"For He satisfies the longing soul, and the hungry soul He fills with good things." —Psalm 107:9
One of my most vivid early memories is the scent of buttery homemade biscuits and coffee wafting through the air of my grandparents' kitchen in San Angelo, Texas. I sat at the table with my short legs kicking peacefully in the air, waiting. Papaw wore his signature coveralls and cowboy boots. He handed me a plate of two warm biscuits packed with brown sugar. During the holidays, his buttermilk pies were stacked on top of the fridge in Pizza Hut boxes he'd purchased. My love for good food and drink started in that little kitchen—all things handmade and homemade, and often sweet.
Oddly, I didn't start cooking until I was well into my twenties—boxes, cans and microwaves fed me. When my brother met my husband for the first time, he said (with all the sibling mockery he could muster), "You know Jenni doesn't cook, right?" Johnny knew—he invited me over to his place and cooked Indian food while we were dating. But in our newlywed apartment, I cultivated a love for preparing real, natural foods. I joined a co-op to buy our fruits and vegetables; shopped at Whole Foods more often; and, step by step, purchased as many unprocessed foods as possible. I baked Papaw's pies with real cane sugar, organic vanilla, and local raw butter and buttermilk. I mastered my aunt's carrot cake for Johnny's birthdays. But shortly after moving into our first house, my health took a fast downward spiral with crazy symptoms that our kind family doctor could not decipher.
After visiting a revolutionary health clinic five minutes away from our neighbourhood, I was diagnosed with hormone imbalances and a systemic candida (yeast) overgrowth. We are all created with a small amount of yeast in our bodies, but through the overuse of antibiotics which kill not only harmful bacteria but also the protective good bacteria, yeast multiply and change into toxins, causing all kinds of bodily discomfort. I'd never heard of this malady until that day, but what I quickly understood is that Jesus wasn't kidding around when He said, "Beware of the leaven of the Pharisees." Whether He likened yeast to sin or the feisty spread of His kingdom, yeast feed with impressive speed.
My doctor's philosophy is to starve the yeast with a diet, kill the yeast with antifungal medication, and restore my body with probiotics. And boy, that diet turned my life upside down, along with the suffering. My husband is a drummer, and we live by the rhythm of liturgy both in our church and at home, but with the onset of my health issues, our life suddenly became arrhythmic. All of the imagery about feasting at a banquet table was shattered in my mind. I thought surely the pleasure of good food was over for me when my doctor prescribed no sugar, no vinegar (except apple cider vinegar), no dairy, no grains, no yeast, no alcohol and minimal starches.
For the first few months, my outlook was grim. So many of my favourite foods were taken from me in an instant—especially desserts. I'd wail, "I have nothing to eat!" Yet as I began to detox, my palate adjusted, changed, and craved less. And I had what could only be a supernatural epiphany: people around this big, wide world are starving, literally to death, and drinking filthy water. I am not. This was no cliché for me. The truth of my situation hit me on the head like a sweet slap of discipline and slowly but surely, I recognized the bounty of my diet. Our granaries are full, just creatively so, without wheat and all. Nowadays I feel a bit like Mrs. Cope here:
"'Every day I say a prayer of thanksgiving,' Mrs. Cope said. 'Think of all we have. Lord,' she said and sighed, 'we have everything' . . . Mrs. Pritchard studied the woods. 'All I've got is four abscess teeth,' . . . she remarked. 'Well, be thankful you don't have five,' Mrs. Cope snapped . . . 'We might all be destroyed by a hurricane. I can always find something to be thankful for.'" —Flannery O'Connor, A Circle in the Fire
To be fair to Mrs. Pritchard, I do miss delicacies such as cupcakes and iced pumpkin scones, but I'm grateful for food to fill my stomach. I've rediscovered flavorful basics such as lentils, yellow squash, basil, scallions, multicoloured bell peppers, cardamom, cinnamon, Celtic sea salt, cashews, freshly ground nut butters, coconut milk, brown eggs, all manner of coffee and tea, stevia and so on. I've been surprised at how my eyes have been opened, through suffering, to things I previously took for granted: staggering beauty on the most hopeless of days and manna in a dietary wilderness, for starters. My prayers can't help but include thanks to God for creating these fruits of the earth and their natural goodness.
I had no idea that nuts and vegetables possessed their own sweetness. And honest to God, apples now taste like candy. I prepare big salads with flax seed meal, sunflower seeds, fresh ground pepper, extra virgin olive oil, and lemon juice, and I prefer that concoction over fancy salad dressings. I whip up homemade hummus, thanks to Margie Haack's blog (and thanks be to God for the chickpea). I enjoy the simplicity of meals such as wild Alaskan salmon with lemon-cilantro vinaigrette. I'm continually amazed that the fewest of healthy ingredients makes for a mouthwatering entrée.
I even learned to bake from scratch, which I'm pretty proud of, and I'm sure sends my brother reeling. The thing is, when I want cookies, I must bake them myself with Ghirardelli unsweetened cacao chips, walnuts, erythritol, coconut flour, almond butter, shredded coconut, and coconut oil. The discovery of protein-rich almond flour brought pancakes back into my life—this has become our Saturday morning tradition, along with bacon and a dark roast coffee. Almond flour also reunited me with a long-lost love as I tweaked this Nutty Bread recipe. It's a dense, hearty loaf that tastes best when heated, and I appreciate the Eucharistic poetry of "the Bread of life" now more than ever.
So the pleasure of food didn't cease at all—it just became a much more creative endeavour for me. And though my slow healing tests our marriage at times as my husband takes care of me, it has also brought us closer. As he helps me, we relearn how to help each other, and cooking has become one of our favourite hobbies. We eat out less and stay near hearth and home, preparing feasts with our own hands. One of my favourite dishes to come out of these "home dates" is Johnny's Rockamole; the chipotle, lime, Serrano, and cooking soundtrack (see below) put the "rock" in his guacamole—a menu staple for any Texan. We usually can't help ourselves and eat a whole batch, but it's a nutritious kind of gluttony as avocados are good for the hormones.
Two years later, I'm still not quite over the yeast overgrowth. I've always been told I'm a little too sensitive, so I suppose this translates to my body chemistry as well. Yet I've come to another epiphany. Like those bipolar Israelites I'm prone to condemn, I feel as if I too have been wandering around a desert for forty years, looking ahead, bleary-eyed, to promises of health and fertility in which I believe. I empathize with my Jewish forbears wondering if God had lost His mind. I bet they looked at manna for the first time, bewildered, wistfully remembering the rich foods of Egypt, forgetting the crack of the whip all too quickly. Little did they know that manna was angels' food; they really weren't missing out.
Any time I start grumbling about all that has been swiped from my table, I recall the sweet bruising of these barren years, pushing me to not only be creative in the kitchen, but also in my soul and faithful imagination. Our home has been flowing with milk and honey all along.
3 small (or 2 large) ripe avocados
Juice of 1 lime
1/3 cup chopped red onion
1 Roma tomato, chopped
2 tablespoons cilantro, finely chopped
1 Serrano pepper, finely chopped (wear rubber gloves)
1/2 teaspoon chipotle powder 1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
1 tablespoon garlic paste
1. In a large bowl, mash up the avocados and squeeze the lime juice on top.
2. Add the onions, tomatoes, cilantro, and pepper and stir.
3. Add the garlic paste, chipotle, and cumin.
4. Stir vigourously, while singing your favourite glam metal song.*
5. Serve with tortilla chips, taro chips, or your chip of choice.
6. Enjoy, y'all.
* Such as "Still of the Night" by Whitesnake, "Breakin' the Chains" by Dokken, or "Round and Round" by Ratt.
Cardus was proud to sponsor New York Times columnist Ross Douthat's appearance at the Manning Networking Conference in Ottawa last month. His talk, "Next Steps...