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news: food critic fights anorexia at home

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Title/Topic: Food Critic Fights Anorexia at Home
Posted On: 10/12/2009
Oct 12 2009, Mountain View, California (Mountain View Voice) – It is an old story: A teen rebels against a parent. But what happens when the parent’s career is based on eating, and the teen’s rebellion a hunger strike that spirals into an uncontrollable eating disorder?

Such was the case with Sheila and Lisa Himmel, a food critic mom and her daughter from Palo Alto. They tell their story in a new book, “Hungry: A Mother and Daughter Fight Anorexia,” which they co-authored.

Sheila is a celebrated Bay Area food critic and Palo Alto resident who worked for many years at the San Jose Mercury News. She has also written food reviews for the Voice and its sister paper, the Palo Alto Weekly.

“Hungry” is not just another book about anorexia, of which there are many. It is also a portrait of how a confluence of societal and social pressures wreaked havoc on the Himmel family. As Sheila highlights in the book, their situation was fraught with a terrible irony:

“While I was out judging American’s favorite vegetable (French fries) for flavor, texture, and price,” she writes, “my daughter was home, starving herself.”

Though the story is as personal as can be, the authors wanted to “use our story as something that would resonate with people, if they had a family member who had an eating disorder or, if not, a family struggling with something,” Sheila told the Voice. “I also tried to weave in some reporting and interviews and research to put it in a larger context,” she said.

In some ways, the Himmels’ experience with food is an anomaly. But the book also underscores the rapt attention most Americans pay to food, eating and body image, whether it’s getting together around the dinner table or trying to lose weight

Since the book’s release last month, Sheila said she’s heard from families all over the country.

“It’s been gratifying, the reaction,” she said.

The decision to write “Hungry” came after overwhelming response to a Mercury News cover story on the family’s battle with the eating disorder. Still, it wasn’t an easy decision to make.

“As a journalist you don’t write about yourself. Your voice is in it, but you’re not the story,” Sheila said. However, “At some point we just kind of got over that” — though in retrospect there are some things in the book she might have omitted.

It would be difficult for any parent to talk about the issues “Hungry” brings up. Besides the gruesome details of Lisa’s fight with anorexia and bulimia, the book touches on tough themes like gender and the generation gap. It also seeks to elaborate on the more well-known complexities families deal with, such as sibling rivalry and the mother-daughter relationship.

These subjects may be even more pronounced in Silicon Valley, with its fast-paced, success-obsessed culture and, as Sheila put it, a “fetishization of food” in the Bay Area.

But the book succeeds because the Himmels are so candid about their journey, and in the end, Sheila said, it was therapeutic to write.

“I think it helped both of us in the same way, in that it helped us figure out what happened,” she said. “We had to keep looking at it; we couldn’t just say, ‘OK that’s over and let’s move on.'”

“It’s like writing anything. It helps you figure out how you feel or how you think.

For now, Sheila said, Lisa is recovering, not recovered.

“You can totally recover from eating disorders — it takes years. She’s just in that process now, but she’s been exercising and eating really well.”

In the end, she added, her relationship to food has grown stronger.

“In a funny way it’s made me appreciate it more, because I see now it can be such a source of struggle,” Sheila explained. “It’s more important to me than ever that we just eat well and enjoy it. And everybody can do that. We all have our excuses, but everybody can pick good food and eat in moderation and get a little exercise.”

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