My relationship with food has always been one of love, but with a heavy price. Off and on between October 1980 and May 1999, two things defined my time with food: the frequent lack of it, and my ability to cook and manipulate it. Besides having my mom as a guide, I think those 1,900 or so days with little to no food wherever I lived and whomever I lived with heavily influenced my cooking ambitions and chef-esque cooking skills.
While money has been tight at times in the years since, I have not personally confronted food insecurity or food access issues since the end of the twentieth century. Yet my ability to eat whatever I choose has declined from near-Hoover-vacuum levels of anything edible to a Matrix-level diet of rice krispies in water-infused electrolytes. My stomach has always been where stress and sickness decides to manifest. Even in my preteens, a milkshake at the wrong time or in combination with the wrong kind of food became a shitshake. I would sometimes be a few minutes late for class in graduate school (to the chagrin of my racist and ableist white professors) because of my GI (gastrointestinal) tract.
But there was nothing consistent about what I’ve known for more than 20 years to be my irritable bowel syndrome (IBS) until the week after my PhD graduation in 1997. After a week of travel, job interviews, graduation, and personal betrayal, my body was burned out along with my mind and spirit. I had stomach pains for four days, and could barely eat. For more than a year afterward, the only dairy I could handle was Lactaid. Nearly anything, including spaghetti with red sauce, could set off a wave of diarrhea, or days of constipation.
Once we moved to the DMV, and especially once I took my assistant director job at New Voices, I finally had a regular doctor at GW Hospital in DC. After a sigmoidoscopy and a colonoscopy in 2001, my internist diagnosed me with IBS. There was a wrinkle, though. There was no physical evidence for why I had IBS. No signs of serious acid reflux, no tapeworms or other parasites, no ulcers or tears in the intestines or colon. “Are you saying that my irritable bowel syndrome is psychosomatic?,” I remember asking. The doctor said, “No. Whatever’s going on, we can’t explain it with the tests we have.”
Stress, work travel, and lack of sleep were constant companions in the ’00s for me. And that meant popping Imodium pills, the occasional acidophilus and other probiotics, and regulating parts of my diet. I did colon cleanses, fruit fasts, full fasting, and tried a shift toward vegetarianism. All results were middling at best.
It took leaving the nonprofit world and becoming a consultant with part-time professoring for my IBS to calm down in 2008 and 2009. Working mostly from home also allowed me more time to cook. Especially to cook meals I hadn’t cooked or eaten since I was a teen, or to cook entirely new dishes and desserts. I learned how to make traditional and Silician-style pizzas, French bread, madeleines, and rabbit ragù. I reverted and started making grits and biscuits, beans and rice, and corned beef from a can. I tried out stew peas with goat and beef, chicken tikka masala, and chicken marsala.
With all this, by 2013, I realized organic foods didn’t mess up my stomach nearly as much. And, that tons of probiotics and acidophilus (at least 7 billion CFU per meal or 30 billion for the whole day) kept me regular and regulated. I was in the best GI tract health of my adult life, and it stayed that way for a while. My flare-ups were maybe a few times a month, and not every day like they had been before. Yay, me!
That is, until the second half of 2019, the months going into the pandemic. With me teaching a 60-percent full-time schedule at each of two universities (for 120% FT equivalent) and drafting an article once every two weeks as a freelancer, even working from home became stressful. My IBS became worse, but selectively so. Eggs, brown, organic, free-range, whatever, became problematic. So did spaghetti, as well as hamburgers, anything with pinto beans, kidney beans, any food beyond the mildly spicy (and sometimes that would go through me, too). Snickers in the daytime was bad, but a bar right after dinner and under 75 degrees Fahrenheit was okay. Egg whites from Trader Joe’s led to a fart here or a burp there, but organic liquid egg whites from Whole Foods easily sparked a flare-up. Salads for lunch were now flat-out forbidden, but a tiny one with dinner was fine. Ice cream with a brownie, blondie, or cookies, dairy or dairy-free, was also okay. Most delivered or picked-up food has been an experiment in pain and gas.
This back-and-forth with IBS only got worse with the pandemic. Plus, I am over 50. Not everything I ate in my teens and in my 20s should be in my stomach and intestines now. Some would say I should go completely vegan (keep in mind, about a fifth of my diet is already vegan, and if one cooks for meat eaters, it’s hard for an omnivore to not taste). But after making stew peas last week, even four kidney beans was enough to make my stomach grumble, and vegan or not, all of us (and yours truly, too) need protein.
If my IBS is mostly a combination of environmental factors (e.g., stress internal and external, sleeplessness, travel, work intensity) and my psychological profile, then what do I do now? Go see a hypnotist? Move to another part of the world with millet, sorghum, sugar beets, and other things my stomach can digest? As it stands now, about half the meals I make these days are for my wife, my son, and sometimes my dog, but I can no longer eat or even taste without consequence. And that is more frustrating than the IBS.