This blog is about good times – delicious food, breezy work, sharing with the ones you love. Happy, simple times. But food and eating are not simple. They are complicated by all sorts of things – social pressures, money issues, environmental concerns (local vs organic, anyone?), and all manner of health concerns ranging from managing fat or carbs to digestive difficulties to allergies, themselves ranging from merely annoying to potentially fatal.
I usually ignore all of these things on this blog, mostly on purpose. It’s my philosophy and, to be honest, my natural tendency to focus on the good and the positive. But that’s not always possible; sometimes, you have to turn and face the hard things.
For the past few months, eating has been a serious and sometimes frightening trial for me. The problem actually started several years ago, the year I had my gallbladder out. It was a terrible year – I was in the hospital twice, I nearly died, and I responded to my sudden brush with mortality with depression and anxiety. I attributed the lump I started to feel in my throat at meals, sometimes making it a challenge to swallow, to the deeply unpleasant emotions I felt.
The depression and fear went away, mostly, with time. The lump in my throat did not. But I ignored it for years, only wondering occasionally why it still hung on when I felt so much better otherwise. Emotions are strange, I shrugged. Until I read somewhere that difficulty swallowing and a persistent feeling of a lump in the throat are characteristics of reflux or GERD (gastroesophageal reflux disease), sometimes present without heartburn. My mother takes medicine for GERD. It made sense to me that I might have it too. So I started trying over-the-counter medications, but things just got worse. My struggles to swallow started to be frightening sometimes.
Before long, I was fighting to swallow at almost every meal, with at least one “choke,” a terrifying moment when I could barely get the food down at all. I didn’t like to eat without a glass of water to help me coax food down – though sometimes I choked on that too. It was really scary, though apparently I hid it well. I didn’t really mean to hide it. Or maybe I did. I didn’t want to freak people out at the dinner table, but also, the whole thing was kind of embarrassing. And how could anyone help? I struggled silently.
And then one day, as I was researching how to eat a GERD-friendly diet, I came upon a different way of looking at the problem, a suggestion that reflux and GERD could be caused by too little stomach acid rather than too much. With that change in perspective, I realized something that seems obvious in retrospect: The more I took antacids and acid blockers, the worse I felt. By adding more and more medication, I had turned an occasional nuisance into a daily misery. So I did what you’re never supposed to do – I quit those medications cold turkey. And I added papaya enzymes and licorice and some other stuff to my diet to help me digest my food. I wasn’t sure if they helped, but… maybe.
A couple days after that change, I woke at about 3:30 in the morning and, shall we say without undue detail, cleared my system of everything that was in it. The experience was a harrowing wake-up call: I needed to back up and rethink. I needed to return to baseline, to reset, to figure out where normal was and work from there.
For the next couple of days, I backed up to the simplest, safest foods I know: saltines, graham crackers, and congee. Congee – a simple rice porridge eaten throughout Asia and also known as jook and okayu – is the ultimate nursery food. Comforting, easy to swallow and digest, and surprisingly tasty, congee is a food I can eat for days when I’m sick and not tire of. It can be made with either long- or short-grain rice, with water or broth, with vegetables or a little chicken or neither, depending on what the sick diner can tolerate. It can also be bursting with flavor, if you’re making it not because you’re sick but because it’s delicious.
With just a few days of sticking to “safe foods,” I feel much better. Now comes the hard part: determining if I am sensitive to certain foods, and if so, what. This should be a slow process of adding one or two things at a time to the safe foods, determining little by little what I can and can’t eat. Patience is not among my best things though, so we’ll see how it goes.
Happily, whatever ills befall my digestive system as I try to figure out what it needs, I know I can always fall back on congee when I need to recover.
This version starts with cooked rice. You can easily make it from raw rice, though. Instead of using double the volume of liquid to rice, as I do below, use 8 times the volume and cook for at least an hour. I also add ginger, for its stomach-soothing properties as well as great flavor. I like summer squash in congee, as it’s tasty and easy on the stomach. This time, I also added a little shredded lettuce from my garden; its mild bitterness and tiny crunch are a nice tonic. Add what you have on hand and your stomach can tolerate. If you’re up to it, a bit of chopped leftover chicken or turkey is nice here too, and a little char siu (Chinese BBQ pork) is stellar.
Simple Congee with Vegetables
Serves: 3-4 Time: 40 minutes, mostly hands-off
2 cups cooked white rice
4 to 5 cups mild broth (or water with a little salt for the extremely sensitive stomach)
1 tablespoon soy sauce
1 to 3 teaspoons finely minced fresh ginger
1 tablespoon sake or dry sherry, optional
Taste and add more seasonings if desired. Spoon into bowls and serve piping hot for healthy tummies; for sensitive ones, let it cool a few minutes before eating.