Once, a friend of mine saw a photo of me as a child and commented, “Wow, you were chubby!” Instead of being offended, I felt pride — back then, I truly savored food and ate well without any shame.
Growing up as a second-generation Chinese American in the Midwest, my family had to adapt to what was available to us; the only whole fish that mom could buy at the supermarket was catfish, so she sauteed it in a sticky soy sauce with charred green onions and ginger. I would mix the sauce, fish, and rice together and eat it with gusto. During elementary school, my parents would bring my sisters and me to Hong Kong for four weeks during Lunar New Year.
In the mornings our grandma would take my younger sister Emily to buy groceries and a breakfast of fresh soybean milk, youtiao, fan tuan, and my favorite, a bag of cut up steamed rice rolls doused in a sweet red sauce, soy sauce, and sesame. I’d spear the rice rolls with a toothpick and gobble them one by one. In one of my earliest memories of those times, my grandma looks impressed (and a bit scared) as I ask for a second bowl of her seafood noodles made with a rich clam broth that I can still taste today. My relatives knew that I was different but it didn’t matter when it came to food because I ate like a champ.
Born with a neuromuscular disability, I struggled to walk and started to use a wheelchair at age seven. I could not play or exercise like the other kids but I found great pleasure in food and dreaming up recipes in my head. I faced many restrictions in my daily activities and social interactions. But with food, I was free and creative. I could go wild with my imagination through experimenting with flavor combinations, whether it was the time I slathered crunchy peanut butter on a hot dog, or when I made a goat cheese terrine for a party in one of my first attempts to do something fancy. I am so glad I did not deny myself or feel the need to lose weight when I was young.
These meals now live on in my mental library and give me comfort. As an adult, the progression of my disability has resulted in difficulty swallowing and eating. My weight and nutrition have declined in recent years and a series of medical crises last summer led me to the usage of a G-J tube where I receive nutrition and hydration through my stomach and small intestine. I wrote for Eater about the change to my relationship with food: While I can no longer eat by mouth or inhale the fragrance of barbecue or coffee, my desire for it never waned.
Sharing my new reality has been part of my healing process and has prompted me to celebrate what I have. (My freezer currently has four pints of ice cream, and tasting the flavors and spitting them out to prevent choking is my present food hack.) But there are so many more stories on the joys and pleasures of eating, cooking, and sustenance that need to be told by a community that is underrepresented and underreported in food media.
To finally highlight this abundance, Low and Slow is a partnership with Eater featuring a series of interviews, essays, and reported pieces by disabled people. Through November, journalists, activists, and writers will reflect on the ways food intersects with the topics of disability justice, mental health, and more. The series will include Brandy Schillace on the joys and intimacies of gardening; Sami Schalk in conversation with Clarkisha Kent, author of Fat Off, Fat On: A Big Bitch Manifesto, about fat politics, the relationship between fatness and disability, and the pleasures of eating while fat; and Andrew Leland on how dining out changes when you’re blind. Each monthly installment, with illustrations by Ananya Rao-Middleton and audio narration by Cheryl Green, offers a dazzling array of disabled perspectives that are rarely given their due.
Disabled people are masters of innovation, creativity, and adaptation. We learn how to work with our bodies, sustain ourselves and our communities, and navigate through inaccessible and ableist environments. This series provides merely a sample of this brilliance through the prism of food.
These days I find such pleasure having friends over, feeding them, and watching them eat. I read restaurant reviews and collect recipes even if I will never try those dishes, and braising has always been one of my favorite cooking techniques. My large orange Dutch oven is a tried-and-true friend in making delicious meals such as five-spice pork belly or short ribs with red wine and root vegetables, cooked low and slow.
But “low and slow” is not just a cooking method. Taking your time, extracting tenderness from sinewy bits, letting relationships, as with flavors, simmer to deepen in complexity — all of this is a way of life, and one that disabled people in particular can speak to with such wisdom. I hope you enjoy this Low and Slow series as much as I do. And beyond that, I hope it reminds you to savor everything life has to offer, and leaves you hungry for more.
Alice Wong is a writer, activist, and consultant based in San Francisco. She is the founder of the Disability Visibility Project and author of Year of the Tiger, available now.
Ananya Rao-Middleton is an illustrator and disability activist who uses her work to speak truth to the voices of marginalized communities.
Cheryl Green is an access artist and filmmaker with acquired disabilities, whose work focuses on disability identity and culture and on making media accessible.