The subject of this post has been on my mind for months. Actually, it’s been on my mind for most of my life but it is only recently that I have begun to feel comfortable enough to come clean about this whole thing. I’m talking about my relationship with food and, no matter how bizarre and irrational any readers may think I am, I’m hoping there are others out there that are just like me. Or crazier than me, because that would make me feel a heckuva lot better knowing I’m not the weirdest one out there.
For over two decades, I have not once been able to look at a plate of food and see sustenance, nutrition, nourishment. Sure, I appreciate a tasty meal and I have been known to devour whole pizzas in one sitting (which, if you’ve ever seen me and my tiny frame, is quite an achievement and one I like to brag about often), but as soon as I swallow that very first bite, I begin to worry about odd little bits – things like toxins, bacteria, spoilage, unclean processing plants, inhumane slaughtering, etc. And then I try to regain some kind of control by reminding myself that I must eat. I have no choice. If I want to stay alive, I must eat.
I have suffered from only one serious bout of food poisoning in my life but it is from this occurrence that I developed a fear of food. Suddenly, food became my nemesis. Meals became antagonistic, taunting me with the possibility of making me sick once again. My tendency to eat meat diminished once I learned of salmonella poisoning in 4th grade health class. News reports about bacteria-laden tomatoes and spinach leaves automatically made me refuse to eat tomatoes and spinach, even if the recalls were being done in faraway parts of the country. The most recent announcements regarding our orange juice being drowned in pesticides made me want to scream and run in the other direction. Sadly, the oranges from my orange tree are only good for a few months and we’re all out of oranges. It’s back to pesticide drip for me.
There was the E. Coli outbreak in the 1990s at Jack in the Box restaurants, hepatitis from a green onion at Chi-Chi’s, and, just within the last few years, a major salmonella outbreak in tomatoes and peanut butter. My coworker’s daughter was sickened by a meal in the Atlanta airport a couple of years ago and had to be cared for by family members for a week until she fully recovered. The culprit? A goddamn tomato! Dare I even remind myself of the Listeria scare cause by Publix and their ever-so-tasty spinach dip? Gah!
This all came to a head two days ago when I was splitting apart frozen pieces of raw chicken to feed the tigers and lions at the sanctuary where I volunteer. My gloves were leaky and I tried to be all adult-like and mature and tell myself not to worry, that I could just wash my hands of any possible contaminants that might make their way onto my skin. I pulled off the gloves at the end of my shift and found them soaked with the juices of 200 pounds of raw chicken. I scrubbed with anti-bacterial dish soap, up to my elbows, at least three times and found a Lysol wipe with which to clean under my fingernails. When that was done, after I had rubbed my hands red and tender, I loaded them up with anti-bacterial gel. To calm myself, I did a Google search and learned all I could about salmonella poisoning: How long would it take to set in? What kind of symptoms could I expect? Did I wash my hands long and hard enough? What about that cut near my cuticle? Could salmonella possibly enter my body through that cut? (the answer is yes). Then I promptly lost my shit and cried for approximately 20 minutes. I mean, leaky gloves! How could I have been so stupid!? (For the record, I am 53 hours into a 72-hour waiting period to experience salmonella symptoms – so far, so good, but I’m not resting easy until noon Saturday.)
When I spent a week in Oklahoma last Thanksgiving, I was introduced to a new way of seeing food. Not just food in general, but my food. The entire state is very food-proud! Restaurant menus happily list the ingredients of their dishes (sometimes the menu will even explain how the food got to the restaurant!), community-share agriculture (CSA) is quite popular, and food co-ops and farmers markets are plentiful. This region of Florida has not yet reached that level of food awareness but it is slowly catching on. I’m very happy about this and I’m delighted to be a part of it, even if I’m just a consumer. Without the consumers, there would be no demand for safer foods and local support for the farmers. This is the stuff I put into my body, this is what I choose to feed my appetite and my body with every time I get hungry. For a control freak like myself, it only made sense for me to try and get a handle on this overwhelming obstacle, this stupid little barrier that keeps me from enjoying my food, and knowing where it comes from has helped me…a little bit.
I guess this is my very long explanation for why I have become more interested in local foods and organic growing practices. Until recently, I was not aware that I had choices. Of course I had heard the buzzword organic and talk of cage-free chickens, but none of it ever registered with me that it was something I could afford. Luckily (and I say that with much sarcasm), I lost my job and acquired a whole lot of free time with which to spend on learning about this kind of stuff.
I have spent some time reading books about the state of our processed food chain and watching films and documentaries on the same subject. I haven’t become obsessed with this new interest, but I do believe I have become healthier, both mentally and physically. Already, and to my great surprise, my taste buds have rejected the sodium-packed Chef Boyardee raviolis. I was shocked! Especially because Chef Boyardee was my go-to guy when my blood pressure would start to crash and I needed a sodium boost. I think that because I have been eating foods that are better for me that my body finally decided to put a stop to this ravioli crap from ever entering my mouth again. And I used to think that stuff was so darn delicious!
I know I have a long way to go before I can ever look at food with a healthy perspective. But I am on my way! This knowledge has really turned me into a proactive consumer and a supporter of local agriculture, not to mention a better cook. Also, I bought a badass new pair of work gloves for the next time I have to prepare the bins of big kitty tiger chow made out of raw chicken and beef hearts. They go all the way up to my elbows. MY ELBOWS, for cryin’ out loud!!!!! You don’t have to tell this girl twice…lesson learned!