All the Fruit

raspberriesIn the winter of 2006, when our youngest daughter Sammi was just over a year old, our neighbors invited us to their Christmas Eve party. We knew they’d always had a huge gathering of friends and family, and so that afternoon, we arranged to have a huge and elaborate fruit bouquet delivered. Later that evening, when our host greeted us, he said his young grandson had been staring longingly at it all day.

“Fruit is his favorite thing,” he said. “We wouldn’t let him have any until the party started. When the first people rang the bell, he raced for the fruit!”

I remember very clearly thinking that this little boy had been raised right. If fruit was his favorite food, then he had chosen it over sweets, chips, and other junk. I secretly had always admired people like that — people who really preferred healthier food. Those people would have an uncomplicated relationship with their favorite foods; those people would be lucky.

In a few short months, however, I would learn what it meant when a child preferred fruit over everything else, and sometimes to the exclusion of everything else. Sammi’s love affair with blueberries wasn’t exclusive — it was part of a larger issue with swallowing anything that wasn’t wet and cold, even though we didn’t know it until she was much older. From her early years of eating blueberries soaked in cream or drenched in warmed coconut oil, to the infuriating meals where we made her eat some calorie-dense dessert before she was allowed to have her beloved bowl of raspberries, to the months of restricted diets during which I would be grateful that she saw fruit as a delicious treat, I would spend the next years wishing I’d never had a jealous thought about that neighbor’s grandson and his love of fruit.

Practically, there were benefits to this pickiness. Had she preferred candy or pork rinds or something generally considered to be “junk,” we would have let her have it anyway, desperate as we always were to get calories in her body however we could. On her last day of preschool — which coincided with the first week of her intensive elimination diet for eosinophilic esophagitis — I took her to pick out some treats to share with her friends. The only candies available at that time that had no dairy, egg, soy, nuts, or wheat — and were not prepared on the same equipment as those things — were DumDums and Smarties. I let her get a bag of each.

“All that sugar isn’t good for a girl her age,” an old lady spat at us as we walked past her toward the register.

I didn’t say anything. Anything I could say would be too long and too ugly to say in front of Sammi.

But fruit! Well, fruit was never questioned. When she brought raspberries for her kindergarten class for snack — fifteen dollars worth of raspberries because that’s how much it costs to feed raspberries to twenty kids — I received nothing but praise. When her snacks at camp were bowls of strawberries and grapes I had to prepare at home because I didn’t know what would be on the cutting boards and colanders of other people, I was hailed as brilliant for convincing my child to like fruit. When she ran squealing to the farmer’s market stand every week to choose anything she wanted, people smiled with approval.

A cup of raspberries is 65 calories.

A cup of Cheezit crackers is 312 calories.

When you are trying to grow a child — to grow her brain, to grow her skinny legs and her sunken eyes and her ribs you can see and the top of her sweet head, which is a foot below the heads of her friends, the choice of raspberries seems less saintly.

Picky eaters are usually the ones at which that the world points a judgmental finger and whispers, how can that child’s mom let her eat only chicken nuggets and sliced apples every night? or I can’t believe he will only eat bagels and cream cheese for lunch — isn’t this the fourth year of that? Picky eaters are sometimes fat, sometimes skinny, sometimes indulged, sometimes not — but no one noticed my picky eater’s choices as picky because they were so universally held up as healthy. Meanwhile, she was anemic, underweight, failing to thrive, and, as it turns out, struggling to swallow.

We all love fruit in this house: berries, grapes, melon, stone fruits, apples, pears, all of it. But now, after years of my mother teasing me in my youth about not liking fruit and calling it “the F word,” and then years of my daughter’s childhood using fruit as a bribe to eat one more cookie, one more bite of pizza, one more slice of cheese, my relationship with fruit is complicated.

And who ever says that?

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Erased

samminecklaceBetween July 1, 2010 and April 10, 2011, I prepared over 800 meals that excluded some combination of dairy, egg, soy, nuts, and wheat.

Over 800 times, I checked and double-checked against the current list in my head. What is she allowed to have today?, I asked myself as the restrictions lifted, one by one. I paused as I used my mixing bowls, contaminating them with the newest addition, knowing I might have to throw it away if this food trial was a failure. I paused as I asked Sammi if she liked the newest recipe, worrying about the possibility of taking it away again later. I paused and paused again, rethinking each ingredient and each interaction around food.

When Sammi passed every food trial, her doctors could not explain it. They shrugged, confused, and sent us on our way. After more than 800 meals governed by rules and restrictions and embarked upon with my shoulders squared and my resolve set, the journey was over. We were at square one: all choices available to us, all foods a possibility, the road ahead open.

It was an unbelievable mindfuck. Continue Reading…

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Pink and Smooth

Surprises are foolish things. The pleasure is not enhanced, and the inconvenience is often considerable. -Jane Austen

In early June of 2011, my daughter Sammi had the final endoscopy in a series of eight, each one marking a phase of her six-food-elimination diet for eosinophilic esophagitis. Each scope after the first one — the one that provided the diagnosis — was to test for the effect that a food had on the surface of her esophagus. A negative reaction would look like eczema in that muscular tube running from her throat to her stomach — patches of white, clustered cells, sometimes so thoroughly irritated that long, deep ridges would form, as though the disease itself had run a fingernail down the tissues there. That was the state of things when she had been diagnosed in June of 2010. Continue Reading…

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One Food at a Time

Five years oldThe words “elimination diet” implied, when I first heard them, the opposite of the process through which we put our five-year-old daughter. I thought an elimination meant taking things out of the diet, one by one, until Sammi felt better and her esophagus ceased to have eosinophils coating its walls. In reality, the process worked in reverse. This was what her fifth year looked like: Continue Reading…

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Mother Blessing

tostados

More than ten years ago, I attended a mother-blessing, also known sometimes as a blessingway, for one of my closest friends. Andrea was due shortly thereafter with her second child, a daughter. Surrounded by a small group of powerful, loving women, Andrea and her still-gestating daughter were touched by healing hands and given tokens of energy and affection in the form of beads to make a bracelet Andrea could use as a focus in labor.

Mid-way through the evening, we gathered in the kitchen of the host, Andrea’s friend, for food and drink. She bustled around in front of the stove and returned with a steaming ceramic bowl of refried black beans, smelling strongly of garlic, and a platter of corn tostados. We all slathered the crunchy, oversized tortilla chips with the savory beans, and I knew that, perhaps in small part due to the circumstances heavy with love and support, I’d fallen in love with a food. Continue Reading…

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