Rachael Cooking

My Journey Through a Food-Filled Life

Food. It is the love of my life and the bane of my existence in some ways. I was born pretty ‘special’ as one of the first babies of the year on January 1, 1981. I was immediately whisked off and dolloped with a knitted cap. I looked like a blue-cupie doll.  At 3 months I decided to stop breast feeding and this is where my food journey really begins. My parents were always health conscious and for the majority of my life they have both have been in tip top shape, health and working order. They are both tremendously active and as a family we spent our weekends outside in parks, flying kites, hiking and kayaking. We are, by all intents and purposes, however, a very normal family – My mother had her bought of chubbiness for about 10 years and my brother was deemed ‘husky’ by his height to weight ratio, all normal occurrences from a family that lived 30% of their life in the Midwest, lived and breathed food.

My parents were creative foodies. They had orchestrated their own form of an alternative 70s diet long before I entered the scene; my mother practicing a form of vegetarianism as she lived on a Kibbutz in Israel and my father living off a self-medicated regiment of herbal plants and remedies. Both building a foundation independently before meeting in San Francisco at the height of the alternative food movement explosion. Every house we lived in had a massive food garden and as a family we spent our time together growing food, playing music, making art, cooking, sharing and sitting around the traditional American dinner table.

I was raised on a mostly macrobiotic and vegan diet until I was 5; mostly by my own will and lack of interest in meat. There was a moment at a fabulously french 5-star dinner table in Rochester, NY with my father’s family where I was given a bone from a gigantic piece of meat to occupy myself with (basically it was the only way that they got me as a 1 year old to shut up). On the spot, my family coined the term ‘boney girl’ and has referred to me as such ever since. Oh, and I was definitely a fan of fish sticks. But, I wouldn’t eat them cooked, just frozen.

Because of this tremendously natural diet, I have struggled with integrating processed and unnatural foods into my diet. As a kid I remember going to friends houses and having hot dog octopus’ (you know where you slice the hot dog and the ends fry in the microwave?) and getting quite sick after. My dad’s sister integrates most of her cooking with meat (like the rest of America) and one time she forgot to tell me it was in a delicious bean dip she had made and I paid the price after. Because of the nervousness around me eating foods that I shouldn’t eat, my mom spent a lot of time preparing food for me to take with me wherever I went and the best part was getting her little heart-shaped notes in the lunch box. “I love you, Erin” or “Have a great day, sweetie” or “Do your best, Ery!” I can picture them now and have to smile at her wonderful mommy-ness.

I was allergic to citric acid first and foremost. This was discovered after eating strawberries when my mom and her friend Janet took all the kids Strawberry picking one hot summer day when I was 4. Michael was just 1 and I was a clever child, running all over the fields in search of more strawberries. They were plump and sweet and I devoured. It wasn’t until we had started driving home that I broke out in hives all over my body. ALLERGY 1: CITRIC ACID. Lucky for me, this means a lot of things – soda was always out of the question as was juices so I grew up loving water. [SIDE BAR – I remember doing a “Bill Nye the science guy” experiment with Michael and we had a great go of watching a penny’s tarnish dissolve in minutes and rubber bands deplete in days in a vat of Coca Cola… makes you think.]

Did you know that you can be hospitalized via frozen peas? My favorite snack as a child….  and one time I got one stuck up my nose and my face turned blue from lack of oxygen. My mom couldn’t get it out and I guess she didn’t think to stick a hair dryer up there, so we went to the hospital. By the time I was 3 they knew me by name from incidents. Funny enough in my pregnancy it was also my favorite food and now it is Iza’s.

I was a relatively normal kid and had my bout of carnival foods and the like, but at the end of the day the detox was in the normality of my mothers everyday cooking. Fresh salads, occasional fish, lots of raw food, etc. While I have remained Vegan for most of my life, I did happily try other kinds of dining and a variety of foods to test my allergen abilities. She was brilliant at figuring out what I needed and my diet was always considered. Growing up in the summers in Canada we fell in love with Diana’s Sauce (a fabulous bbq sauce) and Michael and I went mad over Canadian Corn Pops (which in Canada are like round balls of fabulousness) and she would whip up a mean Pepsi Chicken during the summer. I tried everything to the point of discomfort and I wanted to understand what it was like to be ‘normal’ always as a kid.

When I was 5 we moved to Minneapolis and our house was built on a landfill. As a new construction, I saw them build the house, digging into the garbage and knowing we had created this as a human population. I had nightmares for two years, my dad calmly helping me to sleep every night by telling me to picture the back of my eye lids and the blackness of night. It was fear that kept me up at night and eventually we wrote a letter together to waste management to encourage them to do a recycling program. It changed my view of waste and food completely – what I felt was the world piling onto me, diminishing my ability to breath because I was overtaking with trash. In my mind then and still it was mostly food waste from packaging, McDonalds and the like, so naturally I have an opinion about it. The nightmare still plagues me and my response is the I still have the letter and the recycling program was implemented in the year we left Edina, Minn.

I was a gymnast and a very talented one at that. My lifelong goal was and always has been to go to the Olympics – I think at 30 I can probably say that this shipped has properly sailed and I am probably not going to make it, but now I have replaced the interest in being in it to being apart of it which is why I went to London. I was a fairly good competitor, however and had my diet down pat – 8 oz. of food per meal. Whatever could be essentially jam-packed into a cup the size of my fist. I had two years where I would only eat chips. I didn’t want anything else. Doritos, low-fat Ruffles, etc. My mother could have killed me, but that is what I wanted and I paid the price every single day for my desire. As a competitive athlete, she could have force fed me, but I would have just thrown it up later and she knew that. There was a summer where I think I only had Breyer’s Mint Chocolate Chip ice cream, packed to the brim in an 8oz standard 80’s glass cup with a handle, feeling sick the entire time during and afterward (I am allergic to dairy) – I was a very independent child if you couldn’t tell.

My dad is a fantastic cook, but as a kid he loved burgers, steaks and the like on the grill. An all American-Boy to the core, my dad’s family is obsessed with heavy cream, butter and wine. My grandparents had lived abroad in France and adopted the culture and lifestyle to a tee. GG – my Great Grandmother – was from a very affluent family in Rochester and she steered many of country clubs in the early days. The menus of many of the country clubs still have her famous green beans – butter for days, steamed and salted with garlic and look at that, more BUTTER! My dad was a creative eater… always. He has traveled to the ends the earth for a good meal and two January’s ago I went to his old stomping ground in Boulder to check it out – the Gold Hill Tavern – a ridiculous experience which resulted in a mile and a half climb in heels, in the middle of winter, up a severely vertical climb to the top of this hill for dinner (we were an hour late only to realize that we had taken the back way up the hill which is why our Prius happily decided backwards instead of forwards).

As an adult, post-leukemia and stem cell transplant, my dad is a devout lover of fish and veggies. My mother put him on a macrobiotic and vegan diet again when he was at his worst and I remember him saying, “If I can’t eat what I want and all the rich foods, what’s the point of living.” I second his theory. As a kid going camping and carrying in a cooler filled to the brim with the finest cheeses, steaks and the makings for White Russians (my fathers drink of choice). There was never a cereal bowl of his, smaller than a 32oz bowl and filled to the brim with heavy cream and whatever soggy cereal he is willing to use. In later years he has moved to half n’ half due to the stigma surrounding an unhealthy diet even though he has no cause for concern (he has one of the lowest cholesterol of anyone a doctor has seen and with his active lifestyle he is a very thin man).

We were travelers. My parents never believed in one location-living and therefore I have been to most places in the country and the world on their dime and ambition. I would say that I am lucky, but I have definitely missed out on a sense of home and place, defining my life by my family and self. I am a whole and complete person without any location or place and beyond I really do enjoy the experience of the moment and constantly am evolving…. on my own path and regard.

I was a junk-free junky in my youth. My mother was a great snacker – still is – and always had us on nuts, almond butter (HELLO ants on a log – celery with peanut butter and raisins), fresh honey and fruits. I never ate anything packaged. I actually think the majority of my clothes were also handmade by her until I was in my teens, so you can imagine my upbringing with a uber-crunchy mum. We had high-end restaurants (on my dads side), all you can eat buffets (on my mom’s side) and our family ate organic, whole, natural foods. I have a little of everything under my skin.

When I got to my teens, before I shipped off (by choice) to boarding school, I was thoughtfully considered to be a concoctionist in my family. I loved fresh peas, steamed corn, rice and canned green beans and then I would add in a mixture of spice, herbs and duck sauce. It sounds absolutely disgusting, but it was a fried rice of sorts and was terribly delicious. I would make a mean stirfry with fresh veggies and then flash fry it so it was still a little raw. I was known for it by my college commons and my roommate Jessica and I would have a ball trying out new stirfry’s together (she was also veggie).

My mother’s side of the family is Jewish and as children we would go to visit our family in Merrick, Long Island or my grandmother in Orlando, FL for the high holidays, Bar Mitzvah’s and food fests. The amount of over-processed food is enlightening at these events. I remember helping my grandmother with unpacking food from containers. She is a fabulous cook, but because of the Kosher model of foodservice, much of what is prepared and given at events, especially at the high holidays, must come with a label – i.e  pre-made. It is the only way to ensure the items have been manufactured in the right way. In recent years I have found this to be true for many people also with food allergies – especially with nut allergies – everything must be pre-packaged.

Michael, my brother, is an organic farmer in PA. Anything he touches he grows – an astute green thumb. I have been fortunate to have a little bit of this and can grow most things, but nothing like Michael… he is magical. As a child we had critters together, I remember creating our own ‘zoo’ of sorts at our cabin in Canada. We would find everything from minnows and bees to fresh water fish and zebra muscles. He was into growing and cultivating things even as a kid. We also had two turtles (Raphael – after the Ninja Turtles – and Tootsie) and my parents created a TURTLE EXPERIENCE for his room using a painted and lacquered 6′ long wooden box. It sat, propped up in his room with a feeding area, a space for swimming, mountains to climb and a nice little bed for sunning in the afternoon sun. Michael takes everything with gusto. As an adult his little organic farm is quite the production. He has goats, chickens, pigs, dogs and ducks… all on a self-timer for feeding. He tills the soil by hand, growing hydroponic before putting out to pasture. He is the quintessential grower and loves his plants like life. I have learned a lot about growing from my brother. The biggest thing is soil, I have come to learn that without quality soil the vegetable or fruit will never maximize its potential. It is responsible for the nutritional content of the fruit and therefore the fruit / vegetable / meat carry the properties of the growing process all the way through consumption.

In school I remember always having a special diet. If my meal was not packed, I had a dossier of items that I was required to show teachers and lunch ladies. Everyone knew me and I liked that. I also liked that if I ordered something it was made special for me. Fresh. Did you know that if you order something NOT on the menu they make it fresh? Great little trick. In boarding school I was fortunate to have a gorgeous salad bar to eat from every day. There were great choices and options available, but at the end of the day I think that I enjoyed being able to eat something normal. Bread was never on my diet, even as an athlete. I had a lot of rice and salad. My first year there, when you could still charge home anything you wanted to your parents, I remember enjoying the bagged candy from Grafton’s store and the delicious apple turnovers from Pete’s. Coming from being a competitive gymnast into this environment where it was essentially always an ‘all you can eat buffet’ helped me to go from a tiny 110lb lass to a 140lb healthy woman in just under 4 months. I of course put most of it on in muscle during the field hockey season, but it was quite a transition for my body and my wardrobe. I was fortunate to lose most of it quite quickly before the first of the following year.

Our extended family are a roller coaster of a variety of shapes and sizes on both sides, but almost as if joined by common interest – we are all foodies. Some with better metabolisms and diets than others, but all with the same fundamental love and appreciation for the grown food. My aunt on my dad’s side (the one that gave him her stem cells) is a creative cook – often finding ideas online and implementing them for her weekly Sunday dinner – one time she made mini hotdogs in a casserole with eggs and mac n’ cheese (who would have thought?). My mom’s sister lives in Berkeley Hills, CA and has been a daily shopper from the Berkeley Bowl since WAY before I was born. She is a model foodie and knows her stuff, following the program all the way through composting. We share in our severe distaste for bananas.

I happen to be allergic to latex, found by having a very uncomfortable 1st gyno appointment when I was 13 due to a resulting rash from the gloves. ALLERGY 2: LATEX I was happy to find out that I could avoid the full spectrum of food items that had the same reaction including bananas, mangos and some types of avocados. Not the most pleasant feeling and I now have gladly taken it out of my diet and know the root cause of the itching. I did find with mangoes a slightly different reaction when I was having a mango margarita at a fabulous local mexican restaurant in Hampden (suburb of Baltimore) called Holy Frijoles and my throat closed in completely. This has not stopped me from trying it at other junctures in life, but the EXACT same reaction happens each time. I would say that it is fun, but I definitely am not a fan of losing my ability to breathe.

My Grandfather on my dad’s side (Grumpy) was the one who taught me most about food. We have a family book called “All of Us” and it is a story book literally of our life descended from John Jacob Bausch from Bausch & Lomb. Grumpy’s Cookbook was all of his mother’s (GG) recipes and share in a special and warm display of our family history. The 24th of December was at GG’s house and every year it was lamb shank, scallop potato, my grandmother’s green beans (dripping with butter), a salad dripping with dressing and a lovely display of gravy and holandaise. There was no shortage of fattening food. I of course always had a special meal of sorts and typically it consisted of a salad without dressing and a batch of the potatoes without cheese. I remember my grandmother even bought a Tofurkey for me and my cousin Cardy one year. Thoughtful gesture, but the most disgusting thing I have very tasted, consistency was the least of its issues.

Every year from January 1st – January 31st Grumpy would go on a diet and remove alcohol and dessert from his diet. He had done this since the 60’s and calculated every single year on paper. On average over the 45 years or so that they did this, we lost 11lbs. It was his theory that he gained 1lb back exactly each month, so that at the end of the month of January he was his actual weight and the rest of the year he was just a little chubby. Honestly, he was one of the more slender men in his age bracket and he was extremely active. He loved to take pictures and food was his most treasured pastime. I remember when I was graduating from boarding school and he penciled in the graduation, but put the restaurant in his calendar in black pen. Fond memories. 🙂

My first real tax-paying job was McDonalds. Can you believe that? As I mentioned, I am an energetic person and I wanted a job – I was so sick of baby-sitting and the like. My friends were working at a McDonalds not far from my parents country house and I decided to get a job. I was given the task of the drive thru girl and I was happily suited for the experience. I am fun, vivacious and clever and I know I was a sales person-to-boot at a mere 14. I wouldn’t eat a thing at McD’s when I worked there but I absolutely enjoyed the experience of eating the low-fat pre-packaged, 80 calorie muffins that they had at the counter. I heated them up for 10 seconds in the microwave and they were absolutely delicious. This is literally all I had for 4 months until I left.

Later in my first professional career, I worked for a hospitality and restaurant design company and we designed interiors for restaurants non-other than McDonalds, Burger King, Starbucks, Subway, etc. The joke at my wedding with my now ex-husband was we were going to hire in from McDonalds because I love it so much. I think the whole principle around the model is heart-wrenching, but the food items, the addiction and the food menu are of the utmost brilliance. Have you ever watched the story? It is truthfully a good watch.  It was a great place to work and in the end, I learned a lot about business and restaurant production which has become my livelihood.

As a kid up in Canada in the summers we would have a wide variety of fishy-type food. My dad and Grumpy loved getting little neck fresh water clams and we would steam them up until they would whistle. Like Grumpy I have an intolerance to shellfish, but not molluscs, so I definitely enjoyed my fair share of clams. ALLERGY 3: SHELLFISH I think that the liked them because they were doused to death in butter, but I enjoyed taking the shell apart. It was the experience.

I have always been allergic to dairy. ALLERGY 4: DAIRY Doesn’t matter if it is from a goat or a cow or some other milk-producing animal. I feel okay for a start and then within an hour I begin to feel sick. The next morning I desperately struggle to wake up and that is where my day begins – laying on my back, praying that I hadn’t had dairy the day before. I love to entertain and cheese trays are my specialty especially because I can’t have any of it, I think that makes me 10x more creative with my cheese selection – I go based on smell, exotic shapes and definitely the recommendation from the guy at Whole Foods. In the summers when I was out at Spoutwood Farms (I belonged to a co-op vineyard in Pennsylvania with friends from my Charles Village neighbors – Baltimore) or in the basement squashing grapes or applying labels to bottles, I would absolutely have cheese. I knew that the next day would be hell, but it was worth it in the moment. I was young and the recovery time was much quicker in my 20s.

When we lived in a penthouse in Baltimore in a fancy neighborhood, my husband at the time, Anthony and I would go on a daily basis to the local restaurants around the house. We spent eons of time and money in the neighborhood enjoying the food choices that we had available which were more than plentiful. I loved I had the chance to experience so many amazing chain restaurant choices – like Roy’s, Ocean Air and also some non-chain local celeb-type places. We lived in a neighborhood with TWO of Cindy Wolf/Tony Foreman restaurants. Lucky us. I was absolutely known by the waiters, but at the end of the day I tried things I shouldn’t have and I struggled not be sick at every meal. They were accommodating as often as they could be to my diet, but I chose things that I knew I would get sick on. My favorite meals were the ones that included salad however and I have always gravitated towards them.

Speaking of the ex-husband, he deserves a paragraph of his own. Strictly from a meat and potatoes diet, Anthony introduced me to packaged food. I never knew that you could get bulk tomato sauce or buy frozen chicken breasts in bags. I think that Costco and Sam’s Club were from outer space. My grandmother is also a tremendous fan of Costco’s $1.50 Kosher Hot Dog experience, so I have been with her to watch her enjoy over the years… such a strange scene. You walk around and can sample anything that you like and everything is gigantic. So, for about the first 2 years of our marriage, I tried a lot of things that I never desired or hoped to try. We even joked about creating a pan with a divider in the middle, offering the opportunity for me to cook my veg meal and him to get his meat in. He was training to be a body builder when I met him and our house continuously smelled of steamed broccoli, egg whites, plain chicken and brown rice. For such a small and plain variety of food choices, you can’t imagine the stench they made. He was pretty accommodating to my menu, but I bended a lot.

I tried to eat chicken on and off for about 10 years, but it never took. I would feel violently sick after every encounter. I tried to incorporate dairy and wheat into my diet, but those two only challenged my personal integrity. I drank red wine only and realized that I had a slight allergy to the tannins and sulfites in the wines I was drinking. ALLERGY 5: SULFITES It was an interesting 10 years (1/3 of my life). In the end I always reverted back to my happy 80-85% raw diet with a massive amount of salads, fruits and nuts. It was worth being able to try those things and see what they taste like, but I have no real desire to ever eat them again.

Last year in Paris was the ultimate low. Each May my friends from Baltimore go to Paris for two weeks and rent a flat – a very idyllic setting and Richard and Bill are the two most avid foodies. We went to two of the most beautiful restaurants and I had more gluten (pasta and bread) than I care to remember. I had always had a food allergy with a very low reaction of back issues, but this time I ended up going anaphylactic for the first time and lost all the feeling in my left side of my body. ALLERGY 6: GLUTEN / WHEAT (ANAPHYLACTIC) First my hearing went in my left ear in the middle of dinner. Then by 1am I was sweating and had lost all ability to move my left side of my body. This is a reaction that has repeated itself since anytime I eat ANYTHING with gluten, wheat or anything in the family. Buckwheat would seem to be fine, so would oats – NOPE! So now I am severely Gluten Intolerant and anytime I eat it I get the same reaction.

I had been having the worst skin issues in London since I had moved and I couldn’t figure out why. Initially I thought it was the hard water and the stress from being in a new country and going through a difficult time in my marriage, but in the end I realized that it was totally and completed related to a change in the production of the Monsanto Soy Bean which in the majority of the foods in this country. Soy? ALLERGY 7: SOY/SOYA It is in EVERYTHING. Including my toothpaste and gum that I was chewing (and both are organic). It is used as an emulsifier and stabilizer in foods and because there is such a tremendous abundance of it, globally, it is now the new ingredient du jour. It turned out later I had bad skin from my soya milk I put in my Starbucks English Breakfast Tea when I wanted a treat. My skin would be a hive mess by end of day… it would take a typical 6-7 full days to subside completely from a reaction. I have very quickly moved to green tea and happily taken on the opportunity to try something other than green tea.

Going through a divorce kicked in my auto-immune disorders and I felt a whole other level of crazy. It was actually totally and completely insane, but all correctable. My skin has been the biggest issue, but it has moved very quickly into other inhabitants like my hair turning brittle and my legs getting blotchy. It has definitely been a learning experience on how to deal with these different stress-induced reactions. I have noticed that I get sick from certain types of fish, having a similar reaction to the soy issue unless it is wild caught. I am very careful and my fabulous fish monger Nevin at Whole Foods is more than helpful with ordering and selection.

In December I took myself to Thailand for cooking and yoga courses. I had a great experience getting to know the culinary attributes of a rising 3rd world country. The fruit and veg were abundant and staying in Bangkok in Chinatown for several days during the holiday was fun to see with everyone cooking away in the middle of the street. The sidewalks were overrun with interesting foods. My course was at Baipai Cooking School and I had no idea what I was in for. After consuming more than I had ever dared hoped for I started to literally break out in a rash while I was there. They knew all my food allergies, but I guess not well enough… even though I had a series of different gluten-intolerant ingredients like rice pancakes, etc. The base oil was soy oil for everything that we made without me knowing it. Fun in foreign countries. 🙂

Yum. Curry is delicious – and when I make it, I am passionately content with the flavor, texture and I feel fine the day after. Not unlike BaiPai I now know the base of most ethnic foods is soy oil. It is much cheaper than veggie oil, so restaurants use it more often than not. Also in curry are a massive amount of potatoes. I have a reaction to them. I have come to find out that I have a sensitivity to most starches. So, I make a lot of foods for myself. Corn? Not even a question – corn and soy fields rotate in production seasons and there is typically a cross-pollination or small amount of soy that crosses over into the corn fields. It also provides the same reaction as potatoes; a crampy stomach. ALLERGY 8: POTATOES

On a journey to Pinner, which is North West London, to visit my friend Cam after his grandmother’s funeral, I had my first anaphylactic  reaction since last May. People often ask me if I carry around an epi-pen or drugs for ‘just in case’ moments, but I quickly let them know that there are never any moments like that. I am over prepared with calling ahead and talking to the chef, reviewing the menu and talking to the waiter and chef upon arrival. I am very careful. Cross contamination could be an issue, but I typically eat raw in restaurants and that makes it challenging for anything to touch. I am also allergic to penicillin which is often found in epi-pens, so I don’t have much of a choice in this matter. We ordered an aubergine starter and when it came it was glistening. I was assured that there was absolutely no soya in it. I started eating and it was delicious. About 4 pieces in, I could feel my ear start ringing on my left side. OH NO! By the time the waiter came up for me to even ask, I was having a full episode. My hearing went completely. I asked the chef and they happily informed me that they used White Flour to coat the aubergines before cooking them. HELLO I said – what do you think gluten is? What do you think wheat is? They honestly had no idea and had said that they looked at the package and the key ingredient was ‘white flour’ so they just assume it was fine. Honestly, I will not be going to Pinner anytime soon.

Raw food came at me like a fast bullet. My life has been taking this turn since I was born, but with these new dietary issues, I just knew that I really didn’t have a choice. I met this incredible girl Tanya Alekseeva and she helped me to transition from a purely cooked diet to an all raw diet and everything in between. Trust me when I say it was HARD. Tanya acted as my food coach and helped me to see what I needed to do to change my life for the better. We worked together on trying different products out until I landed on the diet I have currently. I have since blended my menu to incorporate a 51/49 menu at a minimum of raw/cook food and I am happily fully transitioned.

There are moments when I take risks and test myself just as I always have to ‘check in’ with my body and my allergies. It is essential to my constant questioning to ensure that I am always in the know with myself and my body. I know when something doesn’t feel right and I keep a little food journal to write down how I feel after eating certain things. It is important that I continue to do this and I want to. When people ask what my diet is I say, “a little bit of everything” even though I have never had anything more than a little tasting piece of meat or pork and I opt for a raw diet. My normal is that I eat what I want and what makes me feel right.

So, I have learned. I have listened, watched and adjusted along the way. It is an evolutionary process and I assume that in my lifetime I am going to have many more transitions and experiences that leave me in awkward situations.

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