JEW-ISH. ON EATING AS A CULINARY JEW
In a town that had more jews than gentiles levels of Judaism were carefully parsed. Would you skip school only for high holy days or for all holidays? Do you go to Sunday school or Hebrew school? Would your Bat Mitvah be more about the torah or the hora?
I termed myself a culinary jew. Very little temple, missed school as a nod to religion not to practice religion. But I was all in on the eating. There were the delicious things like the latkas and matzoh ball soup. Then there were the questionable things like gefilte fish. There is no second example needed. That fish (or ground pressed combo of fish in pickle jelly) really can hold its own. I ate them all. On that one horrible day when we couldn’t eat (like, the holiest day of the year) all I thought about were the holes in the bagels. Where they went. Why we couldn’t have them the way dunkin’ donuts let us have the donut holes. I was a decade before Einsteins. Now bagels are in airports everywhere.
Speaking of bagels when you are Jewish bagels have no calories. It is incredible. It is also incredibly not true. What was true was the existence of a Jewish Bakery directly on my walk home from the T that I rode from highschool. It had hallah or challah or challa ( its the food version of the Channukah problem) for shabbat. It had humentaschen (it never ends with the spelling confusion) for Purim. It had loaves of rye with perfectly chewy crusts and pillow soft insides for every other day of the year. “I am like rye bread.” I used to tell myself as I walked to my house from they bakery which was halfway home from the school train. “Not all people like me but the ones that do are passionate about me. Also I have a hard outside and soft inside.” It was a meta experience untwisting the red wire twist tie and reaching in to grab a slice to eat as I passed by gardens. It was weird to eat myself but delicious too.
ON THE FRESHMAN FIFTY
My freshman year college roommate was Anna Moore Lappe, the daughter of Frances, who wrote Diet for A Small Planet. This was the very first time I experienced eating as a political act. I had always though vegetarianism was virtuous in a “somehow it is our moral imperative not to walk around with an upper butt” sort of way but I didn’t know I could save the planet by eating kale. This was years before kale had a PR machine. I was shocked. But not changed. So the full result of my food education at the hands of the other Anna was a new type of guilt as I loaded my plate at the “Ratty.” Killing myself and my earth with each bite of burger and fries.
Although we have all heard of the freshman 15 no one told me about the four year 50. The rate at which I gained weight was alarming. The only break in my progress towards fat was the summer of my freshman year when I went to excavate on an archaeological dig in Israel. Latkes! I thought. Brisket! I imagined. Hummus? I compromised. But no. In the Kibbutz dining hall there seemed only to be tomatoes and cucumbers. I know this couldn’t have been true. But it seemed that way. Cucumbers are a hard no. Those of you who feel neutral about cucumbers (most of the world I have learned) can’t understand. “They are like water.” You argue with arched eyebrows. “No, they are like…I don’t know what they are like because their proximity to innocuous things like lettuce make me compost my whole plate (this of course was before composting but I couldn’t even get myself to type “throw away” because, you know, I am a composting queen). So no cucumbers. And no eggplant. How can something be both impossible to chew and slimy? It seems at odds with itself. And I am at odds with it. So I settled on tomatoes. They also had disgusting slimy centers but I found the outsides with a little salt were OK. So low fat cottage cheese and tomatoes were my meals. After a while I stopped thinking about food because I was so hungry I couldn’t think about anything at all. But between the digging and the walk to the site and the walk from the tent to the “there is no dining in here hall” I dropped 15 pounds.
When I returned to college Sophomore year I walked the streets of Providence at a quick clip never losing my breath. I navigated from my new dorm to the athletic center alone, limbs still brown from the Israeli sun planning to exercise. Behind me I heard voices. “That looks like Anna, but it can’t be, she is way too thin.” That was enough to bring me back to my reality. There would be no gym. My arms, , muscled from excavation would return to their doughy state (mmm rye bread) and my weight would continue to climb to the point that I lied about my weight on my drivers license.
ON THE ATKINS CULT
When I left college I was ready to drop some weight. Like most people who are overweight I ALREADY understood nutrition, portion size and the equation: “calories in -calories out better equal a negative number or you will be an even fatter ass.” None of that “simple” stuff worked for me. According to Slate magazine 97% of dieters gain back all the weight they loss (and then some for me). So I would not diet. Fuck the D word. I would never speak of it again. Instead I would change my eating habits for life.
So I melted cheese on a plate and ate steak with butter sauce and had no fruits at all. I bought little strips from the drug store to measure my urine and make sure I stayed in the magical state of “ketosis.” The fact that those strips existed because ketosis is pathological in diabetes and needs to be avoided was not important to me. I was losing weight and eating as much brie as I wanted.
Until I realized I couldn’t chew anything on this fucking diet. Or whatever word can replace diet.
There was no crunch. OK. Almonds are crunchy. I crunched my way through so many days of 10 almonds a day that I think the almond growers owe me money for the crown I had to buy last year. This was before I knew about the gallon of water that it takes to grow an almond and had to give them up. My teeth thank me. Pecans are good too. Though not as crack-y. Take that as you will.
In addition to losing 30 lbs I gained an endless exhausting topic of conversation. Conversation is a kind way to put it because it was really a ceaseless monologue. I exhaust myself just thinking about it. Its possible some of my weight loss was from calories burned moving my mouth talking about a diet free of carbohydrates.
ON EATING WHEN YOU OWN A RESTAURANT
- Join your staff for staff meal. This is a must. You are part of the team. The fact that staff meal was often hotel pans of mystery material covered in melted cheese was secondary. Solidarity wins everytime.
- If you have close friends in the restaurant send them free food. Then say yes when they ask you to join them. Since the food is free it is not stealing when you have a taste. Plus, solidarity.
- Have your manager meal. Take a booth in the back. Order the hearts of palm and tomato salad. Enjoy it. Maybe add on some fries. The staff can then pop by the back and pop in some fries before heading to wash their hands. It is a mitvah really. Solidarity.
ON EATING IN VERMONT
I think back to how much more wonderful my life would have been if I had embraced veganism in 1991.I would have owned a vegan restaurant or no restaurant at all I would be able to unironically wear Tivas as I scrambled up a mountain with my babies slung to my back. In reality slings baffled me. The Baby was twisted. Or the Baby was about the fall out. Or I pinned my right arm into submission. I was brought to tears by the sling which seemed an important symbol of Vermont motherhood. Steve gently replaced the sling with the Baby Bjorn. This thing had plastic in it. It was like formula instead of breast milk. But it kept the baby safe and my hands free so I tried not to judge myself which was possible except when I went to the farmer’s market.
Ah, the Vermont farmers market. It is the best and the worst. On the upside there are whole cows and micro greens from one acre urban farms. There are trees to hug and pottery to buy and wildflowers to lie carefully across your woven basket. There are so many things to eat that aren’t vegetables. When people started farming empanadas I don’t know but I am not complaining. That said the farmers market is the Vermont version of the night club. Instead of bandage dresses and stilletos there are boyfriend jeans and flip flops. There is patagonia and burton hoodies.
Most of all there is the glow of fitness. Thats the way to feed a Vermonter. Keep it as green as the green mountain state.
ON FEEDING KIDS
When Oliver was very young he had a fiend who called Bananas “nana.” She loved them almost as much as her small stuffed toy also, efficiently, called Nana. Her mother used to portion out her bananas, each cut neatly in half making it seem much more appealing to me but not my son who refused the fruit as he did everything that was more than a simple carb. When we sat together sipping coffee (mine mostly on my shirt) this mother was the one I measured myself against. She was the mom with healthy snacks and a laundry room so well organized that any random stranger could find band aids and stain sticks. When she prepared dinner for the children of the neighborhood she served local pizza which see snipped neatly with kitchen shears (?!) into perfect sized portions. The pizza was not the only thing on the plate. There were fruits and veggies and foods in colors other than cardboard.
The melamine plates that served up this kid friendly bounty were BPA free and funny.
After our first group lunch I went out and bought these plates for our house. When her family came to visit I carefully selected the “top banana” for her daughter. I’m not sure if she noticed. Over time my plates took on a horrible brownish black color. I tried to wash it off in the super hot dishwasher but it turned out that the sanitize setting on the dishwasher was the problem. She must have handwashed her kid plates to keep them looking good. This, like so many things, felt beyond my capabilities.
In those early years I was the fattest mom and my kid was the pickiest eater. They felt like opposite failings of the same coin. Today Leo eats everything but mostly berries and salmon and grilled chicken. He is a walking ten year old superfood billboard. I take no credit for this and neither does Steve, who with his midwestern plate featuring M E A T, P O T A T O E S , and, what is that? over there? a veggie? also shrugs his shoulders at Leo’s laudable eating. I tell myself that if I take no credit for Leo’s colorful fiber filled meals I can take no blame for Oliver’s box of crackers. But unless I am at my best parenting doesn’t work that way…and neither does my relationship with food. I accept the blame with ease and eschew the credit.
It is easier to eat potato chips off of the sweet pea plate than peas.
ON THE FOOD REVOLUTION
Sometimes I just want some fucking bread. Maybe I should stick to the bagels. They have zero calories after all.
What about you? Anything revolutionizing your eating?