Sunday, January 29, 2006

Food Friendly

T's post below (two down), besides just being a fabulous kick in the ass of my head makes me think about my own weird, wonderful, and painful relationship with food. I come from a family of cooks, entertainers, and social chowhounds. And they each did too. Did I have a shot in hell of not being toally enamored with and excited about food? No way.

My mother's mother was known all over the neighborhood, the church, and elsewhere for her fried chicken. For her killer garlic cheese grits. For her pies with crusts so flaky people would roll their eyes back in their head and die the tiniest little death upon tasting them. They could be revived by her cookie tray; full of elaborate delicacies and simple butter cookies made even better by their presentation surrounded by friends like peanut butter or rum balls, mini-fruitcakes and more.

Her barbecues were popular not just because she knew her way around a brisket and a chicken but because of my grandfather's astounding barbecue sauce. My grandfather, who wrote memoirs so direct and simple before his death, one might never know that his scrambled eggs were fluffy pillows of comfort because of his secret tablespoon of this-or-that; the beauty of his peach ice-cream that was terribly delicate and intensely fruity and well worth the astounding amount of labor it took to hand crank the wooden bucket ice cream maker.

My grandmother was a tough and strong woman who was both invested in her role as a wife, having a full on dinner on the table when my grandfather came home from work, and intensely devoted to her own life as a painter; so much so that my grandfather converted ninety percent of their two-car garage to become her studio (Texas hail be damned). Perhaps it was for all the delicious roasts she made, the vegetable soup made in the temperamental pressure-cooker that once shocked her, throwing her across the room as its contents exploded all over the kitchen and out into the living room and dining room thanks to pass through windows.

Or maybe it was the crab bisque, the chili cream, or one of the other intense dairy experiences she pulled together for one of the hundreds of parties they threw. One could also always look forward to the occasional surprise. A cajun chicken cooked in white wine, a rich bulgur-heavy tabouleh salad for a lighter day, the occasional German-inspired wurst and more dinner, a chilled bowl of tapioca pudding, a slim saucer of garden cucumbers thinly sliced and bathed in a sugared vinegar.

I grew up with my grandmother coming to my house each morning to make breakfast and take my siblings and I to school. Omelets were common with accompanying fruit, meat, and sometimes a biscuit or two. This food was sometimes accompanied by the "word of the day" exercise where she cracked open the dictionary and read us a new word to learn. After all her southern cooking, I wish she had opened it up to the entry for "lactose intolerant." Might have saved me some rough years.

My immediate family remains a food-friendly adventure. My mother's cooking is straight southern with an extra dash of Texas ladies' club and Paula Deen meets a hint of reason. And delicious. She can whip together a meal out of nothing, can mix groceries with ease, and has a treasure chest of recipes that have come from parents of students, great and old-standby cookbooks, fabulous teas, events with my sister and more.

Growing up we went out to explore the food of Dallas-Fort Worth quite regularly. I feel blessed and lucky that my parents would go anywhere, try anything and not keep us so stuck to the same-old same-old.

Mom was a teacher, a union leader, and an all-out supporter of the schools she taught at. This meant that as we got older and had a bit more money, we ate out more. And by more, I mean at least a few times a week. Plenty of Tex-Mex at some delicious restaurants serving piles of warm chips with complimentary tortillas and butter packets; Chinese from Chin's where they had a picture of Ruth Buzzi on the wall and where my sister would eat deliciously marinated moist chicken in tiny foil packets. I would laugh at the PuPu platter and order rumaki and shrimp subgum. Now we we find our way to the Vietnamese and Thai places we love, the Indian and the Ethiopian. The Middle Eastern and the occasional burger or barbecue joint.

Dad comes from a different culinary history but his mother was a talented cook as well. Decidedly more southern and possibly less adventurous, but I don't recall ever having a meal that wasn't just right. As kids, we craved her taller and fluffier-than-I-have-yet-to-make pancakes covered in our choice of light or dark Karo syrup. Together we would venture out to Crystal's Pizza on Camp Bowie Boulevard for a pizza with gargantuan discs of canadian bacon and sundaes drooling with thick marshmallow topping.

And so in seventh grade, with all these great food influences all around and somewhat to my chagrin, I was signed up for Weight Watchers. Very strange experience all around. I was surrounded by women. Seems no men want to lose weight? And I was the only young person short of a girl named Brandi who I realized went to my school after a few meetings. We semi-bonded over counting grams of this or that, eating packets of lean Carl Budding meats, ingesting more cottage cheese than is humanly advisable, and drinking more water than a Dr. Seuss-proportioned camel. We nodded at each other in the halls like two introverted engineers, immersed in their own projects, passing at an electonics company in Peoria. To acknowledge we really knew one another might have outed us as fatties or foodies.

I don't recall being particularly traumatized by my experience and lost the requisite weight, received more praise from the world than is sensible for changing one's physical appearance, and received my key as a Lifetime Member. A curse really.

Since then, I've gone back and forth. Sometimes consciously and sometimes less so. But always thinking about it. I've watched my folks gain and lose weight on various programs over the years and worry about the yo-yo. My situation is complicated a bit by the fact that I really work more than anything else. Not a lot of running around or exercise for me. I do feel like going to Weight Watchers may have been the beginning of my worrying about food and weight. There was something wrong enough with me that I needed to go be with a group of people much older who were dealing with the same issues. We were all on the same diet, but, um, I was 12. I weighed all my food and worried. I didn't have the skill to make it all taste good.

As I said, the weight came off, but it did creep back on over the next few years. I never recall not being teased or looked down at because of my weight. And I can look back at pictures and see that I was not nearly as big as it felt. Not that it mattered, but my distorted image of my self must have come from really feeling like I needed back up lights and special signs when I really was just a chubby kid (or husky if you prefer, like it says on Bobby Hill's jeans).

The weight came off a bit two other times. Once in high school when I went on Nutri/Systems. I ate 900 lbs of beef on that diet. There was a golden statue of me wearing a bib and standing next to a longhorn at the Fort Worth Stockyards for many years to follow. People would tell Clara Peller to come find me and there they would find the beef.

That came back as well. Flash forward to one more try a year or so after college. My friend Len and I would go to the gym, eat at the chain salad bar and support one another. It came off fast. I'm not sure how long it took to put back on. This was probably the most fun because there was no system, no list, no rules. I just was eating well and exercising.

So that was around ten years ago now. I fine it very challenging to do much more than work most of the time. I'm working on that haha. We love to cook and we love to eat and I have accepted fully that that just won't change. I'm not going to go into what I could be doing better or differently. I just have to get there when I can get there.

In the meantime, I think it is vital to do what we can to stop pathologizing food and its enjoyment. To accept and embrace people of all shapes and sizes and to continue to share the bounty in all its shades of meaning. Lose weight, gain weight, exercise, etc. It's all good. I just hope we are all gentle with ourselves and can find our way to enjoy food.

I really love T's post for that. It's freeing.

No comments: