I was not a picky eater as a child, no matter which of my divorced parents’ homes I ate at. From a culinary standpoint, I preferred my weeks at my mother’s house because she was a deft hand at cooking almost anything she’d tasted just once, and went for bold flavors and rich, fat-juiced sauces; there I ate Linguini with clams, and calamari, steak and lentil soup. I was especially fond of casseroles and roasted chicken, but in truth I’d have eaten just about anything you put on my plate out of politeness. Including my best friend’s Dutch mother’s cooking, which involved an item they called “junk”—they never would tell me the original Dutch word it is actually derived from—a kind of all-purpose stewed tomato goulash that I had to gulp down with my nose closed.
At my father’s house, where I went every other week, he had adopted a vastly different style of cooking, one part derived from his parents’ subsistence-level diet while they lived near poverty in the Israel of his childhood—eat whatever was at hand—and one part the influence of the burgeoning health-food movement of ‘70s California: your body is a temple, let nothing impure inside it.
And thus began his ventures into Macrobiotic cooking, and the catalyst for my own downward spiral into a serious junk food habit. For those who think that Atkins or Paleo are “hardcore” diets, let me explain the basic tenets of Macrobiotics quickly. This alkaline-producing diet gets its name from a German physician, Christoph Wilhelm Hufeland, who coined the term in his book The Art of Prolonging Human Life, but the modern application of the diet has its roots in Japan, where doctor Sagen Ishizuka pioneered it into a lifestyle meant to help cure all disease. Most likely it swept its way to the United States on the back of some traveling flower child, along with Zen Buddhism and sushi. It makes sense to me that my father, an acupuncturist and yoga practitioner, would be drawn to the Eastern influence of balancing the “yin” and “yang” in all your food and clearing out all processed foods, fats, meats, oils, sugar, alcohol and dairy. My father also leaned toward the addition of fermented foods, like sauerkraut and tempeh.
For me, however, it signaled the end of the kid who would eat anything. On a practical level, out went the delicious noodles, hot dogs and corn we ate on a regular basis, and in came steamed vegetables, brown rice, flavorless, quivering tofu, and bland vegetable soups, all without sauce, salt or other condiments. You also could not eat anything from the nightshade family: potatoes, tomatoes or eggplants, making our occasional stop for french fries a sad, oily-tinged memory.
My mother recalls a conversation in which I called her from Dad’s with a mournful tone. “What are you having for dinner?” I asked.
“Steak and salad,” she told me. “What are you having?”
I almost cried. My mother made steak that tore apart like tissue paper between your teeth, medium rare, almost as tender as raw fish, dripping in teriyaki sauce.
“We’re having adzuki beans and brown rice.” Bean was a generous word for these hard little nuggets, which popped between my teeth, releasing a flavor like wet dirt.
“I felt so sorry for you,” she told me years later when I recounted this story.
The more heaping mounds of steamed, flavorless food my father put on his own plate, the more I found myself stopping at Burger King on the way to the bus after school to pick up a tray of $2 “sliders”—five fatty little coin-sized hamburgers that oozed grease and tasted like heaven. The 7-Eleven became my home away from home, with its rows of beckoning candy; the more likely to stick in my teeth, lurid with food coloring, the more likely I was to gorge on it. My father’s idea of sweets were a rare piece of carob—that horrid nutty imposter masquerading as chocolate—and rice-syrup-flavored plum candies that were more sour than sweet and cut my mouth as they melted into sharp discs.
My father wasn’t aware that every dollar he gave me in allowance went to feed this growing addiction, which I learned to hide and manage as cleverly as my mother did her drinking, most of it eaten out of the house, at playgrounds and even once, behind bushes when I spotted my father driving by.
It wouldn’t be until my mid-twenties that my father’s healthy habits would come home to roost in me. In my third year of college, I found myself in agony every time I ate a meal. Bloated, cramping, even nauseated, I was foolishly terrified that I must have stomach cancer. Friends in health-obsessed Sonoma County where I lived pointed me to a nutritionist as a first recourse. There, after saliva tests and a packet of forms as thick as a final Escrow, she presented me with a list of foods that my body could handle. It read like a page out of my father’s macrobiotic cookbook: zucchini, brown rice, tofu or tempeh. No nightshades. No sugar. No sauces. Just salt, pepper and olive oil. I could all but imagine my father grinning self-righteously at how my diet had come full circle.
I’ve worked in a lot of body-conscious fields—as a massage therapist, at a spa, at a gym, as a vitamin buyer in a health food store—and I’ve seen people control their diets in lieu of working on other deeper issues in themselves. I knew a man who would only eat vegetarian food off all-glass plates; anorexics who hid behind veganism; a woman who could eat only chicken and kale, due, she claimed, to mysterious illness. My father may even have been driven toward some form of “purifying” of his own dark secrets through eating. I’ve certainly found food to be an arena of control when my own life is difficult. And I’ve toyed with the basic principles of a Macrobiotic diet for my hyper-sensitive digestive system—which sometimes I wonder if I ruined with all those sugar bombs of my youth. But I’ve returned to the fact that balance is most realistic. I’m going to eat nightshades and sauce, ice cream and fried things, because sensitive or not, there’s too much pleasure in the realms of food. At heart, I’m still the girl who will eat anything.
Jordan Rosenfeld is author of the novels Forged in Grace and Night Oracle. She’s Managing Editor of Sweatpants & Coffee and her essays have appeared in Bustle, Full Grown People, Medium, Mommyish, New York Times, Ozy, Role/Reboot, the Washington Post, XO Jane, and more. Follow her on Twitter: @JordanRosenfeld. www.jordanrosenfeld.net