The Broccoli Redemption

You know when you discover a way to prepare one particular green veggie that makes you want to eat more of it, and that discovery suddenly makes other healthy behaviors fall in line behind it with the elegance of a Domino chain?

I love when that happens!

Such a happy event occurred several weeks ago. In January I had decided that my sole focus of 2015 would be on establishing healthy eating and exercise programs and maintain them as permanent modifications for the sake of my strength, overall health, and independence as a person with MS who is living alone.

First, I resolved to eat multiple servings of fresh veggies and fruit, chicken and salmon every day, and other forms of protein and good fats such as eggs, cottage cheese, plain yogurt, and raw nuts. As of this writing, I’ve eliminated most starch and sugar, but the hardest one to deny myself is starch. I snack on sourdough pretzels, sugar-free Werther’s hard coffee carmels and sugar-free Voortman’s almonette cookies. Fruit is easy, I enjoy clementines and gala apples. My big problem at the outset, however, was how to make myself eat veggies many times a day. I do like cauliflower and carrots, peppers and green beans and lots of others, but five or six servings per day, every day, for the rest of my life? Eck. The idea of drinking my veggies and fruits in a smoothie only appeals to me in terms of a temporary weight loss program where I’m drinking the majority of my calories every day for a set period of time. I want to find a way to cook, masticate and then swallow them.

I consulted a nutrition expert (my sister, Dana) as well as various online resources for the most nutritionally dense veggies that I could stomach. Kale is very popular right now as a “super food,” but frankly, I don’t care for it. I’ve tried eating it raw in a salad, sautéing it, and boiling it, but it’s limp and tasteless and I’ve given up pretending it could work for me in some form. I do like its cousins, cabbage and Brussels sprouts, but they tend to be watery. Asparagus I adore but it’s expensive and kind of a waste since I only eat the tops.

And then, one day, an old familiar veggie found its way to my cutting board.  We called it “trees” in my youth. Broccoli! I’d snap off a sprig and make a Barbie “back-to-nature” diorama with it when I was too young yet to realize she was ruining my feminine self-concept with her unrealistic measurements. During the sixties, all I knew was that she had a cool car and clothes, and broccoli was just the right scale to serve as shrubbery for the grounds of my impeccably landscaped Barbie mansion.  Light years ahead of my peers, I discovered early how well broccoli lent itself to French-inspired topiary. Ten years after that, the Chia pets craze didn’t hold a candle to my childhood vegetable menagerie. More important, Chia pets couldn’t have made the Sun King, Louis XIV, weep with admiration and envy, let alone demand an installation in the Marqueyssac Gardens of Dordogne.  My broccoli Schnauzer had at least a fighting chance.

Now, fifty years later, I am staring at a broccoli head on my deceased mother’s wooden cutting board and grasping a guillotine-sharp knife above it with both hands, ready to make a clean cut. Despite the richly layered context of this moment: memories evoked by the Barbie shrubbery, and by mom’s Pennsylvania Dutch hand-painted cutting board personalized with her name, “Nancy,” by her artist sister-in-law. Slicing through the haze of sentiment that would normally smear my vision with tears, however, is a louder voice from within: Eat it raw to gain the most nutritional benefit.

A raw foods mantra has displaced my lament of youth lost, of splendor in the grass, of the love with which my cup runneth over? To better express the wonder of life’s rich pageant, I earned an English degree only to parrot a twentieth century chestnut about uncooked veggies? Has my vanity outdistanced my depth? That’s the thing most lamentable about my youth. I cared not one wit about food, only the compulsion to retreat to the fantasy world of my books. Now, I have to care about food. My aging cells are replicating about as efficiently as a 1968 Xerox machine that was last serviced before the end of the Viet Nam war. To better maintain my health and weight, I must ingest high octane super food to prop up those ever-shortening telomeres. And though I am loathe to embarrassing every chili dog and humiliating every French fry, I am also, after all, a newly-indoctrinated member of the Belittlement of Empty Calorie Healthkillers, or BLECH.  It is time to bid adieu to recreational eating.

Still, I don’t much care for raw broccoli. While I mused over how to make cooked broccoli more palatable, I took a chicken breast out of the refrigerator where it had been marinating overnight in lemon juice and soy sauce. An epiphany happened at precisely the same moment the chicken hit the fry pan: simmer the broccoli in the marinade!

This is where it all came together for me. An infusion of lemon juice enhances any veggie, fruit, fish or fowl. Soy sauce adds a salty, meaty heft. Now my breakfast consists of broccoli, mashed cauliflower (which tastes exactly like mashed potatoes), carrots, and a Clementine. It’s very tasty, so much so that I’m now considering going vegetarian.

Yes, it is a happy ending. Except for one thing. I have to take two kinds of digestive enzymes to tolerate the gassy assault of these veggies on my digestive tract. Though these pills greatly diminish the gut-ripping gas pains I would normally endure an hour after eating, the kind that register as a ten on the pain scale, the kind that doubles me over and makes me bargain with Yahweh about alms and prayers if only He would take away the pain and explosive diarrhea, they don’t bring total relief. I am still plagued by uncontrollable flatulence, which makes me very nervous to go out in public. I may have to visit my doctor about this issue. Does it never end?

Eating healthy has made me feel proud of my more sensible choices. Eating a cookie with real sugar after weeks of eating sugar substitutes was a surprisingly unpleasant experience. It coated my teeth and tongue for hours afterwards. And eating an egg cooked with real butter after using butter substitute made it taste gamey and heavy. I discovered that eliminating animal fat and processed sugar doesn’t have to feel like a deprivation if we can find a tasty alternative.

So here’s to better health through sensible eating. I hope we can all find a happy medium this year as we strive to take better care of ourselves while managing the MS monkey on our backs.

My next essay will discuss the new exercise program I added after establishing healthier food choices. I hope you'll stay with me as I describe how the Domino Effect continues on its meandering course toward a better quality of life. Until then, I hope you are as well as your last good day, or at least better than the last bad one!

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