Voices for our Future: Etta Sikich

Voices for our Future: An EFF Interview Series
I’m tired of “experts”. I want to hear real people talk. I started writing about food and health because I wanted to share my struggle, and my successes, with the world. But I wouldn’t have had those successes without being inspired by the lives of others. No one reaches their goals in a vacuum.

Sharing stories is a powerful way to communicate. It connects us with a basic feature of the human mind: the narrative. It also helps us to see the world through another’s eyes. My new series, Voices for our Future, will share the stories of people who are struggling and succeeding with, thinking about, cooking, eating, and learning about food. Different voices, different goals, different approaches…all working hard to understand food and their relationship with it, and to help others do the same. I hope you’ll enjoy the interviews and find relatable stories, and if you have a story to share, please let me know so your voice can be heard! Find the rest of this interview series here.

Etta Sikich

(I interviewed Etta at her home in Sacramento where she lives with her husband [with frequent visits from her daughters and grandchildren.] She recently retired from teaching in the San Juan Unified school district, where I met her 25 years ago while attending Deterding Elementary in Carmichael. As a child, Etta was forced to consume foods that disturbed her, and has since worked to repair her relationship with food and become a positive nutrition role model for her students and her family. During our interview Etta shared powerful stories from her life as well as helpful hints on healthy cooking and her motivations for staying on track to avoid the health problems that affected her own mother.)

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So to start, please talk a little bit about food during your childhood.

How I eat now is totally different from how I ate as a kid. I grew up inner-city. We ate everything fried or boiled, to the point where it was unrecognizable. I used to be certain that I couldn’t eat beef because the way that it was served in my home always made me sick. My mother had eight kids and she had to do the best that she could with what little she had. I don’t think there was a single part of the pig or the cow that we didn’t eat. And my dad was a hunter, so he would bring home venison, which I did not like at all. I do not like to see a carcass. So there were plenty of times where I did not feel comfortable eating the food that was served, and I actually got whoopings for not wanting to eat something. At one point when I was probably in the sixth grade, the doctor told my mother I was malnourished. It hurt her so bad. It was because I would sit at the table and take a whooping rather than eat rabbits, deer, oxtails, pigtails…at the tip of the pig tail there is still hair on it! It was just totally gross to me.

Now I eat a lot of vegetables, and not too much sugar. When my kids were growing up, I didn’t like to give them sugar at all. I was with my first husband until my oldest two were almost nine years old. So when my husband wanted things like Kool-Aid, I didn’t want my children’s teeth to rot, so I made Kool-Aid with honey and warm water, because the warm water dissolves the honey. I made lemonade with honey, I made all their drinks that way from the time they were about six years old. I never gave them sugary cereals, I made breakfast every morning for them. I never bought Froot Loops and Cocoa Puffs and all that kind of stuff. They had oatmeal, or they had pancakes. I cooked everything from scratch.

A year and a half ago I was diagnosed as being pre-diabetic, and it really scared me. My mother was young, she was in her early 50s, when she was diagnosed as being diabetic. She started taking one pill, three times a week to treat it. Then she went to one pill a day…when my mother died at the age of 68 she was giving herself three shots a day. So that scared me so much that anything related to diabetes came out of a doctor’s mouth directed toward me. So he gave me this whole list of foods with the glycemic index, and I’ve just gone by that and cut all of those high glycemic foods out. I haven’t eaten white rice in over a year…I take that back, last week I had some sushi with white rice, but nothing other than that. I eat black rice, brown rice, quinoa. I haven’t had potato salad in over a year, so instead of potato salad when I have barbecues, I make cole slaw. I use raw sugar, I drink my coffee without any sugar and I have decaf, plus I don’t drink as much coffee as I used to. Now I just have one cup a day. I don’t drink sugary drinks and I have at least 90 ounces of water a day. In a year I’ve lost 24 pounds. I weighed 135 this morning, and I was fluctuating between 158 and 160 a year ago. The downside of that is that my clothes don’t fit! I can’t afford to buy all new clothes and I don’t sew! But I am not giving my clothes away and I’m refusing to gain the weight back to wear them, so I’m going to learn how to alter them myself. I have a sewing machine so I’m going to just try. I figure, how much harm can I do? So that’s the only downside.
I’m pulling my husband along with me, kicking and screaming, and I’m learning to cook quinoa so that it tastes good to him. I count our vegetables to make sure that we have five or more fruits and vegetables a day. I’m very cautious about what we eat. Not to the point of being frantic, like, “oh no, I can’t touch that!”…if I go somewhere with people and they have all kinds of food, I just only put on my plate what I know is healthy to eat.

I didn’t eat pork for a long time because I would get sick, but now I can eat it if I cook it myself. I know I need to marinate it in vinegar and garlic, because if I don’t I will get sick. But there are a lot of things I really don’t eat anymore. I don’t eat fried chicken anymore, so my husband sneaks and buys chicken strips at Bel-Air on the way home. (Laughter) But I really love desserts, so I try to make something with fruit. Yesterday I made a banana cream pie. Or I’ll make a raspberry lemonade cake. Something so that it has fruit in there, so that it’s not only sugar. My neighbors love me, because now when I bake a cake I’ll give half of it away to them. Whatever I bake I have to give some away. I made a pie last night because I knew I was going to have the grandkids here and they would help eat that, so that my husband’s not eating all of that and neither am I.

I love desserts, so I just have to make sure we don’t have dessert every night. When my kids were growing up, dessert was every night with your dinner. Dessert was never a condition of eating your meal, dessert was a part of eating your meal. That’s the hardest thing for me to cut out, desserts. There was a time when I would go out to eat and have my dessert first so that I would have room for it! Now I don’t eat the amount of chocolate that I used to, and even when I bake I use the 100% cacao dark chocolate.

So you’ve talked about this somewhat already, but what are your guiding principles for the way you eat now, other than avoiding high-glycemic foods?

I don’t eat things other people have touched; I cook from scratch. When I put a meal on my table you know that I am the only one who touched that meal. I’m not putting something on there that was made in a factory. I’m not putting anything on there that says “I’ve been processed in a plant that uses nuts”… I’m a true label reader, I want to buy food that is raised locally. I won’t buy chickens that need an airline ticket to get to me! (Laughter)

Where do you shop?

I shop at Bel-Air, and I go to a lot of the farmers markets. I’m a from-scratch cook. I’m the one who shredded the cheese that goes into my fish tacos. My tortillas are locally made, they didn’t come from New Mexico. To me it just seems really simple, but I betcha if I had six kids it wouldn’t be simple with my food dollar. But I just truly believe it’s all about what you put in. I turned 60 this year, and at 60 years of age you have to be careful about what you’re eating. I don’t want to be eating additional antibiotics, and that’s what I found out was making me sick when I was eating beef. It was the antibiotics they put in the feed. Now I get meat and chicken where I can drive to the farm where they are being raised. I talk to the butchers at the grocery store so I have a good rapport with them, I can talk to them about where the meat came from. If the fish is farmed, I want to know where the farm is, where the salmon is being raised, where the tilapia is being raised. Is it coming from China?

I’ve had to learn how to prepare chicken a thousand and one different ways. I’ve had to learn how to do my research and find out where my food is coming from. What is in the feed, what antibiotics are being used. I’m allergic to all the “-cillins” and “-cyclines”, tetracycline, amoxicillin, I’m allergenic to those. I will know less than three hours after eating meat if it had those antibiotics in the feed.

It sounds like to know as much as you do about where your food comes from, and to build that relationship with people, it takes a lot of energy and focus, so having come from this childhood experience where there were a lot of negative emotions around food, did you have to go through a process of sort of being able to feel good about food, or wanting to make learning about and cooking food a priority? Do you feel like you went through a shift to feeling good about food, or is it something you’re still dealing with?

I think it’s something that I’m still dealing with…When I go into a restaurant and I see oxtails as an entree and it’s $14.95 I think, why? This is the ass of something! This is something’s ass! You’re gonna charge me 14.95 for that? For the tail of a cow? Come on, that’s nasty! I mean, when I was a kid we ate pig ear sandwiches! You cook it, and then you batter it and you fry it until it’s crispy, you put mustard on it and onions, and you eat it as a sandwich. In my junior year of high school I started thinking about where things came from and it just made me sick. My mother always had pickled pig feet in the house, I saw hoghead cheese being made, with the head sitting there in the pot and the snout up in the air. And we’d eat the snout! They’d boil it and fry it until it’s crispy and we’d eat snout! That’s a pig’s nose, come on! I never liked it, I never even liked chitlins, I didn’t like the smell…that’s the guts! I knew that I never wanted to eat that stuff. But when you’re a kid and you’ve got no choice about what your mother puts on the table…I tried to eat around it, and I got in a lot of trouble for trying to eat around stuff. I’ve been slapped across the face right there at the dinner table by my dad. My dad would say, “It’s food. Food is food!”

I did not want my own children to grow up like that. I did not want my own children to be force-fed anything. My youngest daughter could never eat kidney beans. So she would sit at the table and my husband once was going to make her eat it. He made her sit at the table with kidney beans in her mouth, and those beans actually turned white from being in her mouth for so long. Finally he and I got into a big argument, and I had her spit them out in my hand and they were absolutely white, no color left in them. From then on I never served another kidney bean to my kids. I didn’t make my kids eat anything they didn’t particularly like, but I did always give them lots of fruits and vegetables. There was always a fruit bowl on my table. Even when I was on welfare, I budgeted my money to make sure I could provide fruits and vegetables to my children.

Another thing I realized I wanted to change is that we used to cut up watermelon and sprinkle salt on it and eat it. We would even take a sweet orange and put salt on it. When I was in college I realized the perils of too much salt. I just thought that it made no sense. You want to buy the sweetest watermelon, and then you put salt on it? When I was growing up, my mother would also put sugar on our rice. But I stopped that, I didn’t put sugar on my rice when my girls were little. I would put applesauce on it sometimes, but not sugar. I just did things differently with my kids.

So for your diet now, you try to limit salt?

I use sea salt. Some people tell me that I need to use some of the iodized salt too. But if the recipe calls for a 1/4 teaspoon of salt, I’ll put a pinch. I know you need salt, to enhance the flavor of recipes.

Yeah, that’s definitely part of being a good cook, appropriately salting things.

Yeah, but that’s about it, I don’t salt everything. I use a lot of other spices, I use fresh herbs, sage, basil, thyme…I grow a lot of them in my yard. Rosemary, parsley…so I use a lot of them fresh. I have bay trees all around here, so I use fresh bay. I use other spices to get more flavor. And my husband thinks I’m a good cook, so that’s all that matters!

There you go. (Laughter) So you’ve talked about how, as a mother and a grandmother, you’ve helped your children have more healthy food around, but also knowing of your long career as a teacher, it would be great if you could talk about what you’ve noticed as a teacher, the way your students and their families eat, if you feel like there’s good or bad trends there…

It’s bad, it’s bad…I’m retired now, and so I substitute teach a lot. I see a lot of kids, and I see a lot of rotten teeth, with the silver caps and all of that. I see a lot of obesity. And I see the kids come in with these big huge bags of Takis and I say to them, “Tell me what’s nutritious about that?” I take the bag and I put it on the overhead and I say, “Read that. If it has more than four syllables, it’s a chemical made in a lab, this is not something growing from the earth.” I always have things with me, I always have almonds, I have mandarin oranges to give them, I always carry extra things in my lunch, to show them what is in my lunch. I’ll ask them where those foods came from, have they seen these growing…I didn’t see Takis growing from a tree! I show them the ingredient list, and I ask if anything on it says “peppers”. I tell them that there are no hot peppers in it, it’s burning your mouth and it’s hot in your mouth because of chemicals reacting on your tongue, sending a message to your brain that says “hot”. Some of them you can get, but the rest of them say, “No, my mama bought this for me. This is what I’m eating.”

Right, so sometimes it’s like, what option do they have?

But if you think of this big bag of Takis, the big bag was probably $1.59, you could have bought a banana and an apple for that. When I look at the parents, and see you’re 27, and your kid’s ten…I look at them when they’re rushing in and they’re late and they have a McDonald’s bag. I’ve just gone through this whole thing with my great nephew who’s six. I told him, “I can’t take you to McDonald’s because they have chemicals in their food that will make you sick, they will make you not be a good rememberer.” He’s having a hard time remembering my phone number, and I told him its because he’s eating too much McDonald’s, that’s why you can’t remember my phone number. But I truly worry that the parents, the students and the students’ parents, have eaten so much bad stuff, things that they can’t pronounce…if you can’t pronounce it, why are you eating it? I can pronounce celery, carrot, sage, onion.

Yeah, if you’re watching a cooking show you never here, “Ok, so now we’re going to get out the partially hydrogenated…

Yeah, the hexylene…so why are you eating that? I just have a real problem with what people feed their children.

Why do you think it is like that? Why is that the way they feed their children?

Because it’s cheaper. It’s cheaper. I saw something that said, “If you can buy a hamburger for 99 cents, why would you buy a piece of fruit that costs more?” I bought a peach the other day that was $1.82. It was $2.99 a pound. It was $1.82 for one peach. You can take $5 and get your kids burgers, whereas that’s not going to get you much at the grocery store. Plus it’s just easier, it’s easy to go through the drive-thru.

Do you feel like you’ve seen any examples of families who are doing things differently, or have you been able to help anyone you know to make some positive changes? Any progress?

There were a couple of kids who were proud to tell me, “Mrs. Sikich, I have a nutritious snack today.” You just have to be an example. You just have to continue to be an example. You can’t be the teacher sitting at your desk eating jelly beans, or eating M-and-Ms and tell the kids to eat a nutritious snack. You have to keep reinforcing and reinforcing, and giving the parents examples of nutritious snacks. You have to keep doing that. For me personally, it’s easier for me to buy a packet of fruit cups then to spend $1.59 or 99 cents everyday for chips. But we have to be the example. There were a couple of girls at the end of this last school year who had noticed that I had really lost a lot of weight, and they asked me about it. So I told them that I don’t want to take medicine for being diabetic, so I stopped eating the foods that will make me diabetic. I told them the same things my doctor told me, to cut back on the sugar, the white rice, the salt. I just try to be the example. I see so many young kids, twelve years old, my granddaughter is one of them, twelve years old and she weighs more than me. She is not happy about her self image. When she is here, I’m the example. When she’s here, she likes what she eats. She’s not eating fried food, she’s not eating Top Ramen. I feed her a lot of fish, we grill a lot, I make oven-baked chicken instead of fried. All of my grandkids love it when they’re here. They love the fact that there’s always fruit to eat, there’s always healthy stuff to eat. They see me make my own food, we have salad, and they see me make my own dressing, with fresh orange juice in it, that’s really good.

What I think is hard for people is that you can’t be a mother who works all day, and then come home and make a from-scratch meal. I mean, you could, but it’s like finishing one job and then starting a second job. It is a lot of work. It is a lot of work, and it takes a lot of planning. I plan my meals so I know what I’m going to cook every day of the week. I keep accounting of what’s in my refrigerator so I don’t buy any fruits or vegetables that I know I’m not going to be using within the next four days. Although I have learned a great trick to preserve fruits like raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, I put them in a bowl full of cold water, put two capfuls of vinegar in the water, let it sit for 10 minutes and then I drain it. Try that! You can keep your fruit much longer that way.

So it sounds like you’ve found a few ways to make it not quite as exhausting. Because I think you’re right, I think that is a big barrier for people. Everyone is working so much, and they don’t really have time to devote to good food. But it’s great that you’ve found strategies and now that you’re retired you have more time to focus on it.

Any last thoughts you’d like to share?

You are what you eat. If you eat pink slime, if you eat junk, don’t expect to be a pillar of health when you’re putting unhealthy stuff in…I’ve had friends die in the last couple of years that I felt died too young. One drank a lot, and as much as I tried to help her, she was resistant to it all. So if someone comes and says, “I can show you documentation on how this will make you feel better, how this will prolong your life…” I will at least listen and try it. But my main motivation is in that little four year old boy out there (points to grandson). I want to see my grandson graduate college, and he is four years old. That is my motivation. My mother did not have an opportunity to see any great-grandchildren, and I want to meet my great-grandchildren, I want to see my grandchildren graduate college. I want to see them become adults, become contributing members to the world society. That’s it. That’s my motivation.

Thank you.

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2 thoughts on “Voices for our Future: Etta Sikich

  1. This was a great article. Etta and I were close friends in the late 70’s and have stayed in touch and thanks to FB, I am able to stay current. Nice! Thanks for interviewing this wonderful woman.

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