LOS ANGELES— For Sydney Karmes-Wainer, the smell of her French grandmother’s sour cream, orange coffee cake brings back memories of when baking was carefree.
“I know the smell so well,” Sydney said, “My mom was making it a few months ago and I knew exactly what she was making because that smell is nostalgic to me.”
Grandma Sarah embodied French elegance with her red lipstick and scarves – but also the country’s uncomplicated enjoyment of meals. An accomplished home cook and baker, she kept her recipes on 3x5 index cards, and encouraged Sydney to create her own. After her grandmother’s passing in 2011, Sydney kept her cards and pulled them out to make her recipes when she longed to bake with her grandmother.
Last month, Sydney’s mother, Rosanne Karmes, recreated the sour cream orange coffee cake. The warm smells instantly returned Sydney to her childhood—one that was filled with Wednesday night dinners of salmon and steamed vegetables, baking rainbow cupcakes and birthday parties at Chef’s Incorporated, a hands-on cooking school. Karmes sent little Sydney to cooking classes there, and she learned knife skills and how to make chicken schnitzel before she was even old enough to stay home alone.
Karmes, who had inherited her mother’s trouble-free approach to mealtime, wanted to instill good eating habits in her young daughter and refused to let her eat anything from the kids’ menu. During dinner, she and Sydney compared “notes” about the flavors and textures of their meals.
Sydney would continue to explore her love for food with cooking birthday parties at Chef’s Inc. and homemade pizza making parties.
The culinary joy Sydney once felt faded in college. In 2016, her first year at UC Santa Barbara, Sydney joined the Kappa Kappa Gamma sorority.
The pressures of maintaining a certain aesthetic from social media, diet culture and the other sorority girls made it difficult for Sydney to maintain a positive body image, leading her to develop unhealthy relationships with food and exercise.
Sydney slowly began to make changes to her eating habits to fit what the other girls were doing. If other girls in the sorority house cut their bananas and only ate half, so did Sydney. Within her first few months of living in the sorority house, her love of food had vanished.
“I remember being so engulfed with food and thinking about it 24/7 that I couldn’t even be present in a conversation,” she said. “I didn’t know what someone was saying. I was acting like I was listening, but I wasn’t listening.”
Sydney began to restrict foods and over-exercise in order to fit what others deemed healthy, instead of what worked for her and her body.
“I actually became less confident as my body got smaller. Nothing would ever satisfy me. No number on the scale or ideal body type — I was so self-critical that it didn’t even matter,” Sydney said.
Sydney developed an unhealthy relationship with eating “healthy” or “clean,” and in the process lost her period due to significant weight loss.
When Sydney was a junior, she planned to study in France for a semester in 2018. She was concerned about how she would manage her “clean eating” in a country where buttery croissants and cream sauces are a way of life, so she packed special nut butters and healthy snacks in her suitcase.
But once she arrived in Bordeaux, Sydney’s memories of her grandmother – and of her enjoyment of meals – snapped back into focus.
As she explored her new city, each day she made bolder food choices, exploring hidden restaurants and markets. During her first few weeks there, she found comfort in French markets. In her apartment overlooking “Le Quai des Marques,” she started to prepare new recipes with fresh ingredients she bought each day at vegetable, fish and cheese markets.
She also ventured out into Bordeaux to find interesting restaurants, where she would snap photos of her meals. Before long, she began to document her restaurant meals and cooking adventures in a food blog on Instagram.
“[The blog was] a way to rediscover my love for cooking again from that childhood experience of just pure joy for food without all those rules,” Sydney said, adding that many of her meals incorporated her “fear” foods like dairy, gluten and meat. “Now I realize it’s just food. Nothing’s going to happen.”
Her blog, “French Squirrel,” is an homage to her French grandmother, who could not pronounce the word squirrel, something she and Sydney would joke about as a child.
The grip food had on Sydney’s body and mind began to release with every blog post. “French Squirrel” became a visual journal where she could document what foods she was eating, and in what quantities.
As she continued to share her recipes and meals, French Squirrel gained a large community of followers on Instagram. One fan-favorite recipe was for her protein bites made from nut butter and covered in 100 percent dark chocolate.
She would bring these bites into her office fridge to share with colleagues, and they encouraged her to turn them into a business.
The influence of her French grandmother, and her experience of the country, paved the way for the development of “French Squirrel Co.” Her products, “Berets”(which were her original protein bites) and “Bateaux” (nut butter stuffed dates) follow the French styles of cooking through their use of minimal and recognizable ingredients.
“We don’t have grams of protein on the front of the package or all these numbers that Americans tend to focus on,” Sydney said. “With French Squirrel, it’s really about the quality of the ingredients and the simplicity of them.”
Sydney has also incorporated the French style of eating into her lifestyle.
“I’m not saying to eat cake every single day, but one slice of cake, how the French do it, is not going to kill you,” Sydney said. “And I’ve learned that the stress over whether or not you should eat something is actually more detrimental to your health than actually eating that thing.”
Following her recovery, Sydney was inspired to help other women and she became certified as a Hormone Specialist for the Nutritional Coaching Institute. She specializes in blood sugar management, which her “French Squirrel” products aid, and works privately with women to improve their health through the use of nutrition and exercise.
As she looks back at her blog posts during her early days of recovery, she is able to compare her portion sizes and how much more strict she was with food than she is today. “French Squirrel” became a visual journal that shows the progression of healing her relationship with food.
As she reflects on her recovery, Sydney has come to realize her unhealthy relationship with food was less about the food, and more about her relationship with herself. Making sure she was truly happy with herself beyond appearance, she said, was the most important part of her recovery.
Sydney has found ways to improve her relationship with herself, through activities like yoga and dance.
“If you’re friends with me, you know I can dance at any moment, any time of the day. I think more people need to dance and just let loose,” Sydney said.
She also loves yoga because it serves as her “moving mediation,” allowing her to heal her mind and relationship with exercise.
As a result of healing her relationship with herself, her relationship with her friends and family has significantly improved.
“She’s a really good friend and supporter” her best friend, Michelle said. Sydney never says, “‘Oh are you eating this? Are you not eating that?’ There’s never any sort of judgment and she’ll always encourage us to eat whatever we feel like eating. So I’m really grateful to have a friend like her.”
Sydney uses her social media platform to help girls around the world who struggle with disordered eating and body image issues. She openly discusses her journey of restricting foods and losing her period to show other girls they are not alone.
Her current posts show her body posed vs. not posed, healthy post-recovery weight gain and sharing the ongoing struggle of healing your relationship with your body, food and exercise.
She shows women that there is so much more to life than being “thin,” and all the amazing friendships and experiences one can cultivate after developing a healthy relationship with food.
“Your relationship with food is forever,” Sydney said. “So you have to really honor and nourish it and make sure that it’s healthy because you eat three times a day, plus more, snacks and dessert, every single day for the rest of your life. And so you better make sure it’s a healthy one, as best as it can be.”