Here’s a kind of soul-baring health and food biography…..
Very Short Version:
I am grateful to be learning how to cook my own food to help me regain my health and nourish my family. I am passionate about connecting with people in France who know about French cuisine, butchery and wine, and I feel compelled to share this knowledge with others on my blog and in a forthcoming book as my most urgent creative endeavor.
Very Long Version:
For better or worse, my earliest childhood memories are connected with food. While I was born in California in the early 1970s, my family made frequent trips back to the Vaterland of smalltown Germany to visit (and eat with) relatives around the country. Thankfully, liverwurst, butter and chives were among my earliest staples of food on these visits, as were pork sausage (Bratwurst), pork patties (Frikadellen), and home cured pork meat (Rote Wurst). Unfortunately for my insulin receptors, however, strawberry popsicles, Kinder Schokolade, and Nutella smeared on white rolls (Brötchen) were also staples for me. And the occasional hard candy (“Bonbon”) from my loving Oma Katharina’s purse, my mother’s mother.
I have a vivid memory of gathering blueberries in the forest with Oma Katharina. Actually, she collected them in her milk pail while I ate them as I went along, instead of filling up my little pail. There were many afternoons of coffee and cake (Kaffee und Kuchen), grilling outdoors, picking black, red and white currants in my grandmother’s vegetable garden just outside of town. Among my fondest memories is sitting high up in the cherry tree, picking (and eating) dark cherries in that garden. Everyone had a vegetable garden back then, which made for a lot of extra work for my busy relatives who had to help her maintain it on the weekends. But in return there were always fruits and vegetables, canned and pickled to last them through the winter. Though very few cherries I picked ever made it into jars or onto cakes. One of my earliest memories is of the time when my Onkel Hans and Tante Doris roasted an entire pig on a spit in their garden next to the foundation of the house they were building in 1974 with the help of relatives and friends. In a true community effort, one uncle did bricklaying, another did tile working, yet another did the butchering, while my aunts supplied salads and desserts. My cousin Martina watched over me like a sister, while we sat in the grass with the neighbors, eating pieces of barbecued pork. I am forever grateful for the care my relatives took of me and of the cultural foundation they were forming in me, just as they did with their house, though I did not realize it until much later.
My father’s mother, Oma Herta, was studying in her early twenties in Koenigsberg (then Eastern Prussia, now Kaliningrad, Russia) to become a cook when World War II broke out. She and my father, aged two, had to flee to central Germany, where they were refugees and outsiders, despite their being German. Along the way, charitable train passengers offered Oma Herta a few hundred grams of life-saving butter for her young son. They had to adapt as immigrants in Central Germany, later in Venezuela and lastly in northern California. Growing up, I always loved my Oma Herta’s cooking, especially her raspberry blintzes, but also her roasts, salads, Rolladen and stews. Everybody loved “Herta’s Cooking.” It was an institution amidst the group of Germans who lived near each other in California from the 1960s through the early 2000s. I consider myself very fortunate to have grown up exposed to tasty traditional dishes made by all my family members in California and in Germany, not just to the highly processed, low-fat, sugary American grocery store fare of the 1970s and 80s.
When I was growing up, my Dad grilled the hamburgers and chicken and made the pancakes and my Step-Mother made Tri-tip at their house, while my Step-Father made the breakfast toast, bacon and eggs, and my Mom was the go-to person for home cooking at their house. Growing up in California living between two households, and then Connecticut (but going back to California for visits), I had friends coming over all the time who loved my Mom’s cooking. She had learned traditional dishes from her family in Germany, but also from her German friends in California, and later she learned traditional Indian dishes from my Step-Father’s Bengali family. My Mom always invited me into the kitchen, and sometimes I hung around and helped, but most of the time I remained in my over-achieving academic and sports mode, preferring to be outside or alone in my room listening to music.
As a young adult focusing on field hockey, lacrosse and ultimate frisbee and liberal arts studies at university, I dabbled unsuccessfully in vegetarianism, mostly because I did not really know how to cook meat, nor did I want to take the time to learn. Looking back, I am both perplexed and disappointed in myself for not having taken more of an interest in cooking more than just vegetables and pasta. I see now that I should have been helping out at a local farm or garden, for example, like so many of the youth of America, including my own children, should be doing, instead of idling away so much time or needing “directed activities,” and should actually contribute to society as well as their own family in more meaningful ways than just institutionalized schooling. What has all this “convenience” brought us, anyway? Sedentary, idling minds and bodies. But I digress.
My first “real job” after college was in Kazakhstan, where I began to show symptoms of Irritable Bowel Syndrome, IBS. I now realize this was, among other things, severe malnutrition resulting from my lack of understanding of how to nourish myself at the time. My ignorance resulted in a med-evac to a German hospital near my relatives for six weeks where I had two major abdominal surgeries for near-fatal peritonitis and related abdominal infections. I lay dying in the hospital at the age of 25. After I was given three blood transfusions that brought me back from the brink of death and being narrowly spared from a colostomy bag implantation, I arrived at a moment of unparalleled gratitude to the universe for giving me a second chance.
During the early months of my recovery, understanding that I needed to make some changes, I asked an alternative medicine doctor and his wife what they ate for breakfast. That was when I first heard of Enter the Zone by Dr. Barry Sears. From then on, I began trying to balance my diet in terms of carbohydrates, proteins and fats, but mostly I just focused on eating meat again, for my iron levels, still not having a decent handle on the intricate biochemistry of the body and how food plays its role in nourishing us. I took up hatha yoga for the first time in my life, a soothing practice that helped me move again. I also began swimming, after my last abdominal scar was cauderized. An older woman, seeing me in the showers noticed my large, fresh scar and remarked, “We’re glad to have you with us!”
Twenty years, thirteen moves and two children later I am still learning, grateful and humbled. My husband and I have lived, worked or studied together in many places, including Boston, Washington, DC, New York, Croatia, Germany, France, Russia, Japan, while also trying to stay fit and eat “healthy.” Luckily, we never stopped eating eggs. Thanks to this supportive and resourceful husband discovering a podcast interview on Underground Wellness with Dr. David Perlmutter about his then new book, Grain Brain, I had a renewed sense of curiosity and hope in the fall of 2013, despite fatigue, anxiety and brain fog that had been plaguing me. I became a podcast junkie, burning through every episode of Underground Wellness, then Jimmy Moore’s podcast Livin’ La Vida Low-Carb Show, then Robb Wolf’s Paleo Solution Podcast and Mark Sisson’s Primal Blueprint Podcast, and on and on. I listened, and still do, while I cooked, cleaned, drove or walked, gleaning all manner of knowledge and inspiration.
I had one last love affair with gluten and sugar for a few days in April 2014 at an all-you-can-eat resort that brings out the worst in everyone in the cafeteria. After the debauchery of multiple croissants at every breakfast and two desserts at every dinner, I stopped eating breads, pastas and most desserts and began my long ascent toward a healthier, lower carbohydrate eating style.
In the summer of 2014, I poured out my last bottle of “organic” canola oil and began eating gluten-free, foregoing the baguettes, croissants and pains au chocolat and their wafting scents at every other street corner in France. In the fall, despite recurring migraines and fatigue, I kickstarted my brain with a science-laden year long university winetasting course, while also slowly transitioning to a Paleo lifestyle. I began to grasp the intimate connection between my physical and emotional suffering and fatigue, and my lifelong addiction to insulin-spiking, high-carbohydrate foods, and eating too much too fast too frequently. I also began to learn Paleo-friendly recipes from French friends, cookbooks and blogs, putting these to practice daily on my family. That fall I also nixed anything one could call sports, to avoid sapping my already depleted adrenal capacity and to focus on diet, family and my studies.
In May 2015, just weeks before my chemistry, microbiology and winemaking final exam in written French, I learned I had an intestinal parasite called Cryptosporidium (literally “hidden spore”). Thanks to the extra help sessions with some of my French classmates, I passed the exam and the course, despite brain fog, fatigue, depression and anxiety. With the help of a holistic practitioner, I overcame the parasite after months of antimicrobial herbs and supplements.
Cutting out sugar, lowering carbs and upping the protein and fat in my diet helped, as did avoiding restaurants, but I really began to see results when I focused on reducing stress after my final exam and getting more sleep. (Both of these are almost impossible as a parent, but we do what we can.) This meant no computer after dinnertime, going to bed right after (or even before) my children, and no going out in the evenings. It meant saying no to social engagements for me and for my children. It also meant being the “strange” mom at school who didn’t allow candy and biscuits and boycotted bake sales. Less was more.
I am still working to right my hormones, many of which had flatlined, as well as fix my digestion, which has been poor, it seems, for most of my life. My energy levels have been low for at least two decades, but especially since having my first child in 2005. My moods have swung since my teens, and anxiety has been high throughout. I have spent decades falling in and out of love with sports, going through alternating phases of being too exhausted to work out, to relying on the cortisol hit of a workout to briefly sustain my mood on a given day. Slowly, probably too slowly, I am beginning to integrate some strengthening with burst exercises, and have just taken up tennis. I generally walk to the grocery store twenty-five minutes away, which gets me some exercise, especially with groceries on my back. Who needs a gym when you can just walk to the grocery store and carry heavy items?
Healing can be isolating, scary, an everyday struggle. People don’t want to believe that things aren’t rosy all the time when on the outside it all seems so prefect. Something I have appreciated very much is that my French and other local friends here have accepted me the way I am, maddening dietary and sleep requirements and all. The French, especially, tend to be good in this way: accepting of people the way the are, whether it’s the corner drunk or the wayward foreigner with odd requests to skip the bread.
I still have nights when I do not sleep well. I still have low hormone levels across the board. I still need to learn how to meditate. My skin and digestive issues continue to surprise and annoy me with their persistence. I am still attracted to sugar. I can enjoy the aromas and tastes of wine and make meaningful commentary, but I can really only swallow a sip or two every so often.
I am still taking handfuls of supplements for the moment, and have increased my saturated fat intake, while lowering protein just a bit, tweaking as I go, because I seem to be a long way still from stable moods, consistent sleep, and good digestion. Each day I realize even more how long it really can take to heal. It’s no picnic, but the alternative is unacceptable. My experience in the hospital twenty years ago still provides me ample incentive to not return to that point ever again.
My personal dietary choices are less about what I “feel like” eating and more about what will help me heal and give me and my family the most nutrient dense boost day after day by generally observing the limitations of seasonal, local and organic foods available. It has been a cathartic process getting over the “gross factor” of things like organ meats and raw oysters and learning how to butcher a whole carcass down to pieces recognizable in a recipe.
Nowadays, I love cooking with my Mom whenever we are together, and I love cooking for all my family members. In order to keep my daughters from failing in health the way I did early on in life, I am doubly motivated to learn everything I can about cooking and nutrition and teach them along the way. As a mother, it is my responsibility and sincere desire to show them how to make good decisions about food and how to share time meaningfully at the table. Not to mention that they deserve to have a happy, energetic, productive, caring, tender mother, like I have, not a searing basket case of a mom who is perpetually exhausted and irritable, as I have been.
It is my calling now to understand how to nourish myself and rely on my body’s own capacity to heal, not to rely on pharmaceuticals to come to my rescue for the lazy, misdirected or uneducated choices I make. Yes, I am alive thanks to modern medicine, but staying healthy on my own is the challenge. Therefore my family’s health and that of my own are my mission, and writing about this journey is now my most urgent creative outlet, as, I have found, without health there is nothing else.
I am therefore working on a book for my daughters that I hope all my family and friends will read as well, regardless of their eating habits, beliefs or language, so that they, too, might find a better understanding of the importance to really nourishing oneself with the proper food, movement, community and rest. I regret not having understood any of this any earlier, to have served as a better example, and to have perhaps been able to help ease the suffering of my grandparents and Onkel Hans, Tante Gerta and Tante Heidi, who have passed, of the terrible modern diseases of bone, lung, and brain cancers, MS, diabetes, heart disease, Parkinson’s, Sclera Derma. At least I know now that with an open mind, gratitude, and some persistence, one can create positive change.
My creative endeavors of blog and book focus on French recipes prepared in the ancestral spirit of including the glorious traditional foods and fats that had sustained us for generations but have been forgotten in recent decades. I am compelled to record and share this knowledge. It interests me because my life depends on it.
Thank you for sharing in this journey.