Eater and Disabilities Visibility

A friend of mine once saw a picture of me when I was a child and said, “Wow! You were chubby!” Rather than being offended, instead, I felt proud — I ate well and enjoyed food back then without feeling any shame.

As a second-generation Chinese American growing up in the Midwest, my family was forced to adapt. The only whole fish mom could find at the grocery store was catfish. She sauteed the fish in a sticky sauce with ginger and charred green onion. I would eat the fish and rice with gusto, mixing the sauce and green onions. My parents used to take me and my sisters to Hong Kong during the Lunar new year for four weeks.

Our grandma used to take Emily, my younger sister, shopping for groceries in the mornings. She would buy youtiao and fan tuan and, my favorite, a bag full of steamed rice balls cut into pieces and covered with a sweet sauce made of soy sauce and sesame. I would spear the rice roll with a toothpick and eat them one at a time. My grandma was impressed (and perhaps a little scared) when I asked for another bowl of her seafood noodle soup, which she made with a rich broth of clams that I still remember. It didn’t really matter to my relatives that I was different because I ate well.

I was born with a neurological disability and struggled to walk. At age seven, I began using a wheelchair. I couldn’t play or exercise as other children, but I loved food and imagined recipes in my mind. My daily activities and my social interactions were restricted. With food, however, I felt free and creative. I let my imagination run wild by experimenting with different flavors. I remember when I spread crunchy peanut butter onto a hotdog or made a goat-cheese terrine at a party, which was one of my first attempts to make something fancy. It’s good that I didn’t deny myself or try to lose weight when I was younger.

The meals I ate are now part of my mental library, and they bring me comfort. My disability progressed as I grew older, resulting in difficulties eating and swallowing. My weight and nutrition had declined after a series of medical crises in the last year’s summer. I was then fitted with a GJ tube to receive nutrition and water through my stomach and intestine. I wrote about my new relationship with food for Eater: I no longer can eat by mouth or smell the aroma of coffee or barbecue. But my desire to eat never diminished.

My healing process has included sharing my new reality, and I’ve been inspired to celebrate my success. My current food hack is to taste the flavors of ice cream and then spit them out in order to avoid choking. There are many stories about the pleasures and joys of food, cooking and sustenance. But they need to be told.

Low and Slow, a partnership between Eater and disabled people, features a series of interviews, essays, and reports by disabled individuals. Journalists, activists, and writers will explore the intersections between food and disability justice, mental illness, and other topics. Brandy Schillace will discuss the joys and intimacy of gardening. Sami Schalk, in conversation with Clarkisha, author of Fat Off, Fat On, A Big Bitch Manifesto, will talk about fat politics, disability and fatness, and how eating out is different when you are blind. Andrew Leland will speak on dining out and being blind. The monthly installments, illustrated by Ananya Middleton, and audio narration provided by Cheryl Green, offer a stunning array of perspectives from disabled people that are seldom given due.

People with disabilities are masters at innovation, creativity, and adaptation. We learn to navigate inaccessible environments, work with our bodies and sustain ourselves. This series is a small sample of the brilliance of food.

It is so much fun to have friends over and feed them. I also enjoy watching them eat. Even if I never make the dish, I still read reviews of restaurants and collect recipes. Braising is one of my favorite cooking methods. My large orange Dutch Oven is my trusted friend for making delicious meals like five-spiced pork belly, short ribs and red wine with root vegetables.

Slow and low isn’t just a way to cook. Slowing down, letting flavors simmer and deepen, and allowing relationships to do the same, is a life philosophy that people with disabilities can understand. I hope you will enjoy this Low and Slow Series as much as I have. Beyond that, I also hope you are inspired to enjoy all the good things life has to give and leave you wanting more.

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