Have you seen that psychological experiment with the kids and the marshmallows? It goes like this: a child is given a marshmallow and told that they can eat the marshmallow right then or, if they wait, they can have two marshmallows.
Few children can resist that first fluffy ball of sweetness, although many of them try. YouTube videos and internet sites have filmed replicas of the test showing children squishing, licking, and petting the sugary treats before sneaking their first nibble. These videos usually end with frightening claims about how the lack of self-control these children show will inhibit their potential for the rest of their lives. But they’re over-simplifying, showing only one part of the test. Later segments explore the effects of distracting activities like playing with toys, visual distance, and imagination on the choice to delay gratification. The experiment shows increased willpower when the marshmallow is covered with a bowl or when the children are told that they can imagine it’s not there.
Before IBS and its accompanying food intolerances, vacations were an opportunity for boundless culinary exploration. I loved trying new dishes and indulging in old favorites. Whatever rules or restrictions I usually followed where placed on hold. I ate whatever I wanted. I ate pancake breakfasts and late night French fries—ignoring the constipation that I experienced every time I travelled. I wouldn’t be held back. I was proud of my culinary exploration. (It never occurred to me how much of this supposed diversity relied on a single ingredient: wheat flour.)
Now that I’m on a more restricted diet, I still find plenty of delicious options, but somehow I still feel deprived, especially when traveling. Its illogical, feeling this way. I’m luckily not a celiac, and don’t have to worry about cross contamination. I can even eat ancient grains like einkorn and spelt in limited quantities. At home, my food options don’t seem limited, but away from home, it’s difficult. Not because there’s nothing I can eat, but because I’m surrounded by food I can’t eat, reminders that my choices are limited.
On a recent long-weekend trip to Atlanta I enjoyed succulent Indian lamb, a crisp-edged turkey burger on a gluten-free bun, pulled-pork enchiladas, creamy grits topped with shrimp and tomatoes, and even a gluten-free brownie. And yet, despite this decadent array, I found myself longing for flaky French pastries, chewy middle eastern flat breads, and pillowy Japanese steam buns. Calorie wise, my vacations are still an indulgence, and yet I often end up feeling hindered.
I’ve developed tricks to keep myself from partaking in forbidden foods: moving the bread basket further away from me on the table, not reading sections of a menu dedicated to sandwiches and pasta. I used to allow myself a single bite of pizza crust or dinner roll. But when you allow yourself one bite, it’s hard not to have two and while sometimes a small indulgence wouldn’t lead to symptoms, other times it would. Besides, I think it’s worse somehow to know exactly what I’m missing. Now, I abstain, unfailingly. And yet, I struggle. I watch my friends tearing into buttery garlic nan or my boyfriend slicing into crisp waffles and I hanker for what I can’t have. And yet, I have so much.
I know this, that my deprivation is laughable, minimal, negligible. I have never been malnourished, deprived of sustenance. But even my paltry restriction is illuminating. It gives me a tiny window into true longing and deprivation.
I am not strong enough to overcome my own unsatisfied wanting, at least not yet, but I do feel great admiration for those who resist more, have less. The shrimp and grits pictured above are from Cafe 458, a nonprofit which funds programs for the homeless, a setting that helped subvert my normal mental whining.
I may not always be able to feel the appreciation my privileged life deserves, but when I return home, back to the comforts of my own kitchen, I am truly grateful.