I bought a plumptious white peach on Sunday and perched it on the windowsill facing my desk so it could bask in my admiration. I tried to find pleasure in the anticipation of eating it but the important part – that a delay in eating must be voluntarily self-imposed to be truly enjoyable- has gone.
I was diagnosed with diabetes six weeks ago. My days of eating peaches without care are over.
These days I have to perform carb maths, tapping on my phone with fingers sore from multiple pinpricks. (How did people in the olden days cope without apps to help?) I conduct an internal dialogue with my pancreas and liver (please let me eat this!) in front of market stalls or rammed up against a seething, hungry mass of humanity at food festivals. I hang around online food sites at 2 am in the morning when I am fitful from hypoglycemia or its hyper-odious sibling and torture myself with the Things I Cannot Have. It’s a form of self harm, I know, but it serves as a necessary part of accepting what has happened to me as I push myself up against my diagnosis. I can no longer leave any room for mistakes in a body that has become as confounding and wily as an old coyote.
The immutable reality of peach carbs (14-17g) meant it would have to replace the slice of wholemeal toast I prefer for breakfast and wouldn’t do at all as a mid-morning snack; I ensured I drank lots of water with it; I ate it slowly; I did ALL THE GODDAMN SENSIBLE DIABETIC THINGS.
By 11 a.m my blood sugars had shot up to ridiculous levels and what felt like a million tiny grains of sugar were needling me underneath my skin, prickling and itching and jabbing. There’s no drug on earth that can fully mitigate these sensations either; they take time to disappear, even after insulin or other diabetic medications return blood glucose levels to normal*. Not even antihistamine works (believe me, I have tried). It’s not itching in any sense that you might understand, rather it feels as if I am being pricked by a thousand needles from the inside. It makes me jump and twitch, my head pounds, my eyes and mouth become as dry as Dorothy Parker. By the time my husband came home I was about ready to burn the world down with fire.
I really, really hate the fact that fruit- and other carbs- have become loaded with problems. I am so resentful that I can’t just eat a piece of goddamn fruit. I have one overriding thought:
WHY WOULD ANYONE CHOOSE TO DENY THEMSELVES ENTIRE FOOD GROUPS IF THEY DON’T HAVE TO?
I am looking at YOU Gwyneth, Ella, the two Hemsley Sisters. Tess Ward and Madeleine Shaw (whose ‘chia seed egg substitute’ is about as appealing as toad shit) among many others. The fact that so many of you are women does not escape me. I’m calling it a form of dietary Stockholm Syndrome but you don’t get a feminist pass out of your self-imposed exile from joyful eating. Neither do I buy the argument that all clean eaters are psychologically unwell themselves. Some may well be, but does this also apply to the publishers and media organisations who make a lot of money from hawking dietary woo? Nope it does not. You would take advantage of people like me if you could.
I don’t restrict carbs because I need to post photos of myself on balmy beaches hashtagged #blessed. I don’t restrict them because I erroneously mistake a full belly for bloat and I cannot cope with the idea of my body taking up more space in the world. I don’t restrict carbs because I have bought into a weird, sex ‘n death ‘n food vibe based upon quasi-spiritual concepts of denial and purity.
I CAN’T eat more than 40g of carbohydrate a day. Keeping to this is really difficult to do so I wonder why anybody would choose to live like this. It doesn’t hugely matter where the carbs comes from either which flies in the face of conventional dietary advice to diabetics, although carbs that take longer to be absorbed (brown rice, eg) are *better*. I refuse to accept that anyone with taste buds will always think ‘oh yum!’ when offered brown rice over a piece of sourdough spread with good butter or a bowlful of cacio e pepe with a snowy covering of pecorino, or a tray of roasted root veg. A handful of cherries or juicy peaches are as damaging to me, blood sugar-wise, as a chocolate bar is at the moment. When it comes to sugar, my body doesn’t care if it’s the *worthier* fructose from whole fruit or the baddie du jour, glucose. It gets mighty pissed off if it’s lactose, too. My diabetes doesn’t give a shit about clean eating and prefers torture by a thousand sugar-needles over my old habit of negative self-talk if I over-indulged. If you want to get all biblical then let’s call it a damn hair shirt.
When you are told you cannot eat the foods you have always adored, it feels like part of you has died, never mind the dire warnings of actual death or blindness, renal and heart disease or the grim possibility that bits of you will literally start dropping off if you don’t maintain ‘good control’. (It doesn’t escape me that some of the language of diabetes care resembles the self-think of eating disorders**). I’ve not forgotten that time when as a HCP, I took a patient for an X-Ray and a blackened, diabetic toe rolled out of his sock as we removed it. I intend to die with all my toes- and toe rings- still attached to my feet because to paraphrase Kate Moss: “nothing tastes as good as having all your toes feels.”
I never did eat much white bread, white rice or pasta. I’m actually not a huge fan of pasta tbh. But when you can no longer blithely eat these sturdy workhorse carbs, by god you realise the fundamental role they played in your culinary repertoire. It’s really hard having to cook food for others that you cannot eat. It feels like an eating disorder that compels me to cook and serve my family with delicious food whilst I toy with a lettuce leaf and tedious lumps of protein in the next room.
To not be able to sneak a roast potato from the tray when serving up lunch unless you count its damn carbs like Scrooge on Christmas Eve? Horrible. Snaffling the end of the baguette on the way home from the bakers? No longer a spontaneous joy. Having to ask Leon or Pret for the carb content of everything you think you might be able to eat and having people look at you like you’re some kind of Gwyneth Loon-Disciple? Humiliating. Ordering drinks in pubs? Challenging because caffeine shoves me into hypos really swiftly and there are not many drinks that are sugar-free and caffeine-free. For those of you suggesting water, YOU try drinking it all night. I haven’t even addressed the joys of eating out in decent restaurants where it feels like an insult to ask the chef to accommodate you by leaving this or that from the finished dish. Yes I know I can just leave it but sitting in front of morsels of deliciousness knowing you cannot eat them is really, really shit.
Basically, when it comes to restricting food groups, the transaction will always be voluntary for clean eaters. They know they have a get-out clause. They know they don’t have to do it. If their resolve breaks and they decide to eat a slab of cheap chocolate or hunk of white bread, it ain’t gonna hurt them because despite whatever woo nonsense they believe in, physiological homeostasis really isn’t that precarious. Pretending that it’s a matter of life and death for them, that the food they willingly exclude is harmful to them (when it is not) is sickening. For those of us contractually obliged to no longer eat in abundance the kinds of food we love because our bodies have let us down, the exclusion is of a more permanent kind.***
* My diabetes is my diabetes. Yours may have different symptoms.
** That’s a whole ‘nother blog post on how diabetes can really mess with body image and food issues. Feel free to commission me on this.
The concept of clean food is a crock, posing as wellness when in fact underneath lie some pretty disordered ideas about food and eating, denial and body image. Clean eaters often demonstrate extremist beliefs and magical thinking about food and they tend to be obsessed with their physical appearance (their rhetoric exhorts us to eat clean in order to gain a flat stomach, a lean physique) at the expense of their psyches. The term is meaningless, its context weak, narcissistic and stripped of indulgence, pleasure, and love. Their locus of control is firmly centred upon the external because everything is a potential threat: food can harm them; food will make them fat; food will make them sluggish; they cannot rely on their lymphatic, hepatic and renal systems to detoxify- indeed they do not trust their own bodies at all.
The real problem with clean eaters is their lack of an internal locus of control. They seem to believe they are at the mercy of food, their appetite, and their desires, and the sense of agency and self-determination which are both necessary for a healthy psyche have become quiescent. They blame their food instead, as opposed to their own thought processes, yet food cannot be dirty or clean unless you are in the habit of rolling your weekly shopping through the mud or putting it through a hot wash. The moral value of a foodstuff lies in the method of its production, not in its inherent nature, taste or effects. If you really aspire to eat well, cut out battery hen eggs, eat meat from animals that are treated in a more humane manner and buy your fruit and vegetables from local producers who don’t use horrid pesticides or cut down their hedgerows. Shop for ingredients when you need them, cut down on food miles where possible and learn to scratch-cook using fresh and seasonal ingredients where possible. This is good food, not clean food.
If you want to learn how to take greater pleasure in what you cook and eat then I’ve compiled a reading list by authors whose love of life is expressed in the way they write about food. If eating has become a bit of a minefield, their words might help you see how rigid boundaries and self-denial can suck all the pleasure out of life. Nobody should be telling you that you can achieve via puritanical restraint and self-denial: it’s a mean old message. Publishers and commissioning editors bear much of the responsibility for turning odd, crackpot nutritional ideologies into a multi-million-pound industry as do food writers who don’t consult or quote state-registered health professionals when offering dietary advice but I’ve yet to see anyone else daring to say this. But that’s a subject for another post in the future.
If you seek order and routine in the kitchen, learn how to bake which is a discipline full of science and precise weights and measures. Chuck out the scales in your bathroom and buy a gorgeous set of scales for the kitchen instead. But please don’t be afraid of food and don’t be afraid of your appetites.
Some Like It Extra-Hot: David Ramsey’s eye-wateringly good account of eating at Prince’s Hot Chicken Shack in the Oxford American precipitated a rush on this much-loved Nashville chicken joint. Ordering the extra-hot became a culinary rite of passage for (mostly) male food writers- especially British ones -and triggered the opening of copycat establishments everywhere. This is the original, and best article.
Susan Hill on mushrooms, taken from Through the Kitchen Window (Penguin books)… “girolle mushrooms, apricot-coloured and apricot-scented, with fan vaulting below the cap, as in some ancient cathedral.”
An Encyclopedia of Seafood Cookery by Molly O’Neill, taken from her memoir, Mostly True, in which she comes of age as a chef and moves beyond her landlocked American culinary horizons. O’Neill is such a warm and wise writer and addresses her own body image issues, which were, in part, triggered by her mothers need for perfection through her daughter’s body shape.
Back to the Old World, 1962-1967 by Marcella Hazan is a chapter from her memoir L’Amarcord. It is a masterclass in how to cook from fresh market produce as Marcella distills the guidance of the stallholders into mini cookery lessons.
Gardens on the Mesa by Eugenia Bone is an excerpt from her book, At Mesa’s Edge and is a perfect little explanation about how growing one’s own food helps us develop a more grounded attitude towards cooking and eating. She peppers her text with recipes and delicious suggestions for what to do with ingredients: “With the first home-grown tomato of the season, I am transformed into a novice gardener cliché: amazed that it grew, astounded by the taste, proud as a new parent.”
Norwegian Wood by Margit Bisztray was first published in Gourmet, back in 2004 and this deceptively simple account of the foods the author enjoyed as a child during Norwegian summers draws you in until you find yourself recreating her recipes: smashed wild-strawberries on whole-grain, the amber sun-warmed plums, and blueberries harvested from the timberline. In Best Food Writing 2005.
John Thorne’s food writing keeps me grounded and that’s important in a field that seems relentlessly obsessed with the new. Thorne reminds us that everything is new to someone and his down to earth essays reacquaint us with the familiar, encouraging the reader to see it in a fresh manner. His e-zine Simple Cooking is a cornucopia of food and life as is his collection of essays, Mouth Wide Open. One of the essays inside, The Marrow of the Matter is one of the best pieces of writing ever, discussing as he does, his re-acquaintance with what he refers to as ‘the soft, fatty, helplessly vulnerable vascular tissue’ that hides in the interior of a bone- the marrow. Thorne tells us about his purchase of a specialised English spoon to prise out the marrow and his preference for marrow from smoked ham bones (which he buys from a supplier who has to sell them as dog bones)- pure unctuous pleasure.
Katy Vine’s fantastic exploration of the food scene of American state fairs would definitely be in my top ten food pieces. Published in Texas Monthly, you don’t have to like fairground food to enjoy the creativity of the grandmasters of Extreme Frying whose economic drive has resulted in such creations as deep-fried coca cola, fried butter, Texas-shaped sopapillas and the recipe profiled in this piece- deep-fried lettuce.
Another wonderful piece rooted in the ‘ordinary’ foods of Texas was written by Irina Dumitrescu and uses a lovely hologram metaphor to encourage us to take a closer look at what she refers to as ‘the cheap food of a city’ which is ‘key to its soul’. Dumitrescu is Romanian and her time in Texas was spent in part exploring the liminal places where other immigrants live, work and feed others; the less expensive ‘edges and corners’, as she describes them. Our food longings may be more about habit than nostalgia she suggests, and it is the melding of the old ways with the new in a kitchen that can be the most interesting.
Food is love and never more so when you are caring for someone who is dying. Sarah Di Gregorio is a food reporter and usually focuses on the latest eating trend. But when her mother was dying, Di Gregorio saw how her magical thinking about food could have so much more meaning than she ever thought. When There Was Nothing Left To Do, I Fed Her Ice-Cream is short, pragmatic and deeply moving.
Geoff Nicholson moved from the north of England to Los Angeles and the pigs trotters he grew up with wouldn’t be left behind. So he wrote this.
Tales From the Hunt in Diana Henry’s Roast Figs, Sugar Snow has an introduction that is a perfect distillation of game: earthy, muscular and real. She writes about flesh and sinew and the focus required to bring such bounty to the pot. Buying game might mean a walk to the local butchers but there can be so much more to it as she writes and even if you do buy your game ready-prepared for the stove, there’s a connection with the landscape that eludes other meats. Her recipe for roast pheasant with blackberries and heather honey is the sweet-boskiness of the British countryside on a plate.
Modern Salt is a relative newcomer to the food-writing annals but it is already establishing itself as a source of modern culinary longform and Jill Norman’s piece about her trip to a peppercorn plantation is the kind of food-writing I like most. For the reader, the journey to the plantation is as fascinating as is her account of the pepper-harvest: “A six-hour drive from Bangalore took me past rice paddies where bullocks pull ploughs alongside tractors, past plantations of coconut and areca palms, rubber trees, cardamom and ginger, coffee and tea, through bustling villages and towns and the lively city of Mysore, with its vast palace and chaotic traffic, up into the Ghats and to Wayanad.”
I’d like to recommend every single word written by Southerner James Villas who began his career writing for Town & Country magazine but I’ll limit myself to two books. The first, called Stalking The Green Fairy, is an anthology of his food-writing and the second is a cookbook he wrote in conjunction with his beloved mother, Martha. My Mothers Southern Kitchen highlights family and tradition which are the parts of life that clean-eating neglects. When it comes to shared culinary genealogy, eat clean serves up a barren table indeed. This book is packed with anecdotes and good-natured sparring about some of Martha’s predilections and it shows how the different generations can learn from each other in the kitchen.
Read Jane Grigson on strawberries: “Do you remember the kind and beautiful girl in Grimm’s fairy tales, who is driven out by her stepmother to find strawberries in the snow? How she comes to the dwarves’ house, and shares her crust of bread with them?
And how, as she sweeps the snow aside with their broom, she finds there – strawberries? That vivid image of delight, of fruit and snow against forest darkness, is never forgotten. It’s our northern winter longing for summer, a joy of the mind. And yet, in the sudden snow of winter a couple of years ago, I went to sweep our doorway – and found strawberries.”
In this short extract alone, Grigson shows us that food is about heritage and memory and a dash of the right kind of sentimentality although her writing never becomes sugary-sweet. Grigson is the distillation of all that is great about British food writing and I (whispers) prefer her to Elizabeth David because Grigson doesn’t do archness or snobbery and doesn’t make me feel inferior because I don’t have a stripped pine basement kitchen in Chelsea or monthly access to vine-screened terraces in southern France.
Alison Uttley’sThe Country Child is saturated with vividly-written passages about food from accounts of the great farmhouse Christmas Day feasts to Susan, the book’s central character’s obsession with a ‘bloated, enormous’ chocolate Easter egg she sees sitting in the sunny window of a wealthier family. Even a few lines about the contents of Susan’s Christmas stocking tickles our taste buds: “Next came an apple with its sweet, sharp odour. She recognized it, a yellow one, from the apple chamber, and from her favourite tree. She took a bite with her strong sharp teeth and scrunched it in the dark.” Uttley writes about everyday food and makes us desirous of it. Another, less accomplished, writer would render it prosaic.
“They say it takes nerve to drink a Moxie” wrote Robert Dickinson in a letter to the makers of this soft drink from Maine. What follows is a wonderful exploration of foodways as Dickinson tries a drink that one imbiber described as like drinking a telephone pole.
The debate about high/low foods continues in a wonderfully polemic fashion. The writers who are able to write well about haute food and the everyday meals that result from a desperate scrabble in a depleted store cupboard are few and far between. Even rarer is the writer who elevate the most humble of foodstuffs into something that even the biggest food snob ends up craving. James Villas does it with a vignette about Duke’s mayo and a short piece eulogising the basic bitch of the sandwich world (sliced tomato, if you want to know) and he goes shopping in Sam’s Club then writes about it. Keith Pandolfi achieves it here, too, in his tribute to inexpensive coffee. From Folgers and the yellow packaging of Chock-full-o-Nuts to the sky blue cans of Maxwell House, he revises his previous insistence upon the finest of drip-coffees served by a beard in Brooklyn and gives us a finely drawn portrait of his stepfather too.
Keith Pandolfi is my imaginary food-writing husband. His talent makes me cry, laugh and twist my mouth into wry ‘I will never write like this’ shapes when I read yet another of his perfectly-crafted and often-whimsical pieces. The ‘Case for Bad Coffee’ piece (linked to above) is one of my favourites but the one Pandolfi piece you should absolutely read is Bright Lights: what the holidays taste like in Florida. The opening line is as finely drawn as it gets:’as Mom and I pull into the Publix in New Smyrna Beach, Florida, she parks her silver Cadillac beside a large crepe myrtle tree so the leather seats don’t get too hot while we’re shopping’ and his description of her dressed all in white, complete with sun visor, cha-cha-cha’ing down the supermarket aisles is love, pure and simple. I once spent the two weeks before Christmas in Florida, driving across to Miami from our Fort Myers base, admiring the white lights which decorated every house on Sanibel, watching The Grinch in a little art deco cinema near Estero Beach and being drawn into the seasonal excess at Disney against my cynical ‘ole British will. Once I allowed it to happen, it was good. When we flew back it was to the news that my beloved grandfather has just three months to live and life was never quite the same again. He loved Florida, had visited relatives there several times and he’d have adored Pandolfi’s piece.
Who owns southern food is a question that many have grappled with but few as generously and eloquently as John T. Edge & Tunde Wey in an Oxford American essay that also references a piece by Hillary Dixler, “How Gullah Cuisine Has Transformed Charleston Dining. The latter gave a [deserved] platform to Michael Twitty, author of Afroculinaria blog which greatly annoyed the [white] cognoscenti of Charleston. Edge and Wey write that ‘the issues Dixler and Twitty raised about authenticity and ownership and appropriation will fester if they’re not further explored.’ They are right.
Ronni Lundy’s musings on recipes and memory make the important point that how we learn to cook, and from whom, is not usually a linear process. Lundy’s mother was the culinary version of a boogie-woogie piano player she writes, ‘riffing through her songs with a deceptive ease’ and delivering ‘old standards with a daily grace that gave these recipes a subtlety and savor that was totally lacking when they were reduced to their elements and rearranged as words on a page.’
When I was given a copy of ‘Tales of the City’ by Armistead Maupin, I learned that the hero of the series, Michael Tolliver, hailed from the sunshine state of Florida. This state is home to thousands of acres of orange groves which helped to supply much of the juice that graced American breakfast tables. So John Birdsall’s piece about the economic boycott of Floridian OJ as a protest against Anita Bryant’s homophobic rants struck a chord with me. Bryant was crowned the Sunshine State’s official OJ sweetheart by the Florida Citrus Commission, a politically powerful consortium and appeared in many of their TV ads. The boycott of these products served as a test case for consumers and the emerging civil rights movement.
The Southern Foodways Alliance collate my go-to site, a place to forage for great writing, southern esoterica and the voices of people who live there. This essay on the indulgence of pickled baloney, ‘a corkscrew of delicious processed meat,’ as the author describes it, lacks pretentiousness or food snobbery and paints an exquisite picture of the author’s growing up. I cannot deal with food snobbery which shuts off good and clear voices just because they didn’t grow up eating rarified cuisine. Silas House is not immune to the effects of snobbery as exemplified by this sentence: ” I eat it with a strange mixture of guilt, because I know what’s in it, and delicious nostalgia for a place and time that is gone forever,” but thank goodness any dissonance was challenged long enough to commit these memories to the page.
I’ve been reading Jeffrey Steingarten since his first columns in American Vogue and as he became well-known after publishing two books of food essays, I saw how (mainly) male British food writers fell over their feet such was their hurry to copy him and his experiences. This piece, where Steingarten attempts to master K-Paul’s iconic coconut layer cake is wonderful and oh-so him. This is the man who takes an almost Socratic approach to food whilst losing none of his salt, pith, and vim.
“What the public will tolerate in terms of how badly we treat prisoners is really bad,”says Jean Casella, co-director, and Editor-in-Chief of Solitary Watch in a discussion about the problem of how we feed prisoners and whether their punishment should extend to food. If you believe that the best punishment to fit the crime is a deprivation of liberty, then the shocking state of American prison food documented by Kevin Pang in this piece for Lucky Peach will disturb you, used as it is as punishment.