I would never have thought that turning off our cable could have changed my life in so many ways. Hey, wait a minute! I thought this was a food blog! Now, don’t get ahead of me—I’m not going to talk about saving money, making better use of my time, getting off the couch and getting into life, all those things you’re thinking of. Or wait…maybe I am…
I’ve been trying to figure out how I ended up like this, eating the way I was. When I was a child in Tennessee, my mom cooked all kinds of classic southern dishes. She was a good cook! I remember big breakfasts, with eggs, grits, bacon, ham, biscuits, etc. I remember really good fried chicken and barbeque chicken, and there were always fresh vegetables at the table, which we were expected to eat.
Then we moved to Wisconsin, my dad left, and my mom quit cooking. She had to work to support three kids during the inflation of the early ’70’s—she had neither time nor money nor energy to spare. Every penny was important. I don’t remember a lot of home cooked meals after Dad left. Breakfast was a cup of hot chocolate, every morning. Lunch was a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and a Twinkie, every day. Suppers were frozen pot pies, frozen tv dinners, frozen Banquet chicken, spam, or baked beans. Fresh vegetables, fruit, I don’t remember those. We could go to the refrigerator days on end and there would be nothing but milk and eggs in it. My brothers went on vacation with my dad one summer when I was nine and I made scrambled eggs every day for two weeks straight for Mom and me.
I tell you this to tell you that mealtimes weren’t happy times in our family. They usually didn’t end well. There was nothing positive to relate food to in my life—and that feeling carried on into my own family years later. Not in the same way—our mealtimes were just fine. But it was always a chore for me—always. Food has never been a positive element in my life—its presence has usually been accompanied by shame, embarrassment, frustration, anger, or guilt.
I had no interest in expanding a part of my life that was so negative—a part of my life I wanted to keep as small as possible. The easiest solution, although it wasn’t conscious, was to limit myself to quick, easy, thoughtless, and boring food. And it probably doesn’t take a rocket scientist to figure out how my taste buds developed the way they did.
It didn’t help either, that in the late ’90s I was about twenty pounds overweight and discovered a diet that said you should eat when you’re hungry, stop when you’re full, and it doesn’t matter what you eat at all. All that mattered was the portion size. Food really became the enemy then; eating became how few bites can I take today? And since it didn’t matter what those bites were, a cup of broccoli or a half a muffin with three tablespoons of butter on it, which do you think I chose?
It didn’t take too long before I’d lost forty pounds and was looking to keep going. All I saw in the mirror was fat; each “extra” bite of food kept me that way. I would go to sleep counting the number of Cheetos I’d had that day. It took my sister to finally wake me up to what I was doing—I had to trust her word over my eyes and decide to eat. But I never completely lost the feeling that food was something to be avoided, never completely let go of the idea that it didn’t matter what I ate, as long as I didn’t eat large portions.
To everyone—my husband, Tom, my friends, family, co-workers—I had a breezy, uncaring bravado about the way I ate. And because I’m not overweight, there weren’t any visible arguments they could use against me. So it was a lot easier to laugh and act like I didn’t care than to face the hopelessness I felt to do anything about it.
Because, believe me, I wanted to do something about it. My bluster covered those feelings—shame, embarrassment, guilt. The inevitable result of my negative attitude toward all things food was that I was a childish liability at social events, fun times out to eat, family dinners. “We can’t have that, Ellen won’t eat it.” “We’re going to split this, Ellen, what are you going to have?” “We can’t go to that restaurant—there’s nothing Ellen will eat there.” “We can have that for dinner, but you better make something else for Ellen.” All my adult life, when I’ve sat at my siblings’ or in-laws’ tables, I’ve felt like I was sitting at the infamous “children’s table,” away from the normal people who’ve grown up and learned to like “real” food.
There wasn’t any use in thinking about change—it never occurred to me there was anything I could do about it. I would watch cooking shows with a morbid fascination—I didn’t have an ounce of hope that I could like the healthy food they were cooking, that I could take pleasure in either making it or eating it. The choices I had were a)keep eating the way I always had and keep feeling guilty and bored, or b)eat what’s good for me and hate every bite. That’s it. Those were my choices.
A free hour to kill. No TV. What to do? YouTube! Who doesn’t love cooking competitions? What was that one called I watched a few years ago? Ah—Top Chef Masters! I started watching the first episode of a new season…and there was an Indian chef on there named Suvir Saran. The first thing he said about his food was that it was “brilliant.” And he went on from there. “Light…bright…delicious…less is more...simple…” I started paying attention when he was on the screen. How was it possible to be so enthusiastic about food?
Episode 4. The famous “red meat rant.” I watched the episode twice. And I thought…the judges don’t get it. They aren’t even listening. That girl wasn’t listening. If they were, they would have heard Suvir say this isn’t about red meat, it’s about so much more. And then he said the something that changed my life. He said, “it’s about educating the palate…” Everything in me froze and then went on full alert. What? A person can educate their palate? A person like me? Even me? I’m not hopeless? I’m not stuck? I can change my attitude about food?
I pondered quite a while about this. I counted the cost of what it would mean. It would mean admitting I’ve been acting all these years. It would mean admitting my brothers and sister and husband are right. It would mean admitting that I really do eat horribly. Worst of all, it would mean trying to change in front of people who know me really well. What if I fail and give up? They would shrug and say, “We knew it was just another kick. We knew it wouldn’t last. That’s how Ellen is.”
But I was so weary. Weary of the same old gloppy food. Weary of piling on the sugar, the butter, the salt, the garlic, the cheese, to get that huge blast of flavor that I’d come to crave. Weary of the sameness, of the absolute boredom that food was to me. Weary of going to restaurants—of menus that were no use looking at—I wouldn’t eat most of what was on them anyway. Weary of being the liability at every table I sat at. Could I really make my peace with food?
And so I wrote Suvir a letter. I told him all I’ve told you, and then I told him that he made me homesick for what I’d never experienced. What would it be like to want to eat something that wasn’t American or Italian? What if I could really like vegetables as much as I love butter-dripping garlic bread? What if there really was hope for me?
But…what if I fail? What if my family is right and I can’t stick to it? What if I have to go back to acting like I don’t care? What if I get a taste of being an adult, and then am banished back to childhood? What if it doesn’t work? What if I can’t change?
But I was desperate…and so I decided to come clean. I promised Suvir I was going to educate my palate. I promised to cook from his books, to keep trying, to keep believing there was hope for change. I’ll share with you in a minute what he said to me.
I bought Indian Home Cooking. I looked through it, thinking, what have I gotten myself into? I don’t even know what half this stuff is! Suvir had suggested starting with the lentil soup. Okay…lentils? Huh? But I’d made a promise… and so I began a routine that I still follow, because I’m still scared, most of the time. I followed the recipe to the letter, plated it up, and made Tom take the first bite, watching him like a hawk for his reaction. Only then did I try it. Guess what? I love lentils! Who knew?
I loathe coconut, I have always loathed coconut, I’ve always been able to detect the slightest amount of coconut in anything. So I really didn’t believe Suvir when he told me I’d like his coconut green beans. But I had made a promise…so I made them. And LOVED them!
I’ve always loathed nuts. Hated them. Wouldn’t eat them in anything. And then Suvir told me about his vegetable stir-fry with peanuts. Okay, I won’t like it…but I had made a promise…so I tried it. And LOVED it!
Okay, now, but Brussels sprouts. No way. I mean, no way on this planet is there a way to make Brussels sprouts taste good. But, there was that promise…so I made them. And…LOVED them!
Tom and I are on the road right now. For the most part, when we go to a restaurant, we split a meal. For the past twenty-eight years, that’s meant I tell him what two things on the menu I’ll eat, and he chooses one. But this whole trip, I’ve handed him the menu and said, choose what you want, I’ll eat it. What an adventure this is! It’s exciting! It’s fun! And I have no guilt! No need to tell you how happy Tom is. Of course, it doesn’t work all the time. Today he ordered gumbo—and there was too much spice for me. But, so what? At least it wasn’t boring!
Of course, it hasn’t all been sweetness and light. I’d be less than honest if I didn’t admit to a few mishaps, some of which have brought me to frustrated tears. Chicken biryani, rice pudding, chai custard—all spectacular disasters. I had to battle discouragement and disappointment after each one. But Suvir assured me that my “disasters” in the kitchen are only failures if I don’t learn from them. And so I pick myself up and keep going, keep learning, keep growing.
And not everyone’s reaction is positive. I get some “Oh, that’s right, this is the new you” comments. I understand their skepticism and try to laugh at myself also.
I’ve started to notice more and more how people eat around me. Please, don’t get me wrong. I live in the Midwest—no better people on the planet. But small-town Midwesterners really can eat terrible food. All you have to do is go to a potluck in a small town and you’ll find the universal cheese/noodle/cheese/potatoes/cheese/mayonnaise/cheese casseroles, lime jello salads, and cheesy vegetables. There are no surprises, there’s no flavoring but onion and garlic, there’s nothing new under the sun there. I took Suvir’s vegetable stir-fry with peanuts to a potluck a couple of months ago…and took most of it home (Tom was happy about that). It was just too different, too foreign to most people there.
I certainly don’t want to have a new convert’s arrogance. But I do have to admit that what is, is. There are a lot of people like me out there—maybe not for the same reasons, but who just don’t know what good food is. I now understand that “good” food isn’t about that overwhelming blast of flavor like I’ve always thought it was. “Good” food is about layers of subtle, whispering flavors that are a delight to explore and have me, for the first time in my life, anxious to try new tastes. It’s like seeing new colors for the very first time--it's the difference between Dorothy’s Kansas and the Wizard’s Oz.
It’s been four months. I haven’t given up. I haven’t quit. It’s not just a kick. My family is going from skeptical chuckles to really believing that I’m changing. I went out to eat with friends for pizza, and for the first time said, “Let’s split something—you all get what you want, I don’t care—I’ll eat anything.” Me! I said that! Can you believe it?
The great thing about Suvir’s recipes (besides the fact that they’re delicious) is that they are so do-able. I’m a normal person, with a normal kitchen. I don’t have fancy equipment. I live in a small town and don’t have access to exotic ingredients. And yet, with a couple of very affordable trips to the store, I stocked my spice rack and pantry with what I need to make most of the recipes in his books. All that’s left is just an occasional trip to find a cut of meat or fish.
I don’t have a culinary degree. I don’t have “knife skills.” I got a C in Home Ec forty years ago. I didn’t have a grandmother who taught me her secret way of making anything. But Suvir’s directions don’t assume that I do—he explains the “why” of what I’m doing, without condescension, without making me feel stupid. He comes alongside me to explain, instead of from above me, assuming I should know what I don’t. He bridged that gap that existed between me and the food I thought I could never have, that I thought I could never like. But I can! Do you know how exciting that is?
This is the closest I can come to describing that excitement: It’s like I’ve never been in an airplane, I’ve never been off the ground—never seen the world from above. My perspective is all I can see—it hasn’t even occurred to me that I can fly, that there’s more than life on the ground for me. I see other people flying, but they were born lucky. I didn’t get what they got. And then Suvir invites me into the cockpit as his co-pilot. And THEN he says, okay, your turn! And suddenly I’m flying the plane—I can do it! I see food, taste food, like I never have before.
I said I don’t have fancy equipment…but look what happened! This Cuisinart Cadillac came to my door the other day…a present from the company. Suvir told them about my determination to change the way I eat and cook, and they responded by sending me this amazing food processor to help keep me motivated and to reward my efforts. Stunned, shocked, excited, overwhelmed, all those feelings and more. Thank you, Cuisinart! Thank you, Suvir! I didn’t think it was possible to be more enthusiastic about cooking, but I am—this gift makes me even more thirsty to learn, to cook, to grow.
Maybe you’re in the same place I was four months ago. Stuck. Bored. Watching other people fly, thinking there’s no way you could ever get on the plane, much less in the cockpit. Let me tell you, you can! If I can, anyone can, believe me. And if you don’t believe me, listen to what Suvir told this hopeless yahoo from a small town in Wisconsin, who dared to believe he cared about the one person in a million…
" Thanks for even contemplating change.
It is a wonderful place to be. To be poised to try something new, something daring, something bold, something so different that one is scared.
It is in such times and moments, that we open ourselves to doing what might be great for us.
Not all things we try will always be wonderful.
To appreciate that which we have already, we must try that which might be different, might be better, might be worse.
But that difference from what we have, makes us understand the honest and true worth of that which we hold dear.
Of course as we continue growing, learning and living - we will gain new loves, new memories and new adventures. Good and bad.
Cook again, do not give up.... you might grow as your adventures take on new challenges.... Life is wonderful in how boundless it can be in its spirit. "
I’m more determined than ever to leave the children’s table behind me, to care about what I eat, and to shop in the produce aisle and not the frozen foods section. What an exciting year this will be!
I encourage you—there is hope! You’re not stuck—take that leap, just make a promise to someone, buy one of Suvir’s books, and start cooking. You’ll be amazed at the results. You might even cut off your cable so you have more time in the kitchen…who knows? The sky’s the limit!