I was officially diagnosed with clinical depression in 1990. I was 2 years sober and fell into a pretty severe trough. I pulled out of it through a combination of Prozac and cognitive therapy. My diagnosis was later amended to Dysthymia, now referred to as CDD or chronic depressive disorder. Being mildly depressed has been a feature of my life for as long as I can remember. And since 1990, so has some combination of anti-depressants. SSRI’s usually-and yes, I have tried most of them. If you have tried them too, you know that they are a mixed blessing. Depression fucks with your life and your joy, but so do SSRI’s. If you are chronically depressed, you spend a lot of time dealing with side effects and wondering whether the side effects are worth it.
I have had long periods of being SSRI free, and long periods of being on SSRIs. Honestly, I would rather be without when I can, but I sure as hell prefer medicated to depressed. It is a cyclical thing- some alchemy between the current environmental stresses in my life and my ability to take care of myself.
Part of how I care for myself is through food. I love food and I love cooking. I cooked professionally when I was in my early 20’s. I read cookbooks obsessively, I choose travel destinations solely for the food experience, and I operate a food tour business in my home town. I spend a lot of time thinking about food and I spend a lot of time tasting and preparing food. There is no denying that depression and medication change the way I experience food.
Depression has a bag of symptoms and appetite is a depressive “tell”. I may comfort eat when I am depressed, and if I get to a point where I am too depressed to eat, I know I am in serious trouble. In a depressed state, I eat easy stuff, with simple strong tastes; stuff that is easy to prepare and easy to eat. I use the slow cooker a lot.
When the SSRI’s kick in, at least in the initial stage, I get a little manic. I feel slightly speedy and have no appetite. Later, I might level out. I might be sleepy all the time or unable to sleep. I might be eating all the time, or unable to eat. I might have a buzzing in my head and a slightly metallic taste in my mouth. I might sweat excessively and need cooling foods. I might have a tremor that worsens when I have caffeine. I might be experiencing vertigo, and need more animal protein. Over the last 25 years, I have experienced some weird combinations of appetite and craving.
My last SSRI made me very calm, detached, sleepy, and sweaty. I ate more than normal and was able to taste things sort of normally. I stopped taking the drugs in early July. I have noticed a sharpening not of appetite, but taste. I am able to smell and taste more completely. It is a little like switching up from SD low resolution to HD high resolution. It is good. I am enjoying cooking more, and appreciating the taste of my own cooking again.
Food is evocative, it triggers memory and emotion. From what I can find, the relationship between food and depression has been looked at mostly in terms of symptoms, not treatment. FN One can find diets that claim to “cure” depression; there is research suggesting that a healthy gut full of the right kind of bacteria will stave off a depressive episode, or that processed foods may make depressive episodes worse. For someone like me, while this is promising stuff, it does not really answer the big questions. Can the link between food and memory be used therapeutically? Can certain foods really make us happy?
Think of the smell of a tangerine, and the way the taste makes you feel. Think of the link between chocolate and serotonin production FN. Think of your mother’s recipes, and the way they made you feel. My parents’ passed away in the past 2 years; my mother after a long, cruel illness and my father six months later. I am still grieving; I suspect I will be grieving for a long while yet. Lexapro is a wonderful drug for getting on with things, but it really blunts your ability to feel strong emotions- like grief. Since the drug has cleared my system I have experienced unexpected waves of grief for my father, I am trying to think of it as a good thing.
I am having a lot of difficulty accessing earlier memories of my Mother, before a combination of dementia, stroke, and alcoholism robbed her of her dignity, her essential self. My sister seems able to remember our glamorous, adventurous, fun- loving mother, but I am blocked. 7 years of a progressively horrible illness is a long time; the memory of those years is heavy. I desperately want to remember my mom the way she was before.
I may not have my mother anymore, but I do have her recipes. If there is one thing people remember about my mother was that she loved to cook. She taught me to cook, and to love cooking. She entertained often. She was always trying new recipes, researching restaurant favorites, or tweaking family recipes. Cooking was a big part of who she was.
My Mom put together a cookbook for friends and family in 1980. Here is what my sister wrote in the introduction to the digital version that she put together in 2007. Her memories are not mine, but I cannot say it any better:
In 1980, and again in 1988, Dorothy Bolander published the Bolander Family Cookbook for her family and friends. It was no easy task, and the 2nd version was decidedly the final one. But almost 20 years have passed, those old books have fallen apart, and I felt that the book deserved one more printing.
For me, scanning and formatting these pages was like looking at a photo album. I remembered passing crab rolls at Christmas parties; hiding the Swedish heirloom cookies from my dad; scarfing down mushroom cheese dip in the parking lot of the old Met stadium; and receiving high praise from my co-workers for the carrot cake that my mom sent for my birthday. I have a memory associated with almost every recipe in this book.
In general, families do not cook today – I think that’s a shame. My mother, Dorothy Bolander, has cooked more than 18,000 meals for me in my lifetime, and she’s not done yet. Was that important to me as a kid? At the time, I took it for granted, but now I realize what an extraordinary thing it was. Eighteen thousand meals. Thanks, Mom.
Even when she could no longer hold a knife, or be trusted in the kitchen, my Mom thought she was still cooking for us. My sister, sister-in-law, and I put the last few Christmas meals on the table, while my Mom provided commentary about what she thought she was doing. It was comical in an awful way. Now that I can fully taste again, I thought to try cooking some of those family recipes again. I am hopeful that I can get a clear sense memory of Mom as she was.
Last night, at a table full of new friends, we ate a slow cooked beef stew reminiscent of my mother’s beef burgundy or her simple oven baked beef stew. The smell of slow cooked winey beef and onion reminded me of coming home after school on a winter’s day and looking forward to dinner.
Here are Mom’s recipes:
8 pounds beef chuck, cubed
1 pound salt pork (1/4 inch dice)
32 small onions (you can use frozen ones)
6 tablespoons flour
2 tablespoons salt
4 bay leaves
8 sprigs parsley
1 teaspoon thyme
1 teaspoon marjoram
1 quart fresh mushrooms
2 tablespoons butter
6 cups burgundy (approximately)
Fry salt pork and drain. Sauté onions in pork fat. Add beef cubes and sprinkle in flour. Sauté mushrooms in butter. Combine ingredients in a large casserole (or two smaller ones), cover with wine and bake at 300 degrees for 2-1/2 hours. Cool overnight. Bake another 45 minutes at 300 degrees or until thoroughly heated through. Serve with wild rice or noodles.
Oven-Baked Beef Stew
2 pounds stew beef, cut into cubes
6 small carrots, cut in half
1 2-pound can tomatoes
1 onion, chopped coarsely
3 ribs celery, cut up
1 tablespoon sugar
1 teaspoon salt Pepper
Pinch each of thyme, rosemary, marjoram
1/2 cup red wine
Put raw beef and remaining ingredients in a large casserole with a cover. Stir well. Cover tightly and bake for 5 or 6 hours at 250 degrees. Stir occasionally, if you are at home. If not, it seems to do well all by itself.
If you want potatoes, add raw ones in large pieces at the beginning, or canned ones at the end, cook just until heated through. If a thicker stew is desired, mix a bit of flour with cold water and stir into the stew, until thickened. Serves 6.
I think it worth noting, Julia Child’s Boeuf Bourguignon from “Mastering the Art of French Cooking” is a multi-page recipe. Mom’s Beef Burgundy is a half-page- I bet Mom’s is just as good as Julia’s. We ate Beef Burgundy pretty frequently; it was not considered a “company” dish. Mom made it when she felt like making something hearty and just a little bit special. Being Minnesotans, we always ate our Beef Burgundy with wild rice. Here is Mom’s wild rice recipe, and no, you do not need all that butter, but you should really try it that way first.
1 cup wild rice
1 stick butter
3 cups chicken broth
Wash rice in cold water and melt butter. Add rice to butter and stir until it pops slightly. Put into a 2-quart casserole and pour boiling chicken broth over it. Cover and bake at 300 degrees for two hours or less. Your time will vary, depending on the rice. If desired, sauté green onions and mushrooms, sliced, and add to the rice, before cooking. Also good are sliced water chestnuts, toasted almonds, or any other vegetable you might want to add. This can be made with beef bouillon, also.
Last night we had Sara’s beef stew. It was a slow cooked shank, with tomatoes, red wine, carrots, and olives. Orange zest was added at the end of cooking, adding some sunshine to the flavors. On the face of it, a very different recipe. But, the way it smelled, and the way it felt to eat it, exactly the same as Mom’s. I think the best part of last night’s experience was that someone else made the stew. It is the kind of dish that makes you feel cared for. So, for a moment, I had my mom back.