Friday, March 4, 2011

A reflection on food

Today was unexpectedly both tough and disappointing.  To combat the negative feelings, I spent some reassuring time with friends, downed a shot of gin, and have tried to focus on the many blessings in my life.  Two of these blessings are the possession of a pretty good brain and the possession of a pretty good palate.  The following reflective piece is the result.


On my relationship with food 

It is safe to say that I love food, but over the past several years and even the past couple of months, how I think about and treat food has evolved a great deal.  Growing up, I could always eat a lot, and I figured out relatively early that I was blessed with a fast metabolism.  My mom's cooking is low in both fat and sodium - we never bought butter until I started baking, toward the end of high school - and high in nutrients, so my robust appetite was never a problem.

College was an interesting transition to a diet that was more varied but also less healthy, though I was lucky to live near some of the best dorm food on campus for three years.  The "Freshman 15" was something like the freshman five in my case.  I went on my first-ever "diet" during sophomore year, when my desire to be able to dance in a gorgeous, form-fitting white silk dress at Viennese Ball prompted a month of lunches and dinners that were half salad.  It worked, but I am far too fond of carbohydrates and not nearly fond enough of salad to repeat the experience anytime least not before I get married, at which point I would probably be willing to submit to societal pressure and the allure of another beautiful dress.  (No matter what, though, I refuse to be one of those brides who does not eat a single bite at her own wedding.  My wedding dinner will be fantastic, and I intend to enjoy it.  End tangent....)

My foodie identity blossomed during college and, during my two summer at Mae's house, also grew into a habit of wanting to cook and bake for the people I care about.  Food and the kitchen became strongly associated with my personal relationships, with joy and love and loss.  I remember a moment after I cooked dinner for my then-boyfriend, when I set down two bowls of pasta on the counter and was pulled in for a gentle kiss.  I remember the raucous amusement and incredible feeling of affection that filled a summer dinner party with seven friends.  I remember baking a huge coconut cake after taking the MCAT, and then making Justin eat far more of it than he wanted (hey, he was around, and I needed to get rid of it somehow!). 

I also remember the very last conversation I had with Mae, over blueberry smoothies and homemade chocolate-chip zucchini muffins.  I remember how, a few days later, Paras helped me frantically clean the kitchen after we found out that Mae had been hospitalized.  And I remember how, after Mae passed away, I spent hours compulsively cooking and half convincing myself that at any moment she would walk in again.

Emotional impacts aside, during senior year and this gap year, I was surprised to realize that my appetite had become noticeably smaller and more consistent, to the point where I now rarely stuff myself even if I love what I'm eating.  At the same time, the kitchen has become my favorite room, and my “Meditating While Multitasking” refrigerator magnet quite accurately reflects what I do there.  While I enjoy cooking or baking with others on occasion, I usually prefer to wash, chop, mix, saut√©, and whisk alone, in silence.  I use this time to reflect, analyze, or just enjoy watching ingredients blend together into potential deliciousness.

During my first few months in this apartment, I baked up a storm just to prove that I could.  After all, nothing says "I am an independent adult!!" quite like making brownies from scratch at 11:30pm on a whim (kindly hold your laughter).  That aside, out of necessity and not just interest or pleasure, I also started establishing a cooking routine in which I try to make dinner - with leftovers for the next day - two or three times a week.  Learning how to cook regularly, efficiently, and nutritiously is something which I will continue to work on, and which I know will serve me well.  More recently, having moved out of the baking-as-an-act-of-personal-agency phase, my baking has reached a sort of steady state.  I love dessert as much as ever, but I don't eat very much of what I bake anymore, and instead prefer to bake for others.

Someone recently said to me, after hearing about my food blogging, "So it seems like food is a really big part of your life.  Maybe you could be a food critic."  My response was that food is indeed a big part of my life, but it is only one part, and I enjoy food because of its associated memories and people.  I have certainly had some fantastic meals after which I primarily remember the food, a 2008 dinner at Aziza being a case in point.  But my favorite meals have been those where I may have forgotten what the dishes tasted like, but clearly recall being red in the face from laughter, feeling warm and blessed and so grateful.  For the same reason, I am happiest when the things I bake, whether a fully frosted and decorated layer cake or a simple batch of cookies, make people happy.

My saucepan and soup pot, which I intend to bring to medical school with me, came from Mae's kitchen and provide me with a daily reminder of her enthusiasm, love, and generosity.  The very last words Mae spoke in her home were said to me after we stood in her kitchen and shared those muffins: “You know, we have so much to be grateful for.”  How she lived in her kitchen reflected how, more generally, she lived a life full of grace.  I aspire to the same.