Nourishment: Reflections on Food, Family and True Health

“ The Sunday Family Visit. What a role these regular childhood road-trips play in our lives! For me and my siblings, it was heading down the familiar back river road to Ottawa, us kids sprawled out in the back of the station wagon, well-stocked with books, pillows and dinnerblankets…happily sucking in the heady fumes of car exhaust and dad’s cigarette smoke…half-in and half-out of the rolled-down back window … no seatbelts back then to interfere with the thrill of it all. Off to Ma-mere’s. Chaos of cousins, aunts, uncles all talking at once. As my dad had 11 brothers and sisters, there was no end of possible combinations and new stories to hear at the dinner table. And Ma-mere, fierce in “sa cuisine”, wooden spoon, heavy pot, hunk of venison or some other meat (hunting and backyard gardening the norm at her house) always in her capable, strong hands. No amount of sidelong glances could get her to release, ahead of dinner, one of those sour, delicious pickles she kept in giant mason jars under the sink. What do we glean from these sometimes tedious trips? I think we learn the tools for navigating in the world outside of those family houses. We see in their faces all the cues to feelings. In their voices we hear the fictions and truths of life. Safe in the familiarity of family, sometimes harsh….sometimes soft….we learn how to be.  “ ~Helene Levesque (my mother)
My mother recently wrote this beautiful reflection on her Facebook page and it touched my heart deeply, coming at a time when I am once again questioning all that I know about the topics of health, food, family, cooking, and eating.  I have always loved to cook, and those of you who know me know that kitchen sadhana is one of my favorite practices.  But the ways that I am cooking right now, and the ingredients I am using, are both entirely traditional to my family of origin, and yet entirely new to me at the same time.
I have been a vegetarian since I was 13, when I told my mother that I would no longer eat meat of any kind as I didn’t want to contribute to the horrors of modern meat production. Busy lady that she was (being a single mom with three daughters to care for) she told me that it was my choice what to eat, but she wasn’t going to cook separate meals for me. Fair enough. So I began to feed myself. And though I had always loved to cook the next few years represented a time of very poor nourishment as I had no idea about nutrition and simply stopped eating meat, only to replace it with huge amounts of starch and sugar. This was compounded by the fact that I left home at a very young age, and like most young girls had disordered eating habits, a distorted body image, and limited funds to feed myself with. I have memories from this time of living on large bowls of potatoes of cheap egg noodles, along with copious amounts of black coffee each day.
Well as you can guess by the time I was 18 I was dealing with all kinds of minor health issues such as irregular menstrual cycles, huge fluctuations in my weight and moods, horrible skin, and a general feeling of poor health.  And so when I one day stumbled upon a book of macrobiotics called The Self Healing Cookbook (which still sits on my kitchen shelf) I was inspired to learn more about how food could actually be medicine and could support me in finding my way back to optimal health. This began a long journey of self-healing that began with food, led me to yoga & the study of Ayurveda, and still continues this day. Along the way I reclaimed my love of cooking, which I had learned by my mothers side, and began to once again nourish myself with a whole foods diet of primarily primarily plant based and mostly organic foods, with the occasional addition of fish and some butter. It was an amazing journey and I learned a lot about food, and myself, along the way.
But it hasn’t all been easy and there have been stubborn health issues that have been difficult to release.  So recently, due to the tugging of my intuition, and on the advice of an Ayurvedic doctor whose advice I respect, I made a big shift in what I was eating. For the last few months I have changed from eating a plant and grain based diet to a diet, to a diet once again includes meat. This means I am eating large amounts of seasonal vegetables, meat from locally raised grass fed animals, and high quality fats from animals (yes that means lard!), olives, and ghee.  I also haven’t had sugar of any kind, and have completely given up all grains and legumes for now as well as tropical fruits such as bananas.
Though it has only been a few weeks I am feeling amazing, and am now enjoying a much more stable quality of energy then I have felt in a very long time, with less need for caffeine, and no desire for sugars. The cystic acne, which has been plaguing me on and off for the last few years, and which got much worse this spring, seems to be finally clearing up, the deep fatigue which has been weighing me down is lifting, and the inflammation in my joints and muscles is lessening, along with the chronic low grade anxiety which had become my constant companion.  The fact that I am feeling better encourages me that I am on the right path for me, but it is not just how I feel physically that has shifted.
Obviously making such a big change in what I eat has forced me to cook in new ways, but it has also forced me to learn more, as this kind of change brings up all kinds of questions within myself, and from others. Questions such as sustainability, health, and ethics are some of the big ones that have come up, and within each of these conversations there are many layers of complexity that in turn awaken further inquiry and varied points of view.  Engaging these questions has been interesting and as I love to learn I am presently enjoying reading, watching, and listening to as much as I can about food production, sustainable farming, the evolution of our food cultures, and more.
Now I certainly don’t have any answers, but am rather sharing my own experience, and my own journey of self-discovery in the hopes that it may be of interest to some of you. There are enough opinions out there and you certainly don’t need to hear mine, so rather I am just sharing my reflections.  One of the best discoveries that have come out of this sea change in my diet has been that I have finally picked up Michael Pollan’s beautiful books and in the last couple weeks have read The Omnivore’s Dilemma, In Defense of Food, and his latest, which I am enjoying now, Cooked. He speaks so eloquently of the horrors of our modern food culture, as well as the richness that traditional food preparation and mindful eating can bring to our lives. I have found myself crying so many times as I hear what he has to say. Especially as he speaks of community, relationship, nourishment, family, sacrifice, appreciation, wisdom, exchange, and honesty in ways that truly break my heart for what so many of us have lost due to the fast pace of modern culture, and the confusion that it brings- especially in regards to how we grow, raise, and consume food!
Even though I have always voted for quality food by purchasing as much organic & local food as  I could afford, the fact that I am now eating meat has forced me to look with even greater clarity at where my food is coming from. And this has led me to begin forging new relationships with people in my community (like the farmer who raised the pig we just bought) as well as with this place itself, the land on which I am living.  All of this has added a new layer of gratitude and wonder to the conversation of food in my family.
So it seems I have now come back, full circle, to the wisdom of my grandmothers. I am full of appreciation for what they knew,  and I wish that I could have spent more time cooking by their sides. As I slowly chopped veggies, browned lamb, and sautéed onions for the braised dish we will be eating tonight I felt very blessed to have been raised by a mother who instilled in me a passion for home cooking.
It seems that there will always be a great many opinions on what constitutes a healthy diet, and I feel we must all answer that for ourselves.  Which means asking questions such as what health truly means to us, as well as learning how to listen deeply to the wisdom of our bodies,  and then responding in the best way that we can. For more important than what we eat will always be the question of how we eat. And for myself this new stage of my own journey has only deepened my own appreciation for the rituals surrounding the growing, raising, receiving, preparing and sharing of food. And it is this appreciation which is nourishing me in the sweetest way.

Slow Cooker Lamb Shanks

2-4 lamb shanks (locally raised and grass fed)
1 large organic yellow onion
2-3 organic carrots
3 pieces organic celery
1 organic fennel bulb
3-6 cloves of organic garlic
2 sprigs fresh rosemary
2 Tbs each of fresh chopped thyme and sage
2-4 cups of organic chicken or beef stock (make your own, it’s so much better!)
1.    Cut the onions, celery, and carrots into large rough chunks.
2.    Warm up a Tbs of ghee or lard and brown the lamb shanks in a heavy bottomed pan, then place them in the slow cooker.
3.    Add the herbs to the fat in the pan and sauté for a minute, then add the rough cut vegetables and the garlic bulbs and stir for another couple minutes till coated with the herbs and fat.
4.    Pour enough stock into the slow cooker to half submerge the shanks and pile the veggies in around them.
5.    Cook on high for up to 2 hours, then turn down to low and cook for 5-7 hours or until the meat falls off the bone
6.    Set the table mindfully, sit down with friends or family, say grace in a way that feels honest to you and expresses your gratitude for your meal.
7.    Enjoy!