Baking has never been my thing. I’ve always been one of those a-pinch-here-a-pinch-there type of cooks; so baking’s scientific personality has more than often been a major turn off. But the more honest turn off has been my fear that I’d learn to bake and inhale all my sweet endeavors and grow to be the size of a house. So there went baking, to the side of the road.
This past spring though, I took a Pastry 101 class and decided to meet and conquer head on my fear of baking. After all, if I was to be a well-rounded home-cook, I had to at least know how to bake a pie. My favorite part was learning how to make a pie crust from scratch. I couldn’t believe, not only how easy it was, but how whacking the hell out of a mass of dough could be so cathartic. And so I was hooked. Back in June I baked my first galette which is just another fancy word for a free-form tart that doesn’t require a pan. It was the first baked good I had ever made from scratch aside from cheesecake. I was totally blown away by how insanely delicious this buttery flaky mass of goodness was. I got scared. If this was how simple it was to make the fancy cousin of Apple Pie, I was in for some trouble. So my baking interest retracted once again.
I spent most of the summer wanting to bake but this notion of what to do with the extra baked goods kept gnawing at me. And then poof! Out of no where I immediately thought, hold up, how do French women eat all these lovely galettes and keep such fashionably trim figures?! As quick as I could down a package of chocolate chip cookies I feverishly searched Google for the answer. There were about 1.6 million results in 0.37 seconds for ‘How do French women stay thin?’ I was elated and relieved at not being the only curious one. I spent a good couple hours reading through articles. I even stumbled upon studies comparing American women vs. French women’s eating habits. There were many factors that contributed to their consistently tinier waists but the one that stood out and the one most people pointed to was that French women have a very different relationship with food than most American women do. Like their European counterparts, the French pretty much have an ongoing love-affair with their food, from breakfast to dessert. And it was at this precise moment that I realized I needed to begin my own love-affair with food.
This love-affair would not be of the cheap-motel-sneaking-around kind; the one that wreaks of greasy Chinese and stale end-of-day Dunkin’ Donuts. This new love affair would be of the Waldorf Astoria kind. It would need me to be picky, a food snob at the very least. It would lure me into seeking out the sexy shiny fresh foods like plum tomatoes and fresh mozzarella. It would beg that I nibble and canoodle with rich Dark chocolate. It would orchestrate the julienning of veggies for a fluffy Quiche. All this would be in the name of rebuilding my relationship with food.
My adolescent years were pretty normal. I, like most other kids I grew up with, had a fast metabolism so I could eat and nothing really stuck. Was I of the boney-skinny child group? Certainly not. But I definitely was not on a diet at 10. It also helped that I grew up in a home where funds were strapped most of the time so having sugary sweets in the house were considered a luxury. We rarely had soda or cookies around. Middle school came and went and I still had a normal relationship with food. Normal meaning I wasn’t in a constant calorie counting fat counting collar-bone pinching cycle.
High school came around and as I gained more independence from mom’s home-cooking and I could use my after school job to fuel my trips to Gray’s Papaya for my daily breakfasts of sausage egg and cheese on a roll, my taste for the cheap, quick and easy began to develop yet I still managed to remain relatively slender. I was in my freshman year and like most girls in my school I wanted to fit in, so I set out to try out for our annual fashion show. Let’s make this clear, this show was an annual event that was meant to actually showcase the tangible talents of stage building from the students in the Visual Merchandising major and the clothing designs made by hand of those in the fashion design major. So the modeling was an after-thought, yet it was treated as if you were trying out for America’s Next Top Model.
The week of try-outs was a stressful one for the girls especially exclusively. Any boys who dared to have the slightest interest in modeling were pretty much automatically accepted into the show. For many of us trying out, especially the freshmen, getting accepted meant we would climb the ladder of popularity much quicker than the other young-bloods, we’d get to have a special period during the day that we’d practice walking and exercise, and let’s not forget, we’d get to walk down that runway in beautiful clothes and have all eyes on us. So yes I so wanted to be a part of the chosen ones. It’s funny how the mind remembers the oddest things. We each had to fill out an audition form. It was a form of the simple kind only asking for my name, weight and height. I don’t’know why, but the weight question unnerved me. It wasn’t as if I had ever had an issue with my weight. I didn’t see myself as over-weight nor did my peers (and we know how honest and mean pubescent girls can be with stuff like that). But what was unnerving me was that I knew and I had always known that I had been blessed with the typical Latina curvy body from an early age. [In grade-school the boys in class would call me ‘Legs’ because even at 10 years old I had curvy shapely legs]. Nonetheless I put in my weight and proceeded to hand in my form and stand in line to wait my turn to strut my bad-self down the auditorium stage. I had practiced like a mad woman girl trying to get the right walk down that was not too showy but showy enough to stand out. I knew exactly where to stop on the stage, turn and then saunter to the end. Backstage we were all practicing and I even kept getting ‘hey your walk is freekin good, you’re so gonna get in’. These compliments totally boosted my confidence so much so that when it was my turn to walk, that little thought in the back of my mind about my weight was now hibernating. It was one of those early moments in life where I had experienced pure self-confidence. As I did my thang and perked up my hips side to side trying to mimic Naomi Campbell down a Calvin Klein runway, I caught a glimpse of the judges. They sat there peering at me and jotting notes here and there. As I exited the stage many of the girls still waiting for their turn complimented me again, which gave me even more reassurance that I would be one of the chosen ones.
I can’t recall how long it took for us to find out if we had gotten in, but I can remember that when I found out I in fact was not accepted, my ego was totally shot. And of course I was an overly dramatic high school girl, so to me it was the greatest blow. To add injury to insult, my best-friend then, who was noticeably taller and thinner than I, got in. While the halls clamored with cheers and smiles of all the girls who had made it, I began to wonder why had I not gotten in? Was I too short? No. There was at least one other girl just as short that got in. Was my nose too round? No. There were girls there who had gonzo noses. Or were my baby cheeks too round for this high school fashion show? These were all my perplexing thoughts, and I decided that it was my weight. Luckily my self-pity was short-lived and I moved on to sports teams in the coming years. During my stints on the Tennis and Volleyball teams I had grueling workouts so anything I ate naturally disappeared. So again I still had a pretty normal relationship with food. I ate and exercised (although in my mind this wasn’t exercise, this was just practice and training) and my body remained fit.
I graduated high school and took six months off before going to college. And that’s when my relationship with food went from normal to commonly un-normal; commonly un-normal being that like most young women my age (18) I was now routinely watching what I ate, and hoping the empanadas I enjoyed at family parties would not stick to my ass and thighs. Now don’t get me wrong, I was not an obsessed calorie counter. After all, I was still Latina, and in our culture being stick-thin means you either have stressful issues in your life, which kill your appetite or you are suffering from malnutrition. So I had my maduros and my chicharones de pollo and I kept it movin.
Since the beginning of my college days back in 1998 to today, a lot has happened in our society’s perception of what it means to be healthy. Many diets have come and gone, Atkins, low-carb, low-fat, sugar-free, Lemonade cleanse, Blue Print Juice, etc. You would think with all these different diets and the abundance of access the internet has given us to information we’d be in our ideal shapes without even trying. But the fact remains that we as Americans are getting bigger. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention 35.7% of Americans are obese today. Let’s get even more exact. The U.S. population stands roughly at 3.1 million people today and of those, 1.1 million are classified obese. That’s a whole lot of fat roaming around in our neck of the world, blood, arteries, and hearts.
Our relationship with food has become so warped that most of the time we don’t know if we’re sippin or chewin. Is there one solution for all? I don’t know, and probably think there isn’t one diet trick that will work alone. What I do believe will make a difference is how we re-acquaint ourselves with food. We need to show respect for farmers; make whole foods more affordable; bring back home-economics to schools where children learn how whole foods play a roll in our daily lives; as parents, show by example that cooking and eating can be fun and not an agonizing chore. It will take effort, but isn’t it worth it? Isn’t it worth it to be able to have a slice of cake and not feel we need to apologize to the world for it? Isn’t it worth it to be able to workout not to lose calories but to give our bodies the gift of health? Isn’t it worth it so our daughters value and respect their health and bodies?
So with this post, I pledge to make the genuine effort to educate myself and those around me about the importance of having a healthy and normal relationship with food that involves time in the kitchen, fresh produce aisles, and the positive connection between food and physical activity.