My story isn’t unique.
I spent the better part of my life in a love-hate relationship with food.
I grew up in Buffalo, New York, in an Italian household. My warmest memories take me right back to my grandmother’s kitchen—bread baking, sauce simmering, the smell of garlic permeating the air.
While most of the children in my world were eating peanut butter and jelly sandwiches oozing grape jelly on “wonder” white bread, I was eating crusty loaves of Italian bread shaped by my grandmother’s hands and slathered with sautéed spinach and garlic.
My dad turned grocery shopping into an art form—from baker to butcher to table, he taught me how to shop for the finest, freshest, most beautiful ingredients. To my dad, every meal was a celebration.
Not so with my mother. She was on the life-long diet plan. She had a lifetime membership to Weight Watchers. (And Diet Workshop, for back-up reinforcement.) Yet, no matter how many pounds my mother lost, she inevitably gained them back.
And then some.
My mom was trapped in a weight loss war zone. She counted calories, points, fat grams (whatever the collective was counting at the time). For as long as I can remember, she was overweight. And not by just a few pounds. My mother was, by today’s standards, obese.
I grew up in a food paradox. On one hand food was something to be celebrated and enjoyed.
And on the other—food was something to be feared. Food will make you fat.
As a young girl growing up in this weight loss war zone, I followed in my mother’s footsteps. You see, I believed I was genetically predisposed to look just like her.
That is the unconscious legacy we leave our children.
My diet history included the M&M Diet, the Diet Coke and Peanut Butter Cracker Diet, the Little Debbie Diet, and the Don’t Eat Anything ’til Dinner and then Eat Everything in Sight Until Midnight Diet! I also tried the Compulsive Exercise to Give Myself Permission to Eat Diet. And those were just the diets I made up.
As a more “educated” adult I traded in the crazy diets for more socially acceptable ways of eating. That’s when a new and improved diet history emerged: macrobiotics, vegetarian, vegan, raw. It wasn’t until a dear friend and colleague turned to me and said, “Why of course you still have food rules, only now they’re just sanctioned by your new career path.” Oh yes, *blush,* why didn’t I see that?
I called myself a flexitarian but I still had a whole lot of food rules, one of them being “no meat.”
A few weeks later my husband and I visited Sedona, Arizona to celebrate our anniversary. The concierge at the resort sent us to a lively local restaurant serving the cuisine of Mexico and featuring farm fresh meat and local produce. I asked the waiter if they had a signature dish. He enthusiastically replied, “Lamb Barbacoa.”
The first words that popped into my head were, “I don’t eat lamb.” I hadn’t eaten any meat, let alone lamb, for nearly six years. But then our enthusiastic food-loving waiter started describing this dish with the kind of reverence one reserves for a mystical experience.
He told us Lamb Barbacoa was one of the most famous and ancient slow-cooked foods of Mexico. The marinade contains some of the ingredients brought to this country by the Spanish in the 1500s: garlic, onion and cinnamon. The meat was wrapped in leaves and cooked overnight or all day in underground pits producing a succulent melt-in-your-mouth texture.
I immediately started thinking about my grandmother’s tomato sauce.
The smell of that sauce wafting from the windows would drive the neighbors crazy with longing. In that sauce Grandma would put Italian sausage, meatballs, and country style ribs. She would simmer the meat in her homemade sauce all day and by the time the sauce was ready, the meat was falling off the bone in melt-in-your-mouth morsels.
I once cajoled an entire group of high school friends to paint our house with the promise of Grandma’s spaghetti and meatballs to follow.
“I’ll take the lamb.” I said. My husband nearly tipped his chair as he turned to me, an incredulous look on his face.
“But you don’t eat lamb,” he exclaimed.
“I do now,” I said, a mischievous little grin on my face.
That lamb was the most tender, most delectable meat I’d ever tasted. Except of course for the meat medley in grandma’s sauce.
And to think I would have missed the experience of tasting Chef Jeff’s signature dish had I searched the menu for the “healthier” choice.