Ain’t no party like a self control party cause a self control party don’t exist

I’ve never had good self control. Much like everyone else, it’s very hard for me to resist instant gratification. I do well when there is some sort of reward for doing things that aren’t fun or interesting but need to be done. I procrastinate on tasks, like never-finished laundry, that don’t have an immediate reward or sense of accomplishment attached to finishing them. I prioritize tasks that I deem fun or important, sometimes to my own detriment. There is nothing special about this way of thinking, it’s just a matter of how it’s applied.

For a long time, I thought that the instant gratification of eating food was enough to justify eating it. I thought everyone ate when they weren’t hungry. I thought everyone felt searing guilt after eating, no matter what they ate or how much. I thought everyone planned their day around eating, and I thought everyone thought about their next meal as soon as the current one was over. I thought that mountains of self control and willpower were necessary in order to eat healthy food and exercise. I thought that people only lost weight with sheer will, and I thought I would never have enough to do it myself.

So when I am asked how I have such good self control around food and exercise, it’s hard for me to explain that I don’t. The way I eat now was earned through years of learning, forgiving my own setbacks, and having honest conversations with myself, and it’s hard to shrink that method down into a quick zinger. The explanation of the way I learned to approach eating sounds just as discouraging as telling someone to dig deep and find their self control. Everyone wants a fast track for weight loss, and since so many diet companies rely on that message to make money, it’s hard to offer a solution that takes practice, forgiveness, and compassion and doesn’t even offer guaranteed weight loss.

However, no diet program promises the peace of mind that comes from learning how to listen to yourself, and in the position I am now, I think that’s more important. By pretty much every standard, I’m still fat, but most of the time, I’m very happy with the way I live my life. I could be much thinner if I liked grueling workouts and eating skinless chicken, but I don’t enjoy either of those things. People who eat skinless chicken and grind it out in the gym everyday enjoy those things immensely, not because they have self control. They get some type of pleasure out of those things, otherwise they wouldn’t do them. I enjoy exercising, but I do it for the meditative aspect, rather than to get super cut. I eat skinless chicken if the recipe calls for it, but chicken skin isn’t something I think I need to avoid, so I will happily eat chicken wings or thighs the way they come naturally.

So how did I get here? Well, the thing that got me started was the book Health at Every Size. It was the first book I ever read that explained that my body always knew what it needed, and I had the natural ability to listen to those needs. I just had to relearn how to trust my own abilities. Armed with the faith that Linda Bacon had in me and with the information she bestowed upon me, I started treating each interaction with food as a learning experience.

I spent a lot of time and energy simply trying to figure out ways to parse out what my body was telling me. I had to relearn what hunger felt like and how to avoid eating when I wasn’t hungry. I had to learn how to pay attention to what my body and mind were actually telling me, rather than overriding those cues with impulsive decisions. The most effective action I took in those first couple months was keeping a pen and paper food diary for a few days. Food diaries rarely worked for me in the past, but this time, I wrote down what I was going to eat as well as how I felt before, during, and after eating.Taking the time to honestly write down the emotions that eating provoked in me led to an epiphany.

I found that without fail, before I ate, I always, always, always knew how I’d feel afterwards. Sometimes I had to really sit there and be honest with myself, but I knew when I would feel guilt, when I would feel pride, and after a couple days, it was essentially pointless for me to wait until I was done eating to write down how I felt during and after. I noticed that the times when guilt was imminent were the times when I wasn’t actually hungry before eating, or the times when I chose something that my body didn’t need. In fact, I found that before eating, I would beat myself up if either of those were the case. I knew I’d feel guilt afterward because I felt guilt before. Eating food I didn’t want or need was almost like a torture device I’d use on myself by saying the food tasted good, or that I wanted the food, or that I deserved it, when I knew none of those things were true. I knew that in actuality I wanted to be healthy, I wanted to be confident, and I wanted to be at peace. Treating myself this way achieved none of those things, but instead harmed my progress toward all three goals.

This exercise made me realize that if I already knew how food would make me feel after I ate it, all I had to do was pay attention to those feelings and react accordingly. If I knew that I would feel guilty after eating something, I wouldn’t eat it. If I knew I would feel happy or proud after eating something, I would eat it. For the first couple months, this became enough of a reward system that I ate more healthfully than I had in my whole life. I enjoyed the food I was eating because I enjoyed not feeling guilty. I congratulated myself every time I made a decision that agreed with my inner thoughts, and I congratulated myself every time I turned down something I knew would only make me upset. By using this inner barometer, for the first time, I was able to make choices that helped me lose weight without relying on self control.

This is not to say that this road is always easy. Sometimes, it actually hurts. I’ve cried a few times over the last few years, realizing that I either had to sit through this intense, ridiculous longing for a stupid fucking cheeseburger, or feel incredibly guilty after eating it. Those are the moments when I have to use self control or forgiveness, but luckily, those moments don’t happen that often. And no matter which path I choose, I feel like I’ve made progress in how I handle those situations. If I successfully avoid eating the cheeseburger, I feel like a superhero the next day. If I end up caving and eating the cheeseburger, I treat myself compassionately instead of beating myself up. I don’t use the situation as an excuse to also eat a tray of pizza rolls washed down with a soda. If I have a hard time with forgiving myself for my mistake, I try to earn the calories the next day with a harder workout or by eating more vegetables. I do this for my own peace of mind, rather than to punish myself, and that’s where I feel progress.

It should also be noted that this way of eating allows for unbelievable amounts of bliss when you can finally enjoy food without guilt. I think I will always remember the first time this happened to me a couple summers ago. I was on a break from work in downtown Seattle, and was pretty hungry. I didn’t want the my usual choices of a Larabar or an apple. No, this afternoon, I wanted a chocolate chip cookie. I was absolutely sure I wanted it. I wanted one of the monstrous 460 calorie ones from Specialty’s, and an iced mocha to boot. I ordered, and I stepped outside into the sunshine, mocha in one hand, cookie in the other. I sat in the sun and found that the cookie was in that beautiful stage between warm and cooled down where the dough is cool to the touch but the chocolate chips are still melty. I took a bite, closed my eyes, and enjoyed the moment. For a short moment, I expected guilt to step in and take it’s normal place in my mind, but because I trusted myself enough to know that this was exactly what I wanted, it never showed up. The cookie, the mocha, and I were alone, and I loved every second of it. I picked up my food and walked around in the sunshine, beaming, feeling like I’d finally figured it all out.

As you can see, it’s pretty hard to explain all this in passing. Every time my self control is pointed out, I wish I could explain where this all came from. I wish I had a way to present this as a viable option without having to say, okay, so you just read this book, and you confront yourself and your own feelings, and you kind of admit that you’re lying to yourself and then you try trusting yourself for a couple years and then you feel great almost all the time. I wish I could hand out a flyer that absolved people of their guilt, but I can’t. All I can do is tell you that this work is worth it. A couple years worth of energy spent on learning how to trust yourself might sound tough, but when it’s compared to decades of feeling guilty about pizza, boy let me tell you, those couple years are a walk in the park. And the pizza over here is so fucking good.

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An imperceptible passion

The other day, a prominent member of the food community, whose work I respect immensely, asked his Twitter followers if they would rather eat bad nachos or a bad hot dog. This sort of question is one of my favorite parts of talking about food. Who chooses the hot dog? Who chooses nachos? What is the reasoning behind their choice? And the root question I love to ponder: why is there such a wide range of choices and reasons? I love talking about food preferences, especially junk food preferences. I knew exactly what my answer was. I think about this stuff a lot.

Nachos are my jam. One of my favorite foods, probably. I like all versions of nachos, from decked out fancy ones to clear plastic ballpark trays full of semi-stale tortilla rounds and a compartment for nacho cheese. Hot dogs, I’m pretty lukewarm on. If I find a hot dog cart when I’m drunk, I’m down to eat one, but I’m never going to search one out. I’ve never craved a hot dog, but I’ve certainly craved nachos. I answered the poll, and I also tweeted, “though I will say I would also rather eat bad nachos than a good hot dog”.

He replied with “you haven’t had a good hot dog.”

This interaction left me feeling a little surprised and disappointed. It felt unnecessarily assumptive, like I was being weeded out of the very exclusive group of People Who Know What Tastes Good. There is no conceivable way to enjoy bad nachos more than a good hot dog. The hot dog was the correct answer and I was wrong.

The problem with that is that food preferences are never wrong. This interaction really cemented this idea for me. Preferences are not like knife skills or picking good produce. You learn preferences, but there is no correct set of preferences. There is no one way to appreciate food. Some people are more adventurous than others, some people believe they have a more refined palate than most. Regardless, the tastebuds of people with less refined palates and a love of simple foods are no less important. Loving shitty nachos doesn’t disqualify you from some Elite Food Smarty status. People know what tastes good to them, and respecting that is an important and exciting part of learning about food.

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There are probably a couple people reading this essay right now thinking, “But what about the strips, Erika? You’ve talked shit about people choosing chicken strips over fried chicken. I can find the posts, there are a lot of them.” To this I say, yeah, I was wrong. And I’ll assuredly be wrong again. Such is the curse of words existing forever on the internet. When I received that tweet, I realized how people who aren’t very interested in food must feel when they’re told their preferences are wrong, silly, immature, or fussy by someone who knows more about the subject. It wasn’t a pleasant feeling, and it made me want to discontinue the conversation altogether. I realized this was the exact opposite of how I wanted my readers and commenters to feel. I want conversations about food to be accessible to everyone. As a veritable spokesperson for food, especially food on the simpler end of the spectrum, I shouldn’t have told someone their preference was incorrect, no matter how delicious chicken skin is.

Though I now disagree with the way I approached it, I learned a lot about what people value in food from talking about strips versus skin. Someone who values chicken strips for their convenience and ease of eating will have different opinions about restaurants and meals than someone who loves messy, inconvenient, bone-in chicken because they get to have some chicken skin. Neither opinion is invalid or wrong, but each one gives insight into different overarching themes people look for in a food experience. Though I wax poetic about my specific food preferences, they are not gospel. When I say I have found one of the best cheeseburgers in Seattle, this does not apply to everyone. I have found one of my favorite cheeseburgers in Seattle, and at the very least, I think you will enjoy it too.

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A while back, I posted an essay about that cheeseburger. In that essay, I described the litany of reasons why I prefer shredded iceberg lettuce on my burgers. A friend commented on my Facebook politely disagreeing with me, which led to one of my favorite food conversations ever. We went back and forth for a bit about her reasoning before she said “…I think I just don’t like shredded lettuce. I am having more feelings than I anticipated.” She didn’t even anticipate her feelings about shredded lettuce, but they were at least as numerous and passionate as mine. Her own thoughts and feelings toward a pile of unremarkable roughage surprised her, and that is the coolest thing I’ve ever heard.

This is what makes the world of food so interesting to me. People have latent food thoughts and feelings that guide their decisions everyday. Our brains are quietly, almost involuntarily passionate about the subject, and I think there is nothing more fascinating. We’re all born with the same set up. We all have a tongue, covered in tastebuds. We all have to eat to live, but the spectrum of choices we’re able to make in a day is staggering. It is incredible to me that one person enjoys their coffee black while another loves five Splendas and a quarter cup of soy in theirs. I find it interesting that there’s one guy in my office who eats burgers for lunch, while another guy makes himself a fruit platter. I am intrigued by the idea that so many pizza toppings exist and everyone’s favorite is different. I love that every single person making every single food choice has a reason behind that choice, every single time.

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Even the staunchest anti-food person has well-thought out reasoning behind their preferences. A lack of preference is still a preference. Their thoughts about food, like everyone else’s, are informed by a lifetime of emotions, tastes, and memories. Some people look at their relationship with food as a journey, others have never needed to tend to their feelings about eating. Some people can’t afford more than three bowls of Top Ramen per day, others eat Wagyu steak for lunch. Some (like me!) care more about food than any other part of their day, others wish they didn’t have to bother with it at all. No matter your feelings toward food, they’re easily the most compelling part of what you’re eating. There is no subject more vastly relatable, no category further reaching. Everyone has a history, a set of beliefs, some dealbreakers, even if they’ve never given it a second thought. Isn’t that fucking cool?

Good company

Food is always made greater by good company. There isn’t a single dish that benefits from being eaten alone. Since starting this blog, regular meals have become occasions, and I’ve experienced the great fortune of having friends get excited about this little thing I’m doing here. When you share what you’re excited about, people become excited to experience that thing with you. People want in on whatever intoxicating bit of life you’ve found. When that bit of life is food, you get the chance to experience some great meals with some excellent people.

A friend I’d lost touch with reached out with a couple restaurant recommendations after reading my posts, and we decided to use one of her ideas as an reason to get together. At Some Random Bar in Belltown, glasses of limoncello cider and plates of nachos (both crab and brisket) were enjoyed on one of those perfect Seattle summer nights. The nachos were expertly crafted, piled high after being baked in a single layer for maximum chip coverage. The tortilla chips were either made in house or sourced from somewhere that does them well. Thick, but not too crunchy, able to hold a mound of crab and cheese without incident. The crab was the star of these nachos, but the supporting players all did their part to help it shine even brighter. A drizzle of cilantro pesto, a sprinkle of Aleppo pepper, and a giant pile of guacamole would all have been great without the crab, but with it, the nachos became greater than the sum of their parts.

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After an 85 degree day, the evening had cooled just enough, leaving a pleasantly warm breeze even after dark. The deck outside Some Random Bar sits on the street, and cars occasionally whip by fast enough to halt conversation for a second. We lingered over our meal, covering everything we’d missed over the last year and a half of losing touch.  We sat back with our glasses of (showstopping, not too sweet, slightly tart) limoncello cider. We made jokes with the next table while they had a bit of trouble taming their adorably mischievous puppy. We made a promise to keep in touch this time, to actually schedule that next meal, to use this blog to give us reasons to keep catching up. To cash in on this great city and enjoy the ridiculous meals it has to offer way more often.At Sisters and Brothers in Georgetown, my sister and I recovered from a (not really) near death experience at good old Wild Waves. Sitting in the sun at a picnic table, we chased away the roller coaster anxiety with a Rainier buzz, followed by Nashville hot chicken and waffles. A couple cold cans settled my nerves, and the meal revived them.

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Normally, I require my chicken to have skin, but Sisters and Brothers doesn’t fry real chicken until dinner, so strips it was. A damn good rendition, especially considering my disdain for skinless fried chicken. It was everything a strip should be: crispy, juicy, and easy to eat. The decision to only serve strips at brunch made more sense once I realize how convenient the execution was. Each bite had a perfect combo of crust, meat, waffle, butter, and syrup. The ease of eating this dish was only beaten by the easy flow of conversation.
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When you’ve been not only siblings, but also best friends for 26 years, sentences are rarely finished. The meaning behind each phrase is completely understood before all of the words can exit your mouth, and the next topic is already broached. The conversations I have with my sister are wildly efficient, and frankly, slightly annoying to anyone listening, but to me they feel easy and refreshing. To enjoy a meal alongside one of these conversations is one of my favorite things in life.A couple weeks later, I met a friend at Sisters and Brothers to buy some boots from her and shoot the shit. Like a pro, she offered to order something different than me and to split whatever we ordered so I could learn more about the menu. She ordered the braised pork sandwich with a side of fried green tomatoes, and finally I got skin-on fried chicken with a side of mac and cheese. The Genesee cream ale we ordered showed up in hilariously big 24 ounce cans and totally hit the spot. Armed with a buzz, we dissected the food in a methodical manner, taking bites and discussing what was in front of us.

The braised pork was the underdog winner, with a surprising amount of mustard seeds strewn throughout, giving each bite a crunchy pop. The meat was tender and well-seasoned, pairing well with the zucchini sauerkraut on the sandwich. Fried green tomatoes were addictive. Sour, crunchy, and the only thing we thought about ordering more of. The chicken and mac and cheese were exactly what they should be, the former having an intensely crunchy crust, the latter having a fantastically creamy sauce. The meal was well done, a good way to spend a Tuesday night, but the conversation was what made that trip to Georgetown worth it.

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My friend took it upon herself to meet me at my level. She was excited about the experience of having a meal for the sake of the blog, which fed my already heightened excitement about food. Our conversation twisted and turned around food, starting with what we ordered that evening and quickly turning into a recap of our respective food histories. I learned about what it was like to grow up in the South and what food meant to her family specifically. I learned about manners and traditions in the South, and about Beach Road fried chicken. This meal gave us the opportunity to share where we came from and why we are who we are, which is one of my favorite things about sharing a meal with a friend.

I talk about the taste and experience of actually eating food more than anything else, and for good reason. Eating food is one of the great experiences we are afforded in this life. But man, there is nothing better than sitting down to a meal and having a great time with the person across from you. The greatest thing about food is that it brings us together. It gives us a reason to meet, a reason to sit down for an hour or two and just enjoy life. It punctuates our day with tiny vacations, glimpses into the good things that make the slog worthwhile. I get excited about food for the act of eating it, but these meals have reminded me about getting excited for the experience surrounding it.