Before any of my paleo, perfect health diet, or simply food-conscious friends become alarmed, I haven’t fallen off the wagon and started cramming Twinkies. Nothing of the sort. But I do want to talk about something that seems to inevitably affect those striving to eat for the betterment of their health, sustainability, and environment: guilt.
Guilt about eating something you know is bad for you. Guilt about eating too much, or too little. Guilt for being tempted and going for the ice cream, even if you have a dairy allergy (whoops). It’s easy to get caught up -dare I say obsessed- with meal choices when you’re on a mission. Sometimes, even when we’re trying to be good, we end up doing ourselves harm. I know I certainly have.
When I began eating clean, I was coming from a dark place. A place inhabited by chicken tenders and mounds of microwave popcorn and multiple muffins a day. To go from that to a state of being that felt so clean and bright and inherently good for me was a huge change, and a good one.
But you know what wasn’t healthy? Feeling bad I ate more than two pieces of fruit in a day. Beating myself up for drinking a smoothie with honey in it. Going to sleep berating myself for eating more than what I was hungry for – never mind that my third helping was of broccoli.
One of the catalysts of my conversion to local, seasonal, and sustainable food was a book called French Women Don’t Get Fat, written by Mireille Guiliano. I picked it up in a Goodwill because I’ve always been fascinated by France (too many Madeline reruns as a child, I suspect). But it turned out to be much more than a fluffy summer read. It helped me to shift my perception of what my relationship to food could and should be. Guiliano emphasizes that French women don’t deny themselves indulgences and treats; instead, they make an effort to be conscious of them. It’s not that they refuse themselves cake, it’s that they save it for special occasions and only eat the really good stuff. For a girl who felt she battled food every day, this was revolutionary. Food isn’t the enemy? I should cherish and appreciate it?
Obviously I went a little further than Guiliano suggests (see my complete exclusion of sugars, grains, and legumes and my insistence of only eating organic, local food), but that first lesson was an important one. One I need to remind myself of a little more often.
Sometimes, you should eat the cookie. Or in my case, the cheese.
A treat on a very special occasion, or just occasionally when it would be nice, is not the end of the world. I used to think it was, and at one point my own family members hid things like organic corn chips from me, to spare themselves the wrath that would follow my discovery of such taboo items: “Do you know what this will do to your body?! You don’t have ancestral ties to South America you haven’t been telling me about, do you? Even Native Americans only ate corn treated with lime! Make your own chips with masa harina!”
The need to just eat the cookie became clearer to me on a few key occasions:
The first was when I went to church with my family on a visit home, and my mother ate a few sugar cookies that had been laid out by hospitality. I guess I was looking pretty judgmental as she munched on them, because my poor mother felt the need to defend herself, saying “Amy, I haven’t eaten any sweets all week. I ate those weird brussels sprout greens you made, and I even gave up my Reese’s Cups. We don’t have cookies at home, and they look good. So I am going to enjoy them!” I muttered something about dwarf wheat killing her and slunk away, unable to watch her consume those cookies of mass destruction. But guess what? She was fine. Petite little lady didn’t feel bad, didn’t gain weight, didn’t drop dead. She ate extremely healthy food the next week, and her body dealt with the cookies. Plus, she just wanted the cookies.
The second involved my good friend Julie, who hails from the mighty land of Vermont. We were at dinner, and she was waxing poetic about real maple syrup versus that corn-syrup crap, and I was thinking, “Wow, she is really a nut about this.” Then I realized that this was how I sounded all of the time. I also realized that consuming maple syrup satisfied a part of Julie that went beyond nutrition. It made her happy in a way that no amount of wild strawberries or good bacon or coconut ice cream ever could. And that was okay. I was able to realize this because I love Julie and want her to be happy. Maple syrup makes her happy.
The last moment arrived in the form of a small round of raw-milk cheddar cheese that my dear friend Emlyn concocted on her internship at a farm this past fall. She had been aging her cheese devotedly for months, and it was finally time to taste it. I happened to be there, and she offered me a slice. Now, I happen to not react particularly well to dairy. Raw is always less severe than conventional, and sometimes there are hardly any effects at all. However, at that point in time, I had also not eaten any kind of dairy for close to nine months. I had turned down ice cream and supermarket cheese and fruit-flavored yogurt steadily and easily for a long while. But this was different. Emlyn made this cheese with love and with raw, pastured, happy-cow milk. It meant a lot to her, and it was a joyful social celebration. So I squashed my guilt and I ate a piece. I ate several pieces! I suffered for it for a couple hours with a runny nose and an itchy throat, but you know what? I would do it all over again in a heartbeat.
I guess what I’m trying to say is that life is more than your diet. Your life can be greatly improved by diet and cooking, but there are the unmeasurable things to take into account as well. Like trying a good friend’s cheese. Like enjoying dark amber maple syrup. Like maintaining a good relationship with your mother. Like the sheer joy of eating a fresh green pea (ah ah ah, not paleo!).
Today I was offered a piece of home-made Munster that had been aging for over four months, carefully cultivated by two expert cheese artisans in my community. This was no grocery-store mutant. It was a product that took care, and time, and serious knowledge. If ever there is a time to eat the cookie, it’s when the cookie is pretty freaking fantastic.
The offer (and the dish it was being offered in) was generous and kind and thoughtful, and I ATE IT. It was delicious. Excuse me while I go blow my nose.