(by Aubrey Clyburn)
My mother sent me a recipe recently for something called “Warming Grain-Free Breakfast Cereal.” It contains, among other things, pumpkin seeds, goji berries, and half of a Bosc pear. I saved the email. I know full well that I will not be making that dish.
Every so often she does things like that—suggests recipes, sends me health books, offers me chia seed pudding. I always take whatever it is and put it somewhere I don’t have to look at it and she doesn’t have to watch me ignore it. It is her way of apologizing, and my way of accepting.
I wish I had learned to cook from my mother when I was growing up. I wish I had paid attention. I would have known how to make her chicken-and-broccoli braid and the three-ingredient blueberry crumble that she keeps on an index card in her mother’s handwriting. I would have presented them to her proudly, and she would have smiled and applauded and asked if I was going to clean up the kitchen too. In fact, before I left for college, she had promised to teach me these things.
She never did. The reason she sends me those emails is that just before I began packing my bags to move 1000 miles away from home for college in Texas, my mother was diagnosed with a thyroid disorder called Hashimoto’s. To make matters worse, she was diagnosed by a rather aggressive functional nutritionist, whose draconian guidelines she chose to follow. In her case, it means she does not eat anything that a bear would not find in the woods. Leaves, yes. Berries, sure. Raw honey, obviously. Vegetables, some. At the same time, the nutritionist diagnosed me with “I don’t know, but you’d better not eat any gluten or dairy.”
“Well, why not? What will happen?”
Oh, dear. A shake of the head. “Do you want to find out?”
Yes, that’s why I asked. “Just for my own curiosity, what will happen if I keep eating gluten and dairy?”
Blasphemy. How dare I challenge the expert. “I don’t know, but you’d just better not.”
Thus began the quiet rebellion. I baked and ate one last decadent, red velvet, beautifully frosted, gluten-filled cake covered in rainbow sprinkles, and set off for college, where gluten-free living meant that every recipe was an experiment, a desperate hurling of fake spaghetti against a cruelly unpredictable wall. I baked an abundance of warm, cakey, pretend doughnuts and bought not-Oreos filled with chemicals and sugar-approximating cream. I said a regretful No to pizza parties and hid my shame at inconveniencing my friends who were kind enough to cater to me. I filed my mother’s recipes in a folder for that blessed imaginary day when I would summon the good will to make them in my own kitchen. I tiptoed around the first Thanksgiving at home, pretending that I didn’t want any warm rolls (the best part of Thanksgiving dinner), but then stayed in Texas for subsequent Thanksgivings, eating fried rice in my living room instead.
And here is the most delicious part. My entire life, I had never thought for a second about what I ate, or what it would do to me. Suddenly, I thought about it all the time. I bought the things that were not Oreos and ate whole packages at a time, furious at suddenly being presented with limitations. I baked 16 gluten-free cookies and ate them all in one night, hurting my stomach as badly as normal cookies would have. I bought and ate bags of chocolate chips, and then did crunches on the floor of my dorm room, hoping one would cancel out the other. Sometimes I would slip and eat a slice of pizza, and then eat four, because I had already cheated—what difference did it make? My mother, a thousand miles away, was stalwart. She made complicated salads, bought obscure organic vegetables, and embarrassed my father by listing her restrictions to waiters. She did not cheat. She emailed me recipes with encouraging notes, and I filed them without replying.
For the Christmas holiday my senior year, I went home to North Carolina and stayed two weeks, spending a lot of that time in bed. One afternoon my mother told me she had noticed that every time I came home, I became terse and withdrawn. This was true. Then she told me that she thought it was her fault. She thought I resented her for forcing me to stay on my “diet” when I was at home, as if I hadn’t been doing it the whole time I was away. She thought it was her fault in the first place for letting me eat so much bread as a child, because I tormented her with my pickiness and refused to eat anything else.
That wasn’t true. Of course it wasn’t, was it?
I live on my own now. The pandemic hit, I graduated, I moved back home, and I left after a week. It wasn’t because of anything she had done—we went through the dance of offering and accepting recipes, supplements, chia seeds. It was more that I wanted my own space. I wanted to prove I could do it. Two nights ago, I burned popcorn so badly that I filled the house with smoke. I didn’t tell my mom. Instead I told her about the cute little organic produce market down the street. I don’t want her to feel bad.
Aubrey Clyburn is an actor and math tutor who currently lives in Wilmington, North Carolina. She can be found at aubreyclyburn.wixsite.com/home.
Warming Grain-free Breakfast Cereal
1 T. ground flaxseed
1 T. pumpkin seeds
2 T. shredded coconut
2 t. chia seeds
1⁄4 t. cinnamon
pinch of sea salt
1 vanilla bean, seeded (optional)
7 drops liquid stevia (vanilla crème or plain) or 1⁄2 – 1 t. raw honey (or another sweetener)
1⁄2 Bosc pear or apple, chopped, or other seasonal fruit
1 T. goji berries
Grind flax seed into a fine meal and set aside.
(You can grind a larger quantity ahead and store in the refrigerator).
Using a hand blender or food processor, mix pumpkin seeds, coconut, chia, cinnamon, sea salt, and vanilla until finely ground.
Add hot water to cover along with stevia or honey and ground flax.
Top with fruit, goji berries, and a drizzle of coconut milk.