Humans of Agni

Jose, Washington, D.C.

"Food was central to the way I grew up — as it is in every Puerto Rican family. We couldn’t afford to eat very healthy, but healthy eating wasn’t really a thing back then. There was a lot of grease, sugar, more grease, more sugar, stews, pork, rice and beans all the time. Then there’s Christmastime food. Pasteles and arroz con dulce and pudin (baked bread pudding). And the cookies — my aunt Nuni’s amazing cookies! Puerto Rican society revolves around food, but even more so around the holidays. We’d all go over to my grandmother’s little apartment in the Bronx and there would be food just completely covering the table. You couldn’t actually sit down at the table because there wasn’t a spare inch of space. Seriously. Or we’d go to an aunt or uncle’s home over the weekend and spend all day eating, snacking, drinking coffee together.

Every evening, my mom and I would go upstairs to have dinner with my grandma and my aunt who lived in the same apartment building as us. Those three women raised me — they were my nuclear family. Every night after dinner, we’d have a piece of Sara Lee cake with lots of sugar frosting on it and a glass of RC Cola or Pepsi. Every night. Without fail. It’s a miracle I’ve been able to wean myself from so much of that. I don’t drink any soda anymore, I can control my cake consumption, and I stopped putting sugar in my coffee from one day to the next a few years back. But it’s tough to resist the sweetness of those memories associated with the food I grew up on.

I don’t have my grandma or aunt anymore, and my mom lives in Florida. There’s a rush that comes with consuming the food they surrounded me with, the foods that I associate with them so strongly. I also don’t get to see my mom that often. She can’t cook anymore, but up until a few years ago, every time I visited she’d fill the whole table with food from my childhood. She’s always been like that. We joke in my family that between calling my mom to let her know you’re heading over and 15 minutes later when you arrive, she’d have prepared a feast to greet you with. I love it so much in the moment — I love the love with which it’s prepared and shared with me. And I really appreciate all the effort my mom always put into those meals for me, but I also now know there’s no way I could eat like that on a daily basis anymore. I think my system has changed — that food is way too heavy and too rich for me now. It still tastes delicious though, especially as it brings back all the memories of growing up (and family and friends long gone). Food seems to come with so much emotional baggage and so much inherent pleasure.

I now seek to embrace the food that I know is healthiest (or at least healthier) for me, yet it’s a constant balance and struggle. It’s not always clear right away which foods are best for me, and our society makes it so easy and inexpensive to make the wrong food choices.

I can only directly correlate the food I eat to how my body feels when my body’s response is really extreme. Circus Peanuts are a great example — I guess they’re not even food, but they’re something I used to eat every now and then when we could afford it. They were a fascinating special treat when I was a young boy. I would devour the bag in one fell swoop when I could get them as a kid because they were so sweet and I was fascinated by their bright orange color. Every now and then today, when I see them somewhere, I give in to the nostalgia and buy a bag.  This happens maybe two or three times a year and I will eat that entire bag in the car on my way home. I also know I have to eat it before I get home because I don’t want my wife to see that I bought it. Within an hour, my stomach is in revolt. I know it’s not good for me. I can tell a few pieces into scarfing down the bag that it’s not agreeing with my body, but even that doesn’t stop me. In those moments, I’m so addicted. It becomes an obsession. I’m not thinking of what I’m eating, I’m just craving more of it. I’ve been able to exercise an amazing amount of restraint the last two or three times I’ve seen Circus Peanuts — I’ve stopped, looked at the bag, picked it up, and placed it back on the shelf (this last happened pre-COVID-19) rather than in my shopping cart. For me, that’s incredible.

These small wins and moments make me feel proud (even if they seem silly) — like I’m doing something good for my body.

On a healthier note, another food I crave is watermelon in the summertime. I’ll slice up a fresh watermelon (or cantaloupe or honeydew) and put it in the fridge before going for a run. When I come back from that run, nothing feels as refreshing and rewarding to my body as eating that melon. It almost makes my body feel lighter as I’m eating it. The crisp, sweet, refreshing bites make me feel so good. Like I’m really doing something great for myself.

There are still things, like bread and croissants, real butter and fresh cream, that I enjoy often. But these things that feel like indulgences quickly trigger mitigation strategies — if I eat or drink them, how do I “compensate” for doing so? Do I go for an extra run? Walk the dogs a second time? Eat less tomorrow? It’s tough not to think that way. But I’m trying to focus less on that, on being on a particular diet or eliminating things, and more on being more mindful about what I am choosing to eat. My mantra today, as I stand on the doorstep of my “mature years”, is simply this: I want to enjoy whatever I choose to eat, regardless of the form it may take. Even if it’s not agreed upon that it’s as healthy for me — I love butter and cream — I get so much pleasure from those things and there’s something to that, too.  The key is being, and staying, mindful. This, in hindsight, has been the biggest challenge for me as an adult. As a salesman, I’ve routinely traveled tens of thousands of miles per year. Arriving in a strange town, oftentimes late at night, my options may be limited, or I may have work to do before the next morning’s meeting. So eating was something I did without giving it much thought, as my priority was just to eat something. 

Yet as I’ve grown older, I began to put on a few extra pounds and I realized this is not sustainable and I’m not feeling as good as I once was. If I wish to continue to indulge my yearning for a croissant or a glass of wine, then I want to do so in moderation — tasting every bit of it as I consume it. Mindful fueling, I call it.

And again, society doesn’t make these choices any easier for us. I’m still amused at how one year real butter is good for you, but then it’s not. One study will proclaim that two glasses of wine are good for you, then another will find that alcohol causes more harm than good (or eggs, or milk, or…). There’s been a volleyball of scientific studies as to what is good for you and what isn’t. The USDA’s food pyramid propaganda doesn’t help. I think it’s pretty clear now that fruits and vegetables are overall healthy and beneficial. It feels like we’re slowly getting to a core understanding of some fundamentals, but then walking into a grocery store it seems like 95% of what’s in every supermarket seems to not be very healthy. Things are loaded with artificial preservatives, fillers, colors, ingredients you can’t pronounce, much less know what they are. As I heard someone say recently, if the ingredients list includes something you don’t recognize or can’t pronounce, you shouldn’t eat it. Fresh food, pure food, or things minimally processed are best — and that’s what I try to increase my intake of now.

Anyways — I clearly have a lot of thoughts on this all. I will continue to be more mindful of what I’m consuming, choosing my food smartly. If I’m going to take in calories, I want those calories to bring me pleasure or fuel. For however much longer I’m on this marvelous planet of ours, I am doing my best to eat fresh, organic, local and to savor every bite or sip of whatever is crossing my lips.

And that’s huge progress for this Puerto Rican kid from the Bronx. Bon appetit."

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