Elizabeth Nolan Brown // Blog

media. music. feminism. food. city-dwelling. story-telling. and other things.

On Families and Food

with 4 comments

Reading Jonathan Safran Foer’s story about food in the New York Times’ magazine’s food edition—well, the beginning part, about his grandma and her relationship to food—I suddenly feel compelled to share some of my own family history about food. As I may or may not have mentioned here many times before, I grew up eating the quintessential turn-of-the-millennium American processed foods diet: Poptarts and lucky charms for breakfast. Lunchables, dunkaroos and doritos for lunch. Chicken patties and canned green beans for dinner. The only vegetables we ever ate fresh (not from a can) were broccoli and potatoes. The legendary story my college friends like to tell is when I bit into the skin of an orange freshman year. I didn’t know that wasn’t how you ate it. I’d never had an orange that wasn’t canned, or that my mother hadn’t already peeled and put in fruit salad.

Learning to change my eating habits has been an ongoing process over the past 4 or 5 years, one that’s mostly been enjoyable—and one that’s also been fraught with complications. Like, for instance, disordered eating. I’ve spent various years of my life consumed with what would be, medically termed, ED-NOS (eating disorder, not-otherwise-specified)—a mix of anorexic and bulimic tendencies that never quite reached a dangerous level but was nevertheless, um, not healthy (if, most of all, mentally). I’ve always been a bit weird about food: my mom says from the time I was about 5, I’d refuse to eat more than three separate things per meal. Why 3? I don’t know. But if we had chicken, green beans, bread and rice, one of those would have to be left out.

There are a billion reasons why a person develops disordered eating habits, and I’ll spare you a dissertation on my own. But the reason I bring all this up is: my parents visited last weekend. My parents are both average for middle-aged midwestern parents, which is to say, once very thin and athletic but now chubby but not fat. They are constantly trying to lose weight, but have little idea how to go about it (one of my mom’s favorite diet lines is, “But all I had all day is tea and girl scout cookies!”). Most of my friends now are quite into food: food politics, food preparation, cooking, growing and eating food. And Brooklyn is full of amazing restaurants—the kind of places with interesting, locally grown, elaborately and lovingly prepared dishes. I took my parents to a few. Along the way, my boyfriend and roommate talked quite a bit about food.

And what did my dad have to say? Boy, your friends sure are obsessed with food. Or, by weekend’s end, “I’m a bit tired of all this food talk.” It made me feel weird, uncomfortable. Was their something unsavory, gluttonous about it?

And, I realized: food, in my family, in my culture growing up, is something to be enjoyed, but not too much. My dad (and, by consequence, me) likes meat, but doesn’t like preparing it, or eating it when it feels too much like an actual animal. He likes to be eat, sure, but he doesn’t like to spend too much time thinking about where it came from, how to make it, its effects, etc. I always thought that was healthy. But as I’m encountering new ways of thinking about eating, about food, I realize that may be just the problem. We should think about our food. We shouldn’t just guiltily enjoy whatever crap happens to taste good, and then try to exercise or rationalize it off. We should concentrate more on only putting things in our bodies that we don’t feel guilty about. And, if that means having to talk about food, to obsess about it: so be it.

I’m saying all this just as my roommates and I are embarking on a modified raw food diet. We’re on day 3. The main goal is to cut out anything processed, plus dairy, meat, pasta, soda, etc. Maybe I should say it’s more a ‘natural foods’ diet than a raw foods, as we’re not averse to cooking our veggies and such. It’s requiring a lot of thinking about food. A lot. And I think it’s good for me—thinking about food extensively is a hell of a lot better than not thinking and ordering a dominos pizza or jaunting down the street for a corner store sandwich every day.

Of course, there is a link—a link between thinking about food for health reasons, and about thinking about food like an anorexic person. I’m drawing all sorts of parallels these past few days. It feels like similar behavior to me. But maybe that’s only because thinking about food, to me, has always been thinking about restricting food. If not restricting, I wasn’t thinking about it. Thinking about food in order to enjoy it more, and to get the maximum health benefits from it, seems like an okay change, and one I’m welcome (and, falteringly, trying) to make.

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Written by Elizabeth

October 13, 2009 at 8:02 pm

4 Responses

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  1. I think you’re going to have to cook something for me this weekend. Is that a death wish?

    Just trying this whole thing out for more enjoyment and health benefits tho? Of course those are both great reasons, but surely you’re also thinking about less egocentric sources of motivation(e.g. sustainability & animal welfare) too, I hope.

    Johnny John John

    October 13, 2009 at 11:08 pm

  2. Well, of course. I just didn’t want to get too sanctimonious sounding in one post.

    Elizabeth

    October 14, 2009 at 6:35 am

  3. Great post! How long do you plan to keep this up, though? It’s great that you have supportive roommates and that you’re doing it together, because without a group, doing such a restrictive diet just would not work. I love Jonathan Safran Foer’s essay and can’t wait for his new book.

    I have absolutely no familiarity with the Midwest, but is your parents’ attitude toward food and health (specifically your mother’s comment about tea and cookies) very common? Diet information is everywhere and it seems really obvious that some basics are within easy grasp. Not that that means people follow it, but it seems strange to me that if your parents are so intent on losing weight that they act this way about food. Maybe it’s a coastal thing (or is that getting too elitist?) I know I’ve gotten very into food as well and am more mindful, though I wish I was more proactive.

    MediaMaven

    October 23, 2009 at 12:21 am

  4. We’re going on almost a month now. We’ve tried to be sensible – like, if friends are going to dinner, we won’t sit it out, we’ll just try to order the best thing possible on the menu … and we totally broke down and ate pizza this halloween! But if we’re trying to make it a way of life and not a fad, I think we need to allow these exceptions … overall, it’s going really well.

    Elizabeth

    November 4, 2009 at 9:09 am


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