About a month ago I received a very powerful and vulnerable email from a reader. She had just finished reading Date Night In for the second time and this time she was particularly struck by the chapter where I gush about burgers. In that chapter I talk about two periods in in my life where burgers were more than just dinner – they saved me. If you’ve seen Date Night In you know that the subject matter is very tender but this chapter was probably the hardest to share. I briefly discuss a season in my life where I had a very unhealthy relationship with food. The reader who emailed me picked up on that, related to it then saw that I was very much healed of that and can now express great freedom and joy around food. She asked me to share more about that experience and how I found freedom.
I share this, with shaking fingers and short breaths, in the hope that it will help others on their path to health. This is my own journey – no two are the same and yet there are universal truths that I think we all can and should learn from one another. I would love to make myself available to those who want to continue the conversation off of this public space and invite you to message me through the contact page on this site.
This was my reply:
Thank you for your kind words and your incredible vulnerability.
I am absolutely happy to discuss this subject especially if whatever I have to say (which I’m not quite sure what that will be yet) may be of some help to you. That chapter very tenderly touches on something that I silently struggled with for nearly two years. To this day I still have a hard time saying I had a problem as that would mean that I was out of control. I see now that all I was doing was trying to be in control and show how very in control I was. Obviously, I was not.
Coming back from studying in Italy during college I had put on some weight. At first I was clueless to this – I just knew that I had really enjoyed the creamy gelato, Carbonara and perfectly frothed cappuccinos several times a day. It was in Italy that I fell in love with food and I enjoyed it without abandon and free of guilt. Back home I was faced with the reality that 1. I had put on weight 2. I was getting married 3. Finishing college 4. Starting a career which I didn’t really feel excited about … anyway, a lot of changes and a lot of unknown. Unknown is scary to me. Unknown makes me curl up in a ball and rock back and forth.
So I used my impending wedding as my excuse for wanting to get in shape and eat right. Well, it turns out I’m extremely competitive with myself, and everyday became a competition of how much I could exercise and how little I could eat. To the point where on my wedding day my dress drooped off my body. After awhile my body stopped functioning properly and I spiraled into a pit of depression. I hated what I was doing to my body. I flung shame onto myself like a heaping pile of dirt and I buried myself in it. Guilt and shame never solve anything in fact they perpetuate the cycle and drag us down deeper and deeper into the pit.
People tiptoed around the problem. My then new husband didn’t really know what to do – I don’t blame him, I didn’t know either, plus we were just trying to figure out how to be married– that was enough to occupy our thoughts and conversations. I wish I could say I had some sort of revelation that got me out of my overthinking and obsessiveness about eating. There wasn’t.
We moved to LA about a year after our wedding. I had decided I wanted a career in food and long story short – I had an amazing opportunity to work at Spago in Beverly Hills. It was my first restaurant job. Before that job I didn’t know the incessant shrill of the ticket machine and how to prepare a soufflé, créme bruleé, a fruit tart and a cookie plate all at the same time. I’d work a full night then grab a gallon of ice cream on the way home from work to practice my quenelles. For months I was completely stressed and fraught with anxiety. I fully put it on myself, but I’m a perfectionist, and I was determined to not let this job defeat me. I poured all of myself into that job. Eventually I loved it and succeeded in that position but it took a long time. That stress and my devotion to the job was all I had time for. I needed to be kind to myself in other areas of my life so I could really put all of me into that position. So I allowed myself to eat. And oh did I eat – burgers, late night fried rice, all the glorious fruit that comes from that California sun, the perfect-textured ice cream from dessert station, and soft-serve cones from whatever was open when the craving hit. It was sweet grace in a really hard but rewarding time in my life. Overtime I put on weight, got healthy again and without even really realizing it I developed a healthy relationship with food.
Looking back I can see some things that were happening that I’m hoping will help you. I have the sort of personality where I quickly become obsessive. So when I tell myself that I can’t have something it’s all I want and all I can think about. I became so preoccupied with what I couldn’t have I hardly thought of anything else. Then if I succumbed to the insanity and actually ate what I said I couldn’t, I was wracked with guilt. It was a horrible cycle. All of that disappeared when I told myself that I had the freedom to have whatever it is I wanted or needed. If a sudden insatiable craving for chocolate ice cream hits – I lean into that craving. The thing is though, if I’m truly listening to my body and trusting its cravings it’s vegetables, fruit, leafy greens, creamy things – real food that it craves. I listen to what my body wants and believe it when it tells me I’m done. I rarely overindulge because I don’t have to. I’m very fortunate – and I don’t take this lightly – to know that every day there will be food. And not just sustenance, like really delicious food. I’m constantly testing recipes and I (mostly) love spending time in the kitchen so there is always food around. I know that I can indulge on a daily basis if I want to.
The trust and assurance I have in my body is beautiful. My body cares for me, has served me so well and in return I try and feed it what it needs to do its job. I’m not an overly healthy eater in the way our society now views healthy eating (paleo, vegetarian, all whole grains, etc.) and yet vegetables are probably my favorite thing ever (especially when there is cream and cheese involved). I eat white sugar and white flour and currently there’s a bag of cool ranch doritos (almost empty) and mint oreo cookies in my cupboard. Everything and I mean EVERYTHING in moderation. Honestly, to me, this is healthy eating. The sort that believes nothing is off limits, no food is evil and any food can be used to bring joy and health to my body. That looks different every day but each day, each meal, each bite is a gift.
Food is a gift. It’s what connects me to my Creator. I want to see it as such, help others see it as such and use it to bless myself and others. There is no room for guilt and shame in that. When I see it as the gift it is and enjoy it with the grace we were all given it is beautiful and life giving – just as I believe we were meant to enjoy it. Eating for me now is a constant reminder that I am loved.
Today I eat for community, for pleasure, for grace, for sustenance, for fuel – there’s always many reasons. I exercise, not for my body to look a certain way, but so that I can feel strong because I am strong. Here’s the other secret, even when I was at my thinnest I still saw so much wrong with my body. I know that being beautiful has nothing to do with actual physical attributes but it has everything to do with how I feel inside. No amount of dieting or exercising will ever make me feel healthy and beautiful if I’m not mentally and spiritually strong.
I hope and I pray that in telling my story that there is some sort of truth that you can cling to that may help you. You are absolutely on the right path. Someday you will look back on that season as I do and be able to say, I am so thankful that I am freed from that way of thinking. It will not always haunt you and you will be able to enjoy food with great abandon. Writing this email was a gift to me – a reminder that I’ve come a long way in my relationship with food but more importantly with myself. Each imperfection of my body is a reminder of my own imperfection. And that is freeing to me now not suffocating as it once felt. I’m reminded that perfection is not needed for me to be fully loved. I also look at the bumps, bruises, dimples, stretch marks, wrinkles, rolls, etc. and see them as a reminder of my strength – of a life fully lived. My body tells a story and right now I’m damn proud of that story. My body and I are most effective in this world when we trust each other and work together.
Seared Steak with Caper Relish
In this moment in my life this steak is health food and I enjoyed every single bite of it.
2 cups (packed) assorted herbs (such as Parsley, basil, mint, cilantro, chives)
1 clove garlic, smashed
3 scallions, white and green parts thinly sliced
zest of 1 lemon
1 tablespoon lemon juice
2 teaspoons fish sauce
1/3 cup capers, drained
1/4 cup Extra Virgin Olive oil
Salt and pepper
1/3 cup finely grated parmesan
2 New York Strip steaks (or whichever cut you’d prefer)
Salt and pepper
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
1 garlic clove, smashed
For the relish:
In the bowl of a food processor combine the herbs, garlic and scallions. Pulse until finely chopped. Add the lemon zest and juice, fish sauce, capers, olive oil, pinch of salt and pepper, and Parmesan then pulse to combine. Scrape down the sides of the bowl then pulse a few more times for good measure. Taste and adjust seasoning to your liking. It should taste quite strong and pungent to stand up next to the steak.
For the steak:
Season the steak with salt and pepper, generously.
In a large cast iron skillet add the olive oil and butter. Once the pan is smoking carefully add the steak and garlic clove. Leave it be, undisturbed for five minutes to build up a good crust. Flip the steak then begin basting it with the garlic-tinged butter and oil using a spoon and tilting the pan if needed.
Continue to cook until desired doneness, about 4 minutes more on the other side for medium rare (135°F).