How Cookbooks Helped Me Reconnect With Food

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Kendra Winchester

Contributing Editor

Kendra Winchester is a Contributing Editor for Book Riot where she writes about audiobooks and disability literature. She is also the Founder of Read Appalachia, which celebrates Appalachian literature and writing. Previously, Kendra co-founded and served as Executive Director for Reading Women, a podcast that gained an international following over its six-season run. In her off hours, you can find her writing on her Substack, Winchester Ave, and posting photos of her Corgis on Instagram and Twitter @kdwinchester.

Michael Pollan entered my reading life like a breath of fresh air. When I first discovered Michael Pollan, I didn’t have the greatest relationship with food. As a teenager, I found out that I was allergic to a long list of foods, including wheat, soy, and barley. Now, we have A LOT of gluten free options, but back in 2005, I literally had adults tell me that gluten didn’t exist and I was making it up. To find basic food replacements, my mom and I had to drive two hours to the nearest health food store to try to find safe things for me to eat.

At 22, I developed gastroparesis, a condition where your stomach can’t empty properly, adding a whole new list of things I couldn’t eat. Most people think of diets as a way to lose weight, but for me, diets were never about weight. They were about just finding food that didn’t make me sick. 

Over the years, I began to view food as a necessary, but mostly stress-inducing, part of my life. I found myself hating eating in front of other people since I couldn’t eat like a non-disabled person and faced unwelcome, personal questions about my diet.

For me, changing the way I viewed food didn’t happen in the kitchen — it happened through books. The Omnivore’s Dilemma and Cooked by Michael Pollan showed up at my library and I thought, “Sure, I’ll give these a shot.” 

In his books, the way Pollan talks about food radiates enthusiasm for the act of cooking and crafting a beautiful meal. The cook’s relationship with food isn’t about calories or various nutritional elements humans need to survive. It’s about cultivating a relationship, a deeper understanding, about what we are putting into our bodies and where that food comes from.

Pollan’s perspective of food changed my understanding of what food was and what food meant to me emotionally. Food holds a significant place in all human cultures, and when you can’t participate in potlucks, family dinners, or even eating out with friends, parts of culture become closed off to you.

But thinking about food in a more holistic way sent me down a rabbit trail of trying to learn more about the food I eat and what I could do to make my limited diet more interesting. Through Julia Child’s writing (especially My Life in France), I learned how to layer flavor in a stew, so even when I couldn’t eat much solid food, I could still experience a rich depth of flavor.

These ideas carried over to my gluten-free, dairy-free, refined sugar–free Friendsgivings, my dairy-free version of tomato soup, and my obsession with my three ingredient pumpkin smoothies (pumpkin, almond milk, and pumpkin spice).

After a few years of exploring new recipes, I’d often find myself frustrated with the limited substitute options I found in cookbooks. There had to be an easier way to invent my own recipes. Naturally, Salt Fat Acid Heat by Samin Nosrat felt like a revelation. Nosrat explains WHY we salt meat when we do and why a stew builds flavor when we take certain steps. Instead of asking me to imitate her recipes, Nosrat encouraged me to be the best cook I could be and to embrace my own style of creating delicious meals.

I began writing out my recipes in a notebook, adjusting as I made each recipe over and over again trying to perfect my favorite recipes, like spicy lemon lentils and chicken. As I spent a year and a half just cooking lentil dishes over and over and over again, I realized I’d reached a new level of bliss.

Of course, I still felt awkward when I’d meet friends for drinks or attend book club and I’d be the only person not eating. But overall, I felt like I’d fallen in love with food again. Now, I have two overflowing double-stacked bookshelves just of books about food and cooking. Every time I look at all of the resources I’ve collected, I’m reminded about how much progress I’ve made.

Earlier this year, I interviewed Julia Turshen for her latest cookbook, Simply Julia, and I found myself gushing about lentils and lemons, and we had such a lovely conversation about how beans are one of the most perfect ingredients. Leaving that conversation, I realized it was one of the first conversations I’d had in years where I didn’t feel lost, unable to participate in a conversation about food because I had such a restricted diet.

For me, reclaiming food meant focusing on healthy eating, focusing on better understanding the food I eat and where it comes from. It’s not about losing weight, counting calories, or adding up grams of carbs. It was about coming to food with love and appreciation, taking joy in the food I could eat and refusing to let anyone make me feel bad about what I couldn’t.