Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Amish Like Me

Do you want to know the bizarre thing about my Eating Disorder? Despite the anorexia and purging, I love food. I eagerly await the monthly arrival of Bon Appetit or La Cucina Italiana, scour their recipes, rehearse menus, imagine baking a chocolate-coconut macaroon torte or cooking tagliatelle all’uovo con pepperoni rossi (doesn’t everything taste better in Italian?). We have a cupboard crammed with cookbooks, from the practical (the go-to-for-brownies The Silver Palate, Mark Bittman’s How To Cook Everything, and an outdated Joy of Cooking), to the impractical (Larousse’s Gastronomique in French, The Greek Culinary Tradition in Greek, and The Zucchini Cookbook in Zucchineese). There’s usually a stack of these cookbooks on my bedside table; I read myself into an ecstatic sleepy, stupor (yes, the dichotomy is true), dreaming about mini madeleines con panna cotta e miele, pâté de lapin, kotópoulo me syka.

And then there is Christopher who is a fabulous, locally celebrated cook who thinks nothing of kneading up sourdough bread (from a 7 year old starter he smuggled back from Greece),or rolling out fresh lasagna noodles on a Tuesday night, or firing up the wood-burning pizza oven he had built for his 40th birthday and slinging out two dozen pies for an evening with friends.

Even though it all so often tastes like dust in my mouth, even though a bite can feel like a concrete block going down, even though the calculator in my head compulsively counts calories, even though I always fight the urge to skip meals and to purge, I still love food. I just don’t want to eat it.

Or, I should say, IT doesn’t want me to eat; IT wants me to diminish, dwindle, and disappear. The sensual pleasure we all associate with good food—a buttery pastry crust, the prickly tang of Roquefort, dark chocolate ganache sliding over the tongue—that pleasure only lasts for one, maybe two bites. After that, IT starts demanding self-abnegation and austerity. IT would be happy if I renounced the world in favor of solitary cloister in some dank stone hut with a hard rusk of bread, sour wine, and a wormy rind of cheese.

ITs reductive meal stands in sharp contrast to the ½ bushel of organic produce we receive every Friday. Here’s the irony: my husband and I help manage a CSA (Community Sponsored Agriculture Cooperative) which is farmed by our good friends, an Amish family, headed up by the wise, long-bearded patriarch, David, who is, on the one hand, a conservative, devout man of God, and on the other, a radical farmer who reads Thoreau and Michael Pollan, supplies produce to the Whole Foods down in Pittsburgh, and feeds us. Each week, thirty-five families come to our garage to pick up the harvest. And in the box? It’s early in the growing season, but this week our box contained baby arugula, red Russian kale, mixed salad greens, potatoes, radishes, a dozen fresh eggs, maple syrup, and homemade wheat bread and soup noodles. In the summer and fall, the box overflows with strawberries, tomatoes, eggplants, cucumbers, peppers, cabbage, watermelon, cantaloupe, squash, beets, and corn and…and…and. All of it organic. Each week, Christopher writes up a newsletter with recipes (all of which have made their way into our local Market House cookbook).

A few years ago, my parents and I went out to David’s farm for their yearly visit, and all of David’s seven kids came out to greet us. David’s eldest daughter, who I’ll call MaryAnne, had always been extremely reclusive (she usually ran and hid in her bedroom or was almost neurotically taciturn) and a good deal overweight, but that didn’t seem unusual to me. Many of the Amish women I’ve come in contact with were similarly inclined. But this time around? She was, well, from what I could tell in her ankle-length dress, extremely thin, and she chattered and giggled non-stop with my Mom who said, “You look wonderful! How did you lose the weight?” My mom, who is very direct (and often out scouting for new diets), wasted no time getting to the heart of the matter. I, however, was horrified, afraid she’d crossed some English-Amish boundary.

But MaryAnne just laughed and said, “Oh, I’ve been doing Atkins. No carbs at all.” (If you know the Amish, carbohydrates are often the center of a meal. Bread, potatoes, pie: the holy trinity.) She went on at great, speedy length about her dieting techniques, about skipping meals, about hiding out in her room when meals were served. All of this floored me.

An Amish woman concerned with body image? I mean—and here my dumb, English, naïve self stumbles in—basically Amish women tended house and had babies, a lot of babies, and they were covered up, head to ankle, and never looked in mirrors or stepped on a scale or suffered the torture of bathing suit season. Why would MaryAnne feel compelled to lose weight? (I also hadn’t considered that she was of marriageable age and would be worried about the way prospective suitors would see her, or more importantly, how she would see herself as she undressed by candlelight. You don’t need a mirror to see a body that you loathe. Just look down, or run a hand across your stomach, or pinch the flesh at your side. Even an Amish woman might wish to transfigure that body.)

A few months later in July, Christopher went out to the farm with the kids. While my daughter and son jumped on the trampoline and chased chickens, Christopher and David chatted about CSA business, and then David asked, “Where’s Kerry?”

Christopher took a deep breath and explained about the Bipolar and Eating Disorders and how they had ravaged me, how I had tried to die and wound up in the ICU, and that I was now in a hospital in Arizona receiving treatment, trying to get better.

“Oh, Christopher, I’m so sorry to hear that. You know, MaryAnne has Bipolar Disorder and an Eating Disorder, too. It’s been a real struggle for her and the family,” David said. “But she’s getting help. There’s a company on the internet that sells vitamin and mineral supplements that are supposed to help with the Bipolar. You might want to look into it.” (This is what I love about David: he runs his electric typewriter and chest freezer off propane, and yet he is hip to online alternative treatments for mental illness! He is a wonderful study in flexible contradictions.)

So it’s possible to develop an Eating Disorder even at the source of all that good food. And the Bipolar disorder isn’t merely the result of nurture; hence it isn’t MY FAULT (IT wants me to believe this which then sets up the self-injury, the cycles of self-punishment, the belief that I JUST NEED TO GET MY SHIT TOGETHER). It is also a result of nature. If the Amish farmer’s daughter can have an Eating Disorder and Bipolar Disorder, even after living inside a family filled with love, even after being sheltered from the stress and chaos of the modern world, then almost anyone can develop these democratic diseases. Me, for example. And in the right circumstances with the right line-up of genes, you, too.


  1. Just wanted to give you hugs, Kerry! I can't imagine having to live every day dealing with those disorders, and I compliment your honesty and forthrightness in dealing with them. It is interesting to see that it doesn't matter the background, these are conditions that can attack at will, and often do. So more hugs and keep fighting the good fight. :)

  2. Wow. This is fascinating. Fascinating. I am glad you are getting help. I live in Pennsylvania as well. Outside of Philly. Your story makes me sad.

  3. I know this is older, but I found this completely fascinating... Recently Renfrew paid for some study to look into possible causal links between those that wear makeup and those that have eating disorders (stating those more likely to wear makeup were more likely to develop and/or have eating disorders.... no I'm not joking)... and I was thinking about things, reading blogs with other opinions, and it left me searching eating disorders and Amish. Which brought me here.