She had watched them in supermarkets and she knew the signs. At seven o’clock on a Saturday evening they would be standing in the checkout line reading the horoscope in Harper’s Bazaar and in their carts would be a single lamb chop and maybe two cans of cat food and the sunday morning paper, the early morning edition with the comics wrapped outside. They would be very pretty some of the time, their skirts the right length and their sunglasses the right tint and maybe only a little vulnerable tightness around the mouth, but there they were, one lamb chop and some cat food and the morning paper. To avoid giving off the signs, Maria shopped always for a household, gallons of grapefruit juice, quarts of green chile salsa, dried lentils and alphabet noodles, rigatoni and canned yams, twenty pound boxes of laundry detergent. She knew all the indices to the idle lonely, never bought a small tube of toothpaste, never dropped a magazine into her shopping cart. The house in beverly hills overflowed with sugar, corn-muffin mix, frozen roasts and spanish onions. Maria ate cottage cheese. ― Joan Didion, Play it as it Lays
We were ravenous so we wheeled our squeaking carts to King Kullen and piled it high with boxes and cans and tins of delicious things. Mozzarella cheese sealed in plastic, cans of sloppy joe and Hamburger Helper glinted in the overhead lights. We preferred our peaches syrupy and saccharine sweet, the color of a vermillion sky; we had no idea that our steaks were injected with a dye that rendered them a blushing pink or that iceberg lettuce slathered in ranch dressing would be our dietary downfall. Back then we stockpiled tubs of sugar, fatty beef and flours bleached pure and white. We never heard of the words organic, gluten-free, sustainable. And we balked at anything fat-free, we tried wheat germ and we weren’t easily fooled. We had a watch, we knew what time it was.
It wasn’t until 1994 that I had my first real salad, verdant leaves and all. And it wasn’t until 2004 that I pulled down the cans from the cabinet and read all the labels. Believe me when I say that I was shocked that all my deceptively healthy foodstuffs contained ingredients like high-fructose corn syrup and partially-hydrogenated oils and I was a kid all over again confused by terms I didn’t know. Food has been my life-long passion, and just when I think I’ve got it down, just when I feel that I can be all confident and cocky, I’m humbled, challenged and curious all over again.
Last month I embarked on an experiment. For months I had been complacent, ordering the same take-out night after night, ordering the same buttered bagel every morning, and soon I slipped into a routine of food rote. I nearly gasped when I scanned my credit card statement to find pages of Seamless orders, and I winced realizing that all the delivery men knew me on a first-name basis, that I was ordering that same gnocchi pesto even though I knew I shouldn’t. And I can’t think of anything more tragic. So I decided to turn the volume on my fridge WAY UP because a woman was IN DIRE NEED OF AN AWAKENING.
Let me preface this by saying that my experiment was in no way motivated by a “diet.” I had no interest in losing weight or depriving myself of gastronomic pleasure. When I elected to live a month free of white flour, refined sugar and dairy, it was the result of a complacent diet. And I’m glad I did this because my eyes are finally wide open.
Over the past four weeks I’ve discovered scores of ways to cook quinoa, found protein-rich pastas that leave me guilt free, realized that I should have been drinking almond milk years ago, and, more importantly, dumping a pile of cheese on my food completely erodes the subtleties of its flavor. Can you believe I was actually PAUSED before eating a bowl of cheese-free pasta? I shudder to think. Eliminating dairy, sugar and white flour from my diet forced me to make more mindful food choices and up the veggie ante. Almost every meal contained kale, spinach, arugula, squash, carrots, tomatoes or peppers. At one point I peered down at my shopping cart and couldn’t remember having purchased SO. MUCH. GREEN. For a time I’d been shopping like a stereotypical single woman because what was the point of buying so much food when it inevitably went to waste? In the past month I turned that axiom on its head by having more of my dear friends over for dinner, by feeling excited to cook a feast solely for me, knowing I had the option to freeze it, share it, or re-invent it over the course of a week. Suddenly I had more options and a little more green in my bank account.
For as long as I could remember I’d been trying to brown bag my lunch, and when faced with unhealthy take-out options I was forced to pack tupperware filled with cherries, carrots, berries and wholesome eats. Not only was I saving money, I was actually enjoying my lunch! Leftovers became lunch. Seven pounds of kale launched a DIY salad initiative in the office, and I had noticed another change…
I was feeling GOOD.
Gone was the ubiquitous bloat. I had stamina for my workouts and I felt lighter. And yes, I did drop a few pounds, but more importantly, I stopped craving cookies and saccharine sweet foods; I didn’t entertain the 4:00pm vending machine shuffle. Instead I felt healthy. I felt strong. I’m so thrilled I went down this strange, winding road because I discovered so many foods that are now mainstays in my life and re-affirmed that complacency is the death of everything.
And isn’t this the best gift you can give yourself? Yourself back to yourself?