How does a traumatic brain injury affect the way you cook and eat?
Filmmaker Cheryl Green, who has a brain injury, satirizes her own experiences in the kitchen in a short video called “Cooking With Brain Injury.” In this podcast, Dan talks with Cheryl about what it means to live with an invisible disability, how it affects her cooking, and why asking for help can be a beautiful thing. Plus, Cheryl records herself making a meal.
This episode contains explicit language.
Interstitial music in this episode by Black Label Music:
- "Hot Night" by Calvin Dashielle
- "Pong" by Kenneth J. Brahmstedt
- "Electro Italy" by Nicholas Rod
- "Homefront" by Jack Ventimiglia
- "Kellyanne" by Paul Fonfara
Photo courtesy of Cheryl Green.
Dan Pashman: This episode contains explicit language.
CLIP (CHERYL GREEN): Hi, everyone, welcome to Cooking with Brain Injury. Today, we'll be cooking with brain injury...I mean, cooking salmon with brain injury. Uh, no, the salmon doesn't have a brain injury. Well, I don't have its head anymore. I just mean that we have a brain injury. BIll and me. We’re brain injured. How about that?
Dan Pashman: This is The Sporkful, it’s not for foodies, it’s for eaters. I’m Dan Pashman. Each week on our show, we obsess about food to learn more about people. We're back from our pasta odyssey! It's been an incredible couple of weeks. We dropped a short update last week, we're planning a full episode to fill you in on the latest. That'll be out in a few weeks. But right now it's back to our regularly scheduled programming...
Dan Pashman: The person you heard at the start of the show is Cheryl Green. She’s a multimedia artist in Portland, Oregon. She makes documentary films, videos and podcasts that focus on how people with disabilities live their lives day to day. Cheryl’s own experience informs her work, because she has a traumatic brain injury, or TBI. The CDC defines a TBI as a “disruption in the normal function of the brain that can be caused by a bump, blow, jolt to the head, or penetrating head injury.”
Dan Pashman: How did you come to have a traumatic brain injury?
Cheryl Green: Um. I’m gonna see if it’s okay with you, if I don’t answer that question. This is...this is a really tough one because part of the brain injury culture is to tell that story with a lot of detail. And I...I work really hard to not tell that story, unless it’s actually relevant to the other parts of the conversation. And I totally respect where the question is coming from, but what you have, Dan, is the opportunity to show people that a brain injury story can be complete without hearing the trauma part of the story.
Dan Pashman: Cheryl’s response to my question is very much in line with the way she approaches her work. She’s less interested in how people got their disabilities, and much more interested in how they live their lives today. Of course, eating is a big part of anyone’s day to day. After a TBI, a person may have to relearn how to cook and eat, or adapt to doing it with "Cooking with Brain Injury,” certain accommodations.
Dan Pashman: In that video you heard at the start of our show, Cheryl gives a taste of what it’s like to cook while living with a disability. And does it with a heavy dose of satire, and deadpan humor. The whole video parodies traditional cooking shows, with Cheryl and her friend Bill standing behind a kitchen counter, ingredients in front of them, looking into the camera.
CLIP (CHERYL GREEN): OK, Bill, tell you what? Why don’t we start by seasoning the fish on both sides?
Dan Pashman: Bill starts looking for the salt, but then he notices that Cheryl hasn’t moved. She’s talking silently to herself, like she’s trying to figure something out.
CLIP (CHERYL GREEN): Great, that was the planning phase. We mentally rehearsed the steps to seasoning the fish, and now we’re ready to do it. Don’t worry, a qualified speech language pathologist...
Dan Pashman: The video is packed with these kinds of inside jokes for people living with traumatic brain injuries...
CLIP (CHERYL GREEN): And an occupational therapist can help you learn how to cook in a simulated kitchen just like this one
CLIP (BILL): But this is a real kitchen, it’s not simulated, I did the simulated kitchen as an outpatient and this isn’t one of those. I mean, there’s no one way mirror.
CLIP (CHERYL GREEN): I gotta say, I hate those mirrors.
CLIP (BILL): Mm-hmm.
CLIP (CHERYL GREEN): People always think they’re hiding back there, but you can hear them coughing or clearing their throat. Ew
Dan Pashman: Eventually, it’s time to cook. Cheryl starts salting the salmon...
CLIP (CHERYL GREEN): Oh, but in summary, salt and pepper, you can always find it easily. They’re always fresh, and they're always in season. [LAUGHS]
Dan Pashman: Get it? Salt and pepper are in season, like seasoning. Cheryl’s reaction to this line may seem to some to be outsized. But this kind of uncontrollable laughter is not uncommon for people with a TBI, who may struggle to regulate emotions. For people watching this video who have similar experiences, this laughter will feel familiar.
CLIP (CHERYL GREEN): [LAUGHING] Oh my God. That was a joke. That was hilarious, I didn’t even see that one coming.
Dan Pashman: And then, things take a kinda dark turn. Cheryl’s looking at the fish, and you just see in her face, she’s not sure what to do next. She can’t find the pepper, so she just keeps adding more salt, not knowing what else to do. And then, she just kind of loses it.
CLIP (BILL): Cheryl? What are you doing?
CLIP (CHERYL GREEN): I'm doing the salt. You know, I am up to my ears with this fucking salt, if you want to know the truth. And I hate salt. I hate fish. And my stomach hurts, and I’m not eating.
CLIP (BILL): Oh well, um, I’m allergic to seafood.
Dan Pashman: And that’s when the most surprising thing of all happens. Bill takes control! He’s been aloof for most of the video, hasn’t said much. He even went out for a cigarette in the middle of filming. But now, it’s his time to shine.
CLIP (BILL): From here folks, you want to cook it five minutes per side, per inch of thickness. Don't flip too soon. This takes patience. The fish should lift easily from the pant when you flip it. You can test to be sure it's done by poking it with a fork. If it's flaky and doesn't look raw anymore, than it's done. It's ready to eat. Just season with salt and pepper and taste.
Dan Pashman: So is the salmon a success? No. Even though Bill gives a perfect description of how to cook the salmon… he doesn’t actually finish the job. Instead, he reaches in the oven, hoping to find an already cooked version, like on TV, and well, insteads he finds a cake.
CLIP (CHERYL GREEN): Thanks so much for joining us on Cooking With Brain Injury.
CLIP (BILL): And tune in next week when we give other helpful and exciting tips to all you bake...
CLIP (CHERYL GREEN): Hmm?
CLIP (BILL): Brain injured folks out there. You don’t have to give up cooking after a brain injury. But you might have to give up eating if you cook like this...
Dan Pashman: Bill and Cheryl poke fun at themselves, but in a way that feels full of self acceptance and love. Cheryl says that video was based on her own experiences in the kitchen. I wanted to get a better sense of what cooking is really like for her today and how it’s changed.
Dan Pashman: Did you used to get more pleasure from food?
Cheryl Green: Oh, I did. It used to be much more enjoyable to eat good food. And now I just...I kinda I don't care. I just want hungry feelings to be replaced with not hungry feelings because it is too hard to cook myself a beautiful meal.
Dan Pashman: To see how Cheryl’s disability affects her relationship with food today, I asked her to record herself cooking a meal.
CLIP (CHERYL GREEN): All right, I'm here in my little kitchenette, and I'm just going to make kind of a typical dinner for myself, which is whatever I can find in the fridge or hovering around on the counter. Just start with the basics, chop an onion. I can't get any more basic than that. I should probably heat up the pan first. I can't tell which is the front burner, which is the back burner from the pictures on there. So usually, I just turn one on and then I put my hand on the burner to see which one is hot. I try to do it really fast because, um, otherwise you burn your hand if you don't do it fast.
Dan Pashman: Cheryl’s difficulty matching the knob on the stove to the burner stems from the fact that she lost her mind’s eye. That means she has trouble picturing things in her head. So like for me, when I look at the diagram on the front of the stove, I picture it laid over the top of the stove. In a split second, I lift up that diagram in my mind and lay it over the stove to see what knob matches what burner. Cheryl struggles with that.
Cheryl Green: My mind's eye went completely blank for a couple of years. If I wasn't looking at it, it did not exist and I couldn't tell you how to do it. If somebody says something like, picture your happy place. There's literally nothing. Or, give me directions from this bus stop to your house. I can't because I can't see the road in my head. I can't see the bus stop. I can't—there's nothing there. It is mostly back. It's a lot better. But just the ability to visualize things that I'm not actually looking at was gone for quite some time.
Dan Pashman: Cheryl’s difficulty picturing things often creates frustration in the kitchen, like when a recipe told her to flip a piece of salmon to salt the other side. That instruction -- flip the salmon -- just didn’t register for her, because she couldn’t picture it. She parodied that moment in “Cooking With Brain Injury”, but when it happened in real life it wasn’t so funny.
Cheryl Green: I had five forks lined up on the counter. I got salt and pepper on one side of the fish. How do you get it on the other? I can't, the other side is down. How do you get salt? And I start taking all these forks and knives and laying them out and I'm crying and I'm sobbing. It took 45 minutes to make that one piece of salmon. And I couldn't just piece it together that if you just stab it with a fork and flip it, then it's flipped.
Dan Pashman: What were you going to do with the forks?
Cheryl Green: That was just desperation. I got to pull out the big guns here. What can I do? I couldn't come up with any solutions to finding the bottom of the fish. And so all I could think to do was just get more forks to see if some idea would come to me. And then at some point thirty minutes into it, I did pick up the fish and flip it over. And then I started laughing because, oh my God, there's the other side of the fish. It was there the whole time. I didn't know. Surprise.
Dan Pashman: Losing your mind’s eye, not being able to flip a piece of fish or figure out the burners, these are all aspects of Cheryl’s disability that aren’t immediately obvious to others. Some people have disabilities that are easily visible, like if a person uses a wheelchair, for instance. But as Cheryl says, her disabilities are invisible. You might not know from looking at her or talking to her that she has a traumatic brain injury.
Dan Pashman: Ben Drew, who runs a company that creates online resources for disability support staff, explains it this way. When a disability is visible, some people may try too hard to help. They’ll help when they’re not asked to and maybe even keep helping even when asked to stop. People with invisible disabilities often experience the opposite. They find that others are oblivious to the need to make accommodations, and sometimes struggle to grasp that the disability is real.
Dan Pashman: Like when, back before COVID, Cheryl would go to restaurants. She often couldn’t understand what a server was saying, over loud music and clanking dishes. She had to ask them to repeat it.
Cheryl Green: Universally, I get this eat shit look from them. Sometimes they won't repeat it or sometimes they will, but they don't raise their voice or they say it really fast and I struggle keeping up with fast language. Even in a quiet place, I don't think as fast as I used to. So that's hard. It's awful. I cry sometimes with the wait staff who won't just, you know, just say it again but a little louder. That happens all the time. I don't go out to eat very much. That's one of the reasons.
Dan Pashman: Did you used to go out to eat more?
Cheryl Green: Yeah. Oh yeah. I used to go out to eat pretty regularly, but just the noise of restaurants. There's music playing. Dishes clanging. People at the next table are talking. The person next to you is talking. It's so overwhelming. I can do it. But you can't expect me to do something else important that same day.
Dan Pashman: Back in the kitchen where Cheryl is cooking, she says this feeling can also be an issue at the supermarket.
CLIP (CHERYL GREEN): I just got this spray oil because it was cheap. I don't like spray oil, but sometimes I just get overwhelmed at the store and if I see something that looks vaguely like I want it, I'll just buy it instead of go look for the thing that I do want, like regular oil, because grocery stores are really crowded and full of colors and overwhelming and—OK, that burner is cold. So it must be the other burner that’s on. Yeah. Oh, ow. The pan is hot. OK, it’s that one. OK the oil heats up. Then you cut the onion. [CUTTING ONIONS] Oh, my God. I don't know why I did that. That's a completely raw onion but it's cool and refreshing. Probably shouldn't eat that. Hmm. It’s tangy.
Dan Pashman: So why did you bite into that raw onion?
Cheryl Green: It’s lack of impulse control. Not all brain injuries but people who end up with disabilities from brain injury, lack of impulse control. You will almost always see that. And people think that the cortex, the big advanced outside layer of your brain makes you smarter. It doesn't. It's just a giant brake. It's a brake system. Everything under the cortex is like, oh, I wanna eat. Oh, I want to do this. I'm gonna do this. I'm going to punch this person, whatever impulses. And your cortex stops you. But when you injure it, your brakes have worn down or your brakes disengaged sometimes and you just eat raw onions, even though you know they're going to taste gross, you can't help it.
Dan Pashman: I could definitely relate to the taking a piece of food off the counter impulsively without thinking through whether or not it was going to taste good. Like, I actually once picked a crumb off my floor, of the tile floor in the kitchen, I was...I was like...I just put it in my mouth without thinking about it to just eat it off the floor. And it turned out that it was it was a loose piece of tile grout.
Cheryl Green: That was the best story I've heard all day.
Dan Pashman: I was like this is not delicious at all.
Cheryl Green: Yeah, and I do that.
Dan Pashman: Why did I do that?
Cheryl Green: Right? Guess you were focused on something else? Oh yeah. It's awful when it turns out to be grout.
Dan Pashman: Coming up, Cheryl talks about how her friendships changed after her traumatic brain injury. Then she finishes cooking her meal and tells us how it tastes. Stick around.
+++ BREAK +++
Dan Pashman: Welcome back to The Sporkful, I’m Dan Pashman. A few more quick pasta updates… I’m happy to report that last week, we held a charity raffle. We raffled off five cascatelli prize packs. And thanks to all of you who supported it, we raised nearly $30,000 for Feeding America, the Asian American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and the National Black Farmers Association. So thank you so much!
Dan Pashman: And there’s still a chance to win some pasta. We’re giving away a special collection of various iterations and test versions of my pasta. Things that will never be available. To enter to win, just sign up for our newsletter by this Friday April 9th. If you’re already on our list, you’re automatically entered. Sign up now at Sporkful.com/newsletter.
Dan Pashman: Finally, we’re putting together a new episode for our Mission ImPASTAble series, an update. And we want to hear from you! Do you have a question about the series or the pasta? Is there something you’re curious to hear more about? Record a voice memo on your cell phone, include your first name and where you’re from, and send it to us at email@example.com. We might just play it in our update episode. Thanks. OK, back to the show...
CLIP (CHERYL GREEN): Oh, the tortilla. Oops. Well, that's burnt.
Dan Pashman: We’re back in the kitchen with Cheryl Green, who’s in the middle of cooking a meal at home. She’s not following any recipe, just improvising based on what she has in the kitchen.
CLIP (CHERYL GREEN): OK, so the tortillas burnt. It is completely like a big chip. Let’s see what else I can add. So...Oh! I see taco seasoning. I didn't even remember I had that. There is corn, fake meat, fake chicken. We can add that in there. Oops. Don't put the plastic that is on the cooktop because the cooktop is hot. Put some corn in there. Oh, I added too early. The onions are not even cooked. OK, well timing is not my strong suit.
Dan Pashman: When you're cooking and things don't go the way you planned, sometimes it's frustrating, sometimes you laugh about it. I would think that you have to learn to let yourself off the hook, like, not be too hard on yourself.
Cheryl Green: Absolutely. That's a huge part of it. Yeah. So part of that letting yourself off the hook is saying, "You know what? My vision actually is distorted. Of course, I'm having trouble seeing what this is." So that's part of why I eat so much frozen food. I'm not going to cook today because I don't want to screw it up and I know I'm going to. Almost all my friends are disabled people and I had the most wonderful models, from these friends and people who I work with, of what it means to live a disabled life and an accommodated life. They provided the model of how to just go about your life with an accommodation or go about your life, you know, needing somebody to help you with something. I believe there should be nothing embarrassing about using an accommodation for anything. There should be nothing embarrassing about saying, "You know, because of my disability, I just can't do this thing. Do it for me, please." That's great. I think that's beautiful.
CLIP (CHERYL GREEN): It says to brown the meat first, then you put the seasoning mix together with water and then you bring it to a boil. So I have basically raw onions, frozen fake chicken and it's now all—it's all covered in this taco seasoning mix powder. It is lumpy and disgusting. And it's..Ohh. It doesn't really—OK, well, let me add water now. It can't be that bad can it?
Dan Pashman: Instructions on something like a packet of taco seasoning? That’s another thing that can give Cheryl trouble.
Cheryl Green: I do struggle with reading, and especially if there's a sentence that has letters and numbers in it. Oh, my goodness. And if people, like, write out a date in words, you know, like the twenty first instead of numbers, I can't find it. And I was trying to schedule a meeting with somebody over email and she was doing like three p.m. but three and then capital p.m. There was no colon zero zero space p.m. and I didn't see it. And I met at the wrong hour a week early and I called her, "Where are you?" She said, "Well, I said in the email, we're meeting a three o'clock on such and such day." And I told her, but I can't...I can't see that. I've told you before, I need you to write it out super clear and put three colon in zero zero space. And she said, "I know. I just feel embarrassed, you know, helping you because it means that you're weak, and and I don't want to think that. But when you ask for help, I, I, I'm afraid that you'll think that you feel weak." And like, oh my God, this is twisted. No, I'm not weak. I just can't read. So write the numbers out.
Cheryl Green: And I've even had people tell me, "I just don't believe you. I just really think—go ahead and push a little more. You can do it. You can do it." And it's this implicit bias that if you're disabled and you need help, it's because you're 100 percent incapacitated.
Dan Pashman: What happened to your friendships with non-disabled people when you acquired your disabilities?
Cheryl Green: Oh, I'm glad you asked that. I lost most of my friends after the brain injury. Some of it was… um, I...so I have a ton of communication privilege. You know, I communicate in a pretty standard way. And I didn't for a while at the beginning. And a lot of people were really turned off by spending time with me because my communication was impaired.
Dan Pashman: Can you explain that a little bit more?
Cheryl Green: Yeah, now I can. I couldn’t back then. Early on, it would be things like, I go to say something and I would accidentally say the wrong thing, which is fine. But I would stop and think, "Oh no. That's not what I want to say." And so I go to say the correct thing, but I would say the wrong thing again, verbatim, like a broken record. It's called perseveration. I would end up actually self-harming. I couldn't get out of this feedback loop. And I would, you know, like, hit my head on the wall or bite my hand or anything to try to stop this. And sometimes I couldn't stop it. Somebody would have to say, "Stop. Stop talking."
Cheryl Green: And then the other thing just really to be fair, is my impulsivity and my rage issues and my anxiety and paranoia that were part of the early days, I think I pushed a lot of people away. And people get scared when they see brain injury because you look the same, your face looks the same, your body looks the same but you say really weird stuff. Some people can't wait it out. Or because they've been so segregated from disabled people, they don't realize that they could make some modifications in how they communicate and still get along with you. It’s because you haven't had the gift of being together.
Dan Pashman: Back in the kitchen, Cheryl is realizing that adding the water to the pan after adding the taco seasoning isn’t gonna do the trick. She was supposed to mix that powder with water before dumping it into the pan...
CLIP (CHERYL GREEN): Oh, just way too much powder. I have the powder in my nose. This is why you mix it with water. It's disgusting. Oh, God. Oh, did I not clean this pan? I guess I didn't clean this pan, there's spinach. There's spinach in here now and I didn’t put it in here. This is the kind of thing that you basically are glad that you're cooking for one because if you gave this to somebody else, I probably would not get a second date. I mean, it's going to be edible, I'm sure of that, because it's made of food products but..hmm. But it is edible. Not only the tortillas burnt, the onions are about halfway cooked and the frozen stuff is no longer frozen anymore. So I would consider this a successful meal.
Dan Pashman: What's a failure?
Cheryl Green: My life. [LAUGHS] A failed meal?
Dan Pashman: Yeah. I mean, you know, you're cooking this meal in this tape. Every time you look at it, you're like, oh, this looks pretty gross. And, you know, you don't sound especially excited to eat it. And yet when you do taste it, you say, I would consider this meal a success.
Cheryl Green: Yeah, I was lying. I was trying to show off for you. I thought it was a total failure. It was revolting. It was so disgusting. But I didn't have the fortitude to make something else. So I ate it for like two or three days. It was it was a total failure.
Dan Pashman: Hearing all this, you can probably understand why Cheryl sees food less as a source of pleasure, more as a thing she has to do to “make the hungry feelings go away”, as she put it. But a while back, when she ended up at a friend’s house and they happened to be cooking...
Cheryl Green: I got to eat dinner with them and I loved it. And I thanked them and they thanked me for being served their food and for eating with them. So that pleasure is still there. Yes. If somebody else will do the cooking and if you know anybody, Dan, I'm looking for somebody to come over and make me dinner. Just putting it—I know you got a national audience just in case.
Dan Pashman: When's the last time someone cooked you dinner?
Cheryl Green: A really long time. I don't know, because my relationship just ended like three and a half months ago. So...but when you ask, when's the last time someone cooked me dinner and you want to know why my relationship ended, I don't know when the hell that guy cooked me dinner last. I don't know.
Dan Pashman: So he wasn't cooking you dinner anyway?
Cheryl Green: Nu-uh. He wasn't.
Dan Pashman: Well, screw that guy.
Cheryl Green: Seriously. You took a risk with that one, but it worked.
Dan Pashman: I’m pleased to report that a few months after we recorded this interview, Cheryl met someone new. His name is Oliver and he loves to cook. One of his specialties, according to Cheryl, is salmon.
Dan Pashman: My thanks to Cheryl Green, who continues to make documentaries. You can find more of her work at WhoAmIToStopIt.com. That’s the name of her first documentary, Who Am I To Stop It. Her latest film, TBI and My Longest Ride, will be showing at the Portland Filmed By Bike Festival in May. So check it out there. We also have a link to Cheryl’s short film “Cooking with Brain Injury,” with audio description on our website, sporkful.com. Thanks also to Ben Drew, founder of Open Future Learning, an online resource for disability support staff. Find more info at OpenFutureLearning.org.
Dan Pashman: If you haven’t checked out Mission: ImPASTAble, I hope that you will. It’s my 5-part series where I set out to create a brand new pasta shape. And hey, if you already listened and liked it please tell a friend. If you want to make sure you don’t miss the next Mission: ImPASTAble update, please connect with our show in your podcasting app. In Spotify and Stitcher, click Follow. In Apple Podcasts, Subscribe. You can do it right now while you’re listening. Thanks.