2012-12-11

How I Learned The Value Of Cooking For Others

Last night I was the first one home from work by a long shot and, rather than let that head-start go to waste, I cooked dinner for the both of us. Now, it's not as though I never cook at home, but over the last couple of months, I have not been the primary cook in the house. So it was a refreshing change last night to eat something that I had prepared - not because I am an awesome cook, but simply because everyone who cooks has their own personal culinary idiosyncrasies, and I hadn't experienced mine for some time. I made salmon with baked potatoes and sauteed vegetables. I also stepped out of my usual rut and cooked everything in a different way than I usually do, using different seasonings and flavors for even more of a refreshing change of pace.

Like many people, I enjoy cooking. Unlike many people, I have type 1 diabetes. How does the latter impact the former?

I lived an entire lifetime without diabetes. I vividly remember what life was like for me before I became diabetic. I remember running for 30 miles or more at a time. I remember staying out late whenever I wanted to. I remember coming down with a cold and sleeping it off for a few hours, waking up almost fully recovered. These things aren't long-gone imprints I have of a distant childhood, they are memories from a few short years ago. They are the way I lived my life for three decades. I had a whole system that worked well for me. I had a good routine, a healthy lifestyle, and a body that not only worked well, it worked well above average.

I knew a few type 1 diabetics before I had diabetes. A couple of them were older women, distant relatives in my family, very nice ladies. One of the earliest memories I have of both of them is that, for as long as I can remember, they loved to bake. They would bake cakes and pies and treats of all kind, and then give them away to others, since they themselves could not eat them. I always used to wonder why they did this. I remember asking my mother about this once when I was a child, and she explained that baking treats for other people to enjoy was how these diabetic women liked to enjoy the treats. Because they could not eat sweets, they made them for others.

Frankly, this explanation perplexed me a great deal. When I acquired diabetes myself, I recalled all of this, and I must confess that I still did not understand the appeal. Eating sweets hurts. The better a person understands the human metabolism, the better a person understands that eating sweets hurts normal people about as much as it hurts me. I wouldn't wish that kind of injury on my worst enemies. Why on Earth are these women poisoning their friends with sugar?

In my former life, I was maybe a better cook than I am today. I specialized in Italian food, and I had a number of delicious dishes under my belt. I can cook an excellent risotto, and I am a bit of a pasta expert (who isn't, right?). I also managed a very passable curry, decent lentil soup, rice pilaf, slow-cooked barbecue, and so on. Look, I'm no Iron Chef, but I also didn't find it particularly difficult to cook good food that other people enjoyed eating. My cooking could and did genuinely impress others, when the occasion demanded it.

Not surprisingly, though, a lot of my really outstanding cooking came to an end with my diagnosis, because the food I most enjoyed cooking - and the food I cooked best - was high in carbohydrates and not appropriate for a diabetic's diet. My family was a great help here. They sent me some diabetic cook books and helped point me to new delicacies, lower in carbohydrates. (Perhaps one day I should discuss diabetic cook books in greater detail. I have some strong opinions there in terms of what makes sense and what doesn't, within the diabetic cook book genre.) As time has passed along, I have grown into a new kind of diet, consisting of mostly low-glycemic-index foods that my body can handle a little better than a pile of pasta or a plate heaped with rice.

Nonetheless, when you host a dinner party, etiquette demands that you not force your guests to eat like a diabetic. Most people prefer eating more indulgent foods at parties, especially the people I know. Therefore, from time to time, I have been called on to revive my former cooking habits and prepare carb-heavy meals for other people. This typically involves cooking two separate meals: one for me, and one for everybody else. This usually translates into: I'll cook a delicious, full-course Italian dinner for everyone else, and maybe make a sandwich for myself.

What I've discovered is that cooking all these old dishes that I used to love so much is a rather pleasant experience. I still get to enjoy the aromas of all the foods I used to eat. When I make them, I get to see what impact these foods have on other people, I get to see their smiles. I get to connect with other people on the culinary level again. The conversation centers around what my guests like about their food, rather than on what my dietary restrictions are, and how I must accommodate my body's condition.

In short, when I cook for others, I get every benefit of cooking something delicious except one. The one benefit I don't get to enjoy is the one that puts my body through a proverbial meat grinder, so I don't really miss it. But I quite enjoy the other aspects of cooking my former favorite foods.

I've learned to understand what I could never figure out as a non-diabetic child. Food plays a huge role in a person's social experiences. As a diabetic, one gets cut off from that, unless one makes a point to participate. That's what cooking for other people is all about.