I love it when someone answers me in a way that sends me back to the literal application of what I’ve just said, even if it was couched in an expression or figure of speech no one usually takes literally. It’s especially rich when it’s someone who’s known me over a long span of time. That would be the woman who was on my support team in therapeutic horseback riding over a decade ago. She gave me a car ride to the sessions as well, and when they ended, volunteered to come help me clean my house. That was back when Mike was in high school and I’m blessed to say it’s been my great good fortune that she has been showing up ever since. She knew me before I adopted this way of eating, and has been witness to all the positive changes I now enjoy. She’s watched and learned along with me, and she makes sure I have my standing order of yams from the grocery store, which she picks up for me before coming over.
A few years ago I was eating lunch on the Wednesday she was here. My plate was filled with a big fat slice of Happy Herbivore’s “Hippy Loaf” which is basically black beans, quinoa and vegetables) and some steamed broccoli or kale. There might have been part of a potato too. While enjoying this lunch I exclaimed, “I could live on this!!” As she walked past behind me with the dust mop or a rug to shake, she said, “Well, then you should!”
And she was right. Because what I was referring to is how wonderful, literally wonderful, I feel every time I eat quinoa, black beans, and kale. Everything goes great. I have no trouble digesting these foods, I feel full and satisfied, and get plenty of energy and stamina from them. Basically I feel like a million bucks.
I may be talking about subtle shades here, but I really think it’s important for me to have learned to tune in to what foods I can truly be my “sure things”–the whole foods I can eat without any worries.
When I was preparing my work for the art show at the co-op, I had about a month of daily framing to work on in order to be ready to hang the show. That meant I had to pace myself and my hands to get it all done, besides everything else I needed to do to get through a winter day, like shoveling snow or building fires, and to feel well consistently. I also had to negotiate any fatigue from nervousness or anticipation about going so public and getting everything ready and the high stimulation of the opening. So I decided I would eat only “sure things” and not foray into baked goods, however healthy, or processed grains and flowers like pasta or pancakes, however tempting–and just eat all the whole foods in various combinations that support the best pain free state I can achieve.
It’s funny how deeply engrained my belief runs that a treat is something baked and whirred or powdered or processed. If I hadn’t adopted Romeo, I might not have ever known I needed to give myself permission to find out otherwise. He is my “service dog” on both the usual and rather unusual levels. Fixing plain brown rice and sweet potatoes on a regular basis for his specific dietary needs made me start realizing how good they taste as is, how sweet, how satisfying. And they, too, are on my list of “sure things”–they are even good together, and don’t need much more than some quick shakes of spices. For lunch or dinner, garlic and poultry seasoning, or curry or tumeric–for dessert, ginger, cinnamon, cloves.
I felt a little guilty eating something that wasn’t a recipe. I don’t know why exactly. I guess it was part of a matrix of cultural misbeliefs I have to unravel, like the one from years of trying to follow weight loss advice that teaches whole starches are “fattening.” In the first two years I ate this way I relearned from Dr. McDougall what I had first learned from my own doctor at age 10 about successfully losing and keeping off weight: that it would be the whole starch that would keep me full and satisfied.
I was so taken up, though, with trying out recipes that would also entice those omnivores who came to eat with me, that I focused a lot on healthier plant based treats like pasta dishes, muffins, cookies and pancakes, and though I ate whole starches, still thought of them of as something you put the more interesting stuff on. They were still the unsung “filler,” the background that got its only mention in a recipe as an afterthought: “serve over brown rice or quinoa, if you like.”
It wasn’t until I started cooking brown rice and sweet potatoes regularly so I could feed them to Romeo that I noticed how much I like them–god forbid–plain. That I was sneaking a tasty slice for myself out of what I had cut off the baked sweet potato to mash up in his supper bowl. That they gave me energy and satiety without a sugar high or low or any painful irritable bowel rumblings.
The vegan and plant-based world mints its culinary currency on remakes of favorite “standard American diet” recipes. Even the strictest and most low fat among us touts a veggie lasagna recipe. And let’s face it, making traditional favorites in new and healthier ways is fun–it’s literally having your cake and getting to eat it too. Long before I made up my sweet potato spice cake recipe, the first Esselstyn recipe I ever tried was the oatmeal cookies from Prevent and Reverse Heart Disease that Soul Veggie was given permission to offer on his blog. A treat in the hand is worth two bunches of kale in the fridge.
Or it used to be. Now, as you know, I’ve found a way to admit my kale is beloved to me, even plain and raw. Like Gena says at Choosing Raw, I could eat my weight in it (although I’m betting that’s another figure of speech it would be dauntingly comical to dare myself to make literal). Sure, I also like to dress it up in my decadent but fat free carob dressing and eat it as part of my breakfast every morning, also inspired by Gena’s culinary ingenuity. I even wake up looking forward to it. Those dark greens satisfy and nourish me throughout the day in a way a chocolate cookie never will.
However, it took me decades to embrace this truth. In my early 20s, I remember a towering display of brownie mix at the grocery store my roommate and I shopped in. We talked about how much we wanted to make those brownies. But when we finally did, they didn’t go down nearly as well as the treat of thinking about how good they would taste. Instead I ate too many, didn’t feel well, and then worried I would gain weight from overindulging. For a long time I pondered how the anticipation of something that should be a treat could somehow be better than the effect of the treat itself. But of course I kept trying to make experience match expectation.
Traditional treats have always carried that double whammy for me. They are something I’ve craved, even obsessed about, and then the first bite promises heaven. But the actually eating doesn’t really satisfy the craving, it only creates more craving. And I never feel well after, either emotionally or physically. It took me a long time to admit what a high price I pay, but the summer my fibromyalgia made it too painful to even bite into a relatively healthy vegan muffin, I had to face that anything with granulated sugar of any kind is likely to set that off. And that I’m better off redefining treats as food that creates an entirely different experience and effect than that disjunction between what tastes good and what’s good for me.
I still like having a ring-side seat to remakes of traditional treats on vegan and plant-based blogs. A fun one I recently enjoyed is–get this–homemade vegan cheerios. Maybe some day when I feel like I have some “baked grain” credit to splurge on, I’ll try an oil free version of those.
But maybe not. I know I won’t feel all that well if I eat that much baked flour. And I’ll remember that I can eat a big bowl of gluten free oats and cooked quinoa with fruit and flax and feel full and happy and energized, with no sugar let down or fibro soreness flair later. When I feel deprived of treats most people can eat but that will most likely put my body in its own danger zone, I try to stall myself from actually eating such things by enjoying reading about them on my favorite vegan blogs, and then daydreaming about making my own versions. And I remember the tower of brownie mix boxes. And perhaps living alone is a powerful deterrent. I know I’ll likely be the one eating most of whatever I make, so I save the times I use flour or a little sugar for the times others will be here to enjoy the bounty with me, and I can get away with a serving or two.
But I’m not super good at that. So slowly, slowly, I’ve retrained myself to turn back to my sure things, and the infinite combinations they can be eaten in. The list is surprisingly long and contains but is not limited to: kale, black beans, quinoa, brown rice, millet, adzuki beans, broccoli, chickpeas, white cannellini beans, gluten free oats, sweet potatoes (all kinds), yukon gold potatoes, cabbage, carrots, whole corn, peas, spinach, romaine, apples, blueberries, kiwi fruit, pineapple, raspberries, green onions, leeks, parsnips, bok choi, black rice, sweet peppers, red onion, cauliflower, apricots. . .In the higher fat category, golden flax, almonds, walnuts, pistachios, avocado, sesame and pumpkin seeds place as sure things in small amounts.
Sure things may change, but most of mine listed here have remained constant over the last six years, amid the ups and downs of others, like oranges and beets, buckwheat and lentils, soy and cashews, that have proven to be more unpredictable for me than I would have liked. . But I’m looking forward to trying both Choosing Raw’s and Carry On Vegan’s methods for soaking and sprouting. If just soakinghelps me to digest lentils, I bet it will help with the buckwheat too, which has recently decided to turn persnickety on me. But once I couldn’t eat garlic, or lemon or lime, or ginger. . .and now I can again, so I never know what else might become more than less “sure.”
Your sure things may not be the same as mine. Do you know what they are? Find them out and eat them often.
If you like, play with them in a kind of mind-over-matter game: think of your food as words. If you were playing a word game and had to make as many words out of the phrase Plant Based Whole Food Sure Things, how many words could you make? No pre-ground or processed letters, just rearrangement in fun and whole combinations: “spin,” “lean” “plate,” “guess,” “great,” “good,” “taste”–and that’s just a start. Though I may be tempted by those cheerios, I like feeling as good as I can, through easy times, and especially in rough ones. I used to turn to traditional treats in times of stress. Perhaps ironically, I’m helped mightily toward restraint by knowing if I want to keep walking and talking and chewing without pain and serious debility, I’d better stay on track, literally. Over the years my experience has proven that times of stress are the times it’s most important for me to be eating a lion’s share of my whole food sure things. They never let me down like sugary treats do. They help me stay the course.
Rearranging the “letters” is a challenge that never gets boring, if you ask me, and worth all the discipline it takes. Which isn’t that much. I just have to have sure things on hand, a good stir fry pan or steamer, some spices, 15 minutes and a little imagination. And once in a while a sense of adventure that has me doing crazy but surprisingly tasty things like putting shredded broccoli stalks in a baked bar. Being literal has never tasted or felt better.