As a private chef, I often teach people how to cook. My most recent client, though, needed more than simply a cooking class; she had no sense of how to truly nurture herself through food. She needed to learn how to enjoy eating and create happiness in the kitchen.
I’ll call my client Kathleen. She is not anorexic, nor is she overweight. She’s a single, capable and successful businesswoman in her early 50s. She can keep a beautiful home and run a busy communications firm, but cooking herself a decent meal was not something she was capable of doing.
When we first met, I asked her what she ate. She opened her freezer and showed me a box of something microwaveable. It was only after several sessions and many conversations that I got to the root of her uneasy relationship with food. For Kathleen, her unhealthy eating habits began in her childhood. Growing up she had a mother who worked two jobs—both, ironically, in foodservice—and an absent father. She was one of the first generation of latchkey kids. “I’d let myself in after school and I’d be hungry, but no one was home, and sometimes there was just no food in the kitchen. My mother hadn’t had time to shop.”
Kathleen told me this story on our drive to her home after an afternoon of exploring Middle Eastern grocery stores, where we tasted exotic flavors and stocked up on wonderful, fresh ingredients. “I can remember looking through the cupboards and finding bread, brown sugar and a stale old Christmas cake. I made a sandwich out of these things,” she told me.
For Kathleen, food, cooking and eating are all tied up with the sad feelings of neglect she had as a child and not knowing what to do in the kitchen. “When my mom did cook, it was usually cabbage, pork and potatoes boiled in one pot. To this day, the smell of cooked cabbage makes me feel ill.”
So it wasn’t simply that it was easier for the adult Kathleen to pop something in the microwave; she actually could not bring herself to cook. But then something in her shifted; she wanted to be healthier and she felt ready to face her demons. Our task was to venture into the kitchen, face down that fear and help her learn to love food and cooking. And you know what happened? Her angst opened up my own wounds, too.
My relationship with food is also complicated and fraught with conflicting emotions. So many of our childhood memories are centered on food: Making it. Eating it. Not eating it. It’s one of the most primal expressions of love and trust. To mom and infant, food and feeding is the first and most crucial element in bonding. I’m told that as a baby I had a hard time keeping food down. According to my mother, mealtime with me was like a scene from The Exorcist.
I grew up in Hudson, a small, idyllic Quebec town, with two sisters and two brothers, though all but one sister had left home by the time I arrived. As a child I didn’t associate eating with good feelings. My mother, who passed away in 1994, didn’t seem to care too much for motherhood; I didn’t feel loved by her. She really didn’t enjoy cooking for us, or for my father. Which isn’t to say she didn’t like cooking—she did. Or that she wasn’t a good cook—she was. But only for company. I believe she was depressed and felt trapped in a life she didn’t want, and that expressed itself in a lack of effort in the kitchen. Bacon was burned without fail, and most of what we ate came out of a can. One of the staple meals she prepared, and that I had at least four times a week, was a mushy, overly sweet and highly acidic version of spaghetti bolognese. The runny tomato “sauce” stung my winter-chapped lips. The dish was made from ground beef she had fried into grey, chewy pellets, and a can of spaghetti with bright orange sauce.
Growing up in an unhappy household, I turned to food to dull my pain and to try to feel less alone. But food delivered only momentary comfort, and from the time I could reach the kitchen cabinets on through elementary school, I often overate—gorging myself. After I binged on cookies or crackers and butter, what followed was a wave of shame so devastating that I would hide in a closet behind my mother’s soft fur coats, or tuck myself safely between a warm radiator and the back of an armchair. I knew that my mother would discover the empty cookie bag, or the Popsicle box stuffed to the back of the freezer with just one treat rattling inside—and that she’d be furious, and as disgusted with me as I was with myself. “You’re fat, fat, fat!” she would scream, her contorted face inches from my own. She was slim and gorgeous, and I was her fat disappointment. When she did reach out to touch me, it was a solitary finger poking into my ample thigh accompanied by some Shakespeare: “O, that this too too solid flesh would melt….”
It was on the weekends, when my father was around after a long workweek, that I enjoyed his influence—hours spent together in his garden picking and eating fresh fruit and vegetables, or fishing off the pier at Wharf Road, dipping our rods into the Lake of Two Mountains and eating our catch that night or for breakfast the next morning. These were the happiest times of my childhood. And though he didn’t say so, I think he knew how unhappy I was, and I know he understood how much my time with him meant to me.
Forging a New Relationship With Food
I left home at 17 to move in with my boyfriend—we lived in an empty storage room owned by my father in downtown Montreal—and to go to junior college and then on to art school. Once I moved out, I abandoned the canned food and slop once and for all. I had become a vegetarian and I began to explore the wonderful world of the foods introduced to me by my father: real pasta with butter and garlic, fiddleheads and asparagus in the spring, a farm-fresh egg scrambled with Tabasco, and the unparalleled joy of eating a tomato right from the vine. When I went back to meat in my mid-30s, my father’s influence led me to shrimp, lobster dipped in butter, and a well-marbled, bone-in steak. From the day I left my mother’s home and created my own, my life has been a celebration of food.
It was long after both of my parents had died—my father of prostate cancer in 1997, my mother from ALS—that I became a professional cook. I suspect I did so in order to create a new relationship with food. With my freedom as an adult came an opportunity to feed myself, mother myself—and I seized it. Fortunately, I had an innate ability in the kitchen, a sensitive nose and palate, and I had had a mentor, my father. Food was one of the ways I forged the unbreakable connection I had with him while he was alive. Only days before he slipped into a coma, I sat on the edge of his hospital bed and fed him soothing spoonfuls of soft-serve ice cream. By this point in his illness, I was the only one he’d eat for.
Working with Kathleen reminded me of how far I’ve come in developing a healthy feeling about food. And the lesson I hope I have taught Kathleen is that she can cook, that she really does love food—and that she can find the time to nurture herself through this wonderful new relationship she and food are enjoying.
October 2012 issue of Best Health magazine