Thursday, May 3, 2012

A Personal History of Food - Part I

Do you think I’ve gained some weight?

Naked in the bathroom – which is already far too much information - I posed this question  to the lovely wife the other day.  I was feeling a bit bulky.  There had been something wrong with the washing machine of late.  It kept shrinking my clothes.

I still love you, she said,  

That wasn’t remotely the question, I said.  

 It doesn’t look bad on you, she said.   

 I didn’t ask how it looked, I said, I asked if it was there.  

 If you’re worried about it, said the lovely wife, go on a diet. 
She quickly left the room.

A diet.

I have never been on a diet in my life.  If anything I have always been on the anti-diet.  I am an undisciplined omnivore who will eat anything if it tastes good, often in vast quantities, especially after a few beers late at night so that I go to bed with a full stomach.

Sort of like our Labrador.

It helps me sleep.

Food to me is pleasure.  It is fond memories.  I associate it with good friends and good times.  With holidays and beach picnics.  With dinner dates and all expense paid business lunches with wine swilling English film directors.

I’m especially fond of food that is bad for me.  Roast animal and/or grilled mammal accompanied by a butter soaked baked potato, sautéed spinach and an heirloom tomato and onion salad with blue cheese dressing would be my choice for the last supper.   I would also ask Jesus to turn the water into a good Cabernet. 

Oddly enough I have no interest in, sweets and deserts.  I’d rather have another order of garlic bread accompanied by a hearty helping of cassoulet.  Pass the foi gras and Chateu D’Yquem while you’re at it.

I blame my anti-diet – actually it’s hard to post blame for something you’re proud of and enjoy – on my dysfunctional but oddly idyllic youth.  My parents were divorced and my brother and I were raised by my mother and grandmother.   One was a secretary, the other a nurse, money was tight, emotions ran high and when the going got especially tough, the tough got going – and went right out to dinner.   How they pulled this off in the face of utility bills, I have no idea.

We went to The Colonial House which was a restaurant in an Eighteenth century house with – says it all - a negro lawn jockey by the front door.  For some reason we always sat in the lounge.   In retrospect, I think was so my mother and grandmother could smoke while my brother and I swiped maraschino cherries from the service bar.  

I realize now the food was dreadful but at the time it seemed the height of sophisticated elegance.  My brother and I always had the same thing.   We started with a Roy Rogers which was – gack! – coke and grenadine.   We moved to the baked stuffed clams which were mostly breadcrumbs.  For entrees, I had duck with orange sauce (!) and my brother had heavily breaded, Southern Fried chicken.  I have no doubt both entrees hit the deep fat fryer frozen solid.   Desert was the “snowball” – a scoop of vanilla ice cream doused with hot fudge and covered with cocoanut.  

If memory serves me my mother and grandmother’s favorite meal was Scotch and water.   

Regardless, any tearful challenge or crisis or breakdown in communication or unpaid bill that had faced our odd nuclear family was either solved, manageable or forgotten by the time we got home.   

On his occasional visits, my father also like to take my brother and I out to dinner.  But this was because, other than miniature golf, he had no other idea what to do with us.  His restaurants of choice early on were always the kind where, besides the entree, they gave you all the beer and ice burg lettuce you could eat.  Both of which, as 12 year olds, were wasted on us.  We didn’t care.  We were already of the opinion that bad food in a restaurant was better than good food at home.  And besides, my brother and I had no more idea what to do with our father then he did with us.  Except eat.

(To give my father a break, years later, when my brother and I were adults, he would often take us to the preeminent steakhouse in New York, The Palm.   It had cartoons on the walls and was patrolled by rude, brusque, Italian waiters who expected you to order without the benefit of a menu.  “We got steak, we got lobstuh, hurry up, what’dya want, we got it”   Besides the food, the best part of the evening was always when my father, having invariably drank too much, would hiss at the waiters for their attention -  phissst!   The waiters, in turn, would look at him like they wanted to pool their tips and take out a hit on him.  Would that they had.)

And food wasn’t so bad at home.   Not really.  Actually it was great.  My mother was a whiz at things like roasts and mashed potatoes and fried pork chops with apple sauce.   She also made a mean beef stroganoff and pecan pie.   Thanksgiving and Christmas turkeys were amazing at our house.  My grandmother’s specialty was red cabbage.  As was bringing home pricy cold cuts to be served open face on Danish rye bread.   I don’t remember vegetables.  I think they were something that came in a can.   

All in all, I went out into the world with a good food base.

When I was in my 20’s, I impressed with chicken baked in Campbell’s mushroom soup.  I served it over rice and it was always a huge hit with my roommates.

I was the first person I knew to make ground beef tacos.  I learned while tending bar at the restaurant, Caramba on upper Eighth
.  It was the first Mexican restaurant in Manhattan and the specialty of the house were frozen margaritas.   We put five shots of tequila into a medium one and several times a night a wobbly guy would come to us to say that his date had gone into the bathroom and had not come out.  The waitresses would go in to invariably find them  passed out while sitting on the toilet.

I used that margarita recipe for years.

And today?

Pretzels and peanut butter and snacks and late night feasts and carne asada burritoes for lunch aside, I find it surprising that after all the years of anti-dieting, I should now gain weight.  Because in truth I eat far less and far more healthy than I ever used to.   The lovely, vegetarian wife, who at one time, was the executive chef to the governor of Alaska (!) made me a deal when we got married.  She would cook meat – beautifully and in small portions – if I agreed not to insist on it all the time.   I grumbled and moaned and for the sake of the children to come, acquiesced like the martyr I am.  I still like big, meat infused dinners but will now settle for vegetarian lasagna.   I don’t mind tempe stir-fry.   The lovely wife’s pesto is ridiculously good.   As is her wild rice torte.  And risotto.  And grilled asparagus.  And Cuban black beans.  And lentils.  And pea soup.   And Mediterranean halibut.  The steamed broccoli is only so-so.  Dinner is never complete without a huge fresh salad – my specialty is now dressing - and her pies have made me rethink deserts.    The list goes on and on.  

Frankly if I could cut out the beer and wine I'd be a wraith.


The anti-diet still calls to me.  She is a siren in my belly and in my soul. 

Come back to me, Stephen, come back!  she cries.  

Hot dogs at Papaya King!   Pickles, potato salad and pastrami sandwiches at Carnegie Deli!   A three hour Sunday brunch at The Cheese Cellar!   Duck L’ Orange’ with pomme frits at The Petite Bistro!   Five courses of Italian at Piatti’s!  Clams Casino and an 18 oz. New York Strip with deep friend onions at The Palm!   Philly Cheesesteak!  Sausage pizza!   Breakfast buffets - bacon - let there be bacon!

I miss you!  the siren cries.  I want you back!

I like you fat!

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