In June 2014, Brooke and I went to New York City for the Fancy Foods Show.
It was a particularly special trip for us becausethat is where our journey together began, and it was our first time going back to New York together since moving to Miami, FL and then Charlotte, NC. After a truly remarkable trip (see our Instagram for full recap), I was telling my co-workers about how much I miss New York, especially the food. For a week we basically scheduled our days around where and what we were going to eat. For me, it was the perfect New York vacation! It wasn’t until my co-worker, Ozzy, called me a “food guy” after describing our trip that I realized it was true. I’m a food guy! Food has been the center of my world since as far back as I can remember, whether I realized it at the time, or not. This is the story about my lifelong journey with food.
Growing up I was about as picky of an eater as there ever has been. Grilled cheese, hot dogs, butter pasta, and plain McDonald’s cheeseburgers were my food groups. That’s it. If it wasn’t one of those things, I wasn’t interested, and believe me I made that part known. I was that kid in restaurants who cried loudly if his French fries were touching the lettuce, tomato, onion, and pickle on the side of the plate. How my family put up with me and actually still loves me is a mystery I’ll never understand. Despite my “diet” I had energy for days. I was constantly running around, playing sports, and competing with my older siblings (which still happens today thanks to our famous Muldoon Olympics). When I was about 12 and going through puberty I grew like a weed. In fact, I got Osgood-Schlatter disease from going through such a big growth spurt. My dad and I have this great memory of the doctor sharing the results after my yearly physical. The verdict? Perfect health. I was in the top percentile for height, weight, blood pressure, cholesterol, etc. The kicker was, the doctor turned to us and says in all seriousness, “Wow Sean you’re in such great health. You must be eating all of your vegetables!” At which our immediate response was hysterical laughter. One point for Sean, zero points for my parents, science, and logic!
My First Taste of Sports Nutrition
Heading into my senior year of high school, 2004, I was already a two-time Illinois All-State and All-Conference selection in track and field. I had been training for three years to earn a Division I scholarship and I will stop at nothing to accomplish my goals. So my dad had me work with one of his best friends and a man that would ultimately change the trajectory of my life, Dr. Tom O’Bryan, who specializes in nutrition and food allergies. Dr. Tom was the first person who really taught me about sports performance and what all it entails. We did bi-weekly deep tissue massages on my legs. We talked about pre and post workout nutrition, inflammation-causing foods that would slow down my recovery, and food allergies and my likely sensitivities. He did some blood tests and found I have sensitivities to gluten, dairy, eggs and soy. Once I learned which foods could affect my performance, giving them up wasn’t hard for me. I’m a very logical person with incredible discipline. Tom helped me create my ideal athletic diet excluding those foods. No biggie. If eating or not eating certain foods would give me a competitive edge and help me earn my scholarship, I was all for it.
One challenge to sticking to this diet was, this was 2004 and gluten-free wasn’t a buzzword yet. Allergen-friendly foods weren’t readily available in stores, but luckily, I had a secret weapon… my mom! Tom gave me the information but my mom made it real and practical. She did all the grocery shopping, cooked every meal for me, and helped me with my weekly planning. We did true meal preps well before it was a trendy hashtag. I was shocked at how many “unrelated” symptoms cleared up once I changed my diet. I felt like a fog had just been lifted from my head. I could think more sharply and was filled with more energy. No more dandruff, dry skin, excessive cuticles (although I do love a good manicure), or pimples. I found myself smiling more and was generally less irritable. My daily stomach roller coaster was gone, along with my ever-present running nose and bright red cheeks.
However, I was still a growing young man and training at an alarming rate, so I was always hungry. I could literally eat everything in sight and still wasn’t ever full. Not to mention, I had to bring my lunch with me to school everyday (which came packed by my mom in a brown paper bag with a little inspirational note written on it), I couldn’t eat if I went out dinner with my friends, and basically was one step removed during all social settings. I can be a bit of an introvert so that wasn’t a huge deal—just annoying.
After an incredibly physically and mentally draining year, I got great news. I had earned my scholarship to the University of Illinois, a top-25 nationally ranked track school. I was happy and had worked so hard to get there, but for the first time, I was all on my own, without my performance team, a.k.a., Tom and my mom.
Giving Up Clean Eating
Without them, and throughout college I gave up on eating based around my food sensitivities. It was difficult to shop, expensive, and required a ton of time and effort, so I reverted back to “regular” life. No surprise I was repeatedly injured during college. I ended up quitting the team after my junior year because I couldn’t handle the constant disappointment of the mounting injuries and subsequent lack of performance. In the 3 years I competed, I never ran one healthy outdoor 400m race. My body couldn’t last long enough to make it through an indoor season injury free.
Knowing what I know now, I strongly believe that my food choices played a part in that. I don’t think they were the sole cause but definitely a piece of the puzzle. So, my athletic career didn’t turn out the way I would have liked, but that’s a post for another day. I graduated with my Bachelor’s of Science degree in Kinesiology and then moved to Washington D.C. to work at a non-profit.
While living in D.C. I continued ignoring my food sensitivities and ate like a “regular person.” After years of high-level training I was pretty burnt out on exercising too. I lost about 15 pounds and was the lightest I’d been since high school, and not in a good way. I was skinny, pale, and had no life in my eyes—a walking skeleton. No surprise that my time in D.C. was some of the unhappiest in my life. I basically gave up taking care of myself and was stuck in a rut and didn’t know how it get out. After talking things over with my family, I decided to do something that had been on my mind for a while but I wasn’t yet desperate enough to do. I quit my job and moved to Cuba. My mom and grandparents immigrated from Cuba during the revolution so I still have some immediate family there. I decided to go to Cuba for as long as I was allowed, and figure myself and my life out. Oh, one thing I forget to mention, I don’t really speak Spanish. I was about at the level of a cute toddler just learning to talk. I knew a lot of words but had no idea about grammar, or how to structure a sentence. Whatever—minor details.
Falling In Love with My Food Intolerances
I ended up living in Cuba (totally legally) for two months. It was during this time that I was re-born and became myself again. I exercised every day and ate like a mad man. My exercise routine was all body weight stuff, which included doing 500+ push ups per day. I would workout on my rooftop, shirtless and let the morning sun feed me its light and power. My body craved the Vitamin D the sun wanted to give me. If you ask a Cuban living in Cuba what their biggest problems/stresses are it will uniformly be: breakfast, lunch, and dinner. So when a guest is over the ultimate sign of respect is to feed them. Nothing material, nothing expensive, nothing fancy. But what they can offer is something life giving. Even though most Cubans struggle to find their meals for the day when I was invited over they found a way to make a Thanksgiving feast in my honor, just because I was a guest from America. The selfless spirit and generosity of the Cuban people literally brought me back to life at the time when I needed it most. To this day, nothing quite makes me smile like the sight, or better yet, smell of arroz con pollo and maduros. The funny thing about most Cuban food: it happens to be gluten, dairy, egg, and soy free. What a coincidence… Or maybe, it’s just the universe’s way of subtlety kicking my butt back into the orbit I belong in!
After my stay in Cuba I moved to Brooklyn, NY and found a place with my brother and his wife. I worked as a personal trainer at an exclusive private training gym in Manhattan called Definitions. I was in a happy but grueling routine of training up to 12 clients a day, working out, practicing yoga, and eating everything imaginable—as long as it fit my diet. After a year of this, my life changed again... I met her. If you’re reading this blog then you know who I’m talking about. My best friend, my partner in crime, my business partner, and my soon to be wife (in 127 days to be exact). Brooke. While she and I share a lot of common interests and passions I believe it was food that fostered our deep love for one another. There is nothing more gratifying than providing life for another human being. Feeding each other does just that. Brooke had never met “someone like me,” with all of my food issues, but she was still determined to take care of me. So she went on Gluten-Free Goddess’s website (whom we both love and highly recommend) to search for recipes for me. She didn’t let the inconvenience of my food intolerances get in her way.
She would make me treats; some of which were delicious and some that were, ummm not so bad… We made frequent trips around the city to find restaurants and bakeries that catered to people like me. NYC is unparalleled when it comes to food. It literally has everything. One day, we found a total game changer: Erin McKenna’s Bakery (formally Babycakes NYC). They showed us that allergen-friendly foods can not only be edible, they can be INCREDIBLE!!! Babycakes brought us both so much happiness. I had finally found treats I could eat guilt-free and Brooke found joy in watching me smile with every bite.
The deeply intimate act of journeying around the city to feed each other brought us closer than anything else could. After a few months we moved in together and then eventually moved so that I could get my Master’s Degree in Exercise Physiology from the University of Miami, and to take the next step in my fitness career. I don’t know if you’ve heard but Miami has quite a few Cubans so it’s a good place to get vaca frita, croquettas, churassco, and of course arroz con pollo.
If you don’t know what happened next, I’ll give you a hint… it was the beginning of bruks bars.
Thank you for reading about my food journey. I’d love to hear about yours!!! If you feel like sharing, please email me at firstname.lastname@example.org.