Food is Family

Reviving, restoring and creating new memories around food for those in recovery

You don’t have to be an eating disorder specialist to understand the significance of food.

Food plays a role in every physical, recreational and relational arena in life. Food is a representation of a family’s love and often becomes the battleground when a member develops an eating disorder.

A culture is defined by its food – its rituals, recipes, and social gatherings demonstrate how culture lives and breathes in every household.   family-meal

Food is pleasure. But, when a person has an eating disorder, pleasure is often replaced by dread, fear and shame.

Most people can connect food to their cultural experiences and childhood memories. Often, unfortunately, these experiences and memories are complicated for eating disorder sufferers who typically painfully recount family events that involve food. Tensions are often high regarding what and how much or little the sufferer has eaten; family functions turn in to stress filled and polarizing events. The joy and family connection through celebrations and rituals are lost to the eating disorder.

When working with patients in recovery, goals are to find new and pleasurable experiences around food and how to rekindle some aspects of cultural events or rituals involving food that can be fondly remembered and perhaps reinstated. Discovering food as a source of pleasure and creating new or happier memories involving food and family remain primary.

So, to that end…. or rather, beginning, in 2015, it is celebrating food in family, fun, adventure and pleasure that this blog post is written.

It is hoped that for all those suffering with an eating disorder that new experiences and future memories can be created that are fun and lasting despite the current struggle.

I realized that I could usually remember where I have been as a traveler when I think about a restaurant or meal I enjoyed with my family during our adventures. It is usually not the name of the particular village or town, for instance, in the Czech Republic, or Italy, or Peru that allows me to remember the sites I saw, but when I think about a delicious meal or pastry I ate, I can generally then remember the name of the town and then the historic or cultural sites visited. Food first; geography and history are distant second and third.

One such meal was in a restaurant built into a cave in the mountaintop Etruscan village of Orvieto, Italy. My children were little, and the adventure of the meal and its location were second to none…. copious quantities of bread, sweet tasting fish, wonderful bean and polenta dishes. My children were fussed over by the staff, eager to serve two enchanted children who thought, because of the cave, they were characters in Disney’s The Little Mermaid – priceless and memorable. Oh yeah, the Cathedral on the hill welcoming you in to Orvieto was beautiful, too!

I now maintain a home on a mountaintop in the northwest corner of North Carolina – five miles from Virginia – ten from Tennessee – Appalachia to be exact.

I naively (filled with fantasy?) went looking for an Italian market (Salumeria) in the neighboring towns and larger cities of the Appalachian Mountain range to make my family and wonderful friends an Italian lasagna (by an Italian girl from Brooklyn) this past Christmas Eve. I was hoping that if I found such a cheese shop, I would also find that the shop sold cannoli (ha!) the kind I remember that sat on the cash register counters of many Brooklyn cheese shops. I quickly came back down to reality. No such luck. My wish for these wondrous heritage treats and source of familial joy and cultural pride, were nowhere to be found.

Disappointed, I went to the supermarket and purchased the familiar hard, plastic like, packaged mozzarella and ricotta (brand shall be withheld, but truly they ALL taste the same – to me.)   I decided that I could accept domestic Italian ingredients for my lasagna as an alternate source of pleasure for my holiday spirit and remembrances.  Italian cultural food experiences here in Appalachia may exist, but were nowhere to be found by me.  I love biscuits and gravy, but not for an Italian Christmas Eve.

During the day, I prepared the lasagna – cutting up mozzarella, whipping the ricotta with egg, and making gravy.  I recounted to myself memories of childhood Christmases in Gravesend Brooklyn, including the yearly Nativity Pageant and play at my Catholic Grammar School, complete with singing elves  (where I would be in the choir – I was usually the littlest one in the grade.)  I thought about my neighborhood – Avenue U  – an Italian Mecca – replete with the sounds and smells of Brooklyn’s Italy – Mazola’s Coffee, Taverna’s Discount Shop (most presents were bought there, mostly cheap chachkies – the yiddish word for trinkets and collectables – and shower curtains, as I recall,) John’s Pizza, Carmella’s Restaurant, Avenue U Bread Shop (which sold only bread and bread products – including bread store baked Pizza,) and of course the pastry shop at the corner of Avenue U and West 6th Street where the sfogliatelle were remarkable…..crusty, golden flakes of wrapped pastry stuffed with baked ricotta cheese.

These memories made me happy.  They were independent of any and all family and relational dynamics or dysfunction. They were the memories that made me smile now and happy then.  Sometimes we don’t quite realize that while searching for foods or ingredients for a recipe or making a dish from our cultural or childhood roots that we are seeking something more meaningful or pleasurable than just a great meal. It was not the lasagna that was the motivation behind preparing it and extending the invitation to my friends.

Evening arrived. Friends came over – real ones. The kinds that are considerate, kind and not judgmental…the kinds that are owed more than will ever owe.

Though I write of the use of food as metaphor and replacement or representation of family in the life and mind of an eating disorder sufferer, sometimes family and friends are our food. Sometimes that which is most sustaining, most pleasurable comes out of the mouths of those we love and cherish around us. Sometimes sitting in the company of kind people makes life pleasurable. All of this happened around the lasagna, not because of it.

If there is one hope that I have maintained and continue to do so in my practice, it is that recovery is possible and that food can be experienced as one source of pleasure, not all, pleasure and certainly not to be feared either. Family and friends who are gracious, thoughtful, non-judgmental and kind make for a rich and pleasurable life. The funny thing is that although the joy and satisfaction was in the pleasure of the company, I will remember this event through the shopping for and preparation of the lasagna.

So, what’s the message? Food is an entry point, but it will never be the replacement for relationships or relational memories.

I wish for all those struggling with an eating disorder to know that beautiful and rich experiences and adventures around food and eating are possible. Food and family can and will be filled again with joyful memories. The comfort that comes with relationships will replace the unreliable and unsatisfying obsession with food and destructive symptoms of an eating disorder.  Hang in there.


Judy Scheel