Hold the Chicken
06 Jul, 2012 - Charity Singleton
I have chia seeds soaking in almond milk in the refrigerator.
Earlier in the week I tried adding the raw, dry seeds to a smoothie that I quickly slurped down. I had questions about whether they should be eaten whole or ground up. Rather than Google the answer, tonight I posted the question in a private Facebook group of four friends. We all are trying to eat healthy – two of us follow a vegan diet – and within minutes, a friend hooked me up with a recipe for making the nutritious seeds more palatable and beneficial.
Actually, she showed me how to make them into pudding. Who doesn’t like nutritious pudding?
I’m asking my food questions to a lot of different people these days. For the first 41 years of my life, if I had a question about cooking, my mom was my first choice. She knows how long to bake a chicken or the proper ratio of flour, butter, and milk for turning a roux into gravy. Any question about substitutions – who keeps buttermilk on hand? – or about proportions – how many cups in a quart if I want to cut the recipe in half? – were always answered in a phone call to mom.
Rumor has it, everything my mom knows about cooking she learned from her mom, or her aunts, or her sisters. To this day, she brags on certain foods her sisters make better than she can: Pat makes the best rolls or Sue makes the best chili.
But when I made a drastic change to my diet five months ago, I wasn’t sure who to ask about vegetarian sources of protein or natural sugar substitutes or recipes using kale. Though I’ve found my way with Google and eventually discovered a few other friends who share my habits, I miss the way my mom would start her advice, “Well, the way I do it . . .” and the way I felt more connected to her through food.
It’s not that we don’t still talk about food, my mom and I. We do. Every day. On her way home from work, my mom calls me every day just to check in. I’m often writing or at the gym or out to dinner, but I always try to answer, or at least call back. Since not much happens from one day to the next for us to talk about, we almost always talk about food.
“What are you making for dinner?” she’ll ask. I’ll tell her about a stir fry I’m making or a quinoa salad I’m putting together, reminding her every time what quinoa is. It’s not a grain my step-dad grows on their Indiana farm.
Then I’ll ask her what she’s having, and she’ll tell me about the steaks they are grilling, the chicken salad she whipped up, or the cheesy potato casserole she’s making from a new recipe. It’s all stuff I no longer eat, though I sometimes wish I did. She forgets at first, each day when she’s talking about the food.
Usually about the time she’s describing the cookies or the ice cream or the cake she made with the homemade frosting that they are having for dessert, she remembers. She remembers that I didn’t change my diet to spite anyone. That I still love meat and cheese and bread and ice cream, but that several years ago I began to value food that came from the ground more than food from a box. She also remembers that recently, more than four years after a cancer diagnosis, I have come to believe that the typical, standard American diet that I enjoyed for most of my life might be part of the reason I suffered so.
I don’t like to phrase it that way to people when I talk about my self-prescribed dietary restrictions. The fact that I eat only vegetables, grains, nuts, seeds, and fruits usually only comes up if I’m eating with other people. While I’m choosing a salad – hold the chicken, cheese, and dressing please – or a plain baked potato, my fellow diners are choosing big meaty sandwiches with lots of mayonnaise or chicken burritos with mounds of sour cream falling out of soft wheat tortillas. It’s awkward and uncomfortable when they overhear me ordering everything on the side. And I feel judgmental eating only plain vegetables while they have cheese dripping down their chins.
But I knew it would be this way. I knew everyone would wonder about where I’m getting my protein, and they would assume I think I’m fat since I no longer eat desserts. I knew that some people would suggest I eat off my diet “just this once” since it’s a special occasion, and I also knew that some people think every meal is a special occasion.
Eating, of all things, seems so individual, what with all of our preferences and intolerances. Fast food marketing capitalizes on this idea of food as a private commodity by offering to make a meal “your way.” Restaurants in general seem like the modern remedy to picky eaters – each person choosing individualized, customized food. One family can eat four different meals for dinner.
But despite our modern confusion, food is not individual, but communal, cultural even. Food choices are not simply a matter of preference. Economics, geography, race, and family all play a part in what I eat, how I eat, even when I eat.
When we sit down at the table together, we share our lives by sharing food. We dip our spoons into the same bowl like we dip our thoughts into the conversation. We appreciate the same effort that brought the food to the table just as we appreciate the same effort that brought us to the table. We let the same flavors tease our palates as we tease each other with our proximity and our humor.
When I visit family or friends these days, I usually take food. When I know we are grilling out, I pack a veggie burger and gluten free bread for myself. If I am taking a salad or a side dish to share, I make sure it has beans or seeds in it so it will fill me up if I can’t eat anything else from the table. I also make exceptions when I can. I typically avoid gluten, soy, and peanuts, but I’m not allergic to them. So, if a dish contains those, I just eat it. I always avoid meat, eggs, fish, or dairy. But I’m ok to pick out the pieces if I need to do that.
Mostly, I’m learning to respect the baggage that comes with everyone’s food choices. And I think other people are doing the same for me, too.
Recently, I took food to my mom’s for a meal to celebrate my nephew’s visit from out of town. I brought food everyone could eat for dinner, and my mom was providing the dessert. She made a homemade raspberry cobbler from berries my step-dad had picked from a nearby field.
The night before, we chatted on the phone as she was making the dessert, one of my favorites.
“Well, I guess you won’t be able to eat it,” she said, after she mentioned that she also had vanilla ice cream to top it with.
“Could you save off some of the berries for me to eat plain?” I asked.
“Oh, yes, in fact, I had too many, and I was just going to pack them in there. You caught me just in time. I was about to pour them in,” she said.
“Do they have sugar on them?” I asked, afraid that I wouldn’t be able to eat them after all.
“No, they have just been washed,” she said. “Oh good, now you can enjoy the berries, too.”
So that evening, as I ate the plain wild raspberries with a spoon, I barely even noticed the soft warm crust or the slightly melted ice cream in the other bowls.