This essay is part of Motherwell’s new Parenting and Food column.
By Elizabeth Newdom
My mother Maggie was a real cook, the kind who baked homemade macaroni and cheese in Corningware casserole dishes. The kind who baked brownies from scratch on Sundays and let me lick the spatula clean. I never wanted for a home-cooked meal.
I am also a cook, but I am not my mother. I am usually avoiding added sugar, dairy, and gluten.
The dishes I cook are vegetarian, or Paleo, or Whole30: cauliflower “chicken” poppers, chickpea burritos on cassava flour tortillas, or mushrooms and zucchini on rice noodles. I bake potatoes served with dairy-free sour cream, make bean nachos with “fake” cheese and lentil chips. I have sugar-free Lara bars for dessert.
When we visit my mother in Northern Virginia, it’s a different story. If it’s cold out, she’s baked pecan pie or yellow cake with chocolate frosting. She’s cooked potatoes au gratin with heavy cream. If it’s summer, she has whipped together coleslaw or deviled eggs with too many cups of mayonnaise. Or she has made hot apple pie, with a cup of sugar, offered up a la mode with Breyer’s vanilla bean ice cream.
My son, Asher, loves to eat at Grandma’s house. He gets to eat real cream and real sugar. Not like at our house, where there is no spatula to lick.
I used to be a baker. I have a picture of Asher and me making pumpkin muffins in the fall of 2014. He was four, and he is beaming.
My mothers-in-law had just bought me one of those fancy stand mixers, and I was in love with it. Back then, cheesecake was my specialty—my husband’s favorite. I loved to watch the mascarpone fold into the whipped eggs and butter, to see the stiff peaks begin to form as ingredients blended together.
I loved to see people’s faces as they took a bite.
I miss the ritual of helping Asher pour flour into the bowl, crack eggs on the side of the counter, and hold the measuring cup steady.
He tells me of goodies he is offered at friends’ houses: Becky’s dad’s apple pie, Billy’s mother’s chocolate chip cookies, or Amy’s father’s Rice Krispy squares.
“Why don’t you ever make sweets anymore, Mom?” he asks.
I stopped baking three years ago, after trying a 30-day sugar, dairy, and gluten cleanse. When I lost 10 to 15 pounds of stubborn baby weight as a result, I didn’t return to my normal eating habits. People were noticing the weight loss. They said I looked “great for my age.”
My chest puffed out. I walked taller. I bought three pairs of skinny jeans.
So, I committed to this new way of eating, exercised regularly, kept off the pounds, and basked in the glow of my newfound “wellness.” I avoided my favorite restaurants, said “No” to my mom’s pecan pie and pancakes. I drank black coffee and ate gluten-free toast. I ordered cheese-less burgers on lettuce buns. I was proud of my #Whole30 status.
Within a couple of years, however, my body betrayed me yet again. All of my attention—now an obsession—with eating well wasn’t enough to maintain the weight loss.
I was tired. From running, from abstaining, from being good.
So, when Asher’s 9th birthday came around that summer, I pushed aside my guilt and ate a piece of pepperoni pizza—and then another. I had a slice of chocolate cake. It felt like freedom. Like laughter. Like love. A new sense of pride filled me.
But then, I spent days punishing myself mentally, checking the mirror for signs of weight gain. Turning to the side, sucking in my gut. Convinced I was bloated, heavier.
For the rest of the summer, I stayed true to my Paleo diet. I swam with my kid. I walked miles through our neighborhood. I played catch. By August, however, the extra pounds still remained.
And I couldn’t help but wonder if it was because of the birthday pizza and cake I had eaten in June.
For all of my attempts at wellness, I wasn’t feeling that well.
I knew I wasn’t going to be my mother in the kitchen, but I started thinking I should be more like her.
While she often had a spatula for me to lick, she also taught me that every dinner plate needed something green. That a stack of pancakes maxed out at two, but the servings of strawberries and honeydew melon had no limit.
She taught me not to eat between meals or fill up on rolls because dinner was always coming.
And that I couldn’t eat dessert without first eating my vegetables. She was the queen of the food pyramid, the queen of balance.
Somewhere along the way though, I had lost my own.
My quest for wellness had turned me into someone bound into knots, worried about eating at people’s houses for fear of gluten or dairy lurking within entrees. Afraid to eat popcorn at the movies for fear of added butter. Afraid to eat pasta on Valentine’s Day or buffalo chicken on Super Bowl Sunday.
Afraid to eat.
The fancy stand mixer still sits on my countertop. I have kept it out as an homage to the joy that I am forbidden: the smell of vanilla, the magic of eggs blending into flour, the smile on my son’s face as he tastes the batter.
It’s his face that I picture as I walk to the kitchen cabinet. As I spot the bottle of vanilla sitting in the corner, behind the caraway seeds and star anise. I open it and take a whiff. It smells like freedom. Like laughter. Like love.
I then begin to gather flour, eggs, butter.
And become the mom who bakes again.
Writer and recovering health junkie, Elizabeth Newdom teaches writing and literature classes at a community college in Frederick, MD. You can follow her midlife journey on her blog, The Astronaut Wife.
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