Eli Rallo: My love affair with food

Monday, April 1, 2019 - 1:44pm

Food was one of my first and greatest loves, fostered from an early age by my dad’s cafe. My first memory is the meditative way he’d bake bread and switch on the lights in the cafe he ran, humming along to something on the early morning radio as he did. This quiet, serene nostalgia is my idea of perfection. I sat on the stainless steel counter in the corner of the kitchen; I couldn’t have been older than four. 

Despite my long winded love affair with food, we’ve been in an on-again, off-again relationship since I was faced with the reality that I’m not the type of person who can always eat whatever I want without thought. For some days, weeks and even months, food has been my own personal devil, the enemy. Sometimes when I think about what I can and cannot eat, what I should or shouldn’t eat, I feel as though I am gearing up to head toward a bloody battle. As an athletic young woman with health challenges that affect my diet, my eating habits have been an important and essential part of staying healthy and strong. My diet carried me through 26.2 miles down a dark Detroit road. Managing my diet has been a learning experience filled with trials, tribulations and trips to doctor’s offices and nutritionists. 

Despite these struggles, my best memories surround meals, eating with my family, specifically at home. I could fill notebook pages with love letters to little farm houses in the Italian countryside with prosciutto and basil layered on crispy pizzas, bottles of wine on New Year’s Day in French basements, vegan cafes in Ithaca and foreign or familiar dinner tables with people I love and loved and will love. These brilliant times where food and I were on-again lovers are prominent screenshots in the polaroid album of my mind. 

When something brings you unending joy and pain, it’s important to read into all the messy subtext. For every time I’ve skipped out on dinner or went to bed hungry, I was not serving myself. I was not living in the fullness and the beauty of life; I was depriving myself of all of the goodness in the food that the earth grows. Food and I did not have to be enemies; I did not have to live in fear that a carbohydrate would ruin my waist or my thighs. What I had to do was fuel myself, make healthy choices and consume what my body needs. What I had to do is learn that food can be healthy and it can be starchy – these are not mutually exclusive. Moderation is the space in which my relationship with food thrives. What I need to do is love myself enough to eat the cookie, have the slice of pizza, order the french fries every once in a while, because it is through our favorite foods and our late night Pad Thai and our occasional breakfast date with our best friends that we truly live. Intuitive eating is where it begins for me. I had such an austere view on food for over a year, but once I started to listen to my body, all of that truly changed. If sometimes this way of intuitive eating means I’m having waffles for dinner, then there’s nothing wrong with that. 

I constantly remind myself that while food is sustenance and fuel, it’s also much more. Food is the memories I have of my grandmother in the kitchen, kneading dough and singing something I no longer remember the words to. It is the way I was taught to make thick, rope-like pasta from nothing when I was eight years old, standing on a stool in the kitchen, or fold delicate perogies with my mother who had the steadiest hands. It is the moments before the food is set down in front of me at my favorite restaurant as that second glass of wine hits, warm and sweet. It is culture, family stories on the back porch, handwritten recipes on torn take out menus and years of our own personal history. It is the college dorm room ramen noodles and the Blue Ribbon sushi and every slice of pizza from Michigan to N.Y. and back. It is the heat of the kitchen stove and the cool of the dining room. It is the memory of my father coming into school on career day with tiny plastic bowls of pasta and mini cannolis, when other fathers came in suits with powerpoint presentations. It is the love of my world, the religion of my home, the scripture on which I was raised – food is the bitter arugula, the sweet sundried tomatoes, the creamy, melted cherry goat cheese ice cream of life. 

I want you to think back to a meal that is akin to a childhood memory. A meal or an ingredient that takes you back to being eight years old, a time when you weren’t worried about voting in elections or calories or paying bills. What is it? Is it a big pot of turkey chilli, slow cooking on a low lit stove all Sunday afternoon? Is it crying into banana pancakes when you got rejected from your dream school when you were 17? Is it macaroni and cheese baked with pecorino and parmigiana, covered in a layer of crispy bread crumbs, dished out at a summer BBQ? Is it stale tortilla chips dipped in cream cheese around a table with a Monopoly board and two brothers? Cookies, underbaked, doughy and as big as your face? 

What ties it all together? Food is more than survival. It is more than energy and calories and necessity. It is, in some way, who we are, who we were, who we’ve become. I ate bibimbap one time with an ex-boyfriend who yelled at me when I spilled a cup of water all over the table, so I’ve never eaten bibimbap again. I never bake without my brother around, because I wouldn’t know the first thing about having hands that careful and a mind that patient. I don’t have meatballs unless they are my Uncle’s meatballs, and were all around his kitchen counter, laughing and dancing and fine. I only know how to judge pizza on the scale my father taught me when he first apprenticed me as a pizza connoisseur (tip: it’s always in the sauce). Food is the long journey to the ice cream spot at the bottom of the hill that my best friend and I walk to arm in arm. It is the unifying force in our life, a commonality amidst our divergent identities, it is the people we meet and fall in love with who teach us that food is a religion. It is a street corner in South Africa where I first tried Ethiopian food, washed down with three dollar South African white wine – the best meal of my life to date, one where, if I had been in fear of calories and carbohydrates, I never would have cherished so dear. 

A relationship with food can be complicated. It can be a steamy love affair, one with romance and one with heartbreak. In my 20 years I’ve been on a journey with myself to learn balance and moderation in a world that wants you to be a size zero with a heart that is always seated at the Italian table. My mother taught me how to appreciate myself and fuel my body in service of who I am – a young woman with hunger.