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What is food for?

staff note

My family’s refrigerator is immaculate. Rain or shine, night or day, you can open the door and find quarts of reduced-fat Greek yogurt, bars of 90% cocoa content dark chocolate and at least five different types of leafy greens. We’ve probably purchased a grand total of eight sticks of butter in my entire life. I’ve never had Burger King, Taco Bell, Sonic or KFC; I think my kindergarten class went to a Wendy’s after a field trip once? I could go on, but let’s not make it a game.

Part of this ridiculousness is credited to my culinary culture, and in that sense it’s decidedly not ridiculous. Traditional Chinese cuisine is essentially dairy-free: we drink soy milk, the under appreciated godfather of milk alternatives. We emphasize home-cooked, sit-down meals, which always feature stewed vegetables and pan-seared (never fried) lean meat. After being raised on a diet of bok choy and whole wheat bread, it shouldn't be surprising that I find fast food generally unappealing. (Hi, Doja Cat, what is Mexican pizza and why are we all so upset about it?) But food has always been far more intimate; it’s more than just being a Chinese girl in suburban North Carolina who gets scared to bring her ethnic food to lunch.

In late January, my mother flew to Shanghai to be with my dying grandmother. After enduring the stress of having my parent run into the heart of a burgeoning pandemic to be with her mother one last time, I chose to stay home because everything was uncertain and in the worst scenario, I would need to do the same thing. I felt profoundly amoebic most of the time. But six months into coronavirus lockdown, a different disease confronts me.

My mother has type II diabetes. No one would ever guess it: she has always been as thin as a rail and a devoted follower of the “moderate daily exercise” movement. Her body, however, does not care. She is insulin-resistant, and any stray carbohydrate will send her blood glucose levels soaring. Although the rest of us don’t have to, she always bites around the starchy folds of her meticulously crafted dumplings in order to appease her glucometer. She warns me not to eat too much white rice lest I turn out like every other woman from her side of the family, so I eat my five different leafy greens like a young lady ought to.

I know apples have a low glycemic index (good) and white bread has a high glycemic index (bad). I know that I shouldn’t eat more than two eggs a day because the golden yolks are high in heart disease-inducing cholesterol, which is really just as bad as sugar when you think about it. I know that a sizable drizzle of honey over some pancakes almost exceeds daily recommendations of added sugar. Maybe this is old news to your average health-conscious individual, but what about a 10-year-old?

Sugar has always been an unwelcome evil in my home. Last Christmas, someone gifted us a box of peppermint bark. The chocolate slabs, which were definitely not 90% cocoa, sat unopened on the counter until just last week. I finally threw them away after months of pretending like I didn’t see the bright red wrapping. I make special banana bread and cinnamon dusted granola with my mother in mind, whose highest form of praise is a solemn “not too sweet.” When I tell my parents I don’t want a birthday cake, I feel proud for being able to overcome my evolutionarily-wired sweet tooth. 

Don’t be fooled: I’m not an ascetic robot. I’ve had more than my fair share of Halloween candy, my family still orders pizza when nobody wants to cook and the macaron assortment from Trader Joe’s flirts with me until I take it home. But no matter how much I try to balance my health and my sanity, I still get hyper-fixated on hypotheticals. 

Do I have some sort of sugar limit, like a finite amount of sucrose that I can eat before my system crashes? Have I spent most of my saccharine dollars already? If I develop diabetes, will I have to worry even more about my health if (when) the next pandemic comes around? Do I even like quinoa? That was a joke. But seriously — am I just fronting so that the universe doesn’t punish me for poisoning my body?

I can’t deny the body of evidence showing that processed foods and simple carbohydrates, hallmarks of the modern Western diet, are fundamentally incompatible with the way our bodies evolved to process nutrients — a textbook evolutionary mismatch. I am blindingly aware that if I am not careful, I am genetically predisposed to suffer a similar fate as my mother, aunt and grandmother before me. Mostly, I feel concerned for my mother’s health. Sometimes, I feel wildly guilty for not wanting to listen to her and commit myself to a life of moderation.

But I also miss the plate-sized chocolate chip cookies at Il Forno and the weirdly expansive selection of sweet breads at Div Cafe. I miss the slice of freedom I had living on campus, making spontaneous decisions about what and when to eat without incessantly worrying about my mom’s wellbeing or my future metabolic state. I miss the carefree spirit I had at Jeni’s Ice Cream with my friends last summer, not caring about infectious or inherited diseases as I licked melted happiness off of my fingers.

We don’t just eat. We eat freely at family reunions and pathetically in musty dorm rooms and awkwardly in front of FLUNCH-ed professors. I don’t have a “good” or “bad” relationship with food because that dichotomy cannot even begin to explain what food means to me. For me, food evokes family and childhood and fear and happiness and independence and self-worth. I could go on, but I don’t think I would ever stop.

Megan Liu is a junior and Recess staff writer. 

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