A Million Meals

Caring for children in today's confusing food environment

Sympathy for the Sensitive Stomached

How I'm learning to understand the chronically worried eater.

One of my principal traits has always been my... let's call it willingness to eat almost anything and everything (rather than, say, greed). I've been known to choose my friends based in part on their sharing this trait—from the college friendships sealed over roast-beef hoagies consumed after midnight to the regular all-female, fondue dinner where we put away amounts of meat, cheese, bread and oil that would kill some women merely to imagine, food has generally been a big part of my friendships. My husband laughs at how often I burn my mouth because I'm too impatient to let the food cool to a reasonably lukewarm temperature.

I've always been mystified by friends who profess their disinterest in food; I believe them, but I can't understand how anyone would truly prefer a nutritional supplement to a delicious dish. And my annoyance at the increasingly popular belief in our bodies' "toxicity" has always been framed by my near-sacred worship of food. As long as we're keeping truly toxic, chemical ingredients and over-processed fake food out of our bodies, I've always trusted in the wisdom of omnivory and the human body's ability to do what it's meant to do. This bedrock credo of mine is showing some cracks. A series of troubling gastrointestinal episodes over the last six months have shaken me, and I find I'm suddenly seeing worried eaters and even the food-averse in a new light. When your body starts letting you down, food can become scary in a way I am finally beginning to understand.

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While I don't yet have a conclusive answer to what's been sending my digestive system off the rails, and don't want to share too many gory details, suffice it to say that nausea and severe stomach pain have become my too-frequent companions. A fainting spell was one bizarre episode, and I've spent days debilitated by these symptoms. While I'm working with my internist to try and deduce a medical cause and cure, I'm left to my own devices as far as diet. Having to focus for the first time not on what's merely delicious or nutritious but on what may or may not make me feel awful has been humbling. I find myself seeking magical foods that will return me to my old self. Is it fermented things? Probiotic-rich foods like yogurt? Should I cut back on meat, as my instinct dictated? Or is it the near-vegetarian diet of the last month that's left me weak and enervated? I detest the idea of taking a daily medication, but the painful heartburn that began after I stopped taking Prilosec turned my cherished run in the park into an agonizing slow walk instead.

Some of the things I've done to try and reset my poor digestive tract have backfired horribly, most notably the supposedly purifying beet-and-ginger soup I made recently. Amanda Hesser, the brilliant New York Times food editor, concocted this recipe as an antidote to the rich meals she regularly consumed as a food writer. It may have helped her, but one bowl sent me straight to bed feeling as if I'd been poisoned. As some quick, post-nausea Googling revealed, ginger promotes the production of bile—and this was apparently not the healing process I needed, but quite the opposite. I survived, but barely. So much for cleansing.

The internet reveals a host of fellow-sufferers, though I'm loathe to place myself permanently in their company, as this would seem to entail giving up all the things I love to eat most: spicy food, raw vegetables, dairy... I'm not ready yet to throw in the towel. But while I work on uncovering the root cause of all this trouble, I do feel obligated to offer up an apology to all those whose sensitive stomachs I've secretly doubted or even maligned. Clearly, there are foods, even perfectly good ones, that can make some of us sick; and as much as I hate to admit it, good food alone isn't the panacea I've always held it to be.

What I cooked this week and last:

Zanthe Taylor, M.F.A., is a former dramaturg and English teacher who is currently raising two daughters in Brooklyn, NY.

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