As recent interest in All Things Food - nutrition, sustainability, spirituality, flavor and preparation - grows like a stalk of biodynamic lemongrass, the exact definition of a "Foodie" remains debatable. In his famous 2009 Op-Ed piece, Anthony Bourdain wrote that we had become a "Foodie Nation," that chefs had become "empowered" and diners "obsessed." But, what if you may have become a Foodie unintentionally, by circumstance instead of desire? Then, what are you?
Foodies brought me up, though my parents don't label themselves as such. My father could marinate gravlax in his sleep and gladly wake up to a plate of olives and sheep cheese. Decades before it was trendy, my mother kept a separate meat freezer in our pre-war basement laundry room filled with cuts of meat from local farms. I consumed a hundred frittatas before biting into my first Dunkin' Donut and she would sooner whip up a cheese soufflé than order a pizza. School friends shied away from dinner at my home in fear of being served a chive-spiked lamb burger beside a pile of bulgur wheat pilaf.
My older brother embraced my parents' legacy early on, requesting escargot in French restaurants and dipping bread into the garlic sauce left behind. And while I was duly enlisted to serve as second in command during the mixing of his signature German "Sachertorte" cake, I remained a picky child and eventually decided that gastronomy wasn't engaging. As a young adult, I favored easy, healthy food. For years, I ate an identical yogurt, fruit and blue corn chips lunch combination. As for dinner, I consistently avoided preparations with any of the following words: brine, brown, reduce or rub. When I met my husband (who doesn't cook) we kept an entire micro-population of delivery people busy while we worked our way through our twenties.
Then I had a baby girl. And once she began to eat, she sort of inspired our table of three. As she became old enough to try adult fare we fawned over her expressions as she tried the strange smokiness of bacon or licked at a smooth chocolate truffle. Suddenly the grilled cheese at our local diner tasted novel. So crispy! For her sake I added organic ground meat and herbs to our jarred pasta sauce and troubled myself to cook fresh broccoli.
Then I had a baby boy. And he had food allergies. Bad ones. He's seven now and he still can't eat a tediously long list of food. I can barely utter: "Dairy, peanuts, tree nuts, soy, round legumes and sesame seeds ..." before my listener's eyes glaze over. If anyone cares, I will squeeze in, "Oh, and eggs unless they are cooked at high heat for over ten minutes, umm apples and carrots and too much garlic make his throat itch unbearably but don't close it up like the other stuff, and yeah, navy and black beans are the only tolerable type . . . Oh! No peas!"
My son is the real deal. He experienced Anaphylaxis on one nightmarish occasion and repeatedly contracts asthma and quarter-size hives within minutes of his more extreme reactions. So several years ago I taught myself to cook, bake and create a wide variety of dishes based on limited ingredients and product restrictions. And the happy ending of this story might be that I came to love the visceral sensations of peeling and kneading. Or, that I became fascinated by the chemistry of a cake that rises on vinegar, or embraced the quirky challenges of alternative nut and milk free stuffing for Thanksgiving dinners. A likely conclusion might have been that I took pride in my vast accumulation of food manufacturing factoids and the silver lining in the dark cloud of my son's food allergies was the enjoyment of food in ways I never imagined.
Kinda? Just as the currently popular Foodie badge dangles within reach, I still feel vaguely reluctant about wearing it. I never wanted my food skills or tastes to define me. I am uneasy about my hours spent in my kitchen, my radar-like gaze on shiny vegetables purportedly "steamed" and my ability to rank every coconut oil on the shelf of the health food store. On one hand, I take supreme pleasure in watching my seven year-old hunker down to my version of "Pain Au Chocolate" (a quarter of a cup of nut, dairy and soy free chocolate chips melted and spread onto two slices of Arnold Stone Ground Whole Wheat Bread.) And I am proud of my new skills that keep my family both safe and nourished. But on the other hand, as I pop my son's tasty crusts into my mouth, I feel I've lost my truest self. In believing a mantra common to "Foodie Nation," food literature, blogs and movies - that our relationship with food is an intractable part of our identity - then I must conclude that my son's food allergies only prove how unwieldy that relationship can be.