warm brown rice and grilled vegetable salad

This weekend I spent exactly 25 hours in New Orleans.

It was a pell-mell trip, one of many I have made this summer. I rose in the darkness, kissed my sleeping husband, then my sleeping daughter in the other room. Leaving them, even though I would be back late the next night, made my heart hurt. I drove to the ferry at 4:45 in the morning, a motorcycle with loud bright headlights behind me the entire way. Exhausted, I drove off the ferry as the light started to hit the sky. Picking up a friend on a corner before the freeway helped. We talked and talked, then both grew silent at the sight of the Cascade mountains steely-grey against a pale peach sunrise.

Two flights. Even though I hate leaving Danny and Lucy, long flights mean time to read. I hunkered down into my narrow seat, between two people who fell asleep, and read half of Abraham Verghese’s book, Cutting for Stone. I tumbled fully into the world he created, turning pages as fast as I could. (On the way home the next day, I finished the book in one four-hour sitting session. The poor teenage boy next to me kept looking at me like I was crazy when tears ran down my cheeks and I gulped for air. This book, my goodness, this book. You must read it.) I remind myself to find something good about each place I’m breathing. Airplane journeys and reading? Not bad.

As I walked out the doors of the Louis Armstrong airport, I prepared myself for the wave of laughter, food, and fast conversations about to hit me. I was there to speak at the International Food Bloggers Conference (IFBC) and I was honored. I’m thrilled to be part of a group of people who are weird enough to take photographs of their food and talk about how much they enjoy their meals. Those good folks asked me to speak for more than an hour about living gluten-free and what it means to our food community. Pretty darned great.

However, on either side of that lovely time in a conference room were packed hours, together with people I adore, eating food in New Orleans.

I gathered with friends and people I have been wanting to meet. After a lot of research and talking on Twitter, a boisterous group of us went to Drago’s for charbroiled oysters and Pimm’s cups, and then we took over the small space in Cochon Butcher. Hands reached for rillettes and ashy goat cheese, boudin with spicy mustard, and flash-fried brussels sprouts that made us order two more servings immediately. There were peach pit cocktails and conversation about the state of food culture in this country. (Our fairly common consensus after much discussion? People, y’all need to just relax a little bit.)

There wasn’t much sleep. I wanted to talk with Danny, two hours behind me. I stayed up late reading my book. I nibbled on the crushed bits of a chocolate chip cookie Danny had baked the night before and tucked into my bag without me noticing.

In the morning there was breakfast at a great divey place around the corner from the hotel, Mena’s. I ordered an omelet with andouille sausage and grits with cheese. The plate arrived. I could tell by the bright-orange cheese with the weepy edges that the cheese nestled in my grits was Velveeta. For a moment, I paused. I haven’t eaten anything like this in over ten years. Velveeta? And then I thought, “What the hell? I’m in New Orleans.”

Damned if that wasn’t a good breakfast.

After the morning conference session where I spoke, before I had to run to the airport, three friends and I walked down the street to NOLA. We sat at the counter in front of the kitchen (right where Danny would have loved to be) and talked in slow spaces and calm. There was a BLT salad: a puddle of green buttermilk dressing, topped by a thick slice of ripe tomato, smoky bacon, and a tuft of dressed arugula. Perfect end-of-summer food. There were shrimp and grits — better than the morning’s grits — and a mint julep and incredible conversation with women I respect.

I went to that airport happy. And ready to be home.

* * *

Is that the entire story of that trip? Of course not. There is no way to capture the quicksilver leaps of the mind between moments, the dozens of sights I saw in New Orleans I wish I could capture, the conversation with my cab driver heading back to the airport. Writing will never suffice for real life.

But there is also the shadow story, the one I never tell on this site.

I guess it’s just part of being in the public eye. This is what people tell me. I think it has more to do with the fact that we seem to have fallen into a position of derision and judgment in this culture. Everything is to be doubted. Someone has to be wrong.

From those brief 25 hours, I received emails that said, “Don’t you know that processed food is killing Americans? How could you have posted a photo with Velveeta cheese?” or “What kind of a mother are you, leaving your child for another trip? Selfish bitch.” or “Sausage? Andouille sausage? You don’t think you’re fat enough already, you have to stuff more sausage in your mouth?” There were complaints about where I ate, how much I ate, how happy I was to be with the people I sat with, that I was bragging by listing the people with whom I had dinner. There were comments about my weight, comments about my parenting, comments about the way I spend money, comments about the farce of gluten-free, comments about my photographic skills, and comments about how often I posted on Twitter (for some, that answer was: too much). Nothing goes undiscussed as being disgusted in my online world.

It’s more than offhand comments on Twitter or raging emails. It’s the systematic way that cruel comments come into my website inbox with every single post. When I posted the recipe for soft pretzels, within moments I received the comment: “I hope you choke on your own pretzels and die, you bitch.” Every day, there is some nasty, vituperative comment on a post, something I skim quickly then delete. It could be comments about my husband (“He’s obviously retarded. Look in his eyes. There’s something wrong.”) about our life on Vashon (“Oh that’s right, everything is perfect on  your fucking ISLAND.”), about our food (“That looks like dog vomit. Why does anyone pay you to do this?”), and mostly about me (my weight? my writing? my hair? my mere presence in the world? take your pick). New posts and posts from five years ago — it doesn’t seem to matter.

This happens nearly every day. Just from tonight: “i thought your kid cried all night and thats why you ate so much god damn pie. liar.”

That’s easy enough to rectify. Just hit delete. However, this ridiculousness is not relegated to this space. There are Twitter feeds devoted to mocking my voice and what I care about. There are blogs dedicated to excoriating every post I write by writing a companion post — same amount of paragraphs and sentences — in ugly language. There is a forum created just for those who hate kids and the people who write about their kids online. Apparently, my section is one of the biggest. Every time I have a recipe published in a magazine or a piece written about me, there are a score of vicious comments about me. Every time. There are lots of personal attacks hidden as reviews on Amazon.

I’ve come to terms with this, over the years. Most of the time, when I get a comment or see a link, I delete. I don’t look. I don’t read. It’s all so pathetic and sad. And I don’t put myself through it. Why walk into a room knowing you’re going to get punched as soon as you walk in?

However, there are some times it still gets me. The comments about Lucy make me enraged. Recently, I saw two bitter, older women having a conversation on Twitter about Lucy’s body shape and how “prematurely zaftig” she is. First of all, she’s not overweight. She’s healthy and strong and built of muscle from dancing through the world. But secondly, what kind of sick person are you to be making derogatory comments about the body of a three-year-old? Could be worse. When I published a post about strawberry shortcake, which included photos of Lu and her little friends around the table, Lu happened to be without a shirt, since it was a hot summer day. Within moments, the first comment? “I hope the pedophiles are watching and I hope they get your kid.”

I couldn’t make this up.

Just before Lucy had her surgery, Danny and I stumbled onto the Twitter feeds created to mock us. There was one in my voice, one in his, one for made-up old girlfriends and acolytes. Fine. Whatever. There was also one written in the voice of our daughter. Our 10-month-old daughter. And it was repeatedly making fun of the shape of her head.

Seriously, who writes a Twitter feed to mock the skull of a 10-month-old?

After we found that one, Danny and I froze. We didn’t want our lives public anymore. I thought about taking down this blog. Finding a new job. I made all the photographs of Lu private. I wouldn’t write about her at all. For a time, I didn’t want to write about our lives. I could make gluten-free cookies and not say a thing about us. Put up bread and everyone would be happy. I tried this for awhile.

And then I felt so stifled and itchy that I knew I couldn’t do this anymore. We got through Lu’s surgery and realized that I had given in. I didn’t want to let these people win.

I started writing our stories again. I haven’t stopped since.

* * *

Believe me, this isn’t just happening to me. Read the comments section on You Tube and you’re in the seventh circle of hell. Washington Post, New York Times, CNN — these places are populated by crazy people with very definite opinions. Anyone who has a website with more than a few thousand readers has nutballs and spiteful people writing to them. I’m not naming names because my friends don’t want to talk about this publicly. Just know that everyone you read probably struggles with this.

I know that one of my friends, when she finds out I wrote this will probably say, “Shauna! Why the hell did you bother talking about these shit-for-brains? Don’t give them the time of day.” Another of my friends told me today, “Don’t do it. Don’t feed the trolls.”

Why am I talking about this when I have kept silent for five years? Why didn’t I just tell you about New Orleans and leave you with this recipe for a delicious brown rice salad?

I am tired of not talking about this. I’m tired of keeping this inside, tightening my lips, and deleting. It doesn’t feel honest to not talk about this.

But mostly, I want to put this in the open because this isn’t only happening to me. Even if you don’t have a blog, I bet you feel like this in your life too. All that judgment about your appearance, the unspoken whispers about the way  you are raising your kid, the way you wonder if you’re doing a good enough job keeping house when you’re plain exhausted by the end of the day. Where did we learn to become so cruel to each other?

I’m not sure what drives the minds of the people who spend far too much time reading my blog, my Flickr pictures, my Twitter feed, and what I write on Facebook so they can mock it. People, I don’t have much time to read other people’s blogs. How sad and small does the life of someone have to be to spend time online finding people to write shit about?

Brené Brown has helped me to see all this in a clear light lately. I was lucky enough to speak with her on a panel at BlogHer a few weeks ago. It was an extraordinary experience. If you don’t know Brené, you should. She works to understand shame and vulnerability in people and how those two emotions affect everything we do. When I joked in that session that it never made sense to me that someone (or several someones) could be this mad at me, she said, “I know exactly why some people must hate your guts.”

“Why?”

“Because you are joyful,” she said immediately.

“And I have endured a lot of suffering and I still love my life,” I told her.

“Yes, who do you think you are?”

“And I write cookbooks for a living and I’m not a size 4,” I said, knowing this was true.

It’s fascinating to me that the trolls harp mostly on how I look. What the heck does it matter to you?

This is, of course, far more widespread than comments on my blog. How dare anyone be overweight? Or  more accurately, not look the way that society narrowly defines us?

Here’s the deal. I write about food. I cook food all day long. People give me their baked goods when I make public appearances. And may I tell you, after a summer of speaking at food-writing conferences? There are only a small handful of food writers who are a size 4. Lovely people, all 12 of them. The rest of us? We look like the rest of America.

More than that, there is some misguided notion that having curves and holding weight in our hips necessarily makes us unhealthy. Poppycock. Every medical test I have comes back with solid numbers. Our doctor, one of the best in Seattle, told me, “If I could get the rest of my patients to eat the way you and your family do, I’d be thrilled.” I walk nearly every day, when I am not running or dancing or doing yoga or swimming. I am fit and healthy and happy in my body. Finally.

You see, like most women in America, I have struggled with the way I look, and how I think I should look. I wrote about it last year. Last year, I tackled my emotional, mindless eating. I don’t do that anymore. I started exercising regularly. I feel fantastic. And still, after the initial 30 or so pounds, my weight doesn’t budge. Why? I’m on medication that makes me hold on weight. Even more than that, my oncologist shared this with me recently. Many reliable studies show that women over 35 must exercise vigorously for an hour a day, every day, for the rest of their lives, to maintain their weight. Maintain. Not lose. Maintain.

What are we doing to ourselves? Why do we deny and starve and try to be something other than what we are? Look at Meryl Streep, one of my favorite actresses. Young? Rail thin. Older? A little fuller. This is an actor, someone who makes her living with her body. She could hire every trainer and personal chef. Instead, she just looks comfortable in her skin.

More than that, increasingly, studies are starting to show that those of us with a little more weight than others might live longer than others. Why? Maybe because we’re not straining our bodies to be something other than what they want to be.

So, could I lose some weight? Sure. Will I? Maybe. Does this affect my happiness in the world? Not anymore.

I suppose I have the trolls to thank for this, in some weird way. Since I was 10 years old, I have fought my own body. I have never fully, fully inhabited it. I was always waiting for it to be less than it is. For the first few years, hearing these nasty excoriating voices with horrible comments about the way I look, I shuddered. I believed them. But slowly, oh so slowly, I started to realize those voices were not my own. This one is.

For the first time in my life, at 45, I am relaxed into my body. What am I going to do, spend until I’m 75 wishing someone I was someone a little bit different, a little less, a little more conforming? Hell no.

* * *

And so, I still sort of hesitate sometimes. I had to think twice before I put up the photo of the strawberry picnic that Lucy asked if we could have the day after I returned from New Orleans. Bare legs, dirty feet from playing in the garden, skinned knee. I started to hear the trolls in my head.

Then, I sat for a few moments, breathing. I remembered again how sad the life has to be of that person who pulls up this website again, just to find something wrong again. I found compassion in my breath. I sent it out.

And then I put up whatever picture I wanted.

I’m sorry that your life is so small and sad, but I’m not going to stop saying my story.

I am here.

And by the way, why don’t you go find a different hobby? Get some fresh air. Make a friend. Life could be better than this.

WARM BROWN RICE AND GRILLED VEGETABLE SALAD

Something powerful I have learned about food over the course of writing this site: relax and enjoy it a bit more. If we listen to our bodies, and not the chorus of judgmental voices telling us what we are doing wrong? Our bodies know what to do. After eating moderate amounts of rich food in New Orleans this weekend? The only thing my body wanted to eat was the strawberries I shared with my daughter and this warm brown rice salad Danny made up for us.

Maybe if we all relaxed a bit more and thought of our diet over the course of the week, instead of every single bite, we might find that our bodies gravitate toward what is good for us, more and more. I know that’s true for me now.

1 medium zucchini, sliced lengthwise
1 medium red pepper, cut into rings, seed removed
1 large tomato, sliced lengthwise
1 yellow squash, sliced lengthwise
½ onion, sliced in rings
12 tablespoons olive oil
salt and pepper
3 cups warm brown basmati rice
1 cup cooked chickpeas
6 leaves fresh basil, cut into chiffonade
3 tablespoons sherry vinegar

Toss the zucchini, red pepper, tomato, squash, and onion with 3 tablespoons of the olive oil. Season them with salt and pepper. Grill them on a hot grill. Make sure that the vegetables have grill marks on all sides and are tender. Bring them in and let them cool enough that you can handle them.

Chop all the vegetables into even pieces. Put them in a large bowl with the chickpeas and fresh basil.

Combine the sherry vinegar and the remaining olive oil. Drizzle it over the rice, vegetables, and basil. Toss. Season to taste.

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