Last year, I shared deeply about the true beginnings of my “food story.” I didn’t know what to expect…I had no prediction about how writing it or publishing it would feel–I only knew that I wanted, that I needed to be honest with myself and others about all the reasons why food is an important part of my life, and how it came to be that way. And so, without expectation, I left myself open to whatever emerged from telling my story.
When I checked last, there were still no comments on the post itself, for which I guess I’m grateful. However, I’ve had the chance to speak openly and vulnerably with many people offline about my story, and what they’ve told me it meant to them to read my honest account of my relationship with food. Strong and competent women have opened up to me about their own food histories, and how they didn’t have the words to even begin telling their own stories until they saw something similar in mine. There have been others who truly wanted to know more about me, and who I am, and how I am doing in my journey. And at the time of writing, I was in the middle of what was honestly a more than trying year. It was the kind of year that feels like getting caught in a riptide: each time you think you are emerging out of the surf, another current pulls you down, only to batter you again and differently. And sharing my story in that incredibly honest way was one high point in the year. Baring my honest self to the food world–to have formed even one good conversation–helped me to be truly grateful for the healing I experienced in my own journey, and the incredible resilience of the human spirit in the midst of difficulty. No matter how difficult the year was, I saw what had changed in my own life. I saw the beautiful, loving community around me, and I noticed the strength it takes for people to be as open, vulnerable, and honest with me as I had been with them.
At the end of my first post, I promised to tell you more about my food story; about what drives and inspires me when it comes to this thing that is a cornerstone of our survival in the world. So, here is part two…
The first part of my story doesn’t really help you understand why equity around the table is so important to me. It certainly doesn’t describe how I became really invested in food allergies and making sure everyone can eat the same things at the same time. So, to share a little more about that, let me ask you to imagine a few things. Before I start, I want you to know I’m serious: as these questions are asked, I really want you to imagine these things. As you think through these questions, one at a time, I want you to see through my eyes; how I see it, and that will take some effort. So, if you need, relocate to somewhere you can focus, and join me.
First, I want you to imagine all the foods you can’t live without. These might be the comfort foods you turn to after long, hard days. Or, these could be the staples of your diet; the things you buy week after week for yourself or your family.
Next, I want you to imagine the ways you connect over and around food. What types of events and occasions and holidays do you celebrate with a meal or a special food? Are there weekly times where food is present, like a sporting event or a meeting? Do you have specific seasonal foods that are traditional in your family or your culture?
Now that we know the “what,” let’s think of the “how” and go a little deeper:
When you are eating those foods, how are they comforting, or sustaining, or celebratory? Is it the food itself, or is it the memories of comfort surrounding the food? For the staple parts of your diet, do you eat it because you like it? Does it say something about your identity — who you are in the world, the kind of values you have, the type of person you are, or where you come from? . How do you feel when you are eating those foods and participating in those events or occasions? Are you part of the group? How would you know if you were really not part of it; not included? And if you were not a part of it, how would you feel?
Now, with all the above in mind, imagine yourself in those situations, but you can’t eat what everyone else is eating because the food might make you sick. You can’t do the thing that comforts you, or connects you to your culture, or joins you to others, or fits with the event. Or even if you can, its cumbersome for you and those around you. Sometimes they go out of their way, but more often than not, the help alternates between meaningful and embarrassing, especially if they get it wrong and you get sick anyway.
Take a second and check in with yourself: how do you feel and what was that like?
What I have just led you through is what I saw happen to multiple friends and loved ones when they were diagnosed with a food allergy. To be very honest with you, I also watched myself and others not realize what was happening for them until a frank or tearful conversation shook us out of our ignorance. It wasn’t out of spite or laziness that we didn’t notice. It’s just too easy to get caught up in routines without noticing the subtle changes, or realizing what our inobservance can communicate.
That communication–intentional or unintentional–is what really drove home the importance of making sure everyone can eat together at a table. Think about it this way: when we approach a holiday that’s celebrated with particular food, that holiday is partly symbolized by that food. Even if the holiday isn’t actually about the food, making and eating that dish is part of the ritual that marks the time and celebrates the holiday. And when one person can’t participate anymore, they are symbolically excluded from the tradition of the holiday in which they used to fully participate. They are also excluded from fully participating with the people they used to celebrate with. And this extends to smaller, everyday interactions as well.
Take, for example, the dinner table. If I make a mouthwatering dinner and invite some friends over to eat, I am communicating that I want them to connect with me in my space. I am welcoming them hospitably. If one of those friends can’t eat what I’m making and I do nothing about it, then I am also communicating a few of things. Maybe I don’t know, or even care, that my friend can’t eat my food or might get sick as a result of eating it. The former might communicate that I am scatterbrained or preoccupied; the latter that I don’t care that much. Or, it can communicate that I’m ignorant about how deadly allergic reactions can be by insisting that it will “be okay” if they try “just a bite.” (Something we would never say to someone who is allergic to bees… “it will be okay, it’s just one bee sting.”)
There is a third scenario around the dinner table that is much trickier, because I have noticed it emotionally sting just as much, even though it is a true attempt at communicating care. If I know that my friend can’t eat something, but I make that as the main dish while giving them a smaller dish of their own, I could also send a hurtful message. Yes, I might be communicating that I care and that I want them to be well and still come to my house for the dinner. But I am also communicating that they are not “normal;” perhaps not “one of us.” Because of a difference they have, my making an extra dish means I have to do something special and take on more work just for them. (Now, there might be some outlying circumstances, religious ritual meals for example, where there is only one food that is prescribed by the religion. In this case, having an alternate could be helpful and perceived as 100% thoughtful even if it doesn’t fulfill the religious requirement.) But in gatherings centered around food that are voluntary, the dynamic changes. It can be incredibly painful, even while simultaneously experienced as kind, for someone who wishes they could eat what everyone else is, but now no longer can.
To be honest, this breaks my heart. I am one of those highly sensitive people who, for better or worse, notices more frequently when someone’s feelings are hurt by a social situation. The last thing I would want is for someone to come to my table and feel excluded by the meal. I mean, there are hundreds of recipes from just about every type of cuisine that either naturally, or with a little adaptation, can be made allergy-friendly. It only requires a small bit of effort to choose recipes that welcome everyone. When made that way, no matter how many seconds or thirds everyone wants, they can have them. Or when someone compliments the chef and says what they liked the most, everyone can participate in the conversation, because everyone ate the same thing.
To go back to my previous post and story for a second, I know what it is like to worry and feel different during a meal. This may be what helped sensitize me to the feelings of others during table time. For several holidays, filled with sweets and other trigger foods, I would sit and worry about what was going to send me over the edge. Rather than freely engaging in conversation or enjoying the meal, I would spend my time caught up in my own thoughts. On Thanksgiving (where for many, the point is to stuff yourself silly) I would experience a surge of feelings similar to those that came with binging: helplessness, self-loathing, and so on. To combat these feelings, I would “be good” and eat one normal plate of food… which would inevitably draw attention to myself in a holiday of feasting. I was different, and others–many in a good-natured way–pointed that out to me in an effort to be “helpful” about whatever was leading me to be different. Unlike someone with a food allergy, I didn’t feel comfortable telling them what was really going on, but the experience of otherness and separateness was there. I was shoved out of the moment of connectedness by something negative that existed in my relationship with food. And apart from disconnecting me from the sustenance I craved, it also unmoored me from the holidays themselves. Rather than experiencing these times as joyful occasions, I began to dread them. It hurt.
Eating disorders are definitely different than food allergies. Yet in retrospect, as different friends began to receive food allergy diagnoses from their doctors and started eating differently, I couldn’t help but notice that many of our feelings of exclusion, confusion, and hurt were the same. And when the meal inadvertently centered around something we could all eat together, I noticed those feelings didn’t happen as much. The conversation flowed better, and there was relief.
So here we are. Noticing the impact of these situations on my friends and loved ones began to change the way I approached serving food at my table. Elizabeth and I began a weekly dinner group where everyone can eat delicious food. Maybe it’s my imagination, but I haven’t noticed the food being a source of hurt feelings, confusion, or self doubt. And for me, that is how food should be experienced: delicious, connecting, and as a source of community.