"First we eat then we do everything else."
-- MFK Fisher
OAKLAND, Calif. -- Swim star Natalie Coughlin followed those hungry words like a disciple while recently settling into a seat at Oliveto, one of her favorite Oakland haunts.
The Bay Area athlete on the cusp of becoming the most decorated American female Olympian in history was on a mission to talk food -- even if she is better known for swimming. When the London Games in July, the former Cal star hopes to compete in her third and perhaps final Olympics.
Four years ago in Beijing she became the first American woman to win six medals in one Games and the first female ever to defend a title in the 100-meter backstroke.
Coughlin, 29, has won a medal in every Olympic event she has entered -- 11 in all -- and is one shy of tying Stanford swimming great Jenny Thompson's mark for the most ever won by an American woman in any sport.
But all of that can wait.
First we eat:
Salad of roast asparagus with frisee and almond-mint pesto
Charcoal-grilled pigeon with roast Chanterelle mushroom, farro, and old aceto balsamico
Despite all the medals earned, Coughlin's Olympic memories drift to food.
She rhapsodized over the Greek salads with generous chunks of milk-white feta at the 2004 Athens Games.
Four years later, she ate like a prisoner. Coughlin was afraid to indulge in Chinese specialties after reports about hormone-filled meat potentially causing positive drug tests. Produce also was verboten because of a salmonella outbreak.
"It was basically bread and more bread," she said.
"By then it's all about getting the calories in. It really doesn't matter what you're eating at that point. It's survival mode."
Let's get this straight. You won six medals on bread?
"Bread and pizza," said Coughlin, who lives in Lafayette, Calif., with a terraced urban garden.
At the 2007 World Championships, Coughlin lost almost eight pounds on her bathing suit-model frame while competing in seven events.
"My cheeks were sticking out of my face," said Coughlin while spearing an asparagus slice. "I learned to eat, eat, eat at meets. It becomes a chore. There's no pleasure in it all."
Tagliatelle with ragu of hen with a glass of Nebbiolo, a red Italian wine from the Piedmont region
Floriani Red Flint corn polenta with poultry gibiet ragu
But heading into her fourth Olympics trials in June and the London Games in late July and August, the hyper-competitive Coughlin sounds relaxed.
"I don't feel like I need to prove anything this time around," she said.
But don't mistake the sentiment for indifference. Coughlin hopes to qualify for three individual events, including the 100 backstroke, the 100 freestyle and either the 100 butterfly or the 200 individual medley. She also probably would swim all three relays as she did the previous two Olympics.
This time, however, Coughlin hopes to enjoy it.
The swimmer couldn't enjoy much in 2008 while suffering from a shoulder injury just before the U.S. trials. She never revealed anything about the painful condition that required surgery to repair a torn tendon.
"Even though my shoulder was killing me, who cares, you can always get it fixed later," Coughlin said. "It's the Olympic Games. You have to be stubborn and fight through it."
She savors a sip of wine before continuing.
Coughlin spent 18 months away from the pool after the 2008 Olympics, though she remained in shape by running on average nine miles a day. It allowed her body and soul to rejuvenate. She performed on "Dancing With the Stars" and was an "Iron Chef" celebrity judge with Jane Seymour and Nigella Lawson.
The time away allowed Coughlin to become a full-fledged urban farmer with a sprawling garden filled with edibles such as herbs, alpine strawberries, blueberry bushes, citrus and fig trees and seasonal salad vegetables.
Coughlin also built an impressive list of sponsors: BMW, Omega, O'Neill 365, Pantene, Speedo and TD Ameritrade. She is a spokeswoman for California Dried Plums, a project that involves helping create recipes. Coughlin does a version of her grandmother's Filipino spring roll known as lumpia. (Check out the creations at www.californiadriedplums.org/recipes/collections/natalie-s-recipes).
In the past, she rejected opportunities such as posing for men's magazines or products she didn't endorse.
"She doesn't listen to all the noise in her ear," said Janey Miller, Coughlin's long-time agent. "She listens to her own voice. She won't change herself to be something she is not."
Coughlin, though, leaped at a chance to pose for Sports Illustrated's swimsuit edition this year featuring Olympic athletes in body paint. The modeling job took 10 hours in New York the night before she had a competition in Georgia.
"Just get over yourself and have fun," Coughlin said of experience. "You give it up very quickly. If I learned anything from "Dancing with the Stars," it's act like you're not embarrassed."
Torta Della Nonna with wild-foraged fennel ice cream and coffee and green tea
St. Patrick's Day stew in the Coughlin household consisted of corned beef, cabbage and rice. That's what happens to traditional dishes with a family background of Filipino, German and Irish. Coughlin didn't realize it at the time but her tastes were being shaped by cultural blending.
She had a discerning palette early in life: She didn't like her mother Zennie's asparagus because it came out mushy. Coughlin giggled at the memory, then praised her mother's culinary aptitude.
Unlike most kids, though, she ate vegetables. The swimmer said veggies now comprise a majority of her diet, although she is an adventurous eater and cook.
Equipped with a trusty $400 Vitamix blender, Coughlin can prepare the most intricate of sauces. But she likes to keep it simple when cooking for her and husband Ethan Hall.
Coughlin prepares a big breakfast at 4:30 a.m. to fuel her through two strenuous hours of swimming and 90 more minutes of weightlifting at Cal. She tries to prepare dinner by 4:30 p.m. after six hours of training. After that she's spent.
Sleep is beckoning now as the last drip of velvety ice cream melts on the spoons at Oliveto.
"The sun isn't even down and I could go to bed," Coughlin said.
In another few hours it will be time for breakfast.