My diet took a drastic turn, when at age 8 my siblings and I all got whooping cough. My siblings recovered quickly, but I languished for some reason. My mom was very pregnant with my baby brother, and couldn't tackle my illness. We did not go to doctors, were not immunized, and used herbs and diet to combat illnesses. Because of the severity of my illness, (the whites of my eyes were red from broken blood vessels) I was sent to stay with a Japanese healer. Her home, which was as quiet as the sunset and just as simple and beautiful, was a hard adjustment for me. There was almost no noise in her house and no animals, compared to the complete absence of quiet in my house and two animals to every human. There was no television, radios had to be kept very low, and people spoke in what seemed to me as whispers. Reiko also ate meat and fish and believed that eating animal protein was essential to strengthen my immune system so I could fight off the coughing disease.
Meat was absolutely forbidden in my house. My parents followed an Indian guru (spiritual teacher) and we refrained from eating meat as a way to allow clear communication with our consciousness. I was taught that eating meat was cruel and unhealthy. The only time I had eaten meat was when my oldest sister and I were watching the cats for my uncle up the road and they had canned tuna fish in their house. She wanted to try it, so she opened a can of it. The smell was enough to make me gag. She didn't like the taste, but we both knew that wasting food was also forbidden and she made me help her eat it. I took one small bite and that was it. Why we didn't just feed it to the cats, I'll never know, but I was only six or seven at the time. I was thoroughly traumatized from the event and was completely convinced that the vegetarian diet was the choice for me. If meat was in something I was eating on accident, I could immediately detect that unique chewy texture, and I would spit it out.
The Healer did not have an easy time of getting me to eat meat. I refused fish, because of the tuna incident, and pork, that affronted my vegetarian and pseudo-Jewish self, beef was out of the question, which just left chicken and turkey. I did alright with broth, but I could not bear to chew muscle. I ate small amounts of meat in addition to a lot of miso soup and seaweed and after two weeks I was on the road to recovery. The healer instructed my mother to keep giving me meat, but since it wasn't allowed to be cooked in our house, my mom would buy me chicken nuggets from McDonald's. I didn't mind the taste and the texture wasn't so meat like. It's hilarious when I look back on it now. There was nothing nutritious in chicken nuggets, yet that was my mom's solution to providing me with some animal protein. After I recovered from the illness, I went back to my strict vegetarian diet.
The only thing better than getting a box from grandma, was getting to go to grandma's in the big city of Wichita, KS. Grandma Dorie's house was nestled in the Riverside neighborhood in central Wichita. It was a nice, quiet, middle class neighborhood with wide streets, old trees and sidewalks. Being in the city both thrilled and scared me. There was a neighborhood watch sign across the street from my grandma's house, and it used to make me think that any night a burglar might break into the house. Locking the door and drawing the shades were both considered city things, as we did not have locks on our doors -we even left the keys in the cars in the driveway. But under the light of day we had a wonderful time exploring the block my grandmother lived on. I should note that my grandfather also lived here until I was eight and he died. He was only 64, which at the time seemed like a ripe old age, but now seems awfully early! I say that we explored the block my grandmother lived on because we were not allowed to cross the street until we were 10. Given the size of my family we were usually sent in groups. My oldest sister and brother were a group and then myself and one older and one younger sister were a group (my baby brother was not born yet). Arriving at grandma's had a ritual feel to it. One, she had air conditioning, which was the highest form of luxury to a kid during a Kansas summer. Two, there were candy dishes out all the time, with real candy in them. After hugging my grandma we would all run to the cut blue glass candy dish in the dining room and reach in for a small handful of butter mints-the sugar orgy had begun. Grandma had two refrigerators, one with food and one with pop and jello. It was one of those old fridges from the 50's that had an internal freezer, called the icebox by my grandma, and a heavy duty handle that was a release lever. It lived on the back porch, and we loved it. After the butter mints it was a bee-line to the pop fridge, where we would each get our own whole soda, and I am not talking Blue Sky, I'm talking A&W, Coke, Pepsi and Dr. Pepper.
The other constant companion to the pop was jello. Sometimes this was individual cups of jello, but for my grandmother, jello was like a food group, and it was usually a mold with lots of stuff in it. This was called jello salad, which always confused me, since we had salad every night at my house and it never had jello in it. Red jello blended with cream cheese and strawberries, orange jello with shredded carrots, green jello with pineapple tidbits, you name it we had it, with every lunch and dinner. Seriously it was a food group. I learned later that Jello was like a status symbol back in the day because it meant that you were wealthy enough to have a refrigerator. To us it was another sweet treat in heaven! Another thing that was different at grandma's was gum. My mother had a zero tolerance policy for gum. It was absolutely verboten in our house. Grandma Dorie, on the other hand, had stockpiles of Hubba-Bubba that we chewed with relish and had many bubble blowing contests. If and when the gum got in our hair, grandma patiently cut it out, and never once admonished us about it. We had no chores at grandma's and were were allowed to watch cable TV as much as we wanted. Lunches were often served on trays, delivered by grandma, into the living room where we were gorging on Nickelodeon.
In the very early days of visiting grandma's, my mom sent a multi-page list of prohibitions about what we could and couldn't eat. My mom says the first time my brother went there to visit (he was her first biological grandchild) he came home sick as a dog from eating so much sugar. My grandma dutifully followed the instructions and started clipping vegetarian recipes from newspapers and magazines. Luckily I was the fourth born and the prohibitions had relaxed some. Grandma was always trying out vegetarian recipes that she found in the paper. My favorite was tofu mannacotti with walnuts and ricotta. She also baked wonderful multi-grain bread. She ate pretty seasonally corn chowder in the summer always accompanied by vinegar cucumbers, a family favorite.