I am the youngest of EIGHT kids. My parents owned a businesses that ran 24 hours a day which they never stopped growing. How busy and stressed they must have been!
I was mostly a hot lunch kid from kindergarten through senior year in high school. I can remember by 10th grade i was blotting the grease off my cafeteria pizza with my napkin and “grossing out” over the gray color of the hamburger meat. I remember my excitement and relief when an optional taco salad bar was offered. I got it every time i could. I was so thankful for lettuce.
I had the late time slot for lunch. Some days were really hard to wait to eat because before school, I remember having maybe one fried egg or a mug of hot chocolate. If i had both, i felt sick from the combo churning in my belly riding on big, bumpy bus number ten. Other breakfasts consisted of a quick small bowl of kid sugar cereal or wheat toast with margarine- because it was believed to be better than butter. I was always in such a rush to catch the school bus.
By late morning i’d sneak into the cafeteria where study hall was held and buy a cake doughnut with chocolate icing not because i wanted something sweet, but because that was all that i could get my hands on. I needed to stop the hunger pains and low energy so i could focus and learn. (Note to self at the time: a complete breakfast is important.)
Cut to my dear old dad. As an older, hardworking, successful businessman he enjoyed his self-made good life. He appreciated good tasting food and would pay any price for it. I remember lavish dinner buffets with meats and cream sauces, fried shrimp, creamed vegetables and a table assortment of desserts- and i’m sure after a buffet like that, he or my mom wouldn’t have to worry about one of us eight kids getting hungry for a few hours.
He was proud of his Austrian/German heritage so we ate our share of sausages too- which he’d buy from a quality independent butcher on the other side of town. He’d always go the extra mile to get quality food. I thank him for passing this quest for quality onto me. I’d drive to three or four different stores sometimes to get the best ingredients. We’d drive hours sometimes for a great restaurant! My favorite being The Berghoff in Chicago for Wiener Schnitzel a la Holstein (fried egg on top) with creamed spinach.
But my dad also loved to cook great healthy meals at home too- and he loved to bake his own bread. I remember him spraying water mist into the oven because a bread maker told him it makes for better bread. He’d stand there in his white undershirt taking out his anger and stress as he’d aggressively knead and slam the bread on our big stand alone wooden chopping block. (Note to self at the time: cooking relieves stress.)
He’d make Hungarian stew when i was about seven years old, which looked disgusting to me at that age, but that was what was being served for dinner, so if i didn’t eat it, i didn’t eat dinner, period.
He made a mean spaghetti and meatballs to feed twenty (including leftovers), hearty beef and bean chilis and homemade soups like lentil, split pea, and potato leek soup that would knock your socks off. I’ll never forget how my dad sent me back to the store three different times in a row because i kept bringing back something other than a leek because i didn’t know what a leek was! And how embarrassed i was when he sent me only for ginger. Oh not the bottled kind- the actual ginger root. Imagine a self-conscious teen putting nothing else on the check out belt but one, lonely, light brown, wormy alien with arms down for purchase. It was as bad as buying my first box of tampons.
I was exposed to a lot of other good home cooking too- thanks to some help from my fun-loving Grandma and Aunt who trimmed bags upon bags of green beans and peeled pounds upon pounds of fresh prawns, and husked corn cob after corn cob. These two sweet ladies, who dressed alike, would do all the dishes afterwards as well. Feeding around 15 people was like feeding a small army! Because with all of us kids, it was common to have a close friend or steady boyfriend or girlfriend around. My dad told me we’d go through a gallon of milk every dinner- give or take a spilled glass or two- which he said happened like clockwork.
It’s a good thing we lived in the bitter cold climate of Wisconsin so we could use the garage as extra food storage. The garage step WAS our second refrigerator, believe it or not.
But thanks to family history, inactivity, stress and the unhealthy part of his diet- like trips to the custard stand- he came down with adult onset diabetes, Type 2. This is the disease that since appearing in more and more children now, they’ve dropped the term “adult onset.” My mom’s diabetes didn’t show up until decades later. She did not have a family history, and without life getting in the way, this nature lover would’ve ate more vegan meals. She taught me to love vegetables. I remember at restaurants she’d ask where they got their veal because she refused to eat Provimi veal after reading how they treated their animals.
My saint of a mom is a very trusting person, so she believed her pediatrician when he told her that formula was better than breastfeeding. Only one out of us eight kids was breastfed.
After she gained her weight, she went on Weight Watchers- a diet plan. This is when i learned what the word diet meant. I remember her giving me cottage cheese with canned peaches or canned pineapple, and she’d take us out to big salad bars at the local steakhouse.
But sometimes, with laundry levels higher than i ever knew possible, she was just plain exhausted by six o’clock at night. I remember one occasion she brought McDonald’s home for dinner. She didn’t even take our individual orders- she just ordered ten of everything. In her cigarette-scented work clothes- she NEVER smoked a day in her life, but her coworker did- she dumped the fast food out of several bags onto our huge kitchen table as we all clawed at her screaming with excitement trying to grab our favorites before someone else did.
As a latch key kid, (a child who comes home from school to a house where the parent is still at work) i would make my own after school snack. I’d have frozen orange juice in a cup and scrape it with a spoon while watching The Little House on the Prairie before running around the neighborhood until the street lights came on. Or i’d lick peanut butter off a spoon for 20 minutes to the last half hour of General Hospital Soap Opera with my older sisters before putting on my roller-skates and grabbing my mom’s best bed sheet to “get wind” with a friend as we’d “sail” down the center of our long street. Or i’d make “kid pizza” with my english muffin, Pizza Quick brand sauce and shredded mozzarella in a toaster oven before riding my bike four miles with friends roundtrip to the local pharmacy for candy and freedom. I was a very active kid with miles of energy- earning blue ribbons and breaking track and gym records. I grew up without a weight problem.
By the time i enrolled at a University, just about all i knew how to make was popcorn on the stove and toast- and i’d usually burn both. I could heat up Campbell’s Cream of Chicken soup and somehow i’d burn that as well. LOL. But every cloud has a silver lining, because this is the main reason for my love for teaching kids how to cook. I want them to hold dinner parties for their future hungry college friends! My kids are making scrambled eggs, cutting fruit, and reading a recipe to whip up a dark chocolate soufflé for a special treat! #proudmama. In fact, as i write this blog post, the older one is making all of us a mango/raspberry/almond milk smoothie with banana and chia seeds. #thankful.
While growing up, I noticed some of my older brothers and sisters having weight issues. My 6 ft 3 older overweight brother shared with me that while he was in college, one fast food drive thru order was not enough to fill him up. Since he was too embarrassed to order more, he’d go to a second drive thru and order a second meal.
I remember witnessing my beautiful sister’s addiction to diet soda. She drank the tall bottles of Diet Pepsi for energy to fill her stomach instead of reaching for food. She grew painfully thin- she looked anorexic. She became pale and lifeless. (Note to self at the time- fast food and diet soda are bad.)
I didn’t want to fall into the overweight or underweight family member category. I didn’t fully understand diabetes, but i knew i didn’t want that either. So i began reading my parents books lying around the house. I think the first book i bought with my own money was The Blood Sugar Solution.
I listened to what the doctor’s were telling my parents what to eat- one and a half biscuits of unsweetened shredded wheat cereal for breakfast with a half of banana, a handful of walnuts and skim milk. And the more i read, the more things i learned like ripe bananas have more sugar than “greener” ones and how cinnamon can help stabilize blood sugar levels.
But then i was reading to the point where i was receiving conflicting food advice. And I had growing concern about the large amounts of fat-free, sugar-free creamer my parents were pouring into their morning cup of joe. I knew it was a lot because they were always running out and putting it on the grocery list.
Cut to me in college. I was spending more time at a friend’s parent’s lake house. The mom had a gorgeous soul, free-flowing blonde hair, trim, beautiful complexion and her eyes as bright and happy as her smile. After waterskiing, she’d hold dinner out on the deck with fresh slices of raw organic tomatoes and onions, boiled corn on the cob and oven roasted turkey or fish. Her desserts were ripe peaches from the farmer down her street who used an honor system for payment with a wooden box next to his unattended stand.
She’d make us soy milk smoothies with flax oil, lecithin and fruit. She cooked brown rice pancakes topped with 100% maple syrup- not the sugar-free Mrs. Butterworth’s brand i was eating at home. She’d drink strong as mud Kona coffee with a splash of cream. Butter on her toast- not margarine. (Note to self at the time: different caucasian families have different food cultures.)
My wonderful dad, who made friends with everyone he’d meet, lived to a ripe old age celebrating many milestones and over 50 years of marriage to his bride before he passed away. His long life was made possible thanks partly to the healthy aspect of his diet, but mainly to the many bottles of prescription pills, many heart surgeries, and a doting, loving wife.
I’m lucky enough to have my mom living one block away. She loves to collect cookbooks and read recipes- she always has. Her lifelong celebrity crush was Dr. Andrew Weil- the health guru, who helped pave the way to the road of healthy eating. She purchased his books her entire life- the most popular one called “8 Weeks to Optimum Health.” Years ago, when he opened up his first restaurant, True Food right here in our very own town, she booked an event and invited me. Afterwards, I snapped a picture of the two of them. She never thought in a million years she’d ever get to meet him.
So for these reasons and many, many more-
I LOVE REAL FOOD & FOOD EDUCATION.
(This blog post was written per request of Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution Community, where i volunteer my time as an Ambassador promoting real food and food education.)