Saturday, April 13, 2013

Cancer and the Kitchen

The past few months have been rather life-altering in our home.  Some changes, as you loyal readers know, were for heart-popping joyous reasons—like getting married to the darling of my heart.  Some others...not so much.  In fact, they were rather heart-crushing. Back in August, right at the start of the school year, my dearest biggest sister was diagnosed with colon cancer.

Nicole (or Cole, as she is affectionately called amongst us siblings) is one of those people that anyone has a hard time accepting that anything bad happen to her. She is an individual who does nothing but make the world a better place—and I am absolutely telling the truth when I say that. She takes after my two grandmothers in the fact that she does not have a judgmental, critical, negative bone in her body. She may disagree with you—but she understands the disagreement and leaves it alone, simply letting her love for you shine through in the hundred ways she shows it.

And here she has cancer. God damn cancer.

In the midst of all this, Chef Reiton's sister was being tested for celiac, a disease whose name is thrown around a lot these days, but if you have it, it really really is not a good thing. As we started learning more about it and what it does to your body (we tend to want to know all the details about what our sisters are potentially facing), Chef Reiton started becoming concerned. A lot of the symptoms of celiac disease were things that he had or currently was dealing with. Could he have celiac?

Because of the hereditary nature of celiac, and colon cancer, as my brother-in-law and Cole's doctors informed us, Chef Reiton and I decided to look into things a bit more personally: he stopped eating gluten. I thought about getting a colonoscopy. Thought about it, and agreed to get one—and never set up an appointment.

As the months went by, Chef Reiton started feeling fantastic. He started losing weight. His indigestion went away. Some numbness in his foot subsided. His headaches stopped.

I, on the other hand, started feeling worse.  One day I found myself questioning why I didn't have the energy to run up the stairs anymore. And when I found myself feeling pissy every day, I heard myself say, "What is wrong with me?"Anyone who knows me knows that none of these are characteristic of me; I normally am bouncing off the walls and feeling pretty darned happy about life.

And my stomach was just not feeling right.

But, being myself, I told myself that whatever it was was passing, I just needed to get some rest, and I would be fine. Whatever.

And then one day at lunch, I felt like my insides were going haywire. I left work early, thinking I had the flu. But five days later I was still super crappy (literally) with a fever and some serious abdominal pain. I went to the doctor who, upon hearing my new family medical history, immediately signed me up to see a surgeon to get a colonoscopy. The one I was supposed to have gotten months ago.

Long medical story short: the virus that I went in to the doctor's for went away with a month's worth of Prilosec. The colonoscopy experience was a trip; in my dream during the procedure I heard my surgeon say something about "six," and I thought: He found something.

And he did. A polyp the size of his pinky finger was hugging my colon wall. "I don't think it's cancerous," he said post-op, "but most probably precancerous. Thank God for that diarrhea! That's what made you come see me! Another year or two and that thing would have been cancerous."

Holy ironic crap. If it wasn't for Nicole... You see where I'm going? It would have been me.

But it's not. I simply have to get another colonoscopy in six months. Aaaand I have diverticulosis. (I thought that was what old people got!) I now take Metamucil twice a day (my 91-year-old friend, Heinz, laughed at that. "I only have to take it once!" he said.).

Chef Reiton, in the meantime, not only stopped eating gluten, but he started dabbling with the paleo diet. Next he scheduled an endoscopy—and was found to be normal.  A possible gluten irritation, but no disease.

So we were both cleared. But all of this really got us thinking.What we take in, yes, always comes out. But it spends some time hanging out inside, rubbing off on us in either good or bad ways. I had always thought that we had been healthy eaters. And we were, according to the USDA.

But what about according to us?Were we listening to our bodies? Did we stop to think about how we felt after we ate a meal? Did we take the time to not just notice our body functions but to discern what was causing them to be the way they were? Did we care enough about what those feelings and functions were saying?

Usually, no. If things taste good, it's hard to say 'no' to them, even if you feel like total crap later.

But when something big happens, like your sister getting cancer (and now my darling aunt, too), and then you have a scare yourself, you suddenly start thinking, "Maybe I should pay attention, because things are apparently happening in there, and I wasn't listening."

So. That huge story. Where is it leading?

One of the ways we have been dealing with our health hiccups is to follow more closely to a paleo diet. Chef Reiton is staying off all grains since he feels so much better not eating it (paleo foodies eat mostly meat, eggs, nuts, and veggies, and they drink lots of water. But no grain, no legumes, minimal natural starches and sugars...).  I am eating much, MUCH less grain.  I also am incorporating a LOT more fiber into my diet (doctor's orders), which means a heck of a lot more veggies than I already was eating.

This has been a huge switch in the way that we were eating and cooking. Remember all of those posts on homemade bread? Cookies? Cakes? Yeah. They happen a LOT less now. I still eat some. I have a 15-year-old stepson who still wants a cookie once in awhile. But despite a once-a-month splurge on pasta or a piece of pizza, Chef Reiton is strictly paleo—and down to a 32-inch waist.

The funny thing: Nicole and her husband started looking into paleo at the same time because of the connections of foods and cancer. Her research into the diet led her to a cookbook that she thought I would enjoy, so she passed on some of its recipes. After one night of cooking one of them, I was hooked.  I had to have it: Well Fed by Melissa Joulwan.

It has now been added to the Cookbooks to Be Owned list.  Every frickin' recipe in it rocks (except for the meatza pie. It felt too much like squashed meat loaf for me.). I love the pad thai. Never thought I could do spaghetti squash, but here? OMG. The ginger-lime grilled shrimp are fabulous. And the Moroccan meatballs are to die for. (I just want those little swords she has poking into them...I want to eat off a sword.)  Two nights ago we made the citrus carnitas:

I now wholeheartedly agree with blogger Shayne who said, "You should probably rename this to pork crack-nitas, because I cannot stop making and eating it." With such a cheap cut as pork shoulder, you can afford to.

Eating healthy—eating consciously—is not difficult.  It does take some initial sacrifice.  But come on, we are humans. We are adaptable creatures who love a good time; when it comes to food, we can always find a way to still have it good. It's just a different good than what we were used to, that's all. It is in no way less pleasurable.

For those of you who are still here, reading until the very end of this very long post, it shows that something I said caught you. I hope that whatever it was, it was a good spark. I know that despite all of these changes for my family, we are realizing more than we ever did before that Life and the love of it are precious. When you find It raging towards you, in joy or in pain, you've just got to grab it by the horns and ride, ride, ride.

Just make sure you're riding towards a kitchen.

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

A Foodie Honeymoon: Friday Lunch at August

August in New Orleans, LA

Going to August was like going to church (at least the last church I used to go to).  You knew that there was a good chance that you were going to experience something great when you went, and perhaps the best part of going was that what you did experience was not this big, communal experience.  It was--as church should be--completely private and personal.

Such was our experience at August.  Even its architecture and decor felt church-like: its main dining room with its vaulted ceiling and soaring windows; its private dining rooms with their cloister-like spaces, dimly lit and glowing with wood and candles.  Age poured from its pores.  Even the stairway that led to the bathrooms on the balconied second floor was banistered with heavy balustrades.

(Speaking of church, I need to confess to you, dear reader, once again.  Thanks to the same damn iPhone incident mentioned in the previous post, we lost almost all our pictures and most of our notes of our August experience.  Please pardon the lack of pictures besides that of the gorgeous entrance.  And to our amazing servers, we loved you just as much as all the others.  I just, ashamedly, don't remember names after so many months.  I sincerely apologize.  And, now--on to the food.)

The dishes that appeared before our eyes at August were miraculous.  An egg cup was placed before me (an hors d'oeuvre that came with the meal, unordered).  Nestled in the bottom of its carefully cracked shell was a delicate seafood custard topped with a creamy truffle mousse.  Its crowning adornment was a tiny scoop of caviar, a beautiful fennel frond, and a brioche toast stick.

Five years ago, there was no way in hell I would have eaten such a thing.  Eggs??? And CAVIAR??? It is just another example of the wonders of becoming a foodie.  When you are constantly creating your own food, you suddenly have an understanding of what it means for someone to create a dish for you.  You know what the processes are.  You know what the ingredients are and what is involved in collecting them.  Food and its evolution become a reality for you.  So much of the unknown in food preparation is removed (remember those moments as a kid? When your mom would set a casserole on the table and you had NO idea what was buried in those layers of stuff?).  With the removal of that unknown comes the removal of fear.  Sure, I had never had caviar before.  And, yes, I knew that I was about to eat the eggs that some mama sturgeon laid somewhere in the Caspian Sea.  I didn't know if I would like them.  But, god, they were mine! Tiny and round and purple and beautiful.  I knew that many people love caviar--and since I'd never had the experience, I wanted to try it.  I wanted to remove a foodie unknown.  So I took my tiny little spoon and scooped down through the multiple layers of meticulous food-turned-art and spooned them all into my mouth in one inhaling bite.  

Dear Lord--DIVINE.

And then came my Pimm's cup (finally! I got to try one!).  And my baby greens salad with fresh figs, goat cheese, and pistachio brittle.  My gorgeously homemade pasta ribbons with porcini mushrooms in a silky cream sauce.  Chef Reiton's unbelievable trout on the thinnest toast imagineable.  Goat milk cheesecake with balsamic caramel. Homemade pralines (god, I can still see these pictures in my head!). 

Speaking of pralines, we got to meet the chef who made them.  We were getting ready to leave August, ready to head to the airport,--and I had to use the restroom one more time.  Chef Reiton and I headed upstairs, giving the restaurant one last perusal before we left.  Passing by the dessert kitchen, I paused; I couldn't help but be nosy and poke my head a fraction of the way into the room.  One of the chefs saw me.  "Hey! Come on in!" she called.  

I think my eyes must have popped out of my head at the invitation.  "Are you serious?" I asked.

"Of course!" she said.  "Come here."  

Chef Reiton and I tenaciously stepped into the kitchen.  The chef walked toward us with a tray of pralines.  "Try one," she offered.  "They are my grandma's recipe."

Beautiful little golden plops of brown sugar and butter stood in perfect rows on a baking sheet.  I peeled one off of the parchment and popped it into my mouth.  Angels started singing.  What a perfectly heavenly way to end the honeymoon of honeymoons.

With the sincerest of thanks we headed back into the hall.  "I can't believe this is it," I said, so strangely happy but sad at the same moment.  I didn't want to leave.

But it was time to go.  Time to head back to our own life, to our own home, to our own kitchen.

And yet I wasn't going home empty-handed.  I had a myriad of experiences that I was taking home: tastes, and conversations, and drinks, and laughs, and generosities beyond anything that I ever had imagined.  

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