For 2 years Matthew and I ate a plant based diet, but with his MS diagnosis we threw ourselves into research. We watched a documentary called Living Proof and it gave us hope that an autoimmune diet could be the key to keeping the debilitating effects of MS at bay. Committing to it meant giving up soy, dairy, gluten, legumes, among other foods. It meant starting from scratch so I removed everything from the kitchen that wasn’t allowed. As I filled five Trader Joe’s bags with the food that Matthew could no longer eat, I felt a panic come over me. I had just bought 12 cans of black beans at Costco (the best way to ensure that you’ll never eat something again is to buy it in bulk at Costco). We were giving the food away so none of it was going to go to waste but inside I was thinking I can’t let all of this food go. It was a visceral feeling of loss. I had to ask myself, why does it feel like I’m grieving? What is food to me?
When I was a kid we had food insecurity before it was called that. Let’s just say we were very familiar with government cheese. My parents were divorced so when I was with my dad we had no such vulnerabilities but with my mom and my older brothers and sisters, food was not to be taken for granted. I often ate breakfast and lunch at school but then drove my mom crazy at every other meal with my pickiness. It didn’t occur to me as a kid that refusing to eat the pot roast I was served (because it had fat on it) was probably taking food out of their mouths. I didn’t realize how much food insecurity affected me until I became a parent and went nuts when my kids spilled bowls of Cheerios or refused to eat something I made them. Waste drives me crazy.
I once had a conversation with a woman in a barbershop. She also experienced poverty as a child and she was raising her grandchildren. I told her that I grappled with how to teach my kids about scarcity when they have so much. I shared that I had read an article on how you should run out of their favorite food every so often so that they learn to go without. First, she looked at me like I was crazy and then she set me straight. “Do you work hard for what you bring to the table?” she asked. “Instead of worrying about teaching them what it looks like to go without, teach them about what it looks like to work hard and what can come from it.” It brings to mind the dinner prayer that my great-grandfather said each night, thank you God for all this food that I worked so hard for.
As we embark on this autoimmune diet, I’m beginning to understand that food is so much more than nutrients and that my relationship with it is complicated.
Food is my love language. When I was pregnant with my children I was certain that I could make them adventurous eaters and like most new parents who take more blame than credit, I was dumbfounded when they were picky like I was. It felt like rejection because I see feeding my family as an act of love. If they don’t let me feed them do they love me back?
Food is my form of control, especially now with Matthew’s MS. I read books about what our brains need to function and heal. I plan meals and handpick every ingredient. If I can feed him, I can heal him and I can fix this.
Food is a privilege. I may remember government cheese but I can afford and have access to fresh, healthy food. But will I ever really forget?
Food is love and joy and guilt and shame. It can kill us, save us, terrify us and enthrall us.
It brings us together in family, community and communion. Food forms our shared experiences and memories. It shapes our traditions and values.
It’s a cultural identifier as much as a socioeconomic one. Food separates us from them. But it also joins us and them.
Food is deeply and personally rooted in our sense of security. What did you hoard in the early days of the pandemic? What food made you feel safe?
What we consume becomes who we are and shapes how we see ourselves. It’s that simple and that complicated.