Diarrhea. It’s probably not the first word you’d expect to read on a site that celebrates food, but I do hope—for the sake of your appetite and my now questionable credibility—it will be the last. You see, diarrhea—I mean, crap, ah…(another term I should probably avoid)—the dreaded “D-word” is the very foundation of my life’s story. And while its sights, sounds, and smells can rattle any iron-clad stomach, the unwelcome condition has been a constant for as long as I remember, like a favorite sweater or that depressing AF Sarah McLachlan song set to crying puppies in animal shelters.
Let’s begin by analyzing a #TBT of the forehead acne-ridden years of my youth. What you’ll see is a boy, hair spiked like a triceratops, tucked into the driver’s seat of a sporty green Mitsubishi Eclipse. This high schooler, despite a tragic choice in drugstore pomade, appears to be an overall healthy and happy teenager, but after three minutes of driving, he’ll have to turn into a restaurant parking lot, hobble towards the restroom, and relieve himself from the cramps that have consumed his body.
On the way out, intestines emptied and mood elevated, he’ll order a small fry and vanilla milkshake to go, because he knows there’s no chance of suffering through another Mount Vesuvius for at least five hours.
Without even realizing it, these were the moments that would shape my relationship (and obsession) with food, which is ironic considering it was food itself that typically inflicted these morning “moments” to begin with.
What started as frequent trips to Burger King evolved into an excuse to visit other restaurant bathrooms and enjoy cuisine that was not typically part of my bland, everyday diet; the Perkins for a slice of homemade chocolate silk pie, the Publix for rainbows of French-inspired pastries, and even a gas station for an umami-bomb breakfast wrap with pulled pork (I think), congealed Parmesan, and sauce that could only be identified by its color: pink.
Sure, these indulgences were not necessarily “gourmet,” but they varied in flavor, texture, and experience, enjoyed without the fear of crippling stomach pain followed by that all-too-familiar use of off-brand toilet paper. (You know, the type that moonlights as sandpaper.) This morning routine, though horribly inconvenient and undoubtedly depressing, morphed into something positive by expanding my culinary horizons beyond the Life cereal, string cheese, and mom’s George Foreman chicken that filled my daily food pyramid. But as these tastes and cravings matured, so did my gastrointestinal issues.
Two colonoscopies, one premature colitis diagnosis, and bouts of inflammation later, I was ultimately cleared from having anything “life-threatening,” which—while certainly a “blessing” or any other church-related word that never appears in my vernacular—still prohibited me from gorging on those special foods I grew to love. There simply wasn’t a medication beyond half a bottle of Pepto-Bismol that proved effective and even that, quite frankly, didn’t always plug the pipes.
College didn’t help as the anxiety of overcrowded lecture halls, being the world’s biggest closet case, and pointless essays on plant reproduction induced even more “moments,” or what my friends and I would affectionately dub as “colitis attacks.” Stomach sufferers know all too well that stress only breeds more stomach problems and, as a way to combat the overworked circuit of my brain, my diet had reached pumpkin spice latte levels of basic. (I seriously challenge anyone to nosh on Greek yogurt every day for four years straight and tell me breakfast isn’t the most awful idea ever. If the white stuff isn’t now masked under a pile of nut butter, seeds, and Stevia, you may as well be serving me cold Elmer’s glue. And even that sounds more appetizing because I’m pretty sure I enjoyed the taste of it in kindergarten.)
To counter the days of monotonous repetition and an undisturbed palate, I’d eventually plan Friday ventures into town and treat myself to over-the-top restaurant dinners. This passion to “cheat,” if only for one night a week, always made the inevitable aftermath at least slightly manageable. From curries and spicy broths to custards and cured meats, my body craved the oils, salts, and animal fats in which it was deprived. In fact, inspired chef creations became the antithesis to packaged foods with embarrassingly high carbohydrate counts, and I embraced a mission to reward seven days’ worth of “safe” eating by messing it all up again.
What I had to accept, in the process, was this idea that the mere act of eating more adventurous foods (adventurous being something as simple as “fried”) may be taken for granted by most humans, but would require a great deal of preparation—mentally before and physically after—on my part. I would no longer be able to bank on an empty stomach, the result of a morning high school commute, to eat the foods I adored. Instead, I reached a point where I would need to face these “attacks” head-on if I ever wanted to munch around them.
It took some time, some close calls that made me question the permanent use of Depends, but I eventually found a rhythm that worked for me. Sometimes this required fasting before a larger meal, eschewing my beloved Pinot Noir, or ensuring a restaurant boasted marble-clad facilities for pooping peace of mind. I did whatever it took to make my body feel comfortable and focus its efforts entirely on digesting without interference. Were these rituals perfect? No, but they finally put me in a position where I was able to enjoy special dining experiences without thinking *too* much about how my entree would look coming out.
Flash forward to eight years later and I continue to enforce this pre-eating routine today, except now it’s more of a fleeting thought and not so much the result of meticulous planning. I’m more reactionary instead of proactive, despite my role as a food editor, which has amplified the intensity of sampling so many types of new and unfamiliar cooking. And yet, I’ve still managed to never take a single bite for granted (much to my waistline’s dismay), as I know that enjoying a delicacy will require me to sacrifice just a little bit of energy, a little bit of my mood, and a little bit of myself every single time.
But food—whether from a gas station or a Michelin-starred restaurant—will always be worth it for me. Like diarrhea (sorry), life is rushed and temporary, yet only the former should be flushed away.
Header image courtesy of Shutterstock.