Eating well in the age of cancer.

Last Night’s Succotash Soup

“One cannot think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.”
-Virginia Woolf

At this very moment, mothers the world over are asking their children these questions.  “What did you have for breakfast?” and “What have you eaten today?” Food intimately links us to life. The first action of a baby after being born is to root around to start nursing.  Unfortunately our food sources are not always so pure as our first sip of mother’s milk.  Whereas food preparation once was the central work of every home, it is possible now to grow up, to raise children even, without ever learning to cook from scratch. To some the art of cooking has become a mysterious rite practiced by celebrity chefs.

In this day and age I am not sure what all it means exactly to Dine Well. Even though it was my profession to feed people for much of my adult life.  I have certainly arranged many events aimed at helping people to dine well.  By that I mean creating food with the very best ingredients, and cultivating an atmosphere that inspires meaningful conversation.  These Big Night type dinners, and even the daily lunch rush can be about something special – the people eating those meals were eating in time taken out of the norm. But what is dining well on a daily basis like?

Without the advantage of a culture that values house-holding as a lauded profession, the standard American diet has gone off the deep end.  Basically much of what we consume is only barely food.  As a consequence all kinds of serious illnesses are rampant.  And yet medical students are only minimally educated about nutrition. The degradation of  women’s work and the vast realms of house holding, combined with our economic structure, leaves us no time to cook square meals.  It is no wonder we reach for other options. The average person can be excused for mistaking that box of mac and cheese as a meal. (Not to say that cooking is only women’s work – at our house the four men folk all cook, and clean bathrooms too.)

During the hight of my professional cooking I am sorry to say that my children did not always benefit from my culinary prowess.  The number of nights per week that we consumed “Emergency Noodles” i.e. store bought pasta with store bought sauce, is somewhat regrettable.  This really exemplifies the impact of the loss of status of the householder. Basically serving fancy dinners for strangers for money,  was replacing cozy meals made for and consumed with loved ones.

Years ago when I chose to become a vegetarian as a teenager it was seen by those around me as a radical departure from good sense.  I grew up amongst midwestern farming people with big gardens, and a tradition of deer hunting so strong that the school district gave high schoolers a week of excused absence to hunt for their families.  The norm was real food on most tables.  It was also seasonal, when corn was on, we ate it everyday, and then a long dry spell till the next summer. It wasn’t until years later that I realized that such eating was “invented” by the San Francisco foodie scene. Growing up in a place decades behind the progress of the rest of the nation I was woefully ignorant it seems.

The years since my 1970’s & 80’s’s rural midwestern childhood have seen agricultural advances like the end of the family farm, and the rise of crops genetically modified so that they can either be saturated in herbicides, or create their own pesticides internally. Toxic practices are used and the results are still marketed as “food.”  As a nation our health has suffered as we have eaten a more and more refined and processed diet that is less and less diverse, and more and more toxic.  These things are part of what the food revolution in San Francisco was responding to. Californians were watching the decline in the diverse family farm model and seeing it replaced with the vast agribusiness model.  Basically the  rise of the global Organics movement has been a response to the decline of real foods.

All is not lost. We know deeply that real food is what we want, what we need. People are teaching themselves to cook. But, there has been a disconnect from tradition, which necessitates reinventing what we eat.  The disconnect that started in the aftermath of WWII means we no longer have access to what we might otherwise have learned from our grandmothers. And if we believe the paleo diet people, perhaps what we really need is the wisdom of our our ancient paleo grandmothers.

Kraut Kraut Kraut

Eating in the age of information…

Home cooked meals eaten with others is part of dining well, but what goes on the plate? Thirty years on from my decision to eat vegetarian, and 3 years on from a breast cancer diagnosis, I am having a renewed interest in how best to eat. Clearly eating vegetarian is not a silver bullet that it is sometimes made out to be.  Nor is it simply a misguided fad. I am intrigued by the ideas that have come and gone as to what constitutes the “most healthy diet.”  I know that there is wisdom to be found in both ancient food traditions, and modern science.  (Sauerkraut anyone?)

People are actively seeking out traditions to cultivate. In this time we can choose to eat foods from every corner of our multicultural world. Science is publishing studies on how we need to eat. There are so many food avenues to travel is a bit bewildering. Do we choose a paleo diet? Vegan? Raw food? Bone broth? Gramma’s goulash? Perhaps a breakfast of avocado smothered in coconut oil, turmeric and hemp nuts? By the way, what ever happened to oat bran muffins?

Mostly I am a firm believer that there is most definitely NOT anything that qualifies as a one size fits all diet. There are more boxes to check beyond, the Organic, Whole Grain, and Mostly Vegetable boxes that I have had checked since I was 18.* Clearly, though I relish it, brown rice did not protect me from breast cancer.   I have been reading about what constitutes an Anti-Cancer diet, also learning about the insulin cycle in the body, inflammation, and sifting through and seeking out what advice I want to take from the research.  This is eating in the age of information.  Honestly it can be pretty bewildering.

A beautiful and colorful summer salad prepared for me by Martin a few years ago, and served to me in my studio.

Food is Love…

Food is emotional from that first suck at our mother’s breast. This quality to the eating experience is one thing that complicates making food choices.  Fear can inspire people to adopt new foods, or reject others, but I question whether fear based changes can contribute to health. My choice to eat vegetarian was not based on fear- but when I seek  information on what to eat that is anti-cancer I find much of what I read is decidedly fear based.

I experience guilt if eating things that might be considered cancer promoters.  Primarily sugar. This is a sticky mire that I have seen other cancering folks fall into as well. We eat for comfort, we eat to reward ourselves – if we have made changes during the crisis of initial treatments, it can be easy to slide back into old habits during stress. A slice of birthday cake, is not such a problem – daily pastry alone? Not so good.

This is not the first time our household has transformed our diet.  About a dozen years ago it became clear that my oldest, who was 6 at the time, was allergic to things he was eating. We went through a process to identify the foods he was sensitive to. We needed to cut out several core ingredients from the family table. It was tough, we needed to grieve a bit the loss of some favorite foods. Most of our go-to meals had to be ditched. In some ways I think we never really “recovered”, we simply developed new go-to recipes.  I think that experience helped me to address some feelings of bereavement around not eating certain things.  I started to look at food restrictions in a more positive light, as something I am doing  for myself, rather than focused on what I am losing.  Less victim role play, more empowerment.  As with everything else cultivating right mindset is of paramount importance.

Cancering has been a watershed moment in our family’s meal plan.  Not only because I want to recommit to a diet that does not support a resurgence of cancer, but because I want the boys to cultivate their cooking skills. When they are cooking for themselves off in the world, I hope it will be with habits that support their health.  I care about nutrition. I know that it matters, I just need to sort through all the hoopla to find what will nourish us to the most delicious level of thriving happy health as possible.  What I do know for sure is that organic does matter, that fresh matters, that lots of color and adequate protein are both good.  The website Food for Breast Cancer, has a huge amount of information that is backed by research. The book Anti- Cancer also has a lot of good intel.

Agreeing with Virginia Woolf seems the wisest course of action, to prioritize dining well. Even though I’m not yet clear on all the specifics, I do know that eating with joy and gratitude, with loved ones when possible is a good place to start.

(See my post Not by Kale Alone here. )

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4 Comments Add yours

  1. LOVE the quote & how you’ve worked with that theme throughout the post – good luck on your food journey!

    1. Iridacea says:

      Thanks for reading, and the well wishes.

      1. My pleasure! Thank you! 🙂

  2. Enjoying a stress free lifestyle, spending quality time with family and friends, eating healthy meals mostly prepared at home from clean ingredients, are all important factors in living well in the age of cancer and many other diseases brought on by today fast way of living.

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