Cravings: How I Conquered Food
When I was 20, I crossed the burning border / I came to find the good life / And brought my daughter here … We came for democracy and hope / Now all we have is hope … My daughter is a Dreamer …
The rapturous applause at Rockford’s historic Coronado Performing Arts Center had subsided into a breathless silence. The audience was hanging onto every perfectly placed word as 79-year-old folk music icon Judy Collins, having set down her guitar, began to sing a cappella in a silky-smooth crystalline voice. She was singing “Dreamers,” a new composition about the plight of immigrants. As her song came to a close, not a whisper could be heard for long moments as the audience slowly re-emerged from the deep emotional place she had taken them.
Judy Collins was performing that night with her past lover Stephen Stills of the celebrated folk/rock ensemble Crosby, Stills & Nash; the song “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” was an offspring of that relationship. Collins and Stills were strong voices of social activism during my youth in the late 60s and early 70s. Emerging from the New York folk music scene of the 60s, Judy Collins had been a contemporary of Bob Dylan, Joan Baez, Joni Mitchell and Leonard Cohen.
I must confess that I’ve been smitten with Judy Collins ever since I first saw her perform at Chicago’s Auditorium Theater in 1970. It was my first grown-up concert. I was 17. Almost 50 years have passed and here I was again. Both of us older, both of us wiser, and her late-life rendition of Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” took on a new meaning for me:
I’ve looked at life from both sides now
From up and down, and still somehow
It’s life’s illusions I recall
I really don’t know life at all.
This is a food column, and at this point my editor and readers must be scanning ahead looking for the recipes. Well, here is the backstory …
In the past, I’ve had success getting backstage at musical events by preparing food, printing up an official-looking invoice, and saying that I’m a caterer hired to provide hospitality for the green room. Trying to decide what was appropriate for a Judy Collins show, I googled “Is Judy Collins vegetarian?” This was the first hit: “How Judy Collins conquered her eating disorder” from USA Today. This caught me off guard. I discovered that she had struggled all her life with alcoholism and later bulimia. She now has a strict food plan and always prepares her own meals, no matter where she is. She travels with her meals pre-packed in insulated bags and carries a scale to weigh and measure her portions. She doesn’t have cravings and is never hungry. She only eats what she’s supposed to be eating because in her line of work, “you have to live like an athlete.”
Judy Collins had recently written a book about her relationship with food titled Cravings: How I Conquered Food. I bought the book and read it ahead of her concert date. I was surprised and pleased to find out that we had both arrived at a similar place in our philosophies about food and eating, though our journeys had been vastly different. I was able to finagle a brief moment with her before the show, and as she autographed my copy of Cravings (with my business card prominently sticking out from between the pages) I bent over and whispered that her book was profound and meaningful and I desperately wanted to interview her. She lifted her head and looked into my pleading eyes and asked my name. She then turned to her assistant, handed her my card and said, “Make sure Peter gets an interview.”
It took more than two months and several postponements to finally catch up with Ms. Collins. I was finally able to interview her by phone from her hotel room in Phoenix where she was on tour with Stephen Stills.
We talked about her book Cravings, which chronicles her struggle with alcoholism, obsession with her weight and body image, her search for a diet plan that would support her obsession, and finally her surrender to bulimia as a solution when the diets failed to live up to their promises. Even after she entered an alcohol rehabilitation center and conquered her alcohol demon, her eating disorder persisted. As she put it: “I have been sober for 38 years now, and I do not have to drink alcohol. But three times a day I still have to face food. How I do that is my lifelong struggle.” She found the support she needed in GreySheeters Anonymous, a 12-step program for people with eating disorders. She came to realize that sugar, grains, wheat and corn induced cravings and caused her to overconsume. She also realized that these foods were also what alcohol was made of. By eliminating these things from her diet, she stopped craving them.
At age 79, Judy says she is happier and more creative than ever. I asked her to share her secrets for so much energy and intensity at an age when most people have slowed down. She explained: “For me, exercise along with a diet free from sugar, grains, flour and junk is the secret and my fountain of youth. I’m a workaholic as well as an alcoholic. In addition to performing 130 shows a year, I practice daily, I write almost every day (she has written 11 books), I always exercise (she has a treadmill at home and runs in her hotel room when she’s on tour), and I get a lot of sleep. I drink a lot of water and take lots of vitamins. Taking sugar, grains, flour, wheat and bad carbs out of our food plans can make a dramatic change – we lose weight, we gain beauty, we come for the vanity and stay for the sanity. We are reborn.”