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I never tire of telling people how ill I was this past year. And I'm likely to talk about food, being ill and all things that intersect until I'm my normal self (which is only a few more weeks away, but still).

Being food poisoned, working from home with the excuse that you have a tummy upset from something you ate for dinner last night (and thereby avoiding any further questions), food allergies (peanuts, milk, shellfish being fairly common) and cancer being the direct result of you being a smoker (cigarettes are not food, but nicotine being an appetite suppressant does count here I guess) are sicknesses, conditions and diseases we've all heard of.

Obviously, I don't mean to snub one illness over another. And if an itchy throat or a stomach upset can make you feel like not wanting to eat, I'm sure it's far worse as the illness gets more serious. Tests and injections given (or fluids consumed) for it can make you throw up... The smell of a particular kind of food can give you nausea (my cousin was turned off pork or anything seemingly bloody for a long while after her mother's passing which, unfortunately, she saw)... You grow old perhaps and lose your sense of smell (my grandmother-in-law, for instance, is unable to smell, that she has learnt to live with it is a-whole-nother story)...

There's this heart-wrenching piece about a losing the urge to eat because of cancer in the throat...

There is also Grant Achatz, the head chef and co-owner of Alinea, in Chicago. He lost his sense of taste because of tongue cancer a few years ago.

The fear of not being able to cook again is very real. My muscle movement was so poor early 2019 that I was afraid, for one, whether I'd recover at all or stay a retard (and no, I don't mean this in the way many people joke about being stupid or slow to react as retarded) all my life. Two, when I had convinced myself of my progress (fairly slow but progress nonetheless), I was afraid I would lose the love to cook and the ability to do so. My fear got the better of me, of course, so I read incessantly about all things food... And June last year onwards, shaky as my hands were, I cooked. I came up with one cooking project after another that would ensure I cooked a whole bunch on the weekends and almost never let it let go of me, in that sense.

Losing one's sense of taste can be devastating, then. Especially for someone who relies on creating interesting food as a hobby, as a living. In case you didn't already know, Grant Achatz is at the helm of the molecular gastronomy movement. And as pretentious as the food looks, it just breaks my heart breaks to know that he went through something this serious at 32 or 33 years of age.

I also read about and watched that Chef's Table episode about Sean Brock and him battling Myasthenia Gravis.

Closer home, there's Natasha Diddee who lost her stomach to recurrent ulcers (and stress).

Neurological conditions are the worst (of course it's easy for me to say because I've seen one first hand). As privileged, young people, we often take a certain way of life for granted. Drinking is okay. Drinking A LOT because you're stressed at work is also okay for some. Smoking is passe. Ordering in a dessert because you have a sweet craving is normal. And following a diet routine or a fitness regime may not be something that everyone enjoys doing.

But one of my biggest learnings this year has been about my body (the other has been about the people around me, but let's leave that for someday when you're talking to me about something that's not food). It's very easy to preach that you must take care of yourself. How is self-care different from taking care of oneself? How much time is enough time when you take time off to heal? Heal mentally? Heal physically? Is being vulnerable then allowed? What do people around you think of the strong-you, the good-you they've known you to be then? Is it a way of coping, of getting back to "normal," to succumb to a certain self-imposed pressure, to cook/work/do-a-thing-that-makes-you-happy (oh well, "heal") as hard as you ever can?

Of course, it's very easy for me to diss cancers - insurance companies know the probability of humans succumbing to one or more of them and can base their policies accordingly... It's painful, treatable, fatal... But there is some respite (if I may call it that) when you have those expensive tests and know with surety what it is.

Like bone cancer (Fatima Ali, of Top Chef fame, passed away very young from a rare form of bone cancer called Ewing's Sarcoma) or breast cancer (Dominique Crenn got breast cancer a few months ago and was quite upfront about it on social media - that led to a host of women chefs opening up about similar illnesses they may have had) or leukaemia (a teen chef who contracted it thrice owes his cooking skill to being grossly unwell) or even nose cancer!

I follow Dominique Crenn on Instagram and keenly also follow a lot of what she does, so I know a lot of these things about her. I can't help resonate with her when she says “As I work through this new challenge I will be in my kitchen as much as humanly possible because being there, engaged in my craft, and with those whom I love so dearly is what fuels me.”

I haven't had any of the ugly Cs myself and I'm thankful for that (never mind that I have had a single-degree of separation from people who have suffered most of these). However, even if it's something that may not affect your ability to cook, illnesses (grave or otherwise) make you extremely tired, almost kill your appetite (or God forbid, kill you). But a lot of times, the one good thing they DO do is make you grounded and learn how to live your life better - it could be working harder, it could be travelling more, it could be cooking better, anything really.

On a less grim note, ailments caused by people growing old cannot be ignored. Narayana Reddy ran the extremely popular YouTube channel Grandpa kitchen. He cooked recipes in large quantities for orphans, and ran a very interesting-to-watch channel on YouTube channel around it - he passed away a few weeks ago from old-age ailments.

Then, there are stalwarts such as Joel Robuchon who died of old age-related disease (sad as it might be, this one is pancreatic cancer).

That poor mental health can lead to suicide cases in this industry is known too - Homaro Cantu, Anthony Bourdain (I HAD to bring him up, didn't I?) are just a few I can name.

Even though there are sheets with info and email/call helplines in India to help folk who suffer mental illnesses, I think the whole process still has a few more cycles of evolution to go.

I attended a series of talks recently (around food, of course) where the topic of mental health in the food industry was briefly touched upon. Another rather eye-opening panel discussions involved a gentleman named Ananth Naryanan who runs Dialogue in the Dark in India. Trust me when I say this, working your way around a space you are EXTREMELY familiar with and suddenly losing your vision can be awful. So, being guided into absolute darkness, eating by relying on your sense of smell first (rather than your sense of sight), interacting with physically disabled people (people who possibly can see or hear well enough or are not entirely mobile without support) forces you to step out of the comfort zone and is an utterly humbling experience. I almost always WILL have a mental image of the person across the table from me and seeing that he or she is completely different to what I thought he was (it could be the notion of physical appearance, financial status, religion, caste, anything really!) just makes us a lot more aware than we think we are.

I attended this panel discussion in early February. But something he said that evening is going to stay with me for a long long time. Inclusiveness is not about sympathy. It is about empathy. And saying a "sorry" or "hugs" followed by kiss emojis on social media just doesn't cut it, some times.

And for this month's book recommendations, it seems only obvious that I mention these two:

Kat Kinsman (I, personally, don't like her very much for really silly reasons) runs Chefs with Issues and has a book that has a bunch of anecdotes that tackle the issue of anxiety in a very mature way.
This book was recommended to me by a friend, Shub. She's an excellent illustrator and draws around all things good food and good travel and sustainability. This book that she told me about. is relatable in so many ways!!And even has a mention of Alinea and Grant Achatz!
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In case you missed what I sent out last month, you can visit this link to go to the archives. Since I've also been reading up since then (stuff to watch, movie references, shows etc. all around food), here's what has popped up:
  1. The Chef Show has a Season 3!
  2. I will not lie. The thought of drinking cocktails like Kuch Kuch Vodka Hai and Whiskey Donor cracked me up.
  3. Brad Pitt has a curious habit of eating in his movies and has eaten in over 60 films.
I've bored you with my Netflix and ill puns long enough. So I will try not to here on.
Until next time, nom nom!
- Meha
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