My recipes, my self: the cycle of indulgence and restriction

On overcoming the twin temptations of diet food and cheat day eats

CW: if talk of dieting or ED is triggering or even just annoying to you, please close and move on!

Do other people who work professionally, or side-professionally, in food also have a complicated relationship with food?

I don’t have an insecure romantic attachment style, but I do have a weird relationship with food, made more strange by the fact that it’s apart of my professional acumen today. 

Some people grow up in households with mediocre meals, where a primary caregiver made overboiled brussels sprouts served with a well-done, leathery pork chop with a Capri-Sun to drink. Their motivation, if they are into food or cooking now, might be remedial — to make up for 18 years of joyless food.

I grew up in a household of people obsessed with food. Good food. Foodie food. White European-centric, rustic, Italian/Spanish/Mexican/California home cooking.

Caregivers awakened to the gospel of Julia Child and Alice Waters, we made frequent Sunday morning farmer’s market trips. Creamy brie and Chardonnay was snacked on while cooking. Heirloom tomatoes and basil were grown in the garden, harvested in the summertime, and drizzled with rich olive oil and good balsamic. We weren’t super rich - privileged yes, 1% no - food and cooking was just the priority, the main hobby, the thing that time and money was invested in. 

My motivation for writing about the world through the lens of food and sharing recipes comes from this abundance, but lately it has felt more loaded.

In this same environment of abundance, there was a flip side of restriction. I grew up in a household of people obsessed with calories, fat, carbs, and staying slim. My diet starts tomorrow. I just need to lose 20 pounds.

Half Jacques Pepin, half Jenny Craig. 

It was the 90s in LA, so carbs were good and fat was bad. Being curvy wasn’t cool yet and body positivity wasn’t a thing. A woman’s value was absolutely tied to her dress size. 

I was in the kitchen, cooking, by age 12. Soft-scrambled eggs on sourdough. Artichokes with aioli. Ina Garten and Giada de Laurentiis were my Saturday morning cartoons. 

I was also 5’8” by age 12. I wasn’t fat, I just developed early, but to a young brain, those are the same thing. I remember in 7th grade when other girls said they were going on a diet, and my internal narrator breathed a sigh of relief, that my desire to lose weight was finally normal. 

The food we ate at home flipped between indulgent and ascetic. Diet thinking loomed over every delicious meal. Crispy risotto cakes with flattened chicken with baby greens, but then HMR 90 chocolate meal replacement shakes. Simmered pork shoulder with figs, prunes, olives, and wild rice, but then Weight Watchers Saturday morning weigh-ins. Braised lamb shanks with olive-oil roasted potatoes, but side-eye looks of, are you sure you want to eat that?

In college and my 20s, I would save up my tips from being an expeditor at a gastropub in downtown Seattle to go to a tasting-course meal at the newest Ethan Stowell restaurant, but then promptly do a 7-day slimdown. I used to say, almost proudly, that my hobby was dieting.

And now, I wrestle with this dichotomy of indulgence and restriction in how food gets talked about, recipes get marketed, and an audience is built.

The lowest hanging fruit to grow as a food blogger? Diet food. People on a diet are desperate for content. “Wellness” food is the self-help pyramid scheme of food blogging. Although I intellectually know that diets don’t work and the body is fine, neutral, good, just stop trying to be thin it’s never going to happen, I often relapse into the comfort of dieting and counting calories, and for a moment, consider rebranding as a keto blogger, or a whole30 blogger, or a vegan blogger.

But then I spiral into self loathing for considering this quackery and try to return to a focus on simple food. Neutral food. Just regular food, dinner made in 30 minutes, nothing fancy, nothing boring either. But roasted salmon and rice or yogurt with fruit and the regular food I cook 90% of the time don’t rank well for SEO, unless you have the domain authority of New York Times Cooking. 

I then get bored by the plainness of it all, and think, I can differentiate by making “indulgent,” lush, restaurant-quality food at home - the crispy risotto cakes and braised lamb shanks and butter/shallot/herbs of my youth and of my id. Or, should I lean into my hypebeast adventurism and post about the latest katsu sandwich/custard ice cream/thin-crust Neapolitan pizza drizzled with spicy honey? Cheat day eats. For the gram, right?  

Indulgence, asceticism, boredom, repeat. 

This is not a story asking for pity. I’m not trying to create some manufactured oppression to justify my existence as an amateur writer. I really don’t want to be one of those white women who talk about diet culture as if it’s their primary antagonist and the tension driving forward the narrative of their life.

But if you see me posting recipes less often on my blog, it’s because creating recipes that are neither diet-focused nor indulgence-centric is still something I’m working on and working towards.

Working in food is an identity. It’s a career. Food is a balm. It’s a source of pleasure. It’s tied to the primordial relationships that carved our neural pathways. It’s a biological necessity. 

But it’s bizarre that the thing that gives us so much pleasure and joy can also cause so much anxiety. And that it can also cause health issues. 

Maybe that’s why people who work in food are drawn to it. It’s like swiping your finger through the top of a candle flame. Just enough, and dopamine rushes through your brain, and life is worth living. Too much, and there is a matrix of consequences — personally, societally, medically, that then becomes a *thing* one has to choose to engage with, or not.

My personal goal is to find the middle ground with how I write recipe content, refusing to play into the tropes or restriction or indulgence, the same way I am still trying to find the middle ground between an ascetic week of food followed by a “cheat” weekend.

Truce? Truce.