Ask any of my friends: I can cook like a cross between Julia Child and McGyver, amped-up like the Tasmanian Devil and pelted with matzo balls. I am a machine in the kitchen.
I wasn’t always this way. Newlywed, my husband and I subsisted on tortilla chips and cheddar cheese. Even as a new mom, I could be lazy. My first child ate anything I gave her, her mouth open in anticipation and her little legs swinging as they dangled under her seat at the table. Her face almost unhinged itself to accept the largest possible portions of everything from oatmeal to mashed avocado to nibbles of raw onion. Raw onion! And olives. And pickles. I congratulated myself, proud that my introduction of food – following Dr. Spock’s directions to the letter – went exactly as planned.
The second baby? Well, seasoned parents can see this coming. She was such a different story, so vastly different that I’d like to take that hand I used to pat myself on the back with baby #1 and wrench it down, jam it upward and make my smug former self cry uncle. Not only would my second baby not eat anything when I introduced it, but those early months of food refusal were followed with years of medical drama that almost always carried with it some kind of medically-required dietary restriction.
That was when I made the transformation from we’ll-just-have-pasta-and-vegetables-again to Mad Scientist Kitchen Badass, born to fight round after round of food battles and emerge victorious.
Round one came with my younger daughter’s first major surgery, after which she dropped half a pound from her already failed-to-thrive little body. Every other week, I had to take her back to the doctor for a weight check. We had a deadline and a weight goal, and if we didn’t meet that goal, she’d have a feeding tube inserted. I wasn’t going to let that happen, and so I hit the Internet with a request: “fattiest foods for babies and toddlers.”
I learned to make cereal with half-and-half. I learned exactly which knife to use to slice m&m’s in half for her narrow esophagus. I learned how to leave the room when my husband discovered that she liked to eat margarine on a spoon; it turned out that gagging was the biggest weakness of the Mad Scientist Kitchen Badass. Most importantly, though, I learned about the superweapon at my disposal: extra virgin coconut oil.
At room temperature, extra virgin coconut oil is slightly thicker than Vaseline. Warmed even slightly, it is like olive oil. Dropped into a bowl of soup or mixed into warmed blueberries, it simply disappears. It has 125 calories and 14 grams of fat per tablespoon.
I wore a jar of extra virgin coconut oil on a belt around my waist until she made that weight goal.
Round two was an elimination diet for a disease no one but we could pronounce, an esophageal disorder that required her to eliminate and slowly reintroduce dairy, egg, soy, nuts and wheat from her already-vegetarian diet, beginning a month before her fifth birthday.
Even badasses have a low-superpower day. I carried baskets of newly-poisonous food from our pantry out to my car to give away to friends, stopping to occasionally smash a jar of something I loved onto the ground in frustration. But then I raised my powerful badass arms to the sky, gathered energy from my jar of extra virgin coconut oil, and got cooking again.
I learned when to use brown rice flour and when to use amaranth. I learned about the variety of substances with neither dairy nor soy nor nuts that could pass for “cheese.” I located, in a secret undisclosed location, a source of sunflower seeds that had never even heard of cross-contamination with peanuts, and I used them to make my own version of a chocolate “nut” spread for our amaranth bread.
I made a fifth birthday cake out of gluten-free rice cereal and marshmallows, with frosting made out of seven hundred bizarre ingredients plus blue food coloring.
I collected roughly forty different recipes for lentils. I slid a bag of lentils into my belt alongside the coconut oil.
I cooked the heck out of that year-long diet. I invented and I read and I kept her alive through the sheer power of my pots and pans and my stubborn resistance to the elemental formula she’d have to drink if I didn’t get this right. Hands on hips, Mad Scientist Kitchen Badass stared down that diet until it submitted to the force of her will.
Round 3 was the hardest. I was tired. I was supposed to be done with this, but the next big surgery, shortly before my daughter’s ninth birthday, included an almost-certain nicking of the ducts in her chest that process dietary fat. The good news was that they’d heal on their own. The bad news was that she’d have to avoid eating any fat for at least six weeks. I’d cooked without lots of things, but fat sure wasn’t one of them.
Tofu has 5.6 grams of fat per serving. No tofu.
Chickpeas have 2.5 grams of fat per serving. No chickpeas.
Popcorn – air-popped popcorn – has 1 gram of fat per serving. NO POPCORN.
This was, by far, the greatest challenge Mad Scientist Kitchen Badass had ever faced. My trusty extra virgin coconut oil (14 grams of fat per serving!) had become a villain, and I was nearly crushed under the weight of all that weightless food: the rice cakes, the fruit, the Snackwells cookies.
In the end, I had to ally myself briefly with former enemies: the Diet Squad. They arrived on the scene, slim and pale, with every Weight Watchers cookbook they had, surprised and looking guilty when I pointed out the unacceptable sprays of olive oil or the slices of avocado atop their salads. Still, the steamed apple fritters and meringue cookies were worth the heartache of that short-lived alliance. I flexed new muscles and discovered fat-free versions of sour cream, yogurt, and a rubbery cheese that made me shudder but seemed to suit my daughter just fine.
And then, all at once, I remembered sushi. Racing to the internet to research the fat content of Tamanishiki short grain rice (eureka! 0 grams!), I was already de-fatting our usual vegetable roll innards in my head. Cut the avocado and just use cucumber; make the tamago egg mixture with just whites; fat-free cream cheese and tomato would be indistinguishable from full-fat with enough soy sauce. With a wave of my magic spatula, I declared Friday night Sabbath dinners during that six week diet to be dubbed “Sushi Movie Shabbos,” a weekly event of family-style sushi-making followed by a movie.
Had Mad Scientist Kitchen Badass made one mistake during that diet, that mistake would have traveled out of my daughter’s digestive system and into the leaking ducts in her chest, filling the cavity around her lungs and requiring emergency surgery.
Thankfully, Mad Scientist Kitchen Badass doesn’t make mistakes. It’s not allowed. Badasses have a reputation to uphold, and this badass had a child to keep alive.
My inner badass is on hiatus these days. I recently bought a box of brownie mix, whatever brand was on sale at the grocery store, and everyone in my house loved the way it turned out. One bowl, one spoon, one pan, no calculations, no coconut oil required.
I loosened my badass belt, and I leaned back as my daughter cut herself another piece.
Debi Lewis is the mother of two daughters and blogs regularly at http://www.swallowmysunshine.com. You can find her essays at Brain, Child Magazine; RoleReboot; Mamalode; The Mighty; Scary Mommy, ChicagoNow and more. She is currently at work on a memoir about her younger daughter’s journey through medical mystery. Follow her on twitter @growthesunshine.