New York City writer and lecturer who, having been diagnosed with Crohn’s disease and literally unable to eat, published the award-winning memoir, ‘the Man who Couldn’t Eat’.
My mother was a terrible cook and my grandmother was a terrible cook. I grew up in the 60s and 70s in the era of processed food that was going to liberate us all and it did liberate my mother from the kitchen. I grew up not knowing how to cook but I ended up marrying a woman who was a fantastic amateur cook. Over the course of my marriage I have learned to be a passable cook.
About the spring of 2008 I enjoyed the best health I had experienced in 25 years. I gained 20 pounds and my blood level did not show anaemia. I looked like a healthy person and I felt terrific. There was no medical explanation whatsoever. I ate everything, I over ate and I was drinking. I was going to author something that I was going to call ‘The Drinking Cure’. I thought that I had beaten the illness – something in my physiology had changed.
It was Friday the 13th 2009, I was making myself a tuna fish sandwich for lunch and I felt something funny in my gut and I went to the bathroom. I was sitting on the toilet and the twinge became a searing, stabbing pain. It was clear I was in some sort of trouble. Unfortunately I waited about two hours for an ambulance. I blacked out from the fever and the pain and the dehydration. I had spontaneously had this internal rupture in my intestinal track so there was a large opening in my intestine, over those hours everything that was inside was pooling in my gut.
The surgeon saved my life but the damage was so extensive it was determined that I had problems internally, infections and a fistula from this surgery and in order for it to heal they would have to shut down my gut. My doctors said, ‘So we are going to shut you down for an initial period of three months then we will see’.
I had to be fed nutrients intravenously through a food pump and IV running 18 hours a day supplying me with synthetic food – a 3000 ml bag of TPN – it sustained me. I was confined from bedroom to living room couch. The worst part was that I could not sleep. Psychologically I got very depressed, I was really angry about being sick.
What overtook my psyche were food cravings and food fantasies. My sense of smell became more acute. When I could not sleep at night I would come out and watch cooking shows. I would go online to restaurants I loved and read their menus. I would go to the refrigerator and look into the cabinet. The lowest moment of this manifestation was when a neighbour made a chocolate rum bundt cake for my family. While they were eating dinner I went into the kitchen and I put my face into the cake. In my delirious and regrettable state I put my nose into the cake and sniffed and I put my hands into the cake and I could feel the texture. And my wife came into the kitchen and there I was destroying this wonderful object.
Every test came back worse - what was supposed to be sustaining me was making me sicker. I had developed infections again off the food pump. My doctor said, ‘We face a dilemma, we now have to try food as a last resort, we are going to have to put you back on food we have nothing else to do’.
At other times when I had been nothing by mouth I would start eating again with a clear broth and it was wonderful. But I started eating and I could not taste anything and my gut was not ready for food. I looked at my tongue and I realized that my taste buds were gone. They had atrophied off and I could not taste anything.
This was month five and it feels likes the ultimate insult. Eating has become this entirely empty experience. I had had a barium meal for more tests and the doctor said, ‘We need you to go eat before the final round’. I went to my favorite diner and I ordered a fried egg and bacon sandwich on whole-wheat toast and I am sitting at the counter and I take a bite and an amazing thing happens. I can feel a little bit of taste and I hold up the butter knife. I could see embryonic taste buds in the reflection. I say to the guy next to me, ‘This sandwich is the best damn thing I have ever eaten’, and in typical New York style he says, ‘You should try the meat loaf’.
A macrobiotic diet is very hard-core, you are constantly cooking and I was hungry. So I threw in the towel and thought I am going to try a hybrid macrobiotic approach, which does not really exist, it’s all or nothing. I have brown rice for breakfast, vegetables, millet and then tofu and miso soup for lunch. So I have just incorporated it into my diet but gone back to every meat and sweet and starch that an omnivore foodie would like. I may not be doing what is in my best interest for nutrition but it is in my best interest psychologically and that’s a very ambiguous place to be.
The ultimate irony is that I was writing about the absence of food when I won the James Beard Foundation prize for food writing. I became the anti-food writer – the only one in the world. I’m the accidental food writer. Food became the opportunity to examine character. I had been a lifelong aspiring and unpublished writer. The unimagined benefit of this severe health emergency has been wonderful.
What is my number one food? My family is Jewish so I grew up with a lot of Jewish ethnic food. Here in New York there are a few surviving old world delis. My father grew up with Katz’s Delicatessen on the lower east side in his formative years and we would take a special trip to the city to Katz’s. When I was a little kid the impact of a hot pastrami sandwich was seminal - like Jewish communion. It was something I craved. High in salt, high in fat, high in everything, it’s a heart attack on a plate. I have a club roll with spicy mustard, Dr Browns Cel-Ray soda – a lime flavoured soda that cuts through the salt and the fat. Two weeks ago I was there. I ate this thing and it is wonderful poison.
Jon Reiner is a speaker at MAD3. See the full line-up for this year’s symposium on the MAD website.