Back in September my lovely friend Renee shared her #realdietstory over on her site, Will Frolic for Food. She talked about her relationship with food, and diet history in an attempt to help share some human vulnerability in what often can be the sterile and alienating world of the internet.
She encouraged others to do the same and somewhere along the line, my friend Sophie challenged me to share my story.
I don’t really know what my hold up with sharing was. I feel like in the past I’ve talked a lot about my diet and the ups and downs with my relationship to food. Yet something about now seems like the right time to share.
So often we let fear of criticism stifle our own comments on the world, especially in a world as curated as the blogosphere. We fear we will offend someone, lose readers, or likes, but what’s the point of sharing if nothing we share is ernest, real, or truthful?
So here’s my #realdeitstory. And a warning to all, the following contains mention of killing animals, my struggle with eating plants, and eating disorders. Please be mindful when leaving comments.
So, let’s start in the beginning…
My childhood was the closest thing to idyllic I could have imagined – like something out of a strange Beatrix Potter story. A world ripe with the most vivid greens and enchanted woods. I grew up in a rural environment surrounded by coniferous trees that stretched tall to the sky, rolling hills of wild flowers heavy with bees, and rambling gardens overgrown with vines. Food was always plentiful and without a doubt, always made with love.
Each night our dinners were made from scratch, eaten at the table as a family, accompanied by candles, music, and the soft sounds of the rain dripping from the tree canopy. My mother is a hippy at heart. The kind who used to import her own soya beans to make tofu before you could find it commercially. She’d make muffins as dense as hockey pucks, and whole grain bread that was 99% fibre. My school lunches were packed with brown bread, veggie sticks and hummus, and a cloth napkin. In retrospect those lunches were pure gold.
As a four year old, I had a better relationship to food than I’ve ever had as an adult. It remains my biggest goal in life to return to that state, that way of unshaped social thinking, and to reform that connection I had to what I ate. Most of my adolescent days were spend in my mother’s vegetable garden (in the teepee made of snap pea vines no less) chewing on Sweet Cicely, my fingers stained with the juice of wild blackberries, a pet chicken under my arm. At that time we kept goats, whose milk we drank and made into cheese. We had free range chickens for eggs (with the brightest orange yolks one could imagine), and geese, ducks, guinea fowl, peacocks, and beehives just for fun.
Despite all these animals we kept, my parents were terrible farmers. They were too soft and loving and they let the brutality of the work get to them. It’s from my parents that I learned the importance and respect for life that I carry with me today. Beyond the odd rooster, they could never kill or eat anything we raised. It was not uncommon for us to have crates of chicks being nursed by hand on our kitchen table, or a chicken donning a homemade splint for a bum leg. I once recall some fowl that were born weak and sick. Any real farmer would let the mother hen kick them out of the nest. My mother was not that farmer. She scooped up the chicks and gave them to my grandmother who carried them around in her purse for weeks, feeding them by hand, until they were strong and able.
Growing up around animals has forever shaped my relationship with food. From an early age I had to learn that fine line that distinguished what was constituted a pet and what constituted food. While it was always defined, it remained blurred. One of my most beloved acts as a child was to accompany my father to the barn and help watch the goats give birth. The moans and cries of the nanny to her new wet baby were, even as a young child, the most special sounds I could imagine. Seeing that instant bond of love and recognition the mother goat had to this brand new creature, would make me cry even at that age. One evening when I was no more than five, my father and I stepped into the barn to see if the goat needed help (we’d always make sure she had plenty of treats to eat after the birth). She was in mid labour and eventually gave birth en caul. As soon as I saw the kid, I was hit by the sudden thought that it was dead. I remember watching my father rip open the amniotic sack, removing the gunk that clogged the little kids airways, and breathing life back into that baby. Several months later I would see that little goat being sold and driven away by a local family for their Easter meal. I would see the glimmer of tears in my mothers eyes, and I don’t think I’ve ever felt as heartbroken as I did in that moment.
The unapologetic and entwined confrontation of life, sex, and death on a hobby-farm has made me very aware of what I eat and where it comes from, more than any book or food documentary I’ve ever watched. I can close my eyes to this day and know the iron-like smell of a freshly killed rooster, the sounds of a baby goat crying for it’s mother, and the taste of the greenest young spinach freshly plucked from the earth. And I know how all of those things affect me emotionally, spiritually, and physically.
The first week of grade seven I dropped out of school (against my parents wishes). I become removed from society, from my peers, and lost most connections I had to the outside world.
Reading became my greatest escape.
Out of boredom and isolation I taught myself to cook. I read every Martha Stewart infinite times, and like no right-minded 12 year old, would spend hours perfecting my choux pastry, my curds, and endless blancmange. I fell in love with food for the first time in my life.
But boredom and teenage-hood lead to depression. Depression lead to weight gain. Weight gain led to depression, and the vicious cycle went on.
When I was in my late teens I fell out of love with food. My younger sister got heavily into competitive rowing and I became her exercise partner. We would run together to help her train, often too far and too hard, all the while eating too little.
I became obsessive about counting calories. Food was the only thing I could control in my life, so I controlled it as best I could. 800 calories a day was all I would allow myself. Everything that crossed my lips would get written down in great detail- the calories of the gum I chewed, the vitamins I took, the milk in my tea.
I remember how much I denied myself at that time. I missed out on events, on parties, on so much fun, out of the fear I possibility might have to eat. I became stuck in a world where my biggest joy had become my greatest shackle.
My eating disorder came and went in intensity over the years, but it wasn’t until it majorly began to affect my health that I did anything about it. I was young and naive, and I didn’t recognize that the missing of my moon-time was anything to be concerned about. Instead, not having a period was met with secretive joy (one less thing to worry about). It wasn’t until I was in the bath on day and noticed fistfuls of hair in my hand, that I began to get concerned.
After years of work I found a healthy state of learning to eat again without thinking of how many calories were in each thing I put in my body and began to see food as a source of nutrients and joy. It was the hardest thing I’ve had to do in my life thus far, but also the most freeing. When I went away to university, food became what it is for me today, and I learned to love it again. I worked at organic bakeries, I did all I could to learn about different grains, healthy cooking, nutrients, and went through stints of being vegan and vegetarian (like my older siblings before me).
I would find pleasure in creating vegan or vegetarian meals, but my diets would always end in “relapse” and ultimately became another form of control that restricted me and riddled me with guilt if I could not maintain.
I would secretly cry when I saw my roommate place kielbasa on my cutting board or when they’d drink my rice milk (oh, the 2000’s) instead of their own. Anytime something of mine came close to something I didn’t eat, it became contaminated, and the risk I could be contaminated grew with it. I began to deny myself situations again, missing events and activities out of fear of being the odd one out, or worse, feeling socially obligated to ‘cheat’ on my diet. It was a new look, but the same disorder all over again.
HOW I EAT TODAY
Over the last eight years I’ve learned to love food. After battling with it for so long, I’ve finally arrived in a state where I get excited again to see produce, to cook it, to smell it, to eat it without guilt or reservation. I eat what I want to, what makes me feel healthy, and happy and strong. While I do currently eat a vegan diet (I cannot tell you the last time I ate an egg or meat was), I do not feel the need to identify with that title. For a lot of my close vegan friends, the word vegan is a defining part of their character – they identify with it, its subgroup, and its culture. And while I support the vegan fight with all my heart, I prefer to identify as plant based (or as my friend Vanessa says about me “she’s not vegan, she’s just a hippy 🙂 ).
While the term plant-based seems to easily fall into that zone of wishy-washy non-commitment, for me the title is not about what I can’t eat but what I choose to eat – plants.
Will I eat meat or dairy anytime soon? Not that I can tell, but who knows. By identifying as plant-based, I give myself that room to breathe. I allow myself that freedom of going to a friends house for Thanksgiving and eating the brussels sprouts from around the bacon, or the hash browns off my partners breakfast plate that happens to be smeared with yolk. I know from experience that rigid titles don’t work for me, and that within their confines I choke and suffer.
Over the years I’ve worked on this site, I have gotten a lot of lovely and heartfelt comments from people. I cried the one time someone sent me a letter explaining how I influence them to try kale for the first time in their life.
I’ve also gotten some mail thats hard to read. Mail that make me feel small, guilty, and hurt. Letters from people who don’t think I try hard enough. Who want to know why I cannot commit to being a “vegan” in title despite my understanding of the cause.
To me eating ethically extends beyond the consuming of animal products. It means shopping sustainably, locally, and researching where produce comes from and what conditions those people are working under (example why I don’t ever buy Driscolls berries). A healthy lifestyle is one that works for you. Each and everyone has different mitigating circumstances, realities, and bodies that require different things to thrive. So long as you are listening to your body and make small positive choices, to me you’re part of the solution.
I believe food should not be a source of guilt but instead a source of encouragement and love. I think within the confines of so many of my favourite sites and accounts, I’ve found the support I need. Many different people are coming at the same goal of creating a better, healthier, mind, body and earth, but they get there by way of different paths. No one path is more correct, or more righteous than another. As long as people are making an effort to live as best they can, I support that with all my heart.
For now, eating only plants works for me. I feel strong and healthy, and take the vitamins I think I need. But like my diet which has changed and evolved with me over the years, I feel it will continue to grow. I hope to return to my roots one day and have that garden again – and that forest to gather nettles and berries in. I know I want to surround myself with chickens once more, and maybe or maybe not I’ll have the odd egg. I long for those goats again too. To feed them, to cuddle them, to love them. Maybe one day they’ll spare me a little milk to make cheese, who’s to know? But no matter what, I do know that all their babies are staying with me.
For more on the #realdietstory, check out Renee’s post which includes the links to many others stories, and feel free to share your own here.