It’s been almost a year since my last post. I have been writing, but not here. If you’d like to follow my continuing adventures, you’ll find me at victoriaraschke.com.
I love food. I mean that’s pretty obvious even if you’ve never met me or seen me in person. If you read this blog you know that. No one who doesn’t love food starts a food blog or goes to culinary school (or at least they shouldn’t, especially on the second thing). I’m sure there are psychological reasons why some people become “foodies” and some people don’t. There have always been people who live to eat and those who eat to live. If some Freudian wanted to root around in my childhood and adolescence, I’m sure they’d find all kinds of reasons why I am what I am. I’ve already disclosed that I was anorexic in high school. I think that set up a lifetime of disordered eating that I still wrestle with occasionally. When you have disordered eating there is a tendency to assign some moral value to what you eat and therefore yourself based on what you eat.
Hell, I don’t think you even have to have an official diagnosis of disordered eating to assign a moral value to food. How often do you hear people talk about food as sinful or naughty? People “cheat” on their diets. There are probably 10000 blogs and Pinterest boards dedicated to “clean” eating. As opposed to what? Dirty eating. And what does that look like? In my mind it looks like a one year old face deep in chocolate birthday cake. And that looks like fun. But I’m pretty sure they mean something closer to shame eating that chocolate cake, crying and standing over the sink.
I can’t say that I don’t still assign some moral value to what I buy and cook and eat for myself and my family. I try really hard to source most of what we consume locally and organic as much as possible. If it’s not a moral value, it’s an ethical one, but I seem to have an easier time with that. I apply the don’t be an asshole rule when eating with others – I’m not going to turn my nose up at something that someone else lovingly prepared for me because it doesn’t fit my worldview, unless it will make me sick, like raw bananas.
While I was assigning all this moral and ethical value to my food, I was also assigning it to myself. I genuinely felt like I was a bad person because I had a piece of cake. Let me tell you, gentle readers, that way lies madness and binge eating and laying in bed night after night cataloging my eating sins of the day and how I would pay for it the next day. One who wishes to function well as a human being doing adult life things should not sacrifice sleep for mental hair shirting. And for the most part I don’t anymore. Some expensive therapy (which I probably should have done WAY sooner), lots of reading on why people (especially women, but everyone) have screwed up relationships with food, and the insights of a host of bloggers who run the gamut from people pulling themselves out of that pit of despair themselves to professional nutritionists and psychologists have been invaluable to not spending my nights figuring how many naked spinach days I have to endure for a slice of wedding cake. It’s so much nicer.
Am I completely “cured.” Um, no. I think it’s its own wagon, this journey. Occasionally I will have a really bad day and find myself swearing to fast to go to some event or beating myself up because I haven’t eaten enough different colored vegetables for the week. Mostly though I strive to eat a varied diet that includes whole foods and not so much processed stuff. When things are bad and I am whipping myself into a moral panic over chocolate chip cookies, I think about Michael Pollan’s food rule: “Eat food. A little less. Mostly plants.” It’s pretty simple and keeps me on track. And I try to move my body around, nothing gym goddess worthy, but a walk or some yoga, or a solo pants-off dance-off in my kitchen to some Shakira. And honestly, there’s no shame in that. I no longer believe in guilty pleasures. If you like something, like the hell out of it. If you are going to eat the chocolate cake or peanut butter cup ice cream, enjoy it. Savor every bite. Make sex noises. Whatever.
And then I realized what that all mean. There are no guilty pleasures. If you love something really love it. That means me, too. If I’m going to like me, I’m going to love me, cellulite, jiggly bits, a few wrinkles and gray hairs, everything. I’m not a lab frog. I don’t get to dissect what I don’t like and cut it away. Boy. That’s a tall order for a woman who’s spent let’s say age 9 to age 40 wanting to change everything about herself (except my nose and eyes, I’ve always liked those funnily enough). So I’m three years in to this food’s cool, I’m cool journey. Falling off the wagon hurts like a dammit but I get back on. I have too much other shit to do in this life to waste it preoccupied with the fact that my thighs touch. Actually they pretty much make out with each other all damn day and I’m cool with it. Mostly.
I don’t think I’d quite realized it, but I spent almost twelve years figuring out who I am as a cook, professionally and now more not, in Nashville. What I eat, what I make, what I’ve taught others to make is largely predicated on where I’ve lived for the last decade plus with an underpinning of family tradition and my travels. I think everyone’s on board with the idea of regional cooking but inside regional cooking are smaller pockets of local foodsheds influenced by the terrain, the tradition, the farmers & artisans, and the incomers.
Nashville and Knoxville are just far enough distant from each other and the terrain is just enough different that the foodsheds, though sharing the generalities of regional southern cooking, have some striking differences. Hot chicken is not really a big thing in Knoxville. (Well, it is kind of a trending thing everywhere at the moment.) The downtown, main farmers markets are very different. Not just physically but in the array and expanse of what is on offer. I haven’t quite learned all the who’s who at the Knoxville market but two weeks in, we’ve found a few vendors where I think we’ll always stop to see what they have.
Today I discovered a new locally grown grape I’ve never had before. It’s called Marquis. It’s small, pale green, and perfectly round. It pops in your mouth like a muscadine but is incredibly sweet and the skin doesn’t have the leatheriness that muscadines can have. We bought apples and cucumbers from the same farm last week and more apples and the grapes this week. We’ve switched from the Hatcher milk we preferred in Nashville to Cruze Farm milk here. They make an excellent coffee milk but I was disappointed that the whole milk is homogenized. I know it’s weird that I actually like having to shake up the milk before I pour it into my coffee. I’ll get used to the change.
There are restaurants that I am going to miss (and probably take every opportunity to eat at when we visit Nashville). Keifel and I have had so many breakfast dates at Marché in East Nashville that we always get seated at the same table. But there’re also our favorite Thai and Vietnamese and sushi and fancy places for anniversary and birthday dinners. We’ll find ones we like here, too. It took awhile in Nashville and it’ll take some time here as well. I’m on the hunt for “my” coffeehouse. Somewhere with excellent coffee, a little bit of food, and ample space to read, take notes, or write when I need to get out of the quiet of my office at home and require the low drone of human activity in a coffeeshop to be productive. I tried K Brew in North Knox. Excellent coffee but tiny space with limited options for camping out for a couple hours. Knoxville isn’t quite as littered with Starbucks as Nashville but they’re here and that is decidedly not what I’m looking for. I’ll find it, but I’m happy to take suggestions.
We’re having a friend over for dinner tonight and my brother and his family are coming for waffles in the morning. Tonight I’m making a version of Moroccan chicken that I’ve been making since I lived in Knoxville the last time and waffles, well they are waffles. What I cook won’t change immediately or completely. But I am looking forward to finding what’s new to me here and how that will push, change, and help me grow as a cook. Now, if I can figure out the cooking for only two people thing…
You’d think as often as we have moved, now officially once a year for the last three years, I would be so pro at it that I could crack a whip and the plates and books would wrap themselves and hop into a box. You’d also think that it wouldn’t wear me out. You’d be wrong. This move, more than the last two, has really taken it out of me. We did move to a different city, not just across town, but I think it’s more than that.
I’ve been on a downsizing, minimalist kick for a few years. I’ve written about it here and mentioned it in umpteen Facebook posts, but I felt it in my bones this time. At one point just a day or two before the movers arrived to pack the U-Haul truck, I really wondered what it would be like to set everything out on the lawn and let whoever was willing to haul it off have it. The though of having to take a suitcase full of things, and nothing more, seemed like the most freeing thing in the world. I also thought of all the money, all the actual work hours, represented by everything I wrapped to move or placed in the donate box. Why had I purchased this thing I no longer needed or wanted? Why had I hauled it through how many other moves to just now discard it?
The other thing that floated through my mind was the prospect of what the next move might look like (yes, that was probably borrowing trouble). Keifel and I really want to live overseas for awhile. It’s a long term goal but I did think about what moving again would look like if our next move was to Europe. The things I would take would only be those things we could not replace once we landed: family treasures, photos, unique items we love, and some artwork (and that cats, of course). What would it feel like to sell everything? I can tell you the thought of it was completely thrilling. It isn’t a completely abstract thought for either of us. Keifel spent four years traveling and working and living out of suitcase, often buying clothes when he landed and donating them when he left for a different climate. I spent a year and change in Slovenia in college. I left with a backpack of everything I thought I would need for a year and acquired a few things there and had a few additional things shipped from home but it was just so much less stuff to clean, to keep up with, to worry about.
And now with all of this, I can’t help but wonder, how much could I get rid of now? How little could we comfortably live with?
When the sky opened, I panicked and made it worse. The wind picked up and the deluge was now a low grade hurricane. The corn in the adjacent field laid itself flat having not evolved to survive straight line winds.
The house began to tremble in the wind. Hundred year old floor boards sang and popped under the stress. The windows rattled and the cat, already disturbed by the copper scent on the air and the smoke, ran for what sanctuary could be found under the couch. His whimpering was audible above the drone of the wind buffeting this whole town.
I slumped to the floor, all of the techniques I’d practiced with my Gran forgotten. The rain hit the ground harder than any Midwestern rain that had ever fallen, mirroring the tears that came hot and fast streaking my face with the eyeliner and mascara I’d carefully applied to “gussy up,” Gran’s words remembered, for our anniversary dinner.
We’d planned to drive two hours to Des Moines to celebrate ten married years. There were no children to rush off to parents and a neighbor had offered to do the morning chores so we could spend the night in the city. We’d eaten beans two nights a week for the last two months to have the extra cash.
I’d taken his sport coat, the same one he’d worn to the courthouse to get married, off the hanger and watched him put it on. I slipped my hands in his front pockets like I’d done hundreds of times before standing on my toes to kiss him. There was a crumpled paper in his pocket.
It was open in my hand before he realized I had it. My breath halted when I read the words written in a woman’s loopy scrawl. “Last night was lovely. I can’t wait for a time when you don’t have to leave before the sun is up.”
My hands had begun to shake just as the sky visible through the wide-slat windows began to darken. When I looked up into his face it was as dark my thoughts.
“What is this? Who is she? All that time you said you were helping Tom catch up on chores while his son was sick? The auction in Iowa City? You were with someone?” The words came out all at once, hardly a space between to understand.
He swallowed and said it was nothing. He was looking at the worn rug beneath our feet, at the cat, at the kitchen door, at anything but me.
“You’re lying. You always swallow like that when you lie.” There was venom in the words now, and pain. I could feel the pieces of my life slipping away from me, “when were you going to tell me?”
“Sometime this week, tomorrow. I don’t know. I didn’t want to ruin our anniversary for you. You were so excited.”
“Are you leaving then? Do you love her?”
“Yes. And yes,” he had deflated visibly with each word. “She’s pregnant.”
White anger exploded inside of me and my heart broke. A bolt of lightning crashed through the front window, searing him in the chest. The force of it threw him against the breakfront his mother had given us as a wedding present. He must’ve hit the corner with his head.
He crumpled to the floor, whisks of smoke curling off his clothes, a pool of blood spreading under him. The room telescoped away from me and my head rang from the shock of being so close to the lightning. Every cell in my body wanted to fling open the front door and run, but I knew what I had done.
The storm was taking the shingles off the roof. Some part of the house splintered as it lost its fight with the elements. The only thing that could stop this now was me. I picked myself up off the floor and crossed the room to the front door. I only had to turn the handle for it to crash inside with the force of the storm. Rain and hail invaded the house and soaked me to the skin. I pushed against it out onto what was left of the porch.
There was darkness beyond the stairs. The rain and debris being hurled about blocked what was left of the dusk light. I waited for a bolt to take me. Asked one to come for me and end this.
Instead the wind died down and the rain stopped. The storm calmed as quickly as it had come. In my resignation to die, I had calmed myself enough. I sat on or fell to the porch boards, empty.
Gran said I should never lose control. Only bad things could come of it. She also said it would die with me unless I had a daughter. I chose to never risk it and let a man love me without telling him the truth.
I’m just under the wire on this but wanted to get it posted. I took a fairly literal approach to the trigger.
Rolling into new towns was always the best. I could imagine my family and me as intrepid explorers or exiled royalty from some far flung land through the eyes of townsfolk we’d never met or meet again.
My father’s patented elixir of grain alcohol, steeped horehound, and orchard honey helped the mothers of the apple-picker families soothe colds and helped the fathers deal with sore backs and long days. My father took pride in the purity and wholesomeness of his blend. He thrived on almost daily presentation of his wares and the grateful faces of repeat customers as my mother and I traded coins and nuggets for bottles of amber liquid.
The 1906 Pure Food and Drug Act put an end to his work. Even though he didn’t sell white spirits that blinded workers or other poisons that rotted out livers or teeth, the Act took his livelihood as surely as if he’d been one of those hucksters. The pickers no longer trusted his understated showmanship and our nights spent sleeping in orchards, the sweet smell of rotting windfall wending its way into our wagon on the night breeze, stopped as abruptly as the horses at the edge of a stream.
We stopped travelling and moved into a shack on the edge of Snohomish. My mother took in mending and laundry and my father broke, first drinking his remain stores and then cheap rum or whiskey he could trade for a small labor. My brother went to work as a picker and fell from a tree twisting his neck and ending his life. Sometimes I think my life ended, too, with the end of what many had accusingly referred to as my father’s snake oil empire.
When life has been difficult in the past, I’ve always gone back to the kitchen. Chopping vegetables, stirring pots, kneading bread are my standing, moving meditation. There is accomplishment and completion in the way perfectly diced potatoes or onions fall from my knife or the way a bread dough rises under a floured tea towel to fill the bowl it’s resting in. When life is swirling in chaos, the kitchen always makes sense to me.
When my father died. I spent the afternoon making sesame seed cookies that had to be rolled and cut into tiny stars. One of my father’s sisters took me aside and asked me if I was okay and if I knew it was okay for me to be upset and to cry. I knew it but I couldn’t do it with a house full of people. I can talk about crying and emotions in public, or as public as writing is, but I have a hard time actually crying in public. I’m more of a solitary, darkened theater, or one-on-one cryer.
In the last two months my cooking has been sporadic. I’ve been traveling, then flat on my back with a pulled muscle and then sad. The Sunday after my mother died, my back was well enough that I could cook and I made chili and cornbread. Julian looked at me at dinner and asked if I’d done it on purpose, my father’s chili recipe, my mother’s cornbread recipe, tweaked by me over the years to suit my cooking style. I hadn’t done it on purpose or at least not consciously.
I didn’t get much time to process my trip before I was wrestling with my mother’s death and now it’s all bound together in a knot I can’t seem to untangle. I’d forgotten about my best personal place of calm, though the yoga and meditating and British mysteries had been helping. We tried to get back to normal last night by doing our weekly menu. Tonight a pureed potato leek soup with porcini oil and crispy leeks. Keifel found the recipe in my notebook of recipes clipped from magazines over the years. In coming across it, he said it reminded him of the soup we had at Most our last night in Ljubljana. It’s a million miles away from the potato soup my mom used to make. Fancy to rustic. Both equally good. Both in my repertoire.
To prepare leeks you remove the tough green leaves and the root end and slice the remaining white cylinder in half so you can easily wash the sand from between the layers, fanning them like a book under running water. Leeks are much milder than onions and very rarely make anyone cry. Watching the half moons of leek fall from my knife, I cried. Remembering the one thing my father asked me to make him when the chemotherapy had robbed everything he ate of flavor.
When he had a print shop in Detroit there’d been a Greek deli nearby that served avgolemono, a lemon and rice soup. I’d never heard of it or eaten it but the internet of 2001 was already filled with recipes and I easily found one. It wasn’t the same exactly but the look on his face, a mixture of nostalgia and gratitude, made me feel like that soup was the best gift I ever gave my father.
Avgolemono doesn’t even have leeks in it. And there in lies my lesson. It doesn’t matter that I don’t cook like exactly like either of my parents or that my travels and culinary education have given me tastes for things they never encountered. Before my mother’s health took its last debilitating turns she would send me recipes clipped from the Chattanooga Free Press or call me and ask for a recipe she had made hundreds of times so she could share it with a neighbor or staff person at assisted living, even though the residents only had microwaves and I was pretty sure they weren’t making oatmeal bread in them. Food is a language we all have in common and the things we make tell part of the story of who we are, where we came from, even when those stories are of burned dinners or of empty plates and stomachs. Even though both of my parents are dead and I can’t tell those stories with them, can’t wash while they dry the dinner dishes, they are both in everything I make, even my posh potato and leek soup that neither of them ever tasted.
I really do try to be positive, but sometimes you have to call an asshole an asshole. I was walking back into the old town when I got buzzed by a guy on bike, laughing and shouting something about fat Americans. I do understand more Slovene than I can speak. Yes, I know it says way more about him than me and, yes, I know people can sometimes be awful. Here’s the thing – still hurts, still makes hot tears well up in your embarrassed face. Thank the gods for giant sunglasses and being close enough to my flat I could escape the world for a bit.
It may come as a surprise to Captain Obvious that I do, in fact, know that I am fat, American or otherwise. I’ve known it my whole life, even when I wasn’t actually fat. I am not the person in need of information in this transaction. There’s quite a lot said asshole doesn’t know about me but here are the pertinent facts:
1. I was super sickly and skinny as a child, until puberty hit at 11. From that point on I was informed by my mother and others that a woman’s life’s work is to fight against, punish, and despise the vessel she lives in. Not with a sit down talk but with every hint that I might be getting heavy (even when that “heavy” was hips and breasts that come with the territory). And with her, and by extension myself, always being on some kind of crackpot diet.
2. I stopped eating for a year in high school. I got skinny. I mean really skinny. Skeletor in a bathing suit, rib counting, ass too bony to sit on anything but a cushion for more than five minutes skinny. I also started blacking out when I stood up. My fear of being locked up in the mental ward was stronger than my fear of being fat so I started eating again.
3. When I came to Slovenia to live, I had a roommate who in many ways finished the work my mother started. She thought she was trying to help by pushing me to get in shape (be thinner) and commenting on how I dressed (too slutty), ate (too slowly), and existed (too cluelessly and naively). I spent the entire year feeling inadequate and undeserving. And confused. I didn’t have any trouble getting dates and I had friends, etc.
4. Much angst ensued for nearly twenty more years. The number on the scale went up and down. The pant sizes went up and down. I made a career where I was around food all the time to the point of not really wanting to eat it. I woke up every morning, not grateful to be alive another day or realizing how amazing my life was, but promising myself that day was the day I would get skinny again so I could do all the things I wanted to do.
5. Maybe two or three years ago, I had an epiphany of sorts. My life really was pretty good. Good job, amazing kids, smart and sexy husband. I was writing again, more seriously. I had a long chat with my NP about my weight and she said that all my numbers are good, I get exercise and eat well, and I don’t smoke (except occasionally on vacation). She wasn’t worried. I decided I did still need to change something. And that was this conversation I’d been having with myself for as long as I could remember. There was no point in waiting for some miraculous new body to show up so I could do the things I wanted to do. There was no point in hating the body that worked and carried me and had carried and fed a child. So I basically said, fuck it. This is me. No amount of someone else reassuring me was going to ever be enough (though it is so very nice when your husband looks at you and smiles like that). I had to accept me and think I was deserving of my own respect.
So, I’m here. In a place I have dreamed of returning to for twenty years. I walked eight miles yesterday total, including a trip around a gorgeous alpine lake. I’m older, I’m fat, and I am happier in me and in my life than I have ever been. Did it still really hurt when that asshole got his rocks off by being a complete jerk? Yes. I haven’t gotten this being cool with myself thing down 100% all the time. I probably never will. But I do bounce back much faster than I used to.
Twenty two years ago when I was 19, I packed a backpack and took off for a year in Slovenia. Croatia to the immediate south and the rest of former Yugoslavia were still at war. I do think everyone, especially my parents, thought I was crazy. I was a little. I mean, I was 19. I’d fallen in love with Slovenian poetry and this tiny little jewel box of a country I had visited the year before. I wanted to dive in. I had great plans to master Slovenian and become a translator and a poet and teach and travel the world. This year in Slovenia was meant to push the boat out into those particular seas.
So much happened that year. Hence the reason I decided to write a book about it, even if it never sees the light of day. I fell in love with Slovenia, hard, but initially it didn’t seem to care much for me. I constantly felt out of place. I felt so American, so foreign and the language was so difficult, I thought perhaps I had made a big, and expensive, mistake. But then, near the time I was to leave, I suddenly seemed to have enough Slovenian to get by. I knew my way around on my bike. I had a job. And, most surprising to me, I fell in love with a Slovene.
And then I left because I had to go home. I had to finish school. I thought I had to do the expected thing, try to be the good girl. And my heart broke. No one told me that coming home would be its own culture shock. I dreamed in Slovenian. And I missed Ljubljana and the friends I had made and Saša (as he is called in the book). And school was miserable. I had fallen from grace for things too complicated to explain here. And I did stupid and slightly destructive things to self-medicate my heartbreak.
In the midst of all of that, I became a mom. Grad school happened, but not as planned. Returning to Slovenia as a translator definitely didn’t happen. I was too broke to travel. I stopped writing after grad school because, again with the self-flagellation, I thought I had screwed that up so badly I didn’t deserve it and I needed to find something that paid the bills. I met Keifel. I became a chef. Julian grew up. And we moved again and here was this stack of letters and notebooks and a postcard from Saša and now there is a book and this trip.
And last night there was kava s smetana. Coffee with solidly whipped unsweetened cream. I was sitting at a cafe yards from the bar I’d spent most of my evenings drinking back then. I was surrounded by the sounds of people speaking Slovenian and the soft chink of wine and beer glasses and the smell of cigarette smoke. And there was a flood inside me as if the Ljubljanica had jumped its banks to run down Stari trg through 41 year old me and 19 year old me sitting at a table feeling completely exposed and completely invisible, stunned that so much time could pass.
I came home from work early because I was coughing and sneezing and have a headache in my face. Keifel picked this particular ick up somewhere and passed it along to Julian and me. Julian has a brand new job at POP and he’s working on the Biscuit Love food truck, so he can’t really afford to be sick. I have a stack of work as we get ready for our national conference, so it’s particularly inconvenient to be sick. Alas, it is what it is. I’m eating oranges and drinking gallons of water. And going to bed at 9 p.m. And Julian has a day or so to recuperate (I’m too much of a ServSafe stickler to let him go to work sick).
I had great plans to clean out the fridge (it’s my chore of the day in the cleaning rotation I put together in my attempts to do less housework and more writing), make a big salad for dinner, and get some editing/writing done on the Slovenia project. My focus isn’t very good. Instead, I found myself perusing Pinterest while watching Midsomer Murders (I’d say it’s a guilty pleasure but I don’t feel particularly guilty about it). Dinner reverted to leftover homemade mac and cheese.
Pinterest is full of recipes to make ersatz things out of cauliflower. Pizza crust. Mashed “potatoes.” Couscous. Even “mac” and cheese (can food be blasphemous?). Also, roasted, baked whole like a great white brain, sautéed, and available in gold, green, and purple like a cauliflower mardi gras.
I’ve tried to love cauliflower. I’ve tried it roasted and pureed and in soup and raw and steamed and covered in cheese. I’ve tried its particolored cousins.
I have given up.
I can eat broccoli until the cows come home but I’ll be leaving the cauliflower for others. For the life of me I can’t get past the fact that it smells of wet socks and tastes of creeping damp.