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Food Refugee

March 13, 2012

I don’t tell you what to do very often, but watch this video by Penny De Los Santos on food, photography, and most importantly, living. I promise you’ll be glad you saw it.

“Food connects us like nothing else I have ever seen. It has the ability to peel away at all of our differences and help us find a common language. Food is the most honest and simple expression of who we are.”
-Penny De Los Santos

Penny’s words made me think about something that enters my mind fairly often – the fact that I am a food refugee. Or refusenik. Something not normal, anyway – something far away from the middle of the road.

First, over 25 years ago, I became a vegetarian in a family of meat-eaters.

Then, as I explored the world of cooking and cuisine, I gradually rejected most of the foods I grew up with. I was raised with convenience food – Campbell’s Cream of Mushroom soup as sauce, Bisquick as a base for about 1000 different meals from biscuits to “pizza.”

But once I started reading cookbooks and chef’s memoirs and spending too much money at restaurants, there were no more mashed potatoes from a box for me – they had to be garlic mashed potatoes with real butter or nothing. I would no more open a can of soup than drink Tang.

More recently, I have become someone who is on a diet where I find it necessary to watch every bite of food that goes into my mouth.

I don’t think I did these things to tear myself away from my family and friends, but my decisions have had that effect. I know my dad used to be disappointed when he would barbecue delicious Italian sausage and I would refuse the chunks he offered me, sizzling from the grill.

There is no such thing as a food holiday for me anymore – no Thanksgiving turkey, no Easter ham, no Christmas cookies. When someone invites me to a holiday meal, I am That Problem Person, over there pushing broccoli around on my plate, skipping the pie.

I gradually gave up eating with my mom, too – there were just too many canyons separating the way we ate and I think mostly she hated my food and I hated hers.

I also got tired of her running commentary on how I ate, what I ate and how fast I ate compared to her. I finally couldn’t take it anymore, and I have to say I am happier not eating with her, though she is not happier for my absence.

I mostly eat by myself now, and when I do have meals with others, I still keep myself carefully restricted, never ordering the fries, always skipping the chips and guacamole, always watchful, counting.

What does it mean that I am a lone, solitary eater, trapped in a world I made for myself? Will I ever be at home in the world of sharing meals again, fully appreciating what is offered me without considering what it is made of, how it is made and how many calories it has? I don’t think I will, and after watching Penny’s video, that brings tears to my eyes. Making a last meal of chicken soup and sharing it with a dying parent? That isn’t going to happen.

What have I done to myself? How have I gone this far, and has the trip been worth it? If food connects us like nothing else, what does it mean that I have chosen to be so unconnected?

Babe Bok choy

  1. March 13, 2012 17:37

    I feel the same way…my IBS has forced me to give up a number of foods that my family eats in great quantities (dairy, wine), and so I’m always the “don’t worry, I’ll have some crackers!” person. I married into a first generation Italian family, and food is very important to them, and half of it I can’t eat.

    Plus my son has several life-threatening food allergies, and I spend a lot of time policing his food intake at public events. I frequently say Why no, he can’t eat that peanut “just one time” and no, I don’t think I’m overreacting by being this strict when death is a real possibility, thanks! Its only getting worse now that he is getting to school age.

    Between the two of us we need a Venn diagram to make dinner. We are a bundle of fun to have over for a social occasion! Actually, we are fun, we just bring our own dinner. But yeah, I have known the Those Problem People feeling quite a bit.

    • March 14, 2012 12:50

      The allergy thing compounds it so much. I’ll bet it is so terrifying and stressful to think that death could lurk in any cookie.

  2. March 13, 2012 17:59

    I remember when I refused fried chicken at my first (and only, heh) meal at my boyfriend’s house. One more reason I was the wrong girl.

    In sobriety, I don’t feel so much like a problem person as I do a conversation killer. I don’t make a big deal out of not having a drink (though I will confide to close friends that it’s still tough in social situations), but it certainly interrupts the flow when I have to say, “No, really. Something non-alcoholic, please.”

    • March 14, 2012 12:48

      I understand what you mean. You just have to hope to get through it without a whole “You’re not drinking? WHY? Oh, man, I could NEVER give up drinking completely” conversation.

  3. March 13, 2012 20:29

    I’m a big food-connection person (I will feed you all! All, I say! Gluten-free vegans and all!), but I disagree with Penny De Los Santos on the “it connects us like nothing else”. Food can be an easy method of connection between some people, but there are gobs of other conduits of connection (humor? gardening? music? silly hats? volunteering? puppies? knitting?) (and, from your blog, it looks like you are taking good advantage of many other methods of connection!).

    Food restrictions (or varying preferences, counting, or whatever) are limitations (and, definitely, those limitations/distances can seriously hurt!), but there is *so much life* outside of that. And the parts of connection not concerned with food aren’t just the leftovers, either.

    I guess; it’s totally fair to mourn the loss of a method of connection or any other good thing (like someone who used to hike and is now frequently stuck in a wheelchair; hopefully not permanent, but we’ll see), and it’s very good to examine it to see if you can retrieve parts of it (feasts of homegrown tomatoes with friends, perhaps?) but the good things that are lost are never all there is, and taking things (like food or money) down from the pedestals they don’t deserve is sometimes useful, maybe?

    But also, yes, being isolated in any way kind of sucks. Sorry about that.

    (also, I do not know you, but I enjoy your blog anyway. hopefully this is not too creepy.)

    • March 14, 2012 12:47

      Thanks for the non-creepy comment! You’re right about other ways to connect. Food has historically been that for me, but there are other ways, like meeting my friend at the gym for classes.

      Or maybe I should plan some healthy, happy feasts and re-connect. Tomatoes for everyone!

  4. March 13, 2012 20:59

    Sue, you know I would never judge your choices, but as a seriously-dieting vegetarian myself, I wonder if you have intentionally isolated yourself in this way? I have a friend who was a vegetarian at the same time that she had an eating disorder — the former helped hide or excuse the latter. I am pretty strict about my food choices, and I probably eat better than almost everyone I know, but I don’t skip the guacamole. I DO know ahead of time when I’m going out for Mexican and skip other indulgences that day (I’ve been known to eat nothing but vegetables for lunch if I’m going out to dinner), but then I happily enjoy limited quantities of the guac. I like the taste of it, I know that it’s a healthy fat, and I truly believe in moderation in all things. I agree with KC that there is lots of life outside of food, but I like food, and I always have, and I don’t believe that completely cutting out some kinds of it for being too fattening or whatever could really improve my life or my health.

    • March 14, 2012 12:45

      Yeah, I absolutely don’t want to become “orthorexic” – one of those people who obsess unhealthily. It’s a fine line, I tell you.

  5. March 14, 2012 05:51

    As someone who has been dieting for months and doesn’t eat lunch out with co-workers, I totally agree with your words. They all treated me differently because I couldn’t eat fast food lunches with them. Weird. They seemed to choose being grumpy with me for changing my routine over happy that I’m trying to improve my health. After five months we’ve found a new way to be, but it still is different between us. Now they seem perturbed that I actually lost weight. I admit, I have no problem being alone, I prefer it most of the time and this diet has made it even easier. Folks have so many issues of their own. They seem to bleed over in to other lives and color their happiness. It’s a struggle to remain upbeat and make positive changes in our lives, a smile of support would be lovely from time to time.

    • March 14, 2012 12:44

      I guess, in my head, I have some big happy non-existent Italian family who is all about enjoying each other and eating great food together. It may exist in Italy, but not in my life.

  6. March 14, 2012 07:06

    I love food. I love finding new places to eat. I love shopping for food. I love eating it. Before I turned veg (or pescetarian…I like fish) I don’t remember loving food so much. My food path has made me more adventerous and more creative, mostly because I became a vegeaterian in a very non-vegetarian friendly state. I had to litterally hunt for my food.

    I have noticed the strain it has put on my relationship with my family. My mom is the most difficult at accepting the way I eat and always makes a big deal about having “no meat”. I’ve learned that these gatherings are less about the food and more about the being together part. And most have come around to understanding that I eat the way I eat because it’s better for my health. I think this will happen for you too.

    I haven’t seen Penny’s TED yet, but I sat in on her talk at BlogHer and fell for every word.

    • March 14, 2012 12:43

      I wonder why that is so with moms – maybe because they’re the first ones who were responsible for making sure we were fed.

  7. March 14, 2012 07:33

    I too am a problem person having been first vegetarian since 1976 and now vegan since 1993. Now, at 70, I figure it’s their problem, not mine.

    • March 14, 2012 12:42

      Rock on! I’m 50 – I hope to be as cool as you by the time I get to 70.

  8. March 14, 2012 08:28

    When I was on WW I worked really hard to keep the connection. As someone said above, I did a lot of preventative math so that if there were indulgences to be had later I planned all day, sometimes all week, to be able to participate, even at a smaller portion level. It worked but it was hard. I’m sure that’s part of what’s so hard for me about getting back on track as my weight becomes a problem again.

    You, like a lot of people I know, are committed to being your own person, making your own decisions in your own time. I assume you’ve always operated like that. Especially when people give you flack about something, you stick closer to your guns. I have faith that, as with the rest of your life, you’ll find the place where your principles and your love connect.

    • March 14, 2012 12:41

      “Preventative math” – I love it.

  9. Nicole Reeves permalink
    March 14, 2012 10:19

    There is something about food-memories of taste or events, the sight, the smell, the physical reaction to it, that makes it multi-sensory in a way few other things are. It’s been necessary for our survival since we were born- talk about an emotional connection! However-I believe there are many ways to express ourselves and bond with people. Sometimes the food can be a distraction from or hindrance to a deeper/truer connection. I have found that if someone has an issue with the way i eat/don’t eat it’s usually more about them than me. Sometimes this makes me sad, especially when it’s family, but I just have to let it go. Thanks for bringing this up. Great food for thought!

    • March 14, 2012 12:41

      Thanks, Nicole. I know – there’s a lot of “food for thought” here.

  10. Erika Miller permalink
    March 14, 2012 16:54

    I used to work with a lady who was a Jehovah’s Witness, and she would never partake in the office lunches we had on a regular basis (although she would cook for us, the most amazing food you ever tasted). I asked her once why she couldn’t join us, and I don’t remember her exact words, but it was something along the lines of the act of nourishing your body being sacred, and not something to be shared. She was supposed to contemplate her connection to her maker in the act of nourishing the body he gave her, I think. Although I do not practice her religion, or eat alone by choice, that really stuck with me. I was impressed at her ability to separate the social aspect from the actual act of eating (she would be right there with us until it was time to dig in). I don’t really know how this fits but your story made me think of it. 🙂

  11. Maria in Oregon permalink
    March 16, 2012 16:29

    I think that food is very important socially and emotionally, but I think nowadays there is such an obsession with what we eat, it makes us judgmental over how other people eat. I get annoyed that people at work comment that I eat “all DAY” because if I don’t eat several small snacks throughout the day I get low blood sugar. They say, “You’re eating AGAIN?!” I want to tell them to shut up. I weigh 120 lbs and have for years. Maybe they’re jealous.

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