Identity crisis

I love food.

For most of my life, creating it has been part of my identity. As an adolescent, I baked. When, as a newly minted adult, I called myself a good cook, my dad countered and said I was a good baker–he didn’t really know whether I could cook. So I rose to the challenge and dove into new recipes, embracing new techniques. Now I bake AND cook.

I love to read recipes and experiment with complicated cooking methods. I buy unusual ingredients when I find them at the grocery store just to see what I can do with them. Just yesterday I picked up a box of Cape gooseberries to see where they might lead me. I can’t stand to clean my house, but I’ll happily cook all day.

Of course, eating comes with the territory. Discovering a new restaurant, an unusual flavor combination, or just pure deliciousness is an enduring quest for me. Although I have a few favorites, I rarely order the same thing twice at a restaurant for fear I’ll miss out on some other epicurean delight. And I try really hard to avoid ordering the same thing as someone else at my table. After all, I might be able to snag a bite of something different.

So what’s the problem?

In my (seemingly constant) effort to maintain my weight and improve my overall health, food represents a key component of that formula. I’ve made lots of lifestyle improvements over the years, but the hardest thing has been–and still is–separating myself from food. It’s like tearing away a piece of my soul.

Look, I make mostly healthy-ish choices. I’ve shifted my cooking style. I’ve learned to embrace and love vegetables (except the orange ones). I work out hard. But walk me past a new coffee shop or bakery, suggest we try a new restaurant, or tempt me with a fancy technique and I’m all in.

I’m trying to set boundaries and find alternative pleasures. I’m striving for moderation, to embrace all the sensory pleasures of food–the visual stimulation of a carefully composed dish, the smell that envelops me, the sound of the sizzle, the feel of working the dough–so that taste becomes less important and I find satisfaction in a single bite.

But this is my SOUL we’re talking about.

I’m not asking for advice here. Finding the right balance with food in all its aspects in my life is hard, but I’m trying. It isn’t the food I need to figure out so much as myself.

I see this as a journey in self-awareness. Twenty years ago, maybe even ten or five, I wouldn’t have recognized these things. Somewhere along the way I realized that food has become integral to my identity (admiring, creating, eating, sharing), so of course making lifestyle changes that revolve around it will be hard. In this case, I think the key is to finally recognize that I can’t just quit the thing that matters so much to me. I can’t even work around it, really. Instead, I need to work with it in a way that allows me to embrace my identity and still achieve my goals.

All this time, I’ve been trying to figure out food, when I should have been trying to figure out myself.

What’s cookin’

cookbooksI love cookbooks. I like to page through them, reading the recipes, mentally putting them together to figure out if something will work. I like the background stories that some of them include, and I imagine what it must have been like the first time that steaming dish made its way to the table. Mostly I like the way yet another assemblage of words–not prose, not poetry, not carefully crafted essays–can make the neurons fire in my brain to conjure pictures and flavors and smells. [Oh, how I love words and their power.]

Lately, though, I notice my cookbooks gathering dust. Never fear, I’m still feeding my family, but unless I’m reaching for a specific recipe that resides in the pages of my collection, I find myself reaching for my phone or my iPad to search the internet for inspiration.

I’m still trying to decide how I feel about that.

My approach is the same; I read through a recipe to assess it. I compare several different options. I imagine the outcome. It just feels so…impersonal. I miss holding the pages and smelling the paper, not to mention the fact that the screen on my phone gets pretty nasty from my internet cooking forays.

Still, it has its benefits. I have access to more resources than I could ever fit into my kitchen. I get the benefit of others’ reviews and commentary. [Note: ALWAYS read the commentary.] My cuisine choices are no longer limited by that which sits on my shelf. The world is really and truly at my fingertips.

As much as I love my hard copies and hope that paper cookbook publishing won’t fade away, on the whole, I think I’m far better off in this brave new world. I think we all are, actually, and two reasons stand out to me in particular:

  1. Accessibility. Anyone can find just about anything with an internet connection (free at most libraries for those who don’t have it at home). No longer are we limited by resources, e.g. how many/which cookbooks we can afford, what’s available in local stores, whom we know who can help.
  2. Competition. As a pretty firm believer in the corrections of the free market, I have to believe that increased accessibility and the corresponding increase in options will positively impact the quality of all. While things may look different in the end, I believe that survival of the fittest will make the winners–whatever they may be–far better than the original offering. I just have to be open-minded and keep a broad perspective.

It’s cookbooks for me, but it may be something else for you–I think the lesson is universal. Still, if you borrow one of my cookbooks, please don’t forget to return it!

The key ingredient

I don’t watch much TV, but occasionally I’ll flip to the Food Network to gratify my inner foodie. My kids watch along with me (they’re kids; they’ll watch anything), and the three of us particularly enjoy a show called Chopped.

The show features four generally unknown chefs who compete for a $10,000 prize by concocting various courses from mystery ingredients packed into a basket. With three courses and three rounds, one chef is eliminated (“chopped”) at the end of each, leaving the last one standing to collect the prize. The concept is simple enough, but the execution is tough. The ingredients in the baskets never go together, and often they make no sense at all.

Being evil geniuses, my kids have decided this exercise should be undertaken at home–on me. From time to time, they’ll decide it’s Chopped night at our house and proceed to fill our picnic basket with wacky items from which I am required to create a meal in a given amount of time. For example, one basket contained blackberries, honey, baby arugula, and Sprite. Sometimes I succeed (a sweet and savory crepe duo), and sometimes I fail miserably (peanut/tomato/rice noodle blob). Either way, I’ve had to look at the ingredients differently in order to find a creative solution. Sprite, after all, isn’t just for drinking.

My days are generally like those baskets. The things packed into them mostly make sense and I can put them in some kind of order to move forward. There’s always something, though, that throws me a curve. Good or bad, it forces me to rearrange everything to make room for it. It changes the whole character and nature of my day–just as one ingredient can change the whole character of a dish.

The only way to make those ingredients work is to change the way I look at all the others. I guess there’s a lesson in everything.