I started dancing much later than most at around the age of 13. By then, I was already beyond my dancing prime. I was reminded of this repeatedly.
I switched from a neighborhood dance studio to a more prestigious one in high school, thinking that it could help me to bridge the gap of the “lost” early years of not dancing. My demi pliés were always atrocious but they were mine. My legs would hardly bend before they stopped, abruptly, forcing my heels off the ground and moving me into a grand plié. After a lesson, the instructor pulled me aside and asked me to perform a few demi pliés as she analyzed my body, perplexed.
Instructor: “So you can’t go lower than that?”
I shook my head. She had me do a demi plié again and placed her hands on my shoulders with a slight force to feel when my body naturally stopped its movement.
Instructor: “Huh, you really can’t go lower. Do you run?”
I shooked my head again. I hated running.
Instructor: “Well, surely you do soccer, right? With those quad muscles you have to do soccer.”
I again shook my head. I made an uncomfortable joke that if I were sporty (which I wasn’t) that I would have played soccer (which I didn’t) because I enjoyed that sport more than others. I was short, enjoyed thin privilege, but had a bit more squatty of a frame. I had pronounced quad muscles and tricep muscles. They run in the family but, on shorter frames, they add bulk. I never had the ubiquitious thigh gap. I most certainly didn’t have the body of a ballerina.
She gave me exercises to do to lengthen and strengthen my legs and counteract my genes and natural body type. As a ballet instructor, I don’t fault her for providing exercises to support the art I was pursuing. It’s in adulthood that I see the barage of messages that young girls are asked to filter through daily. At the time, I hated my short frame that wouldn’t bend like other girls. I was embarassed of my demi pliés in ballet class, trying to will my body into lowering closer to the floor. I experienced relief when we would switch to grand pliés so that I could pick up my heels and lower myself like the others.
In March 2017, Healthyish published an article entitled, Lies We Tell Ourselves About Avocado Toast. The author ended the article with the drippingly patronizing, “Once we all get sick of eating it, we’ll drop the fib, recognize avo toast for the delicious, fatty, carby slab that it is, and move on to new faux-healthy delights. Isn’t adulthood fun?” This is my response.
We can’t keep up anymore with how to eat. One day it’s anything but eggs; the next, it’s a new study extolling the virtues of the egg (and, gasp, even the yolk!). We move on to avocado toast and even put the whole egg on our avocado toast. Before long, we’re told it’s another lie. We’ve been duped again by the nutrition gods! How stupid of us mere mortals to think we were smart enough to know how to feed ourselves.
But avocado on toast isn’t a trend; it’s not even new. Jane Grigson’s infamous Vegetable Book, originally published in 1978, is a reference bible of vegetables, stories, and recipes. In her section on avocados, she recommends putting avocado on toasted bread. What we’re currently experiencing is a rediscovery of a previously enjoyed food. And the key here is food. Real food. Because we’re finally getting back to real food over its processed counterparts.
We, for too long, have fallen into the camp of nutritionism, or reducing food to the sum of its parts — proteins, carbs, fats, nutrient content, etc. And if we were healthier for it then perhaps I’d espouse this viewpoint as well. But we aren’t. We aren’t healthier and we’re more confused. And we’ve lost food enjoyment along the way. Far too often I hear someone exclaim that they don’t buy into what is healthy because it’ll change tomorrow. By reducing avocado toast to a ‘fatty, carby slab’, we’re falling victim to nutritionism and adding to the swirling nutrition confusion. We have (finally!) swapped our sugary, processed breakfast bars and cereals for a whole fat that sustains us through our mornings. And if you don’t feel it’s the best breakfast/snack/meal for you, then that’s O.K. too. But to patronize those who enjoy it is just plain wrong. And misleading.
And full of judgement. We need to stop passing judgment on each other so readily for food choices. Let’s empower one another to make healthy food choices most of the time. Because we want to. Because we owe it to ourselves and the one body we have. Because we feel better when we eat better. Because how we eat is how we live. Pick any reason.
As I coach women to repair their relationship with food, I often find a common thread: they want to eat well and don’t know how. So, they try. And they might pick a processed food that markets its healthy attributes but is, in reality, anything but. We slowly work toward switching to whole, life-giving foods. And maybe they do put a bit too much honey on their plain yogurt in the beginning, but that switch is to be applauded, not disparaged. I’m proud that they switched from yogurt with 18 grams of sugar and additives to a plain yogurt where they are in control of the honey they add. Even if they add 3 teaspoons of honey to their yogurt at 5 grams of sugar a teaspoon, they’re still coming in ahead. And we can work on how much added sugar they consume. But we can’t minimize the preservatives and additives in processed foods if we’re consuming them.
If a client (or anyone for that matter) switches from a processed breakfast to avocado toast, I’m surely not turning up my nose at them. They’re learning to reach for whole foods and to savor and enjoy them. And that’s something we can all do a bit more of. We’re doing just fine. All of us.
There’s this scene in the movie, Ever After, where Drew Barrymore’s character is nervously entering a masquerade ball and she whispers to herself, ‘Breathe. Just breathe.’ Good advice. We begin to breathe and rid ourselves of the anxiety and judgment that comes from trying to eat perfectly. There is no perfect diet. It’s a one-degree shift we make each day to do a bit better for ourselves. And we do it with pleasure. Because adulthood is complicated enough without mystifying something we do three times every day.
I’m pulling up a chair. Pass me the avocado.
There I was, finishing my lunch of measured-out tuna fish and carefully counted crackers. My mom joined me at the table with the entire bowl of tuna fish salad she had made and a box of cheese crackers. I was so completely and utterly tired of measuring any food before I dared to consume it. I started eating the cheese crackers by the handful and scooping the tuna fish salad in my mouth, no measuring, no counting. My mom sat back with an incredulous look on her face. “Tiffany,” she started, “I have never seen you like this. You have got to quit this calorie-counting!”
Allow me to rewind and place into context this entire episode. I’ve always been an intuitive eater. Seriously. Before I was ten, I was telling my mom that I should substitute carrots for my Oreo cookie snack. She probably looked at me as incredulously as she did when I was shovelling the cheese crackers into my mouth. From then on, she realized that I had this innate sense about healthy foods and nutrition. I would balance my own intake and eat the cookie when I felt like it, and with as much ease would switch back to carrots when I felt the need. Carrots nourished my body in a way the cookie could not. And the cookie provided a sweet treat and a level of comfort that the carrot could not. Is one superior to the other? Not necessarily. They each have their purpose.
I’ve spent my entire life observing people’s relationship with food — how we come to the table, the emotions we carry with us, how other cultures relate to their food, etc. Why is the table a place of ease and enjoyment for some, and a place of anxiety and guilt for others? That’s a large burden, don’t you think, for something we do three times per day to carry such negativity? In researching for my current book, I wanted to understand the myriad ways in which people come to the table. I’ve long been against calorie-counting because I fail to believe that we were meant to have science or math degrees in order to know how to feed ourselves. When I earned my Master’s degree in Gastronomy, I went to university in Italy and travelled the world as part of my studies. I travelled to Italy, France, Spain, Thailand, and Japan to better understand how and why people eat and how they come to the table. Time and time again, I saw healthy relationships with food. You might ask, what does that even mean? You wouldn’t be the first one.
Healthy relationships with food are characterized by an ease and balance at the table. The food is fresh, minimally processed, and eating is a convivial activity. The table is a place that joins people together. They understand the importance of a celebratory meal. And they are not counting calories. So, why are we? We have some warped relationships with food in the States.
Nothing unites like food. Nothing.
The smells, the tastes, the memories. It has a power much larger than we can comprehend with our taste buds, our sense of smell, our sense of touch. It envelops us at such a deep level that it oftentimes goes unnoticed. Unappreciated. It’s like the presence of a loved one that we take for granted until it’s gone.
So what would happen if we brought this level of awareness back to the table?
To know that food unifies. It unifies the self. It unifies us to others. It unifies us to the past through food traditions past down from generation to generation. And it provides a tie to the future. To the generations to come. For a more sustainable food system. To repaired relationships with food.
And the day came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom.
And so it was. After 10 years in the corporate world I have decided to move to Italy to earn my Master of Gastronomy degree from the University of Gastronomic Sciences. This inexplicable connection and adoration with food is something so intrinsically me that I can trace it back to my youth. This may sound dramatic but every day that I wasn’t using and pursuing my gift in the world felt like I was letting a piece of my soul die each and every day. And not an unimportant part of my soul, but the very essence of why I was placed here on this earth. THAT part of my soul. Have you been there? That place where you know your path just doesn’t feel…right, you, authentic? (more…)