(by Janet Conroy-Quirk)
When I was about four years old, while sitting at the dinner table, sporting a blonde bowl haircut and "Mork & Mindy" suspenders, I decreed that I would henceforth eat only three things: macaroni and cheese, chicken, and carrots. My parents were amused, as they knew this protest would not last long. We were living in the Bronx, and there were simply too many culinary temptations in New York City—dinner on Arthur Avenue (the “real’ Little Italy); lunch at the neighborhood deli; even the occasional White Castle slider (aka “belly-bomber”). My parents also knew that I loved almost everything they cooked for me, and that my declaration was not indicative of anything more than my proclivity for drama. They filed it away as one of those inside family jokes that sticks around forever. To this day, both of them prepare culinarily-evolved, yet comforting, versions of macaroni and cheese, chicken, and carrots whenever I visit. Because parents remember everything.
There would come a time after that childhood tantrum when I would truly restrict my eating. I lost too much weight too quickly, and the rejection of food became my priority. I claimed that I didn’t like or “need” anything. Those close to me expressed concern—my family and a few smart, worried friends. Most people gave me accolades, as we tend to do in our weight-obsessed culture. Acquaintances asked what my “secret” was, even though I think everyone knew what it was, and that it wasn’t good. I had a friend who encouraged my disorder to supplement her own. We did grueling workouts and ate almost nothing. When we did eat, we saw it as an indulgence and a failure.
It’s not unusual for young people to confide in their friends more than in their parents about body insecurity, and that’s generally what I did. In retrospect, I wish I had reached out more to my mother, Carol, and learned more about her own experience with body image. But I did learn a lot from observing her language and actions. My mother is confident, kind, smart, and beautiful. She never spoke negatively about her body. She never abstained from eating in front of me. She is petite and strong, a runner who did the New York Marathon in 1986. She avoided critiquing other women’s appearances, and scolded me passionately for any type of bullying or unkindness. My friends loved her, and still do, because she always took an interest in them. She was the mom who’d chaperone the class trip to the Staten Island Ferry and somehow manage to comfort the seasick kid, bring the shy child out of her shell, and keep all the other maniacs from jumping overboard.
It’s common for people who don’t understand eating disorders to wonder if the problem stems from “the family.” That idea always frustrated me, because my parents did everything right when it came to food, health, exercise, and support. When our family left the Bronx for Massachusetts in 1987, my mother worked per diem while we all got settled. For as long as I could remember, she had been a nurse in a busy New York City hospital, often until late at night, while my father was pursuing his doctorate in education. So I was surprised at the new idea that my mom would be home, in a house, not an apartment, at 3 in the afternoon. But I liked it. It felt like a TV show. I remember telling her that I would love to come home from school and find that she had baked cookies. A few days later, I came home from school to find a tray of chocolate chip cookies waiting for me.
As a nurse, my mother knew a lot about nutrition and health, but she had to react as a parent when she saw me struggling with an eating disorder. I recall standing in front of a mirror one summer afternoon and screaming at her for not understanding “how fat” I looked. I was well under the recommended weight for my height (5’9”), and I was tired, scared, and sick. I will never forget the look on her face as she watched me hate myself. She persevered in helping me realize just how dangerous my distortions had become, and helping me remember what food meant to my own story, my connection to the past.
I was lucky that after two years, I finally accepted excellent treatment and got better. I moved off-campus in college and began cooking my own meals in a tiny studio apartment that I loved. I no longer sought validation in deprivation. I tried many of our family recipes, and discovered how important it is to have food in our lives, because it IS life.
Now, while I have a healthy relationship with food, I am what is called “plus size.” I’ve only recently found the courage not to whisper that phrase. In fact, I identify as part of the body positivity/plus culture movement. I’ve appeared in online videos and discussed my clothing size, my experience with online bullying, and my perception of beauty and health. Sometimes I’m asked if I was “ever taught to eat well.” I have to laugh because getting angry or hurt would be giving into hatred and ignorance.
It was hard to choose one of my mom’s recipes to share here. Her recipe for Irish soda bread is exceptional, but requires more precision than I possess. She travels extensively due to her work for wildlife conservation and animal advocacy, and loves to recreate different dishes and flavors. She uses cookbooks occasionally, but more often than not, she utilizes her own system of handwritten recipes, with her notes. She usually has them propped on a stand on her counter even after the meal is prepared; my husband and I love to walk into her kitchen and take a look at what we’ll be having that night. It’s like going to a wonderful restaurant where we’re the only customers.
Her favorite recipe is one I haven’t tried making—yet. Grandma Rehm’s sauerbrauten is a tribute to her family’s heritage, and it’s delicious, but I always thought it was “too hard” to attempt myself. I feel differently now.
Grandma Rehm’s Sauerbrauten
1 1/2 c. red wine vinegar
1 c. water
12 whole peppercorns
2 T. brown sugar
4 bay leaves
3 sliced onions
12 whole cloves
2 t. salt
1 t. dry mustard
12 gingersnap cookies, crushed
6 lb. beef rump roast
Mix all ingredients for marinade, and soak beef in refrigerator for at least 48 hours.
Remove beef, reserving the marinade, and dry with paper towels.
Dredge beef in flour.
Heat cooking oil and brown beef on all sides.
Strain marinade through a fine sieve, and add the liquid along with the beef to a Dutch oven or large pot.
Cover and simmer for 3 – 3 1/2 hours.
Slice and serve with potato dumplings and pickled red cabbage.