During my stay at the Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, I got a rude lesson in portion control.
I assumed my meals had been designed for me, an overweight diabetic who had presented with a heart attack, so the lean trays brought to my bedside did not surprise me. Even so, my disappointment over one particular item helped awaken me to the realities of my relationship with food.
After three days, the cheerful woman who checked in every morning to discuss the following day’s menu announced that I would be allowed to have a hamburger, if I so wished.
I gave a lot of thought to that hamburger over the next 24 hours. My system was in shock from nicotine withdrawal. It had only just begun to reckon with the reduced rations at mealtimes, and it was nowhere near to fathoming the cessation of my habitual afternoon grazing and nightly chocolate fix.
I rejoiced over the prospect of a fat, juicy burger. Warped by the surreal nature of my circumstance, my brain sidestepped reality to produce a full sensory vision of a fresh-ground beef patty charbroiled to that succulent threshold point between medium rare and medium, topped by a slice of melted Vermont cheddar sprinkled with bits of blue cheese, served on a hearty, multigrained butter-toasted bun with pickle and raw onion.
Of course, the perfect burger would include french fries, but even in my bewitched state, I understood fries to be unlikely, so I conjured up sides of classic potato salad and coleslaw.
I may even have caught a whiff of hickory-smoked bacon emanating from either the burger or the potato salad, but all of this proved irrelevant when the great moment and the lunch tray arrived bearing a lifeless gray, wizened hamburger the size of a flattened golf ball. Not even a hockey puck. Not even the deck of cards depicted on nutrition guides to represent the prescribed 3-ounce serving for meat, fish, or poultry.
Desperate, I savored every bite. My deprived taste buds transformed a slider-sized, overcooked hamburger served on a papery white bun smeared with mustard from a plastic packet, accompanied by watery coleslaw and an insipid dill pickle into something scrumptious.
The illusion did not last. After the feast had vanished like a dream from my plate, I fell into a gloom trying to imagine life without cigarettes and the ultimate burger.
* * *
Giving up the foods that harm us can invite rigorous self-examination.
Beyond sustaining life and giving pleasure, food fuses with our identities. Just watch people misbehave in restaurants when they feel slighted or deprived, how quickly they can regress to brattiness or outright infancy. In every age of man, every era, culture, country, and every region of a country, every faith, family, and household, nearly every individual develops a unique and intimate relationship with food.
In my family, there were two ways of doing things. My mother grew up with one brother and one sister in an elegant house in a picturesque neighborhood overlooking the Ohio River. My father grew up nearby with eight siblings in a squat, two-bedroom house that was faced on one side by railroad tracks and on the other by a fecund old-world garden, which I remember most for action-packed Easter-egg hunts amid the garlic, tomatoes, and chickens.
At my mother’s family house, dinner was tasty and balanced, nutritious and spare. The family gathering was not about food, but about the setting and the conversation. Topics centered on politics, history, and the state of the world; family gossip; and trips to Europe and the Far East.
Meanwhile, over at the Moravec homestead, life was about food and the propagation of children. Overwhelmingly Catholic and heavily influenced by Slavic, Italian, and Greek heritages, my father’s side of the family enriched my life with more cousins, aunts, and uncles than I could keep track of.
The dining room was all about a crucifix, sentimental pictures of the Virgin Mary, a Black Forest cuckoo clock that made us cheer no matter how many times the bird came out, and populous holiday celebrations featuring heaped platters of cold-pressed meats and walnut bread; poppy seed cake; cheese strudel; Russian tea cakes and nut rolls; ham, kielbasa, and roast pork; homemade sauerkraut that lived in a crock in the basement; garlic balls boiled in ham broth; greens wilted with bacon grease; cabbage rolls, split pea soup, pierogis, and stuffed peppers.
My Bubba was always in the kitchen bringing forth food; widowed, plump, and fertile; quietly jolly and hugely proud of her proliferating brood; stretching out sheets of dough across the kitchen table and neatly cutting noodles for chicken soup or preparing a fried chicken that to this day can set my cousins raving. Her house smelled of the odors of a hundred thousand meals boiled, baked, steamed, and roasted into the walls.
My father’s father worked in the steel mills; his mother scrubbed floors. During the Depression years, they dropped their nine children off at a soup kitchen for a free meal at Thanksgiving, but they themselves never went in. The family lived out of an eternal soup pot, a broth that simmered constantly on the stove, where it alternated between being raided for a meal and being replenished for the next one with meat parts, garden vegetables, and beans.
When he made a success of his life, my father linked his upwardly mobile status with food. For him, a well-stocked refrigerator offered emotional safety and security, especially after my mother convinced him to quit smoking and drinking.
In our house, the abused substance was meat. We had it almost every night. My father loved finding a butcher wherever we lived and talking shop while ordering fresh sausage and prime cuts of beef.
He rewarded us with meat. A stellar report card or honors award sent him on a mission to find the best strip steak for that week’s best child. Once I was out of the house and living on my own, whenever he came to visit, the first thing he did was take me grocery shopping to overstock my kitchen so I should not want. The second thing he did was take me out to dinner. As far as I could see, nothing gave him greater satisfaction.
When my mother discovered yoga and health food midway through life, she stopped eating red meat: anything that bore its young live. She could be militant about what is now called “clean eating” and self-righteous in her efforts to convert the people around her.
She admitted once that she felt like a born-again something-or-other whose joy upon finding tofu, flaxseed, and portion control had filled her with a missionary zeal to spread the good news. It must have horrified her to watch her husband wreck his health, and at times the peace between them, with a steady diet of bacon, cold cuts, ribs, and chops.
There could be deeply rooted tension over who was eating what in their empty nest. My mother made two separate meals every morning and night, his and hers. They shared a household provisioned for two incompatible diets that defined them, hers being a matter of living well, virtuously, and long; his of living well in quite another sense and clinging to what made him feel safe, successful, and secure.
My father died of heart failure at age 65. My mother is preparing to celebrate her 90th birthday.
* * *
My use and abuse of food did not occur at work but rather at home on my nights off. For much of my life, dinner was not dinner unless it contained a meat, a starch, a veggie, and salad. I often longed for the savings and nutrition found in a bowl of brown rice and broccoli, but it just wasn’t in me to make a meal of a side.
Bingeing involved chocolate cookies or chocolate cake. And milk. These were my trigger foods, the ones that disappeared within four hours of being brought into the house.
At one point in my life, I tried controlling my infatuation with chocolate by allotting myself one six-pack of Oreo cookies every night. With milk. It went on for years, this little game, telling myself that I could pass up a candy bar mid-afternoon or a too-large lunch as long as I knew I’d be having my six postprandial cookies that night.
This was semi-effective for as long as I worked in restaurants, where those subversive devils, the Calories That Don’t Count, were limited to the calories consumed on holidays and special occasions. Or to food eaten in the middle of the night, popcorn at the movies, samples at the supermarket, happy-hour snacks. Any food that’s free.
When my occupation switched from cooking to office work, the number of miraculously non-caloric foods multiplied. Now there were those magical doughnuts left beside the coffee machine. The muffins and croissants served at staff meetings in the morning and the crackers and cheese in the afternoon. The dish of Hershey’s Kisses on somebody’s desk. The Chinese takeout and store-bought cake for birthdays. Fast food in the vending machine at 3:30 to counteract a drop in blood sugar. Dumplings and dips at receptions after work.
When I stopped cooking professionally, not only did the number of Calories That Don’t Count increase, but my interest in the culinary arts also intensified. I had been doing café-and-grill-type cooking, but once I quit, I turned into an armchair foodie.
Suddenly, I loved reading about food. I loved looking at the expertly posed pictures of food. I loved learning about cooking trends and techniques and familiarizing myself with cuisines and lifestyles from around the world. I started reading the Travel section of the Sunday Times. I amassed cookbooks, magazines, and recipes.
I often came home from work feeling exhausted, frustrated, and depressed, plopped down in front of the Food Network, and slipped into a trance while friendly, chatty celebrity chefs recreated for me the security of coming home to find Mom making dinner again.
I spent a great deal of time and money food shopping and stocking up on faddish ingredients for meals I never made. (Who for?) Of the 10,000 recipes I collected over the years, I probably made fewer than 30. I preferred to improvise.
It wasn’t about eating. It was the idea of food, the alternate reality it could summon up: a fantasy of the good life, of becoming affluent and sophisticated and one day actually living as an adventurous bon vivant with a gourmet kitchen and the means to travel. After the heart attack, my focus switched to healthful cooking, the science of food, the psychology of eating, and mind-body nutrition.
* * *
Even then, the same skewed logic responsible for the Calories That Don’t Count applied to holidays. When I faced a holiday alone, food rescued me.
One Thanksgiving, while a local TV station showed Indiana Jones movies, I worked myself into a meditative state making quick breads and cookies; risottos, roasts, and elaborate side dishes; appetizers, salads and chutneys; a menu that kept me busy the whole day and fed me for a week. It was sad and disgusting. Surely I could have found someone to ask over, perhaps an SIT Graduate Institute student far from home. Obviously, I should have donated the food to the homeless shelter and volunteered to cook and serve at the community supper in town.
But what looked like self-indulgence was more likely self-flagellation: you screwed up your life so now you’re going to spend yet another major holiday alone engulfed by food that will make you fatter, more cut off from the world and closer to leaving it altogether.
What did food mean to me? Mother, father. And heated disputes between them. Two families. Two cultures. Food’s consequence varied, from expressions of bounty and love to the disgrace of obesity to life, health, and premature death.
* * *
I latched onto food along the way as my salvation, a choice exemplified by those six Oreo cookies, the substance I depended on to get me safe, sane, and whole through the twilight hour, the loneliest part of the day. When alone, I could not conceive of surviving the night without something chocolate waiting in the wings, something standing in readiness to protect me, validate, comfort, and complete me, usually between 8 and 9 p.m.
It was annihilation otherwise. It was being left at the mercy of the four degrees of disconnect — the void, the vastness, the ache, the pain — and all the subtle gradations between them, like shades on a color wheel or phases of the moon. Chocolate staved off losses apparently too ravaging to bear. It was my defense against the fear of death, my advantage over death itself.
How could I possibly let it?