There are few things I love more in this world than I love food. Eating it, making it, talking about it, thinking about it, reading about it, shopping for it, taking photos of it, planning for it, basing entire trips around it: If you’re here reading this, I don’t have to keep going. You know. Food.
Like many of you out there in foodblogland, food means more to me than just something that tastes nice or fills you up. Food is an adventure contained in a single mouthful – a bite into a perfectly perfumed, custardy, creamy cherimoya for the first time, and suddenly a whole world opens up to you. New tastes, new flavor combinations, new cultural references, new avenues into new worlds, and new commonalities with people for whom a cherimoya means, “Oh! I used to eat those with my grandparents. You know, we had those with…” Food means going to a new restaurant, neighborhood, city, state, country, hemisphere, and not just seeing and hearing a new place, but smelling, tasting, and touching it too.
And of course, there’s a reason I chose to call this blog “love & butter.” Food has always been an expression of love to me. I could say it’s from growing up in a Jewish household, but judging by the writing of many lovely people out there in the world of food, I think food as love crosses almost all cultural boundaries. Nothing makes me happier than feeding people. When I look across the open counter into my dining room and see a group of friends gathered at my table, laughing and getting to know one another, I feel satisfied and at peace. The world is as it should be, the ducks are in a row, things are going to be just fine, and everyone will be properly fed. Then, if there are moans of delight over the food? Even better. When someone takes a bite of tomato paella or of cheesecake with a praline crust and tells me it’s outstanding, I feel proud. But it’s a different sense of pride than having done something by myself – I feel connected to the world, to other cooks, to my mother, to anyone who has ever cared for others.
I really love food, people.
(The butter part of the blog title? Well, food tastes best made with a lot of love, but you can’t tell me a little butter doesn’t help too.)
So why am I telling you all this? Because the time has come to tell you as well that while food is one of the things I love best in the world, it has also, for most of my life, been something of an enemy.
When I was 10 months old, I got sick with a very bad case of gastritis. I recovered and became a fat, happy, roly-poly baby, but ever since then I’ve had digestive problems that have ranged from mild to debilitating. Sometimes, they go away altogether and then reappear with a vengeance, knocking me out for days at a time. In my early 20s, I finally went to see a gastroenterologist. After a series of truly delightful tests (nearly the full GI work-up, barring one or two tests), and a year and a half of living gluten-free “just to see if it would help,” the doctors had ruled out nearly everything that could be wrong with me. Nothing showed up, yet still I suffered. They looked at me slightly askance, waved the magic diagnosis wand of “Irritable Bowel Syndrome” (IBS) over my head, and shooed me out the door. Nothing could be done, at least not then.
Ten years later, IBS isn’t quite the “we’re kind of giving you a diagnosis but we’re kind of convinced it might be all in your head, and we also don’t want to take any more time figuring out what you have” diagnosis. Physicians take it more seriously now, and there are gastroenterologists who have devoted much of their careers to helping patients with it. There are two strains of IBS, IBS-C and IBS-D (C for constipation and D for diarrhea. Fun! I love diseases in which you can have symptoms that are absolute opposites). Great! If you must know, I am of the IBS-C variety. So what goes in doesn’t always come out. At least not for three, four, five, six? days. What else do do IBS sufferers get? Sharp stomach pains, bloating, and severe cramping. It’s exhausting, wringing out your whole body. It can make you feel utterly defeated and depressed. And usually you only some idea of what causes it, makes it worse, or when it will strike. Oh, as an added bonus – sometimes if you have one strain, you can switch to another without warning. Or you can have a combination of both. Comedy gold, people, comedy gold.
As I have gotten older, and this year in particular, it’s gotten worse. (I also have a hernia in my esophagus, causing good times with acid reflux, so it’s literally a riot from top to… bottom.) Over time I’ve figured out when it’s worse, like when traveling, under stress, or at, um, particular times of the month (reproductive hormones have been known to increase the severity, which is one reason doctors think IBS tends to be more prevalent in women). I’ve also gotten a better idea of what foods have a tendency to be problematic, but this is where it gets so frustrating:
1. It’s not always the same foods, all the time. So sometimes I can have certain foods, and then sometimes when I have them I’ll be doubled over in pain within 10 minutes.
2. Sometimes it’s so bad that it’s almost all food, and there’s nothing I can do but ride it out.
3. The absolute worst offenders (get ready to shed a tear for me) are almost all carbohydrates. Yes, friends, I’m talking wheat, cereals, grains, potatoes, corn, rice – all of it.
4. High glycemic foods in general are bad news.
5. Too much caffeine or alcohol? Ditto.
6. Fatty foods as well.
So let’s review: That knocks out such favorites as French fries, macaroni & cheese, a vast swath of baked goods I love making, and… oh I can’t go on.
Last week I very nearly threw in the towel and gave up. Just gave up on food altogether. I’d done a three-week detox/cleanse diet earlier this summer, during which time I took a lot of supplements and ate only vegetables (raw or steamed), fruits, eggs, lean proteins, olive oil, vinegar, and salt and pepper. I drank a lot of smoothies, as you might imagine. It was hard, but I honestly admit that I never felt (or looked) better in my life. But who wants to live like that forever? Some people do, I know, but those are people who eat to live, not live to eat.
I’ve been loathe to ever mention any of this in a food blog, because who wants to talk about things like bowels and transverse colons and constipation next to FOOD, for heaven’s sake? But how can I talk about food and write about it freely when I’m secretly hiding out over here, suffering most of the times I eat? And last week, when I burst into tears in the bathroom, I made a pledge. I was going to follow in the footsteps of Shauna at Gluten-Free Girl. There would be no waving of the white flag over here. Instead, I was going to be honest – about the good days and the bad (well, okay, not too honest – you don’t want to hear about it that much, trust me). I was going to find a way to eat that is full of flavor, happiness, and love and that someone who suffers from IBS can enjoy (or modify accordingly). And dammit, I was going to have the occasional cheat meal, and make it a good one every time. Because if you’re gonna spend a few hours miserable, you might as well go out in style!
I have lots of things I’ve been meaning to write about that will be going up as well, such as a cake I made recently and some recipes and restaurants I’ve tried. But along the way, I’m going to figure this out. It won’t ever be perfect, and I know it won’t work for everyone. But as long as I can continue to love food and life and keep on laughing, I think it’ll work out just fine.
Me at Casa Cruz in Buenos Aires, Argentina, during one of the best meals of the year (June 2007).