All You Can Eat

By Sheila Himmel, "All You Can Eat," May/June 2010

An essay on raising a daughter with eating disorders by author Sheila Himmel.

Settling into a high-backed booth, Ned and I face Lisa and Michael. We all page through the voluminous menu, from No. 1, goi cuon (rice paper wrapped around shrimp, pork, rice vermicelli, mint and lettuce) to No. 142, nhan nhuc (longan, a perfumy fruit, served with shaved ice).

In the recent past, Lisa shunned all of this. Yet, as the food arrives I see her start to tell Michael what he must try, and instruct him to dip the rolls in peanut sauce. He is open to new foods, he says, as long as they don’t contain tomatoes or onions. I flash on a long-ago drive to Golden Chopsticks: Lisa, still a little girl, is cheerily explaining to her doubtful friend why we are driving half an hour for dinner. At the time, I felt happy to be raising a foodie.

As dinner goes on, I see Lisa’s food restrictions, fortified these seven years, fall away one by one. She eats meat, rice, foods that are spicy or sweet. And carbohydrates after 6:00 p.m.

We are giddy with relief. “No way you aren’t trying this,” Ned says of his beloved No. 107, beef slices rolled around green onions and grilled, and passes them around the table. Onions also figure in the caramelized chicken, steeped in garlic, lemongrass and chile. No one objects.

Steamed rice vermicelli is topped with ground prawns skewered on sugar-cane sticks and grilled. Bright vegetables join the dance of flavors, colors and textures. All that’s left is something fried. Lisa shows Michael how to wrap a hot spring roll in cold, crisp leaves of lettuce, mint and basil and dip it in a tangy sauce.

Nobody can think about dessert. Who cares? We feel good together again. Lisa isn’t going to eat in Vietnamese restaurants every day or never have another worry about eating disorders, but her joy in introducing someone to a new food is profound. She’s on her way back to life.

Sheila Himmel, the former restaurant critic of the San Jose Mercury News, and her daughter, Lisa, co-wrote Hungry: A Mother and Daughter Fight Anorexia (Berkley Trade, 2009).

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