional cliche of its own, but I do sincerely want to learn to moderate: to enjoy food without using it as an emotional crutch, a means of external validation, or– you know– a stand-in for a significant other (s/o to the three years I was single but essentially in a romantic relationship with Taquería Santa Cruz).
In humble celebration of this concept, here is a handful of recipes that I have enjoyed lately, and that I find pretty damn cozy during this time of year. Are they healthy? Not really. But at least I try to eat them in sensible portions.
I’m probably committing all sorts of copyright violations by posting this, but it’s worth it to share this amazing recipe with all of you. This rice is so satisfying and easy to make. McNamara says not to use turmeric instead of saffron while making the recipe, but I do, because who can afford saffron in this economy, am I right?
I can’t believe I turned 22 before I learned to start cooking my rice in liquids other than water. Other cultures have been doing this forever, and once you try it, it’s easy to see why. Even if you don’t make this recipe, try cooking a long-grain rice like basmati in coconut milk, and then stirring a tablespoon or so of coconut oil into the finished rice while it’s still hot. Trust me.
At first, Evan was very eye roll about Pinterest, associating it with–I don’t know– the frivolities of the upper middle class or something,*** until I starting finding some killer food on the platform. This recipe is all over the internet, and has several different variations, but this recipe in particular has become one of our favorites. We like to eat it with Juanitas and cilantro, though those additions are totally unnecessary (just kidding, they are totally necessary). In graduate school, we use to get a lot of canned food from the food pantry, and it was sometimes hard to think of delicious food to make from cans. But through the magic of the interwebs, I have learned that doing so is possible with the right recipe.
If you aren’t into all this cheese, or don’t have a crockpot, this is a healthier stovetop version that we also like: https://www.cookingclassy.com/quinoa-chili
I don’t have too much to say about this one besides the fact that it will make you feel like someone is hugging you from inside your stomach– which actually is a weirder image than I intended. Also, it contains white wine, heavy cream, and pasta, three essential food groups for the establishment of comfort & joy. Even though it may seem unnecessary or annoying to run out and purchase the fennel, don’t skip on it. It really does add something vital to the pasta sauce.
Look, God invented puff pastry because he wanted us to be happy. This blog is all about vulnerability, so I’ll confess that my love and I ate nearly an entire pan of this thing in one night while watching season 5 of Breaking Bad. It happens. The cool thing about this recipe is that even without the chicken, it’s immensely filling and comforting. Note: This blog has a lot of ads and extra content, so just scroll all of the way down to the bottom to read the recipe. Oh, and just in case it isn’t apparent already, this is definitely not a health food.
Bourdain’s Appetites, a less-complicated offering than his 2004 Les Halles Cookbook, offers some of his favorite recipes to make at home, including those he cooked for his daughter Ariane. This brussels sprouts recipe is amazing, and not just because it features bacon, but because it teaches you how to transform these notorious vegetables into crispy little masterpieces. In his own cookbook, Eddie McNamara explains his conviction that there are a lot of foods that people probably don’t like– like eggplant and quinoa– because they have been served poorly-cooked versions of them. Over time, these brussels sprouts have convinced me that his thesis is probably true.
* My therapist recommended me an excellent book that looks at eating disorders from an intersectional feminist perspective, A Hunger So Wide and So Deep. It complicates the stereotypical rendering of the vain, anorexic white girl by collecting a series of interviews with women of color about their experiences with eating disorders. I recommend it.
** This fact is taken from the National Eating Disorders Association. Check this page out; it is pretty eye-opening: https://www.nationaleatingdisorders.org/statistics-research-eating-disorders
Of course, it is always worth noting that most people who suffer from anorexia also suffer from co-occurring conditions. According to NEDA, “A study of more than 2400 individuals hospitalized for an eating disorder found that 97% had one or more co-occurring conditions (94% had co-occurring mood disorders, mostly major depression).”
If you are suffering from an eating disorder, I would give NEDA’s website a look. It features important resources and opportunities for advocacy.
*** my lover is a hippie.blogspot.com