Tuesday, October 4, 2011

This Time It’s Simply About The Calories

Piedmont: Great Wine, Great Challenges
I’m a snob. I admit it. When it comes to food, it’s got to taste good. Because I intend to really taste it. To enjoy it. To savor it. Every bite of it.

But Thursday, after many long, hot hours biking the grueling hills of the Piedmont region of Italy, we were hungry. Really hungry. The hills took us much longer than expected; we had no idea what it really means to be in shape for riding hills!  And the snacks we carried? We downed those within the first couple of hours.

So we rolled into a tiny town, known for its hazelnut production. Now give me a dessert with hazelnuts and chocolate and I would’ve been just fine. But that didn’t happen—no bakeries in sight. But it didn’t take us long to identify the only eating establishment around. Think retro, stale, cigarette-smoke-filled air luncheonette before it turned quaint and chic.

In our broken Italian we ordered the only Panini that sounded acceptable. Oh, and a salad.  What comes to your mind when you think salad? Fresh, crisp vegetables? A brilliant assortment of colors, flavors, and shapes? Think again. They offered what is known as Russian salad—a heaping mass of mayonnaise, containing diced potatoes, peas and a speck of carrot.  We had it along with the white bread sandwich packed generously with cheese. And I neglected to mention (how could I forget?)—that there were two rolled up sardines with olives. At least they added some color.

Well, I ate at least 90% of this lovely meal. And I hated every bite. (Although given my sweating from the unseasonable heat, the sodium rich sardines and olives were much appreciated.) This was so far from the fabulous cuisine I had heard so much about and had begun to enjoy my first day in the Piedmont (more posts about those meals to follow). The Piedmont, after all, is know for the Slow Food movement, amazing wines (Barolo, Barbaresco and Barbera) and white truffles (these are intense mushroom like fungus, not chocolates, my friends), with their distinctive flavor which embellishes foods with a mere drop of a truffle infused oil.

At this point, exhausted and overheated, depleted of energy, it was strictly about the calories, the fuel. I wasn’t going anywhere without eating this awful meal. I had no other options. I couldn’t find my voice in this language I barely spoke, and I suspect there were no other options, given the appearance of this place. Yes, mayonnaise-laden salad with a bland cheese sandwich was the only answer. Simply non-negotiable. There was nothing else to do but eat it.
Provence, not Piedmont!
What’s the meaning of this post? It’s not about my disappointment, of things not going as planned—that could be a whole other post. It’s not about adjusting expectations, because who could have expected this? Never mind that the biking was a total drag, nothing like our fantasy rides through Provence with climbs we could manage and stunning varied vistas to distract along the way.

No, the meaning is much more literal. Sometimes it comes down to Nike’s message—Just Do It.

For those of you who undereat—I know there are times when you are not hungry, and eating seems totally unnecessary. And when a fat-containing food may overwhelm. Or you question why you have to eat more than everyone else around you. Or the uncertainty of a meal’s content leads you to want to choose the safest route—food aversion. Or the allure of not eating, or restricting, promises a pleasant disconnect which might be so welcomed at this moment.

As for the overeaters and binge eaters (and anorexics, too)—skipping meals or snacks certainly sounds promising. Why take in those extra calories when a coffee will suffice? Because sometimes, you need to just do it. And when you’re feeling hungry even if no one else is, you need to just eat—because you need to begin to listen, to trust your body and its signals. Because you so deserve to be well nourished. Because your size has nothing to do with your need for nourishment in the moment. Yes, you too, need to trust it’s okay, it’s necessary to eat. And that you deserve to eat, regardless of what others’ glances may suggest, in spite of the messages from family members you hear or replay in your head, regarding your need to lose weight. Be in the moment, and trust that you should eat.

A cool drink after a long day of unmanageable hills and bad food!

I won’t be heading back for another Russian salad-filled lunch in the Piedmont. But I’m pleased I was able to fuel up for the challenging ride back. In the end, we enjoyed a lovely meal at dinner, and a refreshing drink just after unclipping from our pedals.


  1. I have found the "just do it" approach to eating really useful during ED recovery for this reason: when I get hypoglycemic, my anxiety shoots through the roof and it is virtually impossible for me to to make decisions about anything. Thus, right when I'm hungriest and most in need of fuel, I just can't pick out what to eat. There have been more episodes than I can count of me tearing apart the kitchen for 45 minutes trying to select a menu, just to end up sitting on the kitchen floor sobbing over my growling stomach.

    Hence, the "just do it" that you've so insightfully described: Having a granola bar or package of crackers or anything else to get some glucose into my body fast does wonders for my mood and mental state. Your car can't get to the gas station if it's already on empty, I guess, and the same thing works for brains and foods sometimes.

    Also, when I was in the early stages of weight restoration and my body/mind just couldn't handle the volumes of food I needed to get enough calories, I would often have a pint of Ben&Jerry's a day (not just that, of course, I had real food too) just to get energy into my body in a fairly concentrated form. Granted, eating a lunch labeled "Chunky Monkey" during those times was probably one of the classic ironies of my life... ;) It also helped challenge junk food taboos more than chugging Ensures would have.

    It sounds like your trip to Italy was FANTASTIC! Really glad you got to do that!

  2. As a body-positive activist and recovering bulimic, I absolutely love what you had to say in this post, especially the bit directed at bingers and over-eaters. Thank you so much.

  3. Oh, insalata russa! Let me share my grandma's recipe:

    5 kilos of potatoes, boiled, peeled, diced
    2 kilos of carrots, boiled, diced
    2 kilos of celery root, ditto
    1 kilo of parsley root, ditto
    a 5-litre jar of pickled cucumbers, pull cucumbers out, save some of the liquid, chop finely
    3 kilos green peas, boiled in slightly salted water or canned. Some of the peas can be substituted with chickpeas or sweet corn
    30 hard-boiled eggs
    some mayonnaise, preferably homemade.

    Get a suitable container. Boil veggies unsalted, keep some of the broth. Put diced potatoes and root vegetables into the container, mix well. Add finely chopped pickled cucumbers, mix well. Add peas, mix well. Add half a cup of salt, mix well. Add mayo to make the whole mix somewhat sticky, mix well. Add diced eggs, mix gently as to try and preserve the bits of egg yolk.

    Let sit until next day, taste. If too salty, add a bit of the vegetable broth, if not salty enough, add salt.

    Serves half a dozen from Christmas Eve until around New Year. I can't do the breakdown to a single portion, in our family, this is a Christmas thing and we indeed make it from around 15 kilos of potatoes and vegetables, and around a litre and half of mayonnaise. Some people add diced apples or ham or some salami, or mustard, black pepper, boiled or raw onions, too.

    It's past four in the afternoon. I had maybe seven cups of coffee (I'm a coffee addict). I hadn't eaten yet. Let's see what the evening brings. I guess more coffee. I'm having a bad day today and I'm mentally tired too much to do something about it.

  4. Wonderful post, as usual! It helps to have the fact we need to eat, sometimes regardless of what's specifically available, because we all need to re-fuel. The meal looked terrible, but a grueling, hilly bike ride is no joke! That said, that clearly wasn't a quality Russian salad. An Armenian friend of mine makes it and it's delish! Pair with some smoked salmon and black bread with unsalted butter, maybe some radishes, a cup of borscht, and a little aquavit, and everything is glorious.

  5. Glad to hear that Russian salad has potential to taste good, although I can't say I'll be a taker on Russian Salad in the near future.
    Love the Chunky Monkey reference--hope it makes everyone laugh at themselves when struggling with drinking Ensure--there really are more desirable options, in my opinion.

    Funny that the Just Do It slogan I'm all for, but the thought of the Just Say No turns my stomach!
    Thank you all for your comments which keep me going.

  6. Sad about your food experience in Piedmont - we have had some of the best food we have ever eaten in that region. The Italians just do fast food badly - the Slow Food movement started in Alba. The agritourismo farms are usually the place to head - no menu, food fresh from the farm and you eat what you get (what you get is usually amazing, and often healthy).

  7. Please let me clarify! This meal was a total exception to our culinary experience in Piedmont. I hope to post on the AMAZING eating we did there as well. Much research went into finding the best places to eat; no planning went into to where to stumble-in-to-eat! Good that you made this point!