In this episode, Carolyn shares her love for her family’s tradition of making lasagna every Christmas and shares how difficult it is to keep family traditions alive as her and many of her family members face medical diagnoses that affect what they should eat.
Well, we, in my family, we are Italian and so we have a really close relationship with food, and most of the recipes in my life have been passed down to me. Most of my memories are around the holidays - especially Christmas- because we always had lasagna and a special sauce. I don’t think that I knew until I was much older that not everybody had lasagna on Christmas, so it was always something really special about our family -and our gatherings were always really, really big. My mom, who is Italian, her side of the family is actually kinda small, but my dad’s side of the family he has four siblings, so a lot of them lived in the area where we lived and we would have lots of aunts and uncles, lots of cousins, and even though they weren’t Italian they all really looked forward to having Christmas dinner with us.
It’s a pretty...probably a pretty typical lasagna recipe for most people. You have your layers with the noodles, and the cheese, and my mom will yell at me if I don’t say it with the right New York-Italian accent [laughing]...so, it’s regatta and mozzarella. We also had this special sauce that we make. It’s a meat sauce and it goes on the layers of the lasagna and we served sauce with it, so you can put more on if you want to. And the sauce has meatballs and veal sausage.
My dad’s side of the family is what you would consider regular, American folks. They’re all from Texas and my Grandmother would make this beautiful lemon cake that she would make for everybody’s birthday and everyone would fight over it. She would make this cake and people would literally steal it off the table and run around the house with it, that’s how popular it was. So, I have really strong, happy memories of that. Thanksgiving, same thing. My mom used to host a lot of the holidays because our house was just always full of people and fun and she liked cooking. So, everyone for Thanksgiving, it was a little bit different, they brought their own sides, and their own piece of the dinner. My grandmother always made her sweet potato pie or sweet potato casserole with the marshmallows on top. So, I have very, very fond memories of competing for marshmallows with my cousins.
So, both of my grandmothers have diabetes. My mom’s mom was born with type 1 and my dad’s mom has type 2 and so- especially on the Italian side- there was this balance between like, “oh have you eaten anything? Let me get you something to eat,” and, you know, trying to be healthy at the same time because diabetes can really ravage your body. They want the best for you, but they also want you to be fed, so it’s kind of a strange dynamic. Especially as a teenager. I lived in Fort Lauderdale- that’s where I grew up. The culture down there is really different than the midwest. You have a lot of pressure to look a certain way and a lot of it’s tied to money. Sometimes I had a weird relationship with food in terms of, I love to eat, I love food, I consider myself a foodie, but trying to balance that with having a healthy weight and look a certain way and that environment was really hard. There was some pressure to...it wasn’t necessarily about the food, it was about weight and looks, less so about what I was actually eating. It didn’t necessarily feel like there was a strong correlation between those two things in my family. Exercise, yes, I was definitely encouraged to exercise and go do things, and there were comments about weight, but it didn’t always come back to food.
My brother had a much healthier appetite than I did as a teeneager. People used to tease me like, “oh, you’re getting a Carolyn-size meal,” and it usually was some kind of kid-size meal because I just didn’t eat. I ate until I was full and then I was full and I didn’t want to eat more and people just thought I should be eating more than that, but I knew my body. But my brother would just eat us out of house and home. I would come home and I’d be like, “where are the snacks, what happened to like all of the food in the house?” And it was kind of like a natural part of his growing up. People were like, “Oh Craig, he’ll just eat anything. He’s just a vacuum, a human vacuum of food.”
So about two years ago, I started having some really negative reactions to food that I couldn’t really pin down. I’ve been going to the doctor, the gastroenterologist, and he’s saying we really can figure out what’s wrong. I end up having a colonoscopy - which is probably one of the worst experiences of my life. That stuff tastes worse than they tell you it tastes. And it turns out there’s quote-on-quote nothing wrong, but why am I sick all the time? So, I’ve had to go on the low fodmap diet which is a way of eliminating natural sugars that occur in fruit and vegetables and grains and all sorts of things and trying to figure out which one is causing issues. So, I scaled back on lactose and garlic and onions which are really key ingredients in most Italian cooking. Yeah, pretty much all the flavor. I can still eat cheese. That’s probably been the saving grace of this whole experience, but I can’t have any soft cheeses, so that eliminates things like cream cheese and pretty much anything that goes in lasagna. So, I’ve had a real tough time explaining to my family what I can eat, what I can’t eat, why I can’t eat it. My family still doesn’t understand that I’m doing this not just because I’m on some sort of wacky, hippy diet, it’s because otherwise I’m sick all of the time.