Travel, Exploration, and Wanting What I Can’t Have

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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.

 

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Travel Mementos

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On vacation, I always try to imagine what it would be like to live in the place I am visiting. What neighborhood would I live in? Would this cafe be my go-to writing spot? Would the traffic get to me? I also like to bring home little reminders of the places I’ve traveled, souvenirs, though that word has so many negative connotations that I prefer to say mementos, small reminders of where I’ve been.

The things I take home rarely last long. They aren’t keepsakes. I don’t collect snow globes or t-shirts. I’m much more likely to buy a bag of local coffee, a jar of jam from the market, a bar of handmade soap, or possible a piece of local art.

Sometimes I keep these treasures, other times I share them with friends, but I love collecting on my trips. Later, when I make a cup of tea from a market in some other city, give a friend a trinket and tell her about the place it came from, or take a bite of well-traveled candy, I re-experience a tiny piece of my travels, like a sensory snapshot. When I’m back home and feeling restless, these keepsakes recall wonder and surprise, infusing my routine with bits of mystery.

Creative Space

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For a few years in my late twenties, I took trapeze lessons. The class met weekly in a rustic loft space. The dozen or so students were taught by a member of the studio’s performance company. The class consisted of some moderate strength training and general technique, but most of our hour-long lesson focused on earning and practicing “tricks” the trapeze equivalent of yoga poses. A few of the tricks included a series of moments necessary to get your body into the correct position, but most of them were stationary, a pose more than a movement. It wasn’t until we started training for our first performance that I realized perfecting the tricks wasn’t enough, that what made a series of poses into aerial dance was transitions, the way you moved from one pose to the next. Transitions were the space in trapeze for creativity. Aerialists were protective of their invented transitions, to copy someone else’s progression from one move to the next was considered a faux pas.

In other artistic medium, copying is considered essential to an artist’s development. Painters copy the works of great masters, chefs learn to precisely follow their mentor’s recipes, but fairy tales, like aerial dance, is a medium that combines structure with space and encourages embellishment. There are countless versions of Cinderella and Little Red Riding Hood, but the core story—the series of tricks—remains the same. Each teller moves from moment to moment in a slightly different way, fill in the framework with their own flourishes.

I found myself thinking about transitions last night in a yoga class. My regular instructor just moved away and I was trying someone new, a young inexperienced teacher who provided a challenging sequence of poses with very little instruction about moving from one to the next. Finding my own way, remembering the correct form for each pose and finding a fluid movement to get from one to the next was challenging in a way I found frustrating. By the end of the class I was agitated instead of relaxed. I was used to instructors who detail every aspect of movement and found myself uncomfortable with a style that should have provided more freedom.

This realization got me thinking about the insistent association of fairy tales with children, something that many admirers of wonder tales find condescending. But perhaps fairy tales are connected to youth not because they demonstrate a lack of sophistication, but because they demand creativity. Children love to fill in the gaps that adults find frustrating.

Impossible Challenge Recipe: Gluten Free Bagels, Part 1

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Frequently reading fairy tales distorts my sense of what is possible. If Beauty can turn a beast into a prince, I think, surely I can make a killer gluten free bagel on the first try. This post is part of a new series “Impossible Challenge Recipes,” an apt designation I decided on before attempting my first installment.

I confess, I haven’t been baking very often and when I do, instead of baking gluten free I’ve been using spelt flour, a wheat relative that my body (thankfully) tolerates. Spelt is not a perfect substitute for wheat. It has less gluten, more protein, and absorbs more liquid than standard flour. But it’s close, close enough that it can be used on its own instead of as a part of a complicated blend, close enough that it doesn’t require the support of xanthan gum, guar gum, or psyllium husk powder, close enough that milk powder and extra eggs are not required. In short, spelt flour is a lot easier to work with than gluten free flours. It’s a great option when I’m baking just for me.

But the thing about food, and especially baked goods, is that are often meant for sharing. I get frustrated at parties when everyone else is eating fluffy cupcakes, chewy brownies, and delicious sandwiches and I’m supposed to be grateful because someone brought a quinoa salad. Of course, before I discovered my own wheat intolerance I never even considered baking anything gluten free, but now I understand how hard it can be constantly deprived of options.

So, I’ve decided to re-embrace gluten free baking, and take on the most challenging baking tasks I can think up, things that would have scared me even when I was still using wheat flour.

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This bagel was my first challenge. It combines tapioca starch, glutinous rice flour, potato starch, millet flour, and teff flour. It has both xanthan gum and psyllium husk powder. It has one egg and some ground flax seed. All of this combined to make a bagel that is very chewy and not at all fluffy.

The picture up top looks pretty good, but you can see in the one just above that I didn’t get much of a rise. Also, they cooked unevenly, with oily looking tops and crunchy, over-browned bottoms. I could feel discouraged, but if there’s one thing that fairy tales have taught me it’s that it usually takes 3 tries to get something right. Time to try again!

I’m open to suggestions and magical assistance.

Against the Odds

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On a recent lazy afternoon, I was looking through posts on my favorite food blogs and saw that one of them—Pastry Affair—was having a giveaway. I entered, partly because I wanted the prize—a fancy blender—but I was also taken with the content of the particular post, a recipe for almond milk accompanied by a discussion of the writer’s (Kristin Rosenau) severe dairy intolerance. Pastry Affair is a fairly mainstream baking blog, one which rarely includes posts tailored toward specialized diets. Its recipes are full of cream and butter, so I was shocked to learn that Kristin can’t eat most of the food she makes for the blog, that even small amounts of dairy make her extremely sick.

My own approach to food writing is more selfish. I write about food I can eat and bake things that fall within the limits of my restricted diet. I was diagnosed with IBS only two years ago and went gluten free a year after that. I’m still new to all of this restriction and I struggle.

Despite having learned to make gluten-free versions of most of my favorite foods I often slip into self-pity when I find myself in a social situation where these options aren’t available. I hate not being able to have a slice of wedding cake, a casual piece of pizza, a coffee shop sandwich.

Sometimes I can see my new food guidelines as a challenging adventure, but more often I view them with frustration. Reading Kristin’s post, I was struck by her poise, positivity, and risk-taking. I left a comment, entered the drawing, and waited.

That week, while waiting for the results of the giveaway, I felt excited. I thought about the recipes I’d make if I won the blender. It had been a long a time since I’d won anything; it had been a long time since I’d entered something, at least something that wasn’t decided at least in part by merit.

As I kid, I loved entering contests and I remember winning my fair share. The prizes were never anything big, usually just a coupon or a t-shirt, but winning was exciting. There was something about entering contests, about hoping for something, against the odds. Taking a chance, believing in possibility, was like dreaming, like magic.

Fairy tale magic is often about overcoming impossible odds. The heroines take on tasks that are beyond their means. A girl must spin straw into gold, or sort lentils from stones, or find a place east of the sun and west of the moon. These impossible tasks are somehow always completed, and hearing these stories as a young girl instilled in me a belief that I could achieve impossible things.

Somewhere along the way, I stopped reaching for things that seemed impossible. I started believing in the odds. I became practical. But this practicality, while safe—and even useful—is limiting. It keeps from a great many losses, but also from the potential of winning. I’d like to break free of it, to bet on myself.

In that spirit, I’ve started entering all the giveaways and raffles I can find, as long as the entry fee is less than a dollar. I mean, I can’t totally give up on practicality J

 

 

 

Mermaids and Poor Judgement

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Lately, I’ve been thinking a lot about the Little Mermaid, possibly the most powerless of all fairy tale heroines. She isn’t vulnerable because she is weak or passive but because the world around her acts in ways she doesn’t expect.

I’ve been struggling with my IBS, had a terrible flare up despite my best attempts at self-care. I’m feeling better today, and I’m grateful, but I worry about when the next attack will come. When I’m sick I struggle to write, to read, to talk about anything else. I become completely absorbed with my own body, my own discomfort. I become irritable and prone to tears. I wonder if I’ll always have these symptoms, and I search obsessively for some diet or supplement I haven’t already tried to ease my discomfort.

I think about the Mermaid, how despite her beauty and faithfulness, she ends up alone because she can’t explain who she is. Nothing she does can bring back her voice, which she gave up because it provided an opportunity, because she does what she knows is right for her. Even though everything goes wrong, I still feel she made the right choice, that she would have been miserable if she hadn’t tried.

I tell myself this because my own illness seems to be the result of a decision, the choice to quit smoking, a choice I made for my health. But I don’t feel healthy. My body doesn’t work as it should. Try as I may, I find over and over that I am powerless, that I cannot prevent my symptoms. I berate myself for all the years I spend smoking, and feel that the damage I’ve done is irreparable. Surely the mermaid, looking back, could blame herself for ignoring her father’s good advice, can see her behavior as reckless. But I understand why she didn’t. I forgive her rebelliousness, her daring, her curiosity, and try to see my own youthful poor judgement sympathetically.

 

A Reflection on Delicacy

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In some versions of Cinderella the lost shoe is made of squirrel fur; in others it is solid gold. But the glass slipper—sharp, easily broken, transparent, and requiring great craftsmanship—feels right. It is an object that requires careful handling, that cannot be bent or stretched, only broken. It’s delicacy is part of its magic.

Delicacy is a feminine ideal that has always felt out of reach to me. I long for small hands, long spindly legs and a tiny nose. To call something delicate implies fragility but also fineness, lightness, and equilibrium. Delicate features are both diminutive and well made, a combination that is alluring in its grace and vulnerability. We are attracted to things easily broken. Delicacy implies a need for care and restraint, it is a beauty which imposes, inhibits.

We use the phrase “delicate balance” to emphasize the difficulty of stability, a recurrent motif in fairy tales. The easily broken requires constant awareness and attention. The prick of a single spindle is enough to put a delicate princess to sleep for a century. Fairy tales are defined by delicacy, thin windows of opportunity, brief moments of connection.

There is a particular beauty to things which are easily destroyed: glass slippers, crystal coffins, a girl small as a thumb. In fairy tales, fragile objects are carefully tended to, eliciting tenderness in the people around them. In Wonderland, every move Alice makes seems to destabilize. Fairy tales are full of warnings to be careful.

In terms of food, a delicacy is something rare and expensive, often with an element of difficulty in preparation or discomfort in consumption. Some delicacies are young animals, consumed for their tender, inexperienced flesh, others are naturally poisonous foods specially prepared to remove their deadly toxins. In the Philippines, embryonic eggs are eaten by sucking translucent unborn ducks from shells delicate as fine china. Eating the developing birds is supposed to give strength to pregnant women.

Delicacy describes that which is easily injured or prone to sickness. A delicate constitution is one easily upset. A delicate stomach is one that struggles with digestion. But that difficulty is born out of sensitivity, an exceptional responsiveness.

A delicate instrument is one capable of distinguishing barely perceptible differences, fine-tuned, well-made. Delicacy requires great skill, it calls for deft handling, it begs both care and skill.

Women strive for delicacy. We long for thin bones, small waists, dainty features. It can be easy to dismiss such longings as frivolous, to equate them with subservience and weakness. But maybe our hunger for delicacy has more to do with a yearning for our sensitivity to be acknowledged, a longing to be seen as fine-tuned and deserving of attentiveness.

Happily Ever After

 

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When you’ve believed something about yourself for long enough, it feels factual. It becomes part of how you define yourself. As a lover or fairy tales, you’d think I’d believe in happy endings, yet what is more quintessentially fictional than a fairy story?

I gave up on having a family of my own long ago. Marriage and children, I said, were not for me. I can’t remember if this was this a choice I made at some point out of a desire for freedom or if I felt that I was defective in some way that would prevent me from having them. I honestly can’t remember, but once the belief that I would never marry or have children became part of my identity, both things seemed true: I didn’t want these things and that they were unavailable to me.

But somehow I’ve landed in stable relationship with a man who wants to get married and have children, who sees these things in our shared future. And now that I’m faced with the possibility, I’m not sure what I want. It is delightful to let go of the voice in my head that says I’m not the marrying kind, but it is terrifying to think that there is nothing special or strange about me.

In fairy tales the heroines are often defined by some oddity: Rapunzel’s hair, the Pea Princess’s sensitive skin, Little Red’s bright cloak. But they are also conventional: pretty, feminine, obedient. Their adventures, however fanciful, end with the same, bland happily-ever-after. The girls have their adventures and then they settle down and have families. There is part of me that feels drawn to the new possibility of being able to have a normal life and part that resists falling into the expected pattern.

Why the House Creaks and Groans

(After the Brazilian tale “Why the Sea Moans”)

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A girl was born into a large house that sat on a high hill. It had once been a beautiful mansion, but her family’s wealth had been lost long ago and now the house was decaying, and most of the wings were boarded up, and the girl and her mother and father lived in the heart of the house, at its center. They lit only a single fire and cooked and slept in the same room. The girl’s parents, ashamed of how far they had fallen, rarely left the house and the little girl wasn’t allowed to leave either. She was very lonely, but sometimes at night, or when the wind was strong and the house creaked and groaned she swore it was saying her name.

One day there was a terrible storm and the wind howled and moaned through the house and the girl’s parents busied themselves sealing broken windows and nailing old doors closed, and the girl, alone with the fire, heard the house say her name more clearly and distinctly than ever. She gazed into the fire intently and in the flames saw a kind and beautiful face. “

In the garden,” the flames whispered, “when the storm is over, you will find a tree that grows rubies instead of fruit and your family will be saved.”

The girl was overjoyed and thanked the face in the flames over and over. The face said it was the spirit of the house, and was happy to help.

“You must promise that when your family’s wealthy is restored you will repair me and return me to my former glory,” and the girl promised.

Soon her parents returned and she told them there was a tree in the garden that grew rubies instead of fruit and that it would save them. Her parents laughed, but after the storm they went into the garden and there was the tree, shining with red light.

They picked the rubies and took them into town and traded them for fine clothes and delicious food, and were merry. Then the girl said, “come mother and father, we must return home and repair the house, for I have promised.”

But they said, “why repair what has been so badly damaged when we can buy a new house?” So they found a new home closer to town, and the girl had lovely clothes and a room of her own, and soon she forgot about her former home.

The old house sat alone on its hill, falling every day into greater disrepair. It creaked and groaned, but no one was left to hear it.

Needing and Craving

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Image by Instagram user illustrationsbymajali

Fairy tales are full of irrational desires from Rapunzel’s mother longing for a taste of the witch’s garden, to Cinderella’s yearning to attend the ball. A number of scientific studies on cravings over the last ten years have reveal a variety of causes for desiring. I tend to think of craving as being primarily related to food, but I often crave other things: companionship, affection, change of scenery.

Sometimes yearning seems like and expression of boredom or self-sabotage, these longings are easier to resist. Other times, my desires feel more akin to need, as if my body is communicating some sort of deficiency. These cravings are the most satisfying to give into, although I have no way of knowing whether how I perceive a particular desire has any correlation to necessity.

There is a theory that the foods we crave are actually the ones we are intolerant to. If our body finds a food difficult to break down, it floods our brain with pleasure hormones to counteract the stress, which makes us want them again.

But a competing theory supposes that our desire for a specific food is biologically, that our desires are predisposed and reinforced by early life eating habits.

Some evidence supports need as a cause of cravings, but even when there is a connection between need and want, the longings are usually distortions of deprivations: wanting sweets when blood sugar is low, craving french fries when the body needs salt.

Fairy tales offer unexpected outcomes to succumbing to longing. The princess desperate for her golden ball ends up with a handsome prince while the mother who longs for a child black as ebony, white as snow and red as blood ends up dead.

I often associate craving with guilt. I feel bad for wanting, especially when I want what is bad for me. Since discovering I have a wheat intolerance, I crave pizza and sandwiches more than ever. I feel bad for wanting what I know will make me sick. I get annoyed with my body for not “breaking the cycle.” It’s been a year and I still have a hard time watching people eat muffins.

I remember before my own IBS symptoms began (about 1 ½ years ago) I had very little sympathy for people—including my own sister—whose bodies reacted badly to certain foods. I didn’t understand why she couldn’t just sit with me while I ate a big salad or a greasy burger, consuming her bland dinner of chicken and rice. I didn’t understand that her intolerance of those foods didn’t translate to reduced desires for them, that want and need often conflict.