I believe that you are NOT what you eat. As human beings, we turn to food as our source of sustenance, of nourishment. It feeds our needs, satiates our hunger, and leaves us feeling full, satisfied and content – but is it the food or the camaraderie of the table? I grew up Southern in Memphis Tennessee – where like the mighty Mississippi running by, the sweet tea and conversation flowed freely at mealtimes. Laughter, love and family togetherness were always mixed in with the mashed potatoes and everyone wanted extra helpings of everything. Grandma’s attention was lavished on both you and your empty plate with equal gusto, and no one left the table without getting their fill of food and plenty of friendly, familial debate. While studying at a national university, I naturally gravitated towards other Southerners, and my friends’ roots in Louisiana, Florida, Texas and Arkansas paralleled my own. We gathered together on Sunday nights to dine as a surrogate Southern family – gathering in our ratty college houses to share in the rituals of Southern cooking, dining and storytelling – and through our four years we found that the comfort and fun of a familiar table kept the homesickness at bay during the dark, frozen, Midwestern winters. So, when I was diagnosed at age twenty-one with severe food allergies, I found myself mourning what, at first, appeared to be an insurmountable loss. No more biscuits. No more barbecue. No more pecan pie. The list went on and on. With every item that was taken off of my plate, I felt a growing sense of panic, frustration, sorrow…….. and hunger. At first, I tried cooking an alternative meal for myself while my friends shared our usual communal courses. I picked at my quinoa and millet pilaf while they plowed through trout amandine, barbecue ribs, jambalaya. I envied their gourmand luxury and resented my banishment to the world of (gasp!) health food. Eventually, I quit going to the dinners. I had plenty of excuses – there were always papers to write, books to be read, miles to be run at the gym. I was eating a perfectly healthy, perfectly balanced (nutritionist verified) diet, and yet I always felt a gnawing, raw hunger inside.
After about two months, I slowly began to return to the table. My friends began to ask specific questions about what I could and couldn’t eat. One Sunday an allergy-friendly gravy appeared at the side of our turkey. Two weeks later, they eschewed ordering pizza, and we made salad instead. I found that once I stopped looking at my plate, I observed so many other means of sustenance at that table – conversation, friendship, compassion, courage and companionship – and my hunger subsided. Five years later and with a vastly improved range of diet choices, I still find myself putting down my fork to take the time to listen, to learn, to observe and to laugh during mealtimes. I finally learned that you’re NOT what you eat – instead, you’re what you take away from the table.
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