When Food Is Medicine
This is a submission in our monthly contest. November's theme is Gratitude.
One night, after the results of my son’s routine blood work showed scary-high levels of phosphorous, an effect of his kidney disease, anxiety fluttered inside my chest like I had swallowed a hummingbird. Anxiety about his health, the new medication I’d have to force down him, the disease’s progression, his eventual transplant, school, life, friends … I clicked on the TV to take it away, to lose myself in some gorgeous, rainy, heavily-accented series on the BBC. I landed, somehow, on the "Great British Baking Show." I ate through the first season like it was cake, watching home bakers whip together sometimes beautiful, sometimes disastrous creations in their bowls and mixers and ovens. What struck me was how real – how average – these people were, baking for the simple pleasure of creating something, of feeding their families. I thought: I could do that. My first loaf of bread came out lumpy and awkward but delicious. My three children ate it smothered in butter as I spoke to my son’s doctor and nutritionist on the phone. We needed to start him on a grainy, awful-tasting powder – a phosphorous binder – which would be his ninth daily medication. But something in me refused. They said I could sprinkle it on his food, or mix it with water – but I knew, and they knew, it wouldn’t be as easy as that. He was three-and-a-half, very particular, with a history of eating issues. There must be something else we can do. They relented: We can try to make changes to his diet first, they told me. No cheese, no milk. Limit whole grains, meats, nuts, the list went on and I scribbled notes as the hummingbird fluttered inside me. Really? For this boy who spent the first two years of his life nearly unable to eat solid food? Who would spit out (or vomit up) a single Cheerio? Whose crackers I’d break into grains of sand and set with something like a prayer on his high chair? This child whom I’ve been spoon-feeding for far longer than is good for either of us? For years the message was always FEED HIM, in alarming capital letters. FEED HIM or we will we will write failure-to-thrive on his chart. FEED HIM or we will thread a feeding tube down his nose and into his belly and do it for you. Now you want me to take the food away? But my son, like my two healthy children, ate my bread and butter and something clicked. I went to the supermarket; I read ingredients. What I thought of as “good bread” with the label from a fancy Los Angeles bakery wasn’t just flour and water and yeast; it was a science project of chemicals and preservatives, even a phosphorous additive. I put it back. I started keeping bread dough in the fridge, ready to bake when we were running low. Then on to other things: carrot cake, corn muffins, zucchini bread, forgoing the nuts and doubling the vegetables; French toast with pasture-fed eggs; from-scratch pancakes, waffles, everything with almond milk instead of cow’s. I baked at night, when my family was asleep and everything was quiet and dark, which was better anyway because summer days in LA were just too hot. I kept batches of waffles and French toast in the freezer to warm-up in the mornings. I joined a CSA and looked forward to Wednesdays, when a giant box of organic fruits and vegetables, sometimes with the farm dirt still kissing the heads of lettuce, would land on my doorstep. Baking turned to cooking. Roasted delicata squash in coconut curry. Pasta with burst cherry tomatoes and garlic and kale. My littlest one now eating spoonfuls of (almost) dairy-free spinach pesto for breakfast, and why not. Meat quickly took a backseat to fruits and veggies, but chicken from the farmer’s market, lightly pounded and pulled through sesame seeds could save the world. Soups, stews, sauces, and after too many years of spoon-feeding, my son started to use utensils on his own. Rosemary shortbread cookies. He’s feeding himself. Cucumbers and avocado with balsamic vinaigrette. Not just feeding himself, but feeding himself a salad. I’m lucky to live where the produce is so bountiful. I’m lucky that my children (and husband) are good sleepers, so that I have my nights alone in the kitchen. I’m lucky that I enjoy the quiet miracle of turning ingredients into food. Some things take time, so I save them for when I have time. Good produce, meat, and eggs – it’s expensive, but hey: I serve expensive food on cheap plates. Sometimes my cooking is beautiful and sometimes it’s a disaster, just like the bakers on TV, but watching my son’s phosphorous levels stabilize without medication, and watching my healthy son and daughter eat their veggies (and their cookies) with pleasure, makes the effort, and the expense, entirely satisfying.