A Shameless Foodie on a Mission Part I
I have always been a passionate eater. Even at an early age, I showed a proclivity to try new foods. At 6 months my parents ventured out of the house to bring me to a dinner party where the host thought it would be hilarious to give me the tiniest taste of his expensive caviar, expecting that like most babies I would get grossed out and make a funny face. Instead I slurped those black, popping balls of deliciousness right up and snatched the $50 jar of caviar off the table, ingesting the rest in one swift baby-hand scoop. Just a few months later, still without baby teeth, I managed to sneak a spare rib from a buffet by concealing it in my onesie, and proceeded to strip it clean before my mother found me cradling it in my crib the next morning. My parents knew from then on I would never be a vegetarian.
Even as a young child I was never a picky eater and would eagerly try whatever was put in front of me. The only exception was my refusal to order off the kids menu. I despised things like french fries and chicken fingers because the colors were monotonous and the presentation was just ugly. As soon as I could read, I would commandeer the adults menu and state, with the confidence only a 6 year old can muster, “Daddy, I want the roasted quail with chokecherry reduction sauce.” His mouth would drop as I seemed to have a nack for always picking the most expensive and exotic dish on any menu, but I always licked my plate clean, so he tried his best to indulge me as it seemed to be my main interest.
I was a foodie in the making before the term even existed. It should be known that my inclinations to eat this way can not be attributed all to nature, for my family was a good deal more nurturing and celebratory about good food than your average American household. My dad is a New Yorker Italian, and early visits to see my Sicilian grandmother impressed upon me that food was important pretty far up our family tree. She would cook for days in advance and present us with a 6 course meal that would make even me finally surrender to the very real danger that I might explode. At this stage she would put her hand to my forehead and ask with genuine concern, “You’re full already? You must be sick!”
Despite our occasional outings to fancy restaurants, my parents would mostly cook at home, and I learned to love real foods cooked with real flavors. There were very few packaged snacks in my house, meals were always balanced with at least one vegetable dish, and even though we had an occasional TV dinner when my mom was extra busy, that was still no excuse watch TV while eating. Dinner was a ritual that always took place at the dinner table and served as a time to share stories from our day. I didn’t really know this was out of the ordinary until after my mom stopped homeschooling me and I started going to middle school.
My eating habits started to change as I was influenced by my peers and thrown into a more mainstream American food culture. School kept me busy and I started to view food more as a necessity, something that had to be ingested to keep me fueled through my busy day, and less as a source of celebration and pleasure. By my teenage years I was inclined to eat four or five meals a day to satiate my desperate growing pains. By this point I had lowered my quality standards and placed most of my energy into obtained maximum quantity. I worked at a Mexican restaurant where I would regularly inhale a full platter of chili cheese fries for lunch just two hours after my second breakfast.
Obesity is never something that plagued me because I swam competitively through highschool. However, the acne infesting my face was probably trying to tell me something about how my diet wasn’t doing my body any favors. I went to several skin doctors and they prescribed me all manner of chemical concoctions to put on my face, but none of them even mentioned diet. Years later, after learning about how food have different properties that directly affect our physical health and even our moods, I would look back on those chili cheese fries and realize that they had a lot to do with my acne. In addition, the grease and the spice, all of which are categorized under the fire element in Chinese Medicine, were fanning the fire of my already angsty youth. It was common for me to feel quick to anger back then, and hormones could only be partly to blame.
The first year of college I was made to stay in the dorms and eat cafeteria food, which was so flavorless and appallingly repetitive that it revived my hatred for bad food. I started to make various concoctions of salad and sandwich using the one ingredient that met my approval and was easy to take away: avocado. The next year finally came and I moved into an apartment where I relished the privilege of having a kitchen again. Gradually, I remembered that I had been endowed with an upbringing that taught me how to cook; which became clear was rare after seeing my roommates try to function in the kitchen.
Between eating better and starting yoga it was if something lively and powerful was awakening in me after being dormant for a very long time. That year I began studying Mandarin, mostly because someone told me it was too hard for me to learn; I always liked a challenge. I fell in love with the language swiftly and completely. I had never really loved anything so obsessively aside from food. Little did I know my passions would soon intertwine.
The next semester I went to Shanghai to study abroad and I found myself surrounded by fellow foodies that spent every resting moment thinking about what they would cook or where they would eat next. My palette was invigorated as I tried an array of fruits and vegetables I had never seen before, like kongxin cai (literally translated as hollow heart vegetable) also known as water spinach. And I can not forget the inventive proteins that found their way into my ever-expanding palette, like frog legs cooked in hot pot and duck blood tofu added to noodle bowls. It was like those gleeful first years when I had discovered eating were happening all over again.
China would teach me how to evolve from a passionate and often glutinous eater to a shameless foodie on a mission. At the time I did not know it, but perhaps my stomach did.