5 min read

Fuck the Pit

Let’s Cook
Fuck the Pit
Photo by Artem Maltsev / Unsplash

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Three years ago, I was on the phone with a health coach, and I was putting my foot all the way down.

This phone call was part of a program that feels—and felt even at the time—like some kind of miracle. My health insurance company (which has since stopped covering California residents) called me up at the beginning of the year to ask if I wanted to participate in a coaching program designed for people with autoimmune disorders. The concept of the program was not to diagnose or prescribe, but to search out the small daily irritants that add up to higher inflammatory responses in people like me. “You may not be allergic to corn,” the health coach said during our first phone call, “but we can find out if it makes you feel a tiny bit worse, so you can make strategic decisions about what you eat and when.”

The program lasted for a year, and was fully covered by my insurance program. I logged everything I ate and drank, all the medications and supplements I took, and all my symptoms, every day. Each week, I spoke with the health coach, who looked at correlations between all the data I handed her and suggested things like a week without sugar, a week of increased hydration, and gentle tweaks to supplements. If things didn’t work, we left them behind; if they seemed to make me feel better, we experimented more. It was a year of experimentation alongside a dedicated, focused study partner, trying to figure out what small changes we could make that might add up to increased function.

The results were frankly incredible. After years of struggling with chronic headaches, I finally found the right combination of daily hydration and electrolyte supplements to make my skull stop pounding. After years of unpredictable, awful digestive issues—many brought on by a long struggle with disordered eating—I managed to get my gut functioning normally. I learned how to increase my protein intake to keep my energy from crashing so hard, and I got on the road to listening to my body’s hunger signals—something I had spent my entire life learning to ignore.

This program wasn’t a silver bullet. It was constant daily work for a year, and intermittent check-ins for another year after that. And, just half a year into the program, I was already seeing a huge change. So why was I being so stubborn during the phone call that happened three years ago this week?

We’d reached an impasse: The health coach wanted me to try a week without gluten.

I’d told her at the beginning of our program that gluten was the one bridge I wouldn’t cross. I became more entrenched as COVID changed everything—I was learning to bake good homemade bread, I was on the verge of giving in to sourdough starter madness, I was looking into ordering a pasta roller. I felt like I’d given up so much already—so much mobility, so much freedom, so much activity. I couldn’t stand the idea of giving up good bread. I said no. Absolutely not. I wouldn’t do it.

But she found my one weakness: A challenge. She asked me to be brave, and to try going without gluten for a week, just so we could rule it out. She asked me to approach it as an opportunity to cook in a new way. I couldn’t say no to that.

Over the course of that week, my symptoms improved. They improved so much that I gave in and agreed to try a full month. That month expanded and kept expanding. I haven’t gone back yet.

It’s been hard. Every time I have to make another lifestyle change (most recently, foregoing most alcohol in order to make room in my liver for a new medication) my first thought is but I already gave up baguettes.

I talk about it lightly, but some days it truly does feel like there’s a pit in my life—a dark void of disability into which I have no choice but to hurl the things that bring me happiness. Travel, sugar, hiking, good beer, boxing, good bread, cute clothes. Reliable cognition, reliable memory. Time with family. Time with friends. Always, always, time.

But it hasn’t been nearly as hard as it could be. That pit isn’t so deep, and isn’t so cruel. In part, this is because of the way the world of food has expanded in the past decade or so. What was once a sparse landscape of ingredient flexibility has become a rich and varied world of options. The corner of the world I inhabit is especially generous to dietary restrictions, and everywhere I’ve traveled this past couple of months, I’ve been able to find signs that people like me are welcome: Menus that label gluten and soy, shelf-stable ingredients with well-marked variances in sugar and salt, restaurants that offer allergen-safe menus. More and more, I see people like me finding understanding and respect. And where we don’t find understanding and respect, we can at least find options.

Those options are what get me out of the pit. I can build a life for myself if I can just find space for experimentation. Even the narrowest slice of flexibility in a recipe leaves me a place to carve out a meal. Ingredients that are open to substitution offer an entry point in an otherwise-impassable landscape of cuisine. What I can’t eat myself, I can find avenues to share. When those I love encounter new dietary obstacles, I can find ways to help them get around and over and through those obstacles. When we find ourselves standing at the edge of the pit staring in, we can at least stand together.

There are things that aren’t open to me anymore—my foolproof no-knead overnight loaf simply cannot survive with a gluten-free 1:1 flour blend, and I’m sorry to say that 0% ABV wine tastes like something you pour down a storm drain to punish the sewer system. But for all the things that have fallen irretrievably into the pit, I know that there are future victories waiting, if I can only find them.

I find them here, with all of you, every month. I find new recipes, new modifications, new experiments. I find them in conversations with friends and family, and in long afternoons spent back in the lab—my kitchen—finding my way to joy in cooking, even when the pit looms large.

We find them together. We make them together.

Fuck the pit. Let’s cook.

Coming Up This Month

  • Suzanne’s Hashwi
    Suzanne Walker, a Chicago-based writer and editor, and co-creator of the critically acclaimed, award-nominated graphic novel Mooncakes, shares a recipe for Hashwi, a Lebanese spiced rice dish.
    Her essay on how health concerns can put up a barrier around culture will be in your inbox on September 13.
  • Maya’s Sweet Potato Cupcakes
    Maya May, an LA-based stand-up comedian known for her smart, fun, and socially conscious brand of humor, shares a flexible family recipe for sweet potato cupcakes.
    Her video essay on family history and rage baking will be in your inbox on September 20.
  • Allison’s Oatmeal
    Allison Pottern, a Massachusetts-based writer and reader, and co-host of the Speculative Fiction Variety Hour virtual discussion group, shares an indulgent oatmeal recipe.
    Her essay on finding her way to care and comfort through oatmeal will be in your inbox on September 27.

If you’re a paying subscriber, come by the Stone Soup Supper Club for early access to this month’s recipes, our weekly chat, and more community! I can’t wait to find out how you’re doing.

If you’d like to own the Personal Canons Cookbook ebook, which collects all these essays and recipes in easy-to-reference, clickable format—plus loads of bonus recipes from me!—join the Stone Soup Supper Club. The ebook is free for subscribers, who will get the download link in their inboxes in the first Supper Club email of 2024!