Food is far more than just fuel to me. I know that some people see eating as merely an energy source for their bodies, and intellectually I can understand and appreciate that point of view but it’s an alien concept. To me, food has always been a delicious, ripe, joyful pleasure.
Growing up, I never had to make an effort to see the connection between what I ate and where it came from. Living on a small farm where a lot of our food came from our animals and our land, I saw the effort that went into producing food, and the sacrifice as well.
My parents had an encyclopaedic knowledge of the plants that grew in Northern Alberta and what they could be used for. At any given time, there were rows of plants being hung to dry, infusions of herbs soaking in alcohol or funky smelling pastes and potions in jars around the kitchen. Collecting plants from the wild was one of our chores, much like gathering firewood for the winter. As the youngest, I’m pretty sure I was a lot less help than I thought, but the experience stayed with me. The connection between what we put in our bodies and how we felt was immediate and clear in my mind.
We’d moved to this remote area when I was just 4 or 5 and lived there until I was nearly finished high school, but in that entire time, I don’t think our family was ever seen as anything but the ‘newcomers’ in the tiny community. We were not entirely welcome. The trash that was regularly dumped on the boundaries of our land was a clue and not a subtle one.
Living so far from the nearest hospital, it was important to know how to treat some injuries/illnesses without needing a doctor and so knowledge of what plants would reduce a fever, treat shock, heal cuts and burns, these things were valuable. Some people in town had an almost superstitious response to my parents possessing this basic botanical knowledge.
I remember once when a local man was trying to fix his truck, he carelessly opened the radiator cap while his engine was still hot. The steam burned his face and chest pretty badly and for some reason, instead of immediately setting off on the long trip to the hospital, they brought him to our house where my parents quickly did what they could for him, before sending him off to the doctor. He ended up being fine and as I remember it. Thanks to their various potions he didn’t even have scars from the burns. I imagine this only deepened our status as ‘not quite normal’ in a fairly conservative town.
So food was medicine and it was a way of belonging, but it was also joy and comfort and pleasure as well as work and effort and time.
Enjoying freshly made jam from the berries you picked in the wild. Smelling the homemade bread cooling on the table. Cleaning and preparing the vegetables from the garden while canning the extra for the long winters. My Mom worked hard and did all of these things as well as taking care of 3 kids and milking the damn cow every morning. I don’t know how she managed it all but the love and care shown in providing for these most basic physical needs, that was a powerful lesson to this child. The roots of food and love are tied together so tightly for me that one has become almost synonymous with the other.
I remember the year that our root cellar flooded and we lost a whole season’s worth of food that had been painstakingly grown, prepared and preserved. The root cellar was really just a 6 foot deep hole in the living room floor that was covered with a trap door. It was a kind of ‘dirt refrigerator’ that used the cold from the northern Alberta ground to keep food fresh. I doubt that our neighbours used these – they probably all had *actual* fridges and freezers for their preserves – but why spend money on a freezer when you can dig a hole in the ground for free? And it worked well, until the year the ground swelled with water and one day we opened the trap door to find glass jars of spoiled food bobbing up and down in the hole, clinking together like the saddest ever ‘cheers’.
You realise the importance of food when the stakes are high.
I’m grateful to my parents for raising us to know what different things actually taste like, without all the colours, the sugar and salt and fats added in processing. I’ve been immensely fortunate to eat in some of the best restaurants in the world as an adult, with the most innovative chefs using wild and new ingredients in fresh ways. For me though, a very simple meal with perfectly ripe produce will always be my choice. I suppose it’s not an accident that I married a man whose family’s farm makes some of the best food I’ve ever eaten in my life. He grew up with a similar attachment to eating well, although he came to it in a completely opposite manner (or manor, as it were.)
For me, food has been a way of comforting myself when I’m sad or tired or stressed out. It’s part of the adventure of exploring new countries and cultures. It’s one of the main methods that I use to show that I love people and to feel loved by them in return. It’s about pleasure. It’s eating that one perfect tomato with a bite of the best buffalo mozzarella you’ve ever tried. It’s the simple joy of pure grassy olive oil and the bite of salt on a chunk of warm, fresh bread. It’s a table spread with food where you can sit for hours, outside in the dark with a glass of wine and raucous laughter. Food, as both a vehicle and the setting for joy.
So, I found out nearly a year ago that I’m very, very badly allergic to a basic damn mineral. It’s probably the reason that I’ve been chronically ill for nearly 15 years and gaining this knowledge was like a bolt from the sky. Maybe I could actually be well again? For someone who has worked so hard to accept illness, to live with it while hiding it from public view so that it would never affect my work or tank my career, as someone who lost relationships and memories and all of the vitality you should have in your 30s, knowing that there might be an answer was actually too much to hope for. It didn’t feel quite real.
But there is always a cost, right? Life taught me that too. And so there’s a chance (not a certainty) that I can get at least somewhat better than I am. The downside is that I’m allergic to pretty much everything so avoiding allergy triggers is a full time job. And that includes most kinds of food.
As the allergy has gotten steadily worse, eating has become a point of serious anxiety for me. What can I eat that won’t make me sick, make me hurt, make me exhausted? How much of this can I get away with eating? I’m still trying to figure this all out so it’s a bit like food roulette for me. I shouldn’t eat in restaurants anymore but given how much I travel for work, this is unthinkable. So how do I mitigate and minimise the bad reactions? I love to travel. How do I constantly turn down the food people offer to me in their homes when the equation food = love/friendship is written into my basic programming?
How do I find ways to live with this new relationship to food where it feels as though it’s become the enemy. Not my fuel, not my joy, not a language to show people that I care. The enemy. My enemy. How do I get my head around that?
And yeah, blah blah blah I’m being overly dramatic and at least I can still eat and I know that my life is fantastic and I’m grateful that I’m able to have the career I do, despite having been ill for so long. STILL. This is hard and I’m struggling a bit with it.
I’m working on feeling less like I’m being betrayed by my own body again, nearly 15 years after first getting ill.
This isn’t a blog looking for answers from people, especially those who’ve never dealt with serious food allergies or chronic illness/pain. I have doctors and medical plans and all the health interventions by fully trained medical professionals with full knowledge of my situation. So as much as I appreciate the impulse to help, please just realise that I’ve got all the information I need right now. This blog is more to say that I’m frustrated, I’m sad, I’m mourning, I’m hopeful, I’m angry.
I miss food.