Boredom doesn’t suit me, and my family can confirm that. I’m pretty sure this restlessness and desire to change things up, likely due to my military brat childhood, drew me to genetic counseling – the field I joined more than 20 years ago as a doe-eyed Sarah Lawrence College student. My career decision induced blank stares and confusion when I told others (including my parents, both physicians), since so few had any idea what it was.
And over the next 15 years, I carefully crafted a response to the "What do you do?" question. It worked, for the most part.
Until that question changed.
No one joins the genetics field to be bored. Every day brings new discoveries, ideas, and greater awareness. We’ve seen the Human Genome Project completed, a 15-year milestone that makes this year’s National DNA Day pretty special. Genetic testing options, built on growing scientific evidence and technology, are released at a staggering rate – more than 14 genetic tests, on average, enter the market every day. Genetic testing is also branching out of the medical system and towards health consumers curious about their genomes.
Genetic counseling itself evolves in response to increasing technology. My colleagues Erynn Gordon, Dawn Laney, and I are thrilled to have our American Journal of Medical Genetics, Part C article included in an issue dedicated to our field in the precision medicine era. Writing it helped us see ways that technology can help, such as by making the practice of genetic counseling more efficient to meet increasing demand.
When I graduated, Perspectives in Genetic Counseling, the National Society of Genetic Counselors’ member publication, listed jobs and members’ media mentions in every issue. Years later during my Executive Editor term, the team and I redirected that content – there was too much to keep up accurately.
My point is, genetic counseling is out there. It’s hard to get through a news feed without catching a story about genetics, genomics, or genetic counseling (even if yours aren’t tuned that way, like mine). And recently, rare disease and patient advocacy – both central to a genetic counselor’s work – are getting their well-deserved time in the limelight.
Which circles me back to that “What do you do?” question and how it’s changed. Nowadays, I see fewer blank stares when I tell people I’m a genetic counselor. Instead, I may hear, “Wow, that’s cool!” and the conversation might end there. Except that I’m curious and trained to ask people questions… so I do. What have they learned about the field? Why do they think it’s cool?
Many times, the answers are correct. The field changes quickly, is growing, it’s a solid career choice – someone might even know a genetic counselor personally. But honestly, there are a number of answers that are off-base. People may have the idea that genetic counselors tell people if they should have kids, that we’re capable of running and comprehensively interpreting a DNA test at lightning speed (thanks, “Grey’s Anatomy”!), or that we’re subversively plotting to create a league of superhumans using gene editing (OK, that extreme example was for my sons…).
Genetic counselors are increasingly myth-busting. It used to be that we’d have to explain what we do. Now we need to explain what we don’t do. It’s an effect of the field maturing, but one that we ought to recognize and address. We still need that response to the “What do you do?” question handy in our back pockets, but now it’s a good idea to add responses that correct misconceptions.
That back pocket’s getting pretty full, to be sure, but maybe we can adapt to it with wearable technology or something. It’s a good problem to have, changing and adapting. I have to remind myself of that when I wistfully reflect on how excited we were to analyze our own karyotypes back in the day as genetic counseling students, an experience shared by fewer (if any) every day.
But I’m glad to have that perspective. It helps inform and shape the conversations we have today, and the ones we’ll have in the future. And one thing’s for sure… I won’t be bored.
Happy National DNA Day! I'd love to hear your thoughts and ideas, if you'd like to share them.
Some people, like Lance, find traveling a little stressful. Packing, unpacking, hurry-up-and-waiting-it with the masses – Oof, I get it. Traveling these days is vastly more complicated than it used to be when I was a kid. Forget the fact that my parents navigated the major issues, but I do remember feeling pampered during flights, whether it be across the country or across the globe. Air India flight attendants used to deliver hot meals to us, dressed in saris, wildly swaying to and fro during rough turbulence! I still have no clue how they managed it without a passenger getting burned. (To their credit, I see that hot meals are still served if a flight is longer than 90min… what an amazing holdout. If only I traveled to India more often.).
All that aside, you can tell where I’m going with this. Despite today’s complications, I enjoy traveling. To me it represents a new adventure, an opportunity to shake things up – and of course, a chance to explore new food! Some of this probably goes back to my “military brat” upbringing, which meant that my family moved to new locations often. In the San Francisco area, we enjoyed sourdough and dim sum. In Germany and Europe, we filled our bellies with wurst, wiener schnitzel and moules frites. Tacoma and Seattle led to smoked salmon and Rainier cherries (I was too young for espresso). I can literally remember my entire existence based on the meals I’ve had. Don’t ask me to tell you when something happened… ask me to recall the meals I ate.
Naturally, I think my foodie gene is also responsible for my love of travel. The interesting thing is that I see that in Dragon and Kangaroo, too. All of us are getting ready for a trip to Montréal very soon, which is a work-related trip for Lance and me. Dragon and Kangaroo have both been asking about what we’ll be able to do in our spare time. Sure, we’ll hit the Bell Centre and stock up on Montréal Canadiens gear. Sure, we’ll stroll through downtown or visit Old Montréal.
“But Mom, where will we eat?”
That is the burning question, and we'd better have an answer. It’s been so fun to explore the possibilities together. Poutine one afternoon, followed by a smoked meat sandwich for dinner? Or perhaps starting the day with a warm bagel fresh out of the oven? The possibilities are endless…
Dragon actually took it upon himself to guess what he felt was each person’s “favorite” foodie stop, in an attempt to make sure each of us gets our own knocked off the list. Now that’s a traveling companion I can appreciate!
For the record, my must-have was a fresh-out-of-the-oven bagel… living in New York City for a time has made me want to investigate this bagel rivalry much more closely.
So what happens when the foodie gene hits an open-air kitchen? Lance and I found out when we introduced Dragon and Kangaroo to camping a couple of years ago. I had the scenario in my mind already – I’d first seen it years ago (I’m deliberately keeping that timeframe vague) when my parents began taking my brother and I camping. Growing up in California, we were treated to the wonders of Yosemite National Park and beyond. One time, I think we even had a campsite with a panoramic view of El Capitan and Half Dome.
But what do I remember most vividly? Not the scenery, but Mom’s Tandoori chicken grilling over the open fire. And an unnaturally high number of things organized in Ziploc bags.
My brother and I joked that we’d get even better food camping than we did at home (sheesh, we were so clueless). We highly anticipated our camping meals. The tandoori meal was perennial: Mom marinated it beforehand (in a Ziploc bag, of course), then rounded it out with a raita (Ziploc strikes again!) and vegetable rice pulau. She had to make the rice with “Veg-All” mixed veggies in a can (it’s camping, after all).
And that tandoori aroma created such a stir that curious neighbors would amble over asking what it was – then joined us for a taste. It was like a cultural outreach program. We did other things, I’m sure, but I really don’t remember much else that well.
Growing up, I remember talking with my friends about their camping trips. They remembered things I’m pretty sure we did too (thank goodness for family photographs): hiking, playing board games, campfires… When I asked my friends about meals, they’d talk about franks ‘n beans, sandwiches, hot dogs – but often they drew a complete blank on their meals. I’m certain my blank stare let them know how well I understood that.
It’s not that the meals we had were so gourmet. We had pancakes from a mix (when Mom didn’t bring her homemade version in a Ziploc bag, natch). But there was continual effort dedicated to what we were eating. And little compromising. The only modifications from cooking at home were the amount of packaging and prep to organize, and the fact that certain forms of cooking couldn’t be easily done (like baking). Otherwise, it was foodie business as usual.
Flash forward a vague number of years, and we’ve taken on our summer camping trip with Dragon and Kangaroo. What was a hot topic? But of course. I pulled up last year’s meal spreadsheet as a reference, but we couldn’t have the exact same menu again, could we? There would be a revolt. After discussions and debates, I finessed the grocery list, and we filled the cooler. Off to Banff National Park we went, already having discussions about the meals we'd have (and in what order).
And there wasn’t an empty Ziploc bag left in the house.
We’ve hit that sweet spot in the Edmonton area, where thoughts of snow (that lasts, anyway) are behind us, we’re feeling confident enough to put plants in the ground, and local patios are packed with warmth-starved beer lovers. Festival season is upon us, a time when the biggest problems are deciding which ones to hit, and how to cram them all in. I’ve been in the Edmonton area for ten years now, and truly, this is the time of year I live for. June, July and August are the three months everyone survives winter for, foodies and non-foodies alike.
Thanks to meeting Lindsay Finnie-Carvalho at the St. Albert Public Library event I attended in March, I learned about the Community Sponsored Agriculture (CSA) system, actually happening at a farm near us over these months. Basically, people purchase a share of a local farm to support them. During harvest season, they help when they can on the farm with things like planting, weeding, or harvesting. In return, they get weekly boxes of harvest bounty that varies according to whatever has done well that week. Brilliant. And really, what’s more entertaining than trying to figure out what to do with all those radishes you've just been given?
I quickly signed us up for the CSA program at Prairie Gardens & Adventure Farm in Bon Accord. Sure, I wanted to support Farmer Tam Anderson and her farm, but I also wanted to give Dragon and Kangaroo a better idea of where food actually comes from. Carrots do not naturally arrive peeled, cut, washed, and in bags at the grocery store. Someone has to plant them, nurture them, harvest them, prepare them, and bring them to the dinner table. That’s a ton of behind-the-scenes work that goes on before they hit our bellies.
Kangaroo and Dragon were immediately on board. And they even seemed interested in helping (the fact that I mentioned there would be ice cream available on the farm didn’t hurt, either). The first event was a CSA member potluck, after which everyone put together their own veggie planter, which would grow for a month in a greenhouse at the farm (April is still dicey for planting outdoors).
The planting choices were unending, ranging from tumbler tomatoes to nasturtiums. After much discussion Dragon, Kangaroo and I finally decided to plant tomatoes, peas, beans, Genovese basil, lettuce, and edible Johnny Jump Ups. Lance gave it a quick thumbs-up (he wisely usually lays low when the foodies amp up in our family).
A few weeks later, we were scheduled to help plant tomatoes for the CSA garden. Kangaroo and I showed up for our 3-hour shift donning our wellies, ready to work. A few teams formed, and in all everyone planted 250 tomato plants, assembly-line style. Kangaroo was in the thick of the action like a foreman, reminding everyone to add their calcium nitrate to the planting mix, chanting “Farmer Tam says it helps tomatoes grow tall!”
A month after the potluck, we picked up our planters. They were overflowing and no one could believe how much everything had grown. We had to replant almost everything in the ground, and the kids and I now take regular inventory of their progress in our garden. The basil was an early casualty, but we’ve already eaten our lettuce in a salad and sandwiches. Everyone seems to think it tastes better because we grew it ourselves.
Don't forget to catch my foodie gene piece in the July/August issue of The Tomato, coming soon!
I am suddenly inspired to post something tonight, after close to four months. I’ve turned into the blogger I was afraid I might become – the quiet one. Why is it that writing for myself always comes after all the other deadlines?
Why tonight, though, as the night to break my silence? I spent the evening listening to Jennifer Cockrall-King speak on her book, Food and the City, at St. Albert Public Libary. Even as I sat there on this snowy March evening, me in my wellies (and Jenn sporting her new teal green ones), hearing about cultivating urban gardens reminded me that spring is thisclose. Once spring arrives, we’ll kick off our (far too brief) growing season in the Edmonton area. And when we do that, of course… the bounty of food arrives with it. Really, it doesn’t take much for me to make these kinds of connections.
I’m thrilled that Mary Bailey is giving me another opportunity to write for The Tomato, a piece on my foodie gene theory coming out this summer. As I prepare for it, I’m realizing that there are plenty of foodie gene carriers around. I specifically seek them out, yes, but they really haven’t been hard to find. Plus, I'll almost trip over when I’m not expecting it (like at my day job as a genetic counselor). They might be displaying their foodie gene in an unsuspecting way – photographing food, teaching others about food, or discussing food in detail with their children. If I notice this and have an opportunity to talk to these folks, I find they often have family members who also share their interest in food. More foodie gene carriers.
Tonight at the library, people who care about urban agriculture surrounded me. They spoke with fervor about why city planners need to prioritize preserving farmlands, because the long-term value to its residents would outweigh succumbing to urban sprawl. Just based on this, I’m guessing a good portion of them had the foodie gene. I was lucky enough to meet one of them, and she can even trace the gene back a few generations in her family – just like me.
I so look forward to meeting more of them. Preferably over a meal, of course.
When I first decided to write this blog, I spent time debating its title. I knew I wanted to use the word “gene” to reflect its scientific aspect. But I also needed to capture the essence of being a “foodie” – without using the word itself.
Why? It’s got a bit of a rep. Some time ago, it was used to describe someone that enjoys food, studies food, cooks food, eats food… basically, thinks about food as often as possible. A thing of beauty, really... [cue dream sequence]
But I digress. Unfortunately, the honor of being called a foodie was eroded by frank overuse of the word. I read it on magazine covers and cookbooks everywhere for all audiences, some who probably didn’t fully appreciate the word’s significance. Foodies were literally everywhere. For all I knew, my cat was a foodie. And if you look at what he eats, you’d be pretty disappointed.
Gradually, genuine (and, yes, judgmental) foodies thumbed their noses at the word. “How do they know they’re a foodie?” “It doesn’t even mean anything anymore.” “Everyone’s a foodie.” “Foodies are pretentious bourgeoisie who wouldn't know good food if it were spoon-fed to them." (You get the idea). Some of my foodie family members even used the word in disdainful quotes. A fellow food writer said, “I hate that word” when I told her the name of my blog (and had already registered my website's domain name). Gulp.
So why did I choose to call my blog “The Foodie Gene”? Admittedly, I was initially reluctant to further over-use of the word “foodie.” But I’m choosing to embrace its origins, because to me it simply identifies someone who prioritizes food in his or her life. It doesn’t mean they’re a chef – or even enjoy cooking. They just think about food because it is important to them in some way, like someone else might think about music or the weather. Maybe they value food because it's a part of their family's history and culture, even if they don't cook much themselves.
In the case of Kangaroo and Dragon, I consider them foodies because they are already curious about food and continually want to learn about it. Kangaroo is hands-on and easily gets his hands dirty in a recipe (he's already learned that hands are a cook's most versatile tool), while Dragon prefers to analyze how a meal was prepared or learn about its ingredients (he's my toughest food critic). Either way, they spend time thinking about food. Some of this interest is environmental, true, but I believe it is also related to a gene they inherited from me and my family’s ancestors.
So I’m reclaiming “foodie” and putting it back in my good (cook) books. I hope you will as well. To help you along, I’ll leave you with a quick checklist, which was not stolen from a fashion mag's cover in the heyday of “foodie” popularity.
5 Signs That You Are A Foodie
BONUS: Holiday Themed-Sign
Good thing my sons haven’t heard the news yet: we’re genetically programmed to hate bitter foods, including Brussels sprouts. In fact, this quote comes from bona fide scientific literature: “From birth we are hard-wired to crave sweet and salty flavors and reject bitter foods.”(1) If my kids used this argument on me, a trained genetic counselor, I’d have no choice but to fold my cards and walk away. How could I argue with that?
Our taste buds recognize five major taste categories: sweet, umami (savory flavors found in things like soy sauce and meat broths), sour, salty, and bitter (salty being my personal favorite… hey, did someone say Tim's Cascade jalapeño potato chips?).
Ancestrally, we sought out sweet and umami tastes because they gave us energy and protein – we needed these to survive. Sour flavors could be a sign that something had spoiled, so we proceeded with caution. Bitter tastes could signal poisons that might kill us, so we needed to avoid them.(1,2) At some point, of course, we no longer made our food choices to survive, but to suit our preferences.
We have several bitter taste receptors on our tongue, each with their own sensitivity and ability to convey the taste to us. Our genes contain instructions for these receptors, and different genes (and versions of them) code for different sensitivities. Aroma plays into it as well.
Chemicals (known as PTC and PROP, for short) taste incredibly bitter to some people, but not at all to others. People who recognize PROP as more bitter tend to be more likely to dislike and avoid bitter food (much to their mothers’ dismay). About 75% of people find PTC and PROP as very bitter, but about 25% do not find them bitter at all.(1) Those who do taste it seem to recognize many or all other taste categories as well.
But years ago, if we needed to avoid bitter tastes for our survival, why would 25% of people be a “non-taster” for bitter tastes at all? Just as for other genetic traits people carry, being a “non-taster” for bitter foods might have provided an advantage in some situations. Let’s face it, several bitter foods (like broccoli, kale, spinach, and… you guessed it… Brussels sprouts) pack a healthy punch. It could be that ancestral people that didn’t recognize bitter tastes survived because they chose to eat more leafy greens! Holla for collard greens!
I was reminded tonight about how we are naturally drawn to sweet and salty foods. I downloaded the Better Homes and Gardens Holiday 2013 special issue featuring recipes for 100 best cookies to my tablet (I strategically plan holiday baking). No sooner had I done so than the boys, Kangaroo and his older brother Dragon (because he literally looks like Bruce Lee when he needs a haircut), sidled up next me on the couch to sneak a peek. We simultaneously gawked and gasped as I scrolled through pages of cookies, bars, biscotti, and candy recipes. Everyone yelled their votes for our holiday bake-a-thon, each becoming louder and more enthusiastic than the previous: “That one!” “No, that one!” “That looks good!” “Oooh, that one!” Would we have naturally done that for recipes featuring cruciferous vegetables? Probably not.
Now that I’ve convinced you that we are innately driven against leafy greens, I must confess that these rules don’t universally apply. As Lance knows, our boys aren't Brussels sprout fans but they do actually like spinach. And broccoli. And if I fried up some kale chips, they’d probably gobble them (it’s on my list). I consider this further evidence that they carry my family’s foodie gene. We taste bitterness, but it doesn’t deter us, and we may actually prefer that taste (cue my parents' South Indian bitter gourd dish that made me cringe in childhood). For us, it still has to do with food – and that's enough for us to be interested.
But if you can hear it now – almost like a scene from Calvin and Hobbes: “Mom, are you trying to kill me? Brussels sprouts are bitter and could have poison!” – you can promptly reply, “You might not have inherited the gene to taste bitter foods. Plus, it might save your life. Eat up, kid."
If you can't, I'd love to hear from you. You might have the foodie gene in your family, too.
As the mother of two busy young boys, I have seen firsthand the lure of electronics. One glimpse of a shiny screen and they’re hooked, since the sensory vortex of graphics and audio is irresistible. Or is it?
Tonight, I witnessed a miracle. At least I thought it was, until I realized it was yet another indicator of my foodie gene in my son. At this point, I’ve seen so many signs that I can’t keep track anymore.
Our youngest, whom I’ll refer to as Kangaroo (for his bouncy nature), earned himself a treat tonight. The electronic world was his oyster; he could pick from a television show, a few rounds of Angry Birds, or a Wii game. After setting him up with his reward of choice, I'd planned to use up some leftover zucchini by whipping up a quick batch of double chocolate zucchini muffins.
I pulled out my muffin tin, whisk, Callebaut dark chocolate chunks... and soon enough, Kangaroo jumped in on the scene. Ever since I can remember him walking, he has clunked the kitchen stool over to the counter, eyes wide with curiosity, the nosy Nancy that he is. So he did just that, and then the questions came: “What are you making, Mommy?” “And are you using... chocolate?”
Let me digress for a moment. My husband, who asked to be called Lance (I think he’s trying to reinvent himself), is a bona fide chocoholic. Thanks to this, our kids have been informed that there is only one kind of chocolate (dark chocolate) and will dogmatically recite this to others. Kangaroo, almost four years old, has an early appreciation for dark chocolate. It's only a matter of time until he becomes true competition for Lance -- and when that happens, I’ll need to get another day job to cover the chocolate fund. D'ya want fries with that?
So, muffin plans in hand, I offered Kangaroo a choice. Would he like to help me bake chocolate (and zucchini -- full disclosure, here) muffins or cash in on his reward? After a couple of beats, he confidently answered:
Convinced I didn't hear him correctly, I asked again. I got the same answer.
Minutes later, Kangaroo grabbed the sifter and spatula and got to work. The whole family sampled steamy, gooey muffins too soon after the kitchen timer rang -- and during that bizarrely quiet time, I again pondered what happened this evening: Baking 1, Angry Birds 0.
I have no explanation for this other than the fact that Kangaroo has inherited the dominant foodie gene in my family -- to him, the allure of baking trumps screen time. Honestly, it seems even wackier when I see it in print. But evidently, that foodie gene is a pretty potent forcefield against the vortex. I hope to find out why soon.
Well, here it is. The beginning of my b-l-o-g. It’s truly been a four-letter-word recently because of the amount of time it’s occupied my mind… Should I? Shouldn’t I? Who would actually want to read what I have to say? Is there such a thing as overexposure in the age of social media? Too many questions, too few answers and plenty of encouragement to jump in the deep end got me here – starting my blog, "The Foodie Gene."
Judy Schultz, whom I met a few years ago when she interviewed my mother and me for an Edmonton Journal article, deserves a mention. I pitched Judy the idea that a “foodie gene” existed in my family and she ran with it for the article.
I’m a practicing genetic counselor, so the concept of a familial gene for culinary obsession comes naturally to me. If I draw out our family pedigree I can spot the gene, plain as day, in five generations of my family (from my great-grandmother to my kids). And who knows, there might be more generations to come.
I’ll tell more about that ongoing story with this blog, and hopefully about other families too. The foodie gene’s not unique to my family; I’ve met many kindred spirits whose family photo albums don't contain pictures of people, but extreme close-ups of food – each photograph a milepost in the culinary landscape and history of the family. Ours punctuate my memories distinctly. Feel free to reach out if yours do as well.
I’m grateful to my fellow writers for encouraging me to kick this blog off. A recent Edmonton Public Library Writers' Corner inspired me to start talking about my idea (outside my head). It was met with enthusiasm (thank you, Sue Robins, Mary Bailey, Jennifer Cockrall-King and Tina Faiz). I’m admittedly nervous to put myself out there, but as Dr. Brené Brown eloquently put it, “Vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity and change.”
To my family and friends for gifting and nurturing the foodie gene in me – thank you. Hopefully this is just the beginning of more foodie memories.
Who writes this blog?
I'm an Edmonton-based writer and genetic counselor on the hunt for the foodie gene... my family is living proof that it exists. Read my blog for musings on food, genetics, and sometimes both at the same time!
© 2020 Deepti Babu
Photo from www.now.tufts.edu