When I was about twelve I, like most girls that age, started to fill out. No surprise. Except that I was a competitive swimmer being coached by a young, daughterless man who didn’t have the first clue about how to deal with young girls and their weird, sprouting bodies. He put me on a diet. I was made very aware that getting bigger was bad. I watched during practice one night as a girl a few years older than me was made to swim with a five pound weight tied around her midsection so she’d “know how it feels” to be carrying around extra weight.
But my body kept growing no matter what my coach said. It kept growing no matter how many bad dreams I had about drowning because I was trying to swim with a weight strapped to my stomach. It kept trying to become a woman even though I was being told it needed to stay a little girl so that I would be the best swimmer.
One day, after a three hour swim practice, my second practice of the day, I ate a banana. But I was still hungry, so I ate another one. I saw my mom and the maid exchange looks. Clearly there had been conversations about how much I should, or should not, be eating. I was embarrassed. And pissed. Really pissed.
And so began that uncomfortable dance so many young girls begin to have with food – I’m hungry, I want to eat, but my body is changing and nobody seems to know what to do with it, especially not me. And that makes me feel bad and angry.
This dance continued through much of my teens until my mom, who is always the smartest one in the room, figured out that my coach was off his rocker and that my athletic abilities (or lack thereof) were not being nurtured by a constant, unrelenting focus on diet. Learning to feed my body what it needed was what was important – something she had always taught us – and she kicked herself, and then my coach, for forgetting that vital piece of life survivalness.
But I wasn’t convinced. My coach had to be right, right?
So, she found me a new coach, a food coach, to rewire my brain back to the way it was before all the tinkering. He told me, “Eat what you want – whatever you really want – for one month and let’s see what happens.”
“Are you freakin’ crazy?” I said (or something like it, but much more polite because I had not yet developed a potty mouth).
“No. Your body knows exactly what it needs if you will just listen. I’m guessing, when you wanted that second banana (I’d told him the sad, sad banana story), your body needed a lot of carbohydrates and potassium because of the three hour workout you’d just had. Your body knew exactly what it was doing.”
I left his office in a huff, as only teenage girls can do, because clearly he was a demented lunatic who knew nothing about competitive sports and even less about girls and food and getting fat. What a weirdo.
But some little voice inside me, and the gentle, loving voice of my mother, told me he might just be right, that my body may very well know what it needed.
So I did what he said: I listened to my body and ate exactly what I wanted. At first, that meant a lot of chocolate milkshakes. But after a few days, after my guard was down and the voice of my coach was getting softer and and softer in my head, I started craving other things – broccoli, fish, peanuts, steak, and yes, cake. I didn’t crave one specific thing, I found. I craved so many things! And because I knew I could, no, I was supposed to eat whatever I wanted, I just ate as much as I wanted and then stopped. Stopped.
You see, because I knew that I could eat whatever I wanted, whenever I wanted, that sense of lack was gone, that sense of you can’t get enough of what you don’t really want was gone. Food no longer had to be chased, fled from, feared, obsessed over. Food was…just food.
Since that day, almost thirty years ago, I’ve never had a weight problem (knock wood). I love to move, so I eat to have the energy to do that. I have a longstanding love affair with cake, but also with Brussels sprouts and cauliflower. I get moony over movie popcorn and beet juice smoothies equally. It just depends on the day, or the workout, or my hormones.
I feel very lucky that I came up against that voice so young, and that I had a smart mother in my corner, because it made me bang up against a scary part of myself that can make or break me. That voice that pushes me to work harder, keep moving, try always, can be the same voice that can lead me down a dark road if I’m not paying attention.
Sometimes we have to listen deeper than the voice in our heads, the voice that pushes or pulls. Sometimes we have to listen to the voice in our heart, our solar plexus, our gut, the one that tells us, yes, I need another banana.
* This bread pudding comes from one of my favorite cookbooks, The Gilbert Scott Book of British Food, that I picked up on a whim while I was in London. Some of the recipes just make me go ewwww, but most of them look scrumptious, especially the desserts. The book is worth it just for the photos and the names of the recipes (Spotted Dick, Brummie Bacon Cakes, or Yorkshire Parkin, anyone?)
1/3 cup corn syrup or maple syrup (the recipe calls for golden syrup, which is a very specific kind of syrup found in England, but I couldn’t find it in Los Angeles and wasn’t willing to special order it)
1/4 cup brandy
2 very ripe bananas, sliced lengthwise
2 Tbs. softened butter (for greasing the pan)
1 loaf of brioche or challa bread cut into 1/2 inch slices
heavy cream for whipping or pouring on top
melted dark chocolate for drizzling on top
Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
For the custard: Beat the eggs and then add the cream, milk and brandy. Set aside.
Heat the corn syrup until it boils and then add the brandy. Mix. Carefully place the sliced bananas into the hot mixture (caramel sauce). When golden, turn over to caramelize the other side. Remove pan from heat.
Line standard loaf pan with parchment paper and butter well. Place a layer of bread in the bottom. Pour the custard over until it just covers. With your fingers, press down the bread to help it absorb as much custard as possible. Add a layer of the sliced bananas and caramel sauce. Repeat until all ingredients are used. Let sit for a few minutes to allow the bread to absorb the custard.
Bake for 45 minutes or until custard is set.
Cool completely. When ready to serve, slice and toast. Drizzle with melted dark chocolate and heavy cream