jessica chooses food as friend rather than foe

Posted on Thursday, October 25, 2012

Carbohydrates such as beans, rice, tortillas and potatoes accompanied with rich fats of cream, cheese, avocado and veggies with a splash of fresh salsa are among Jessica’s favorite foods.  “I like the healthy version of Rice-A-Roni®,” she chuckles, unable to pinpoint one favorite meal.  Yikes, oh no!  What do you mean?  I thought dairy was bad?  I thought low-fat was healthy?  Aren’t we supposed to be monitoring our carbohydrate intake?  You might be thinking these thoughts, but Jessica has a life-long knowledge and understanding of food in a very personal way.  Jessica Prentice, my foodie hero, is a culinary adventurer and one of the founders of Locavores, an organization that promotes foods grown or harvested within a 100 mile radius of our neighborhoods, one of the driving forces behind Three Stone Hearth, a community supported kitchen in West Berkeley, and, as I first came to know her, the author of Full Moon Feast: Food and the Hunger for Connection.  I read her book several years ago when researching the fascinating history and education of indigenous foods.  As I still follow the thirteen lunar cycles, I often return to Jessica’s book, filled with rare recipes and intimately personal stories.  She blends her struggles with food, once looking at it as an enemy and takes us along with her through her transformation and friendship with food while educating us on what we really should know about what we put into our bodies.  Jessica’s story is hopeful and honest.


I’ll begin Jessica’s story in 1991.  A natural-born risk taker, Jessica hopped into a 1970s VW bus and drove across the country from Washington DC to San Francisco, California with nothing but a green lawn and a sleeping bag where she’d first sleep under wishful stars.  She’s a content California local now, but her journey didn’t quite start as the “California dream.”  Determined to put her Liberal Arts degree to good use and convinced she’d become a teacher, young Jessica was surprised to find herself “utterly miserable” and aching to leave her supposed life-path as a teacher.  She took this unexpected realization as a valuable lesson: “It was very clear that even under the best of circumstances, teaching was not what I wanted to do.”  Jessica took that time to investigate herself and really ask herself what she wanted to do.  She picked up Julia Cameron’s well-known The Artist’s Way, and, with company of a good friend, explored a twelve-week intensive self-investigation.  She asked herself, who am I, distinguishing the voice of herself from that which she was told to be and all she says “had been expected of me.”  Finding this empowering freedom, Jessica decided no one would tell her what to do, not even how to eat.  A spark of rebellion began emerging from inside.  When she was left to her own devices, she tells me,


 I cooked.  It was all about food.  Food was nothing that my family had ever thought was important.  I had a huge amount of shame around the fact that I was obsessed with food.  I had internalized my family’s view of food as either a very indulgent thing for the rich or non-spiritual, too mundane and shallow.   They didn’t see it about saving the world or as something intellectual.  It was the complete opposite of the things I was raised to think.


Having never rebelled as a teenager, this “goodie two shoes” says this was her way, in her twenties, to rebel – this innocent rebellion of cooking and enjoying it was Jessica’s glimpse of breaking free from a sort of past prison.  She continues, “I was fighting against food because I thought it wasn’t something important to think about.  In this process all of a sudden I began thinking, hey, wait, maybe food is important.” Breaking free from past opinions, Jessica continued her deep investigation reading more and more books and seeing that food was important.  She recognized that not only was it important to her, it was important to many other people.  “It was a big personal risk to think outside my family’s boxes.”  Breaking out of lots of once tightly sealed boxes, Jessica decided to go to The Natural Gourmet, a cooking school in New York.  Her excitement, however, would have to be tamed.  Running out of money, Jessica had to wait one more year.  She worked hard and saved her earnings as a waitress – a grueling year of work and waiting, but also a gut check of determination to her culinary desires.


Jessica’s urge to cook and self-educate came from something deeper than simply the joy of cooking.   Although never diagnosed with an eating disorder, she spent most of her childhood and teenage years “going back and forth between dieting and overeating.”  She compares herself to a little mouse, nibbling each trail of cheese and falling for all the traps.  Traps, “that I shouldn’t eat fat, that I shouldn’t eat salt that I shouldn’t eat sugar.”  She was trapped no matter which way she turned.  Afraid of all foods, she felt frozen and unsure what to eat.  Jessica spent years living as a strict vegetarian, denying herself foods she deeply craved.  She learned about veganism, convinced that was the way to eat. Although she struggled with veganism and its restrictions, she tried to follow the vegan regimen again and again.   She binged and dieted, trying to find what way to eat and stick with it.  Feeling that food had taken over her life in a negative way, she became obsessed with the thought of food – it consumed all thoughts.  But soon other thoughts began sneaking their way in; one introduced her to the book, Obsession: Reflections on the Tyranny of Slenderness by Kim Chernin.  Kim’s education about eating disorder obsessions addressed that it was not just a personal problem. “It’s a cultural problem,” Jessica remembered learning.  Jessica, again surprised that she wasn’t alone in her thinking, said to herself, “Maybe this isn’t just me.  Maybe this is something larger.”  The book, although she read it so many years ago, Jessica remembers, mentioned “the unrealistic imagery of what we are supposed to look like.  All of a sudden I had a political, social, and cultural lens.  I moved from ‘there’s something wrong with me’ to ‘there’s something wrong with our culture.’”  This filled Jessica with hope to the core.  “It was about being healthy. I was searching for health.”


There was no miracle diet or yo-yo cycle of food that would allow Jessica to live in the optimal health she so yearned to find.  She then recognized a strong correlation between constant health problems – strings of infections, eczema and other illnesses – and her food choices.  It was finally, when a large cyst formed on her ovary prompting surgery, that she knew this was too large to overlook.  Jessica decided she would begin this path to health the right way and not deprive herself of righteous foods that would nourish her soul, body and mind.  “Right after my surgery,” Jessica says proudly, “I had a steak.”  She smiles, reminiscing of steak and Rice-A-Roni®, foods she loved eating for her birthday as a child.  It was everything she wanted and she did not deprive herself of it.  All grown up, Jessica, as tiny and cute as a mouse, no longer falls for traps.  Instead, she piles on the cheese to her healthy version of Rice-A-Roni® along with a fat, juicy steak without fear of anyone or anything.


Now, a proud meat-eater, Jessica looks at food through a much wider lens.  She’s learned from her family’s lens, from lenses of various authors, and her own personal path, that food is much more than a singular concept.  It’s not just about the way you look.  It’s not just about the way you feel.  Jessica remembers a teacher from cooking school telling her,  “Food is about relationships and people.  He said, when he walked down the street in New York, he would look at all the different hotdog sellers and check out their energy before he bought a hot dog it because he wanted to take in good energy.   That really stuck with me.”


 Food isn’t only about vitamins and minerals and toxins – it’s also about relationships and energy.


Jessica often asked herself, “Are there healthy people out there?” As she started finding answers that yes, there are healthy people out there, she then took it a step further asking, “where are they and what are they eating?  What have millions of people done for thousands of years?“  Enthralled by her research and rewarding journey, she learned of indigenous communities that maintained healthful cooking generation after generation.  Her findings reiterated that there is no healthy vegan diet that has sustained generation after generation.


 The truth is that climates vary and places vary, so there’s lots of different strategies that work.  And one is that they eat a lot of fat,
says Jessica.


The indigenous diet gets away from short-term, individual thinking and looks at the bigger picture.  “Basically it’s the difference between short-term thinking and long-term thinking.”  Jessica is on a roll and I am fully absorbed.  She adds, “In our culture, we have a tendency to think we know everything because we’ve supposedly progressed further.”  She goes back to lessons learned from certain indigenous cultures.  “One thing I’ve really learned is that we don’t have good community skills.  We aren’t brought up to have community. “  Instead of waiting for community skills to build, Jessica is building one herself.  Jessica is a co-founder of Three Stone Hearth (TSH).  As the website says, Three Stone Heart is a worker-owned cooperative, and a teaching kitchen all in one.  Chef Porsche Combash and the TSH team ensure that ingredients are organically farmed, grains and nuts, pasture-raised meats, eggs, and dairy products, unrefined sweeteners and traditional fats.  I am encouraged when I see the difference Jessica is making in the world.  Unlike large corporate agendas that mislead uneducated eaters with slanted marketing campaigns as what is “healthy”, she strives with each ingredient she uses, to sprinkle others with wellness.  Three Stone Hearth offers a simple, nourishing cuisine.  “It is not fancy, but is delicious and nourishing and nurturing.  That was what I was looking for.”  Her cuisine can be summed up as traditional foods following sustainable agricultural practices.  An expert in food, she even combines her knowledge from other farmers during her time as the director of education for a bay area farmers market.  Jessica interviewed farmers every week.  She started with the letter A and worked her way, addressing a new concept each week until she reached Z.  This brilliant idea not only taught her more about foods, but also educated the community, hungry for self-education and sustainable farming.

So what will Jessica do next?  Is she done?  Is this satisfied?


 There’s always more to learn. Life and the world are so incredibly interesting and we’ve been somehow trained to think if we figure out xyz, we will figure out the combination to this puzzle and if I figure out this puzzle, then I’ll be happy.

She knows that is not the case. 

 It’s much more like – you work on a puzzle because that’s were on the planet to do, so that’s engaging.  It’s a joyful approach; it’s humbling oneself to the understanding that the puzzle might not be solved, ever.  And if it were to be solved, then what?


That striving, that desire to find the missing pieces is the fun of it all.  Jessica continues, instead you “work on it productively and deeply.  There’s no magic formula.” 


Jessica’s story is one of embracing struggles as ways to better her life and work for her, not against.  Her story started as a personal quest and has led into a larger ambition to impact thousands of lives.  Jessica learned to thank foods instead of scold them, to hug them rather than push them away.  Food is nourishing.  Food sustains us.  In order to live, we eat.  May we remember that food, our fueling fare, is a friend, not a foe.  We all have stories with food.  Hopefully, like Jessica, our stories turn out well.  Hopefully, we can all take our journey with food by the hand, and walk together as friends, good friends – instead of looking at our life source as the enemy.  Whatever each of our favorite meals is, may we give thanks for each bite and it’s precious offering to us.  I sure know Jessica does.



Feature image, vendedora de flores, provided by diego rivera.

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