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All You Can Eat

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

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

“What do you want to eat?” my husband, Ned, asks our daughter, Lisa. We are seated at the table of Vung Tau, a Vietnamese restaurant in San Jose, staring at a menu that goes on for pages.

Just being able to ask this question of our daughter is a thrill.

Lisa used to love Vietnamese food. When she and her brother, Jacob, were little, we started a tradition of letting them pick a restaurant for their birthday dinner. Many years in a row, Lisa chose Golden Chopsticks, home of the “hot rock.” The slightly dangerous tabletop drama involved flinging pieces of meat, fish and vegetables onto a 500-degree stone the size of a fat textbook.

Then, in high school, Lisa started crossing foods off her list. First, red meat. Then, anything fried. Then, no carbohydrates after 6:00 p.m., on into no carbs at all. She began reading labels and got very interested in nutrition, which seemed healthy—up to the point when she started measuring every gram and calorie and keeping charts of intake and exercise. She lost weight and gained compliments on her new figure. Soon she was refusing to go to restaurants. If forced to go with the family (which my work as a restaurant critic often required), she would order steamed broccoli. Anyone who intervened got slapped with the look, if not the words, “Leave me alone!”

Ned and I didn’t know what to do. And everything we did do seemed to be wrong. Lisa overexercised, became anorexic, bulimic, anorexic again. She dropped to a size double-zero, but still she felt fat. And then it got worse. At 22, Lisa spent six horrific weeks in the hospital trying to recover. She left severely depressed and thinner than when she went in.

Now, a year and a half later, Lisa is in recovery. She has found the right professional, someone she connects with and trusts. It’s a process, she says, that is up and down. Until tonight it has not involved a restaurant.

She and her boyfriend, Michael, have been living in Jacksonville, Florida, where he thinks of dinner as creamed and fried. It’s her first visit home to California in three months. As a family, we have not enjoyed a meal together since… I don’t remember.

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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).