Food has always played a central role in my life. I know that’s something that everyone can claim, except maybe those lucky few who survive by photosynthesis. I use it not only for sustenance and pleasure but also as a major contributor to my overall sense of well-being and security. If I have an ample store of baked goods, take-out entrees and my favorite soft drink, I feel I’m ready to survive any calamity short of a thermonuclear holocaust. My wife accuses me of collecting cookies and cakes like a squirrel collects acorns, but where else am I going to find a chocolate-chunk blondie post-apocalypse?
We’ll all be thinking a lot about food in the coming days, with Thanksgiving just around the corner. Because of its carbo-centric theme, this has always been my favorite holiday, but it’s hardly the only day where I’m thinking about the menu days in advance. As I write this posting, it’s Saturday afternoon and I can tell you virtually every meal I’ll be eating between now and the holiday.
(This is what makes blogs so interesting).
During the workweek, I’ll have a blueberry breakfast bar, hazelnut-flavored coffee and pulp-free orange juice for breakfast, and a sliced deli turkey sandwich on Milton’s bread with two reduced-fat Oreo cookies for dessert. I’m very particular about these selections, and will not tolerate orange juice with medium pulp, some pulp, a little pulp, or one small suspicious glob you’d hope is only pulp. Pulp is for paper mills, not breakfast juices. I might allow some variation in this otherwise rigid schedule for a special celebration – the day after Obama was elected, for example, I treated myself to reduced-fat Chips Ahoy! (because of the exclamation point) – but I take great comfort in the predictability of this regime.
Dinner is my opportunity to allow a little variation in my food consumption. Tonight, for example, I’m considering the hamburger I bought but never ate at lunch today, some leftover Japanese food from my wife’s lunch, or I may just pick out some items from the prepared-food bar here at the grocery store coffee shop where I’m writing. I’ve already checked out the grilled hot dogs sitting under the warming lights and, though they look tasty, there’s a sign that says the buns are available behind the bakery counter, and I’m a bit reluctant to ask the worker there “do you have buns?” (especially since there’s a new hire sitting behind me who’s going through the company’s sexual harassment training DVD).
I may be able to attribute some of my quirky attitudes toward food to my upbringing. My mother created most of her meals out of her Pennsylvania Dutch background until she moved to a Miami neighborhood dominated by Italian transplants from New York. This allowed her to add things like lasagna and meatballs to hog maw and shoo-fly pie, though usually not in the same meal. Breakfast was typically skillet-fried potatoes and something called “scrapple” – more appetizingly known as “liver mush” in the South — and the lunch I carried off to school usually included a can of Vienna sausages (whatever rarely harvested parts of the pig that weren’t in the scrapple were probably in the sausages). It was all very tasty and very dense on a molecular level, and was probably a significant contributor to the fact that I weighed nearly 250 pounds by the time I graduated from high school.
When I went off to college, my eating habits didn’t get any better. “Healthy” eating was a concept still in the distant future in the 1970s; all foods that didn’t contain metal filings were considered healthy in those days. Despite the fact that my favorites at the time included the Burger Chef “Big Chef” and French fries covered in tartar sauce, and I remember celebrating my new-found independence early in my freshman year by eating a two-pound bag of Hershey kisses, I managed to lose weight throughout my college years. I briefly fell under the mistaken impression that there were other things in life besides eating, some of which suppressed your appetite when taken in illegal quantities. I rarely missed a meal – to this day when I hear someone say they forgot to eat lunch, it’s as astounding to me as if they forgot to properly regulate their body temperatures – yet I somehow found a way to metabolize the calories efficiently.
When I met my future wife after college, concepts like fat and cholesterol had become more widely known, as well as the idea that green plants could be used for something other than landscaping. Unlike many kids, I actually enjoyed most vegetables during my formative years. The cartoon character Popeye got me started on spinach and from there it was a slippery slope onto harder flora like broccoli, cabbage and cauliflower. I never went for the likes of okra and squash because of their funny names, though that never kept me away from a McRib. My diet did gradually improve throughout my marriage, largely thanks to my wife’s vegetarian tendencies and a maturing of my tastes that allowed me to appreciate fine wines as well as fine Pepsi.
Now I have a son who eats like the typical teenager, and I find myself once again coming under negative influences. The appreciation I had cultivated of foodstuffs like tofu and tempeh is now being undermined by Rob’s affection for all things nuggety. I still enjoy good-for-you quality – right next to those hot dogs I have my eyes on is a loaf called “field roast grain meat”, the first two ingredients of which are filtered water and wheat gluten – yet I find myself increasingly drawn to fast foods. Maybe I can find a proper balance in the oxymoronically named taco salad.
One of my wife’s favorite sayings is “life is too short to drink cheap wine”. In these uncertain economic and geopolitical times, I’m tempted to agree, and extend the aphorism to include “…eat healthy foods”. I worked hard a year or two ago to lose about 25 pounds, suffering through sensible portions that bordered on the subatomic just to make my clothes fit better. Now I’m inclined to think that’s a pretty high price to pay for a single notch on my belt buckle, and find myself migrating back to comfort foods, so-called because you can trade your trim-fitting clothing for a comforter.
When I drove through KFC for my son on the way home from school the other day, and I got to smell the barbecue boneless chicken wings he ordered, I thought I’d died and gone to heaven.
That may yet be my fate if I don’t straighten up and eat right.