I left Korea for the States at the age of four. Exhibit A. A plump little girl in Seoul, the ice cream bar a taste of the life that would one day dissolve. I’ve grown to appreciate how my mother managed to turn out the Korean food that is so time-consuming while juggling the challenges of survival and work as a tenderfoot habitant of NYC. She did what she could while borrowing from the convenience that processed foods in America offered her family. I don’t know where I’d be if it weren’t for her traditional cooking because the rest of my diet as a kid into my working years can be summed up by the ice cream.
Kids are no strangers to sweets but sugar, in the full spectrum of its creative forms, defined my diurnal fare. I grew up on the attractive boxes of sucrose called cereal. A packed favorite for school trips was toasted Wonder bread, center soft with butter, scintillating with white sugar. Campbell’s alphabet soup and canned vegetables fortified my childhood development. My beloved Lemon Creme from the donut shop on the corner of Broadway and Elmhurst was a regular affair, right along with the Mint Chocolate Chip cup from Baskin Robbins across the street. In junior high, my best friend and I enjoyed our daily breakfast of Lipton iced tea and Doritos from the commissary next to school. Ice cream was a sure bet after lunch. I took to baking, which meant following nice friendly recipes from Hines and Crocker. Voilà! Jello and chocolate pudding too, really just powder confectionery, transmuted so pleasingly out of the box. In high school, friends and I would vault out of our subway car at Grand Central to grab the Mars Bar off the newspaper stand, throw fifty cents down, and dive back in while the rest of us held a death-grip against the closing doors.
Then my parents started a deli.
Everything in the store was packaged or processed, embalmed or denatured. The princess of the castle had carte blanche over it all, the Kit Kat, Häagen Dazs, Boars Head ham. One afternoon, at the same friend’s house, I polished a half-gallon of ice cream all by my happy self. May have been on the heels of the TV dinner, our comforting after-school ritual. If you’re tiring of the drill, imagine how my liver felt. I haven’t even touched on my helpless relationship with caffeine, wheat, and dairy.
Fast-forward to my 20s. Life was work, food an afterthought, mealtime but a nuisance to hurdle as efficiently as possible. I was sprinting towards my Master’s in education and teaching full-time, studying and planning in my school office until 11 pm. Stouffer’s, sandwiches, the saccharine shake Ensure pulled me through. At lunch, I downed something mindlessly with one hand while writing with the other. If only I’d realized my headstone wasn’t going to read Most Fastidious Composer of Individualized Education Plans. I managed to stay one productive individual. But vitality, strength, wholeness, joy characterized nothing of my life. I was swallowing stuff just to exist. I wasn’t living. A nutritional X-Ray would’ve turned up an uncanny replica of Tim Burton’s Corpse Bride.
In attempting a rational conversation with me, my body intervened with a host of ills. Pain, crippling insomnia, visible inflammation, severe weight loss, acne any medical publisher would have scrambled to capture and publish. You know when someone bears a glaring deformity and you try not to gawk but find yourself gaping? Well, I was such the show that the owner of the dry cleaner’s I was trying out one day didn’t even feign looking away. In flagrant disregard for basic etiquette, she gasped her greeting, “Have you been to the hospital?!” In hindsight, I find it remarkable I’d held out so long. Yes, my comrades in the dedicated consumption of glucose are still up and running. But knowing what I finally do about differing constitutions and our predisposed weaknesses, I see that my body was one that could not afford a day-in, day-out diet of unpronounceables.
The time I’d saved in not eating right, I ended up spending generously at the doctor’s. I was put on the merry-go-round of -ologists who each tried hard to name the -itis while examining the body part parceled out under their specialty. Who, coming up short but well-meaning, then dispensed drugs that provided the illusion that I was better. No one I had trusted for curative expertise connected the dots, thought the symptoms had anything to do with one another. Years later I saw it didn’t matter what we called the malady. My body had given out. All systems were not go and each department was simply closing shop.
What I put in my mouth becomes my very flesh and blood and life force. And for some mystifying reason, I had dismembered food from my essence, entirely missed the requisite role food played in my health. When I had drained my reserves, I turned to professionals to unmask the phantom and welcomed the opiates that silenced the signs that my body had something to say. I know thorough, keen doctors who look at the whole patient, and drugs are required in some circumstances. But not one physician who had my eager concession at the time ever asked about the quality of my diet and lifestyle.
Sometime after the troubles surfaced, I was having dinner with an old friend who diplomatically suggested that what I was eating was affecting me. I promptly dismissed the notion. She went on to share a bit about the world of complementary medicine and natural health care she recently had left Corporate America for. All quite strange (then), but the seed had been planted.
A denizen of California not long later, I stumbled on a book at Barnes and Noble about health and the pleasures of eating. The stomach opens up more readily to accept what’s coming when we are sitting. I went around in awe of God the next several days. We were made to enjoy our food. The unhurried posture didn’t just embody a social dimension of eating. It disclosed a physiological logic. It would be yet some more years before I appreciated the profundity of relaxing over meals but the conventional wisdom even in its simple light was something I had been too impatient to heed. It slowly sank in. I-was-meant-to-stop-and-enjoy-my-food-and-doing so-was-good-for-me. This epiphany marked the genesis of my holistic perspective on the body, the lovely play between the seen and unseen. I was a whole being, with nothing random in her design.
For over a quarter of a century, I had built my body out of contrivances from labs and factories. I am only grateful to have made it to tell about it. I have been learning how to live, which for me meant discovering how to eat. To choose simple, untampered offerings of earth’s bounty to rejuvenate impaired tissue, clean blood, restore cellular function, nourish the one frame I have been given. This awareness became peremptory with the marvel of a beautiful, healthy boy in my arms. The cooking has been an answer to the solemn charge that I do justice to his little body. My labor of love in the kitchen for family and friends is my worship. Very much the way one develops a spiritual appetite, I’ve progressively come to enjoy the freedom to choose the foods that are best for me. I can’t remember the last time I had ice cream. It’s all good, because I’ve consumed enough for two lifetimes. This cat’s holding on to her three lives. Renewal. Strength. Balance. I’ll take ’em. They might not end with food, but certainly start with it.
What I offer you at my holistic table is the harvest of understanding reaped from these years of struggle and breakthrough in health and study. I hope you are blessed.