In Other Words: My years of eating dangerously
Published 6:17 am, Thursday, April 2, 2015
I grew up on Betty Crocker's buttermilk biscuits dripping jam. I devoured Aunt Jemima's pancakes with a vengeance. Loaves of sourdough bread were ravaged with gluttonous abandon. But, that was before I strayed from the path of incredible edibles over to the dark side of the calorie-conscious bore who hasn't tasted real food in years.
I am that same person who, as a young girl, tripped from restaurant to restaurant accompanied by my parents -- two people who worshipped at the culinary altar of gastronomic greed. We swooned when a steak au poivre was presented or crepes Suzette were prepared tableside. We gorged on baskets of garlic bread, salads oozing Roquefort cheese dressing, and Lindy's cheesecake that ramped up our taste buds. Dining was an occasion, and our passion bordered on debauchery. I collected matchbooks from every restaurant we visited, so that even now, I am still intoxicated with foodie lust.
But that was before appetites shifted, and people started being careful. It all began with Metrical -- that magic elixir guaranteed to shed pounds and morph us from succulent to svelte within weeks. Mothers became advocates of this liquid refreshment, and raised their daughters to follow suit. Suddenly, after years of being exposed to the finest cuisine, we were being admonished for eating too well. Cottage cheese replaced french fries, Jell-O became the dessert of choice, and the days of dangerous eating were over.
Before we all went slightly berserk, eating was the rage. Raiding the refrigerator was a naughty diversion in which we stood under the glow of its little light, spooning peanut butter from the jar and plucking sour pickles from salty brine. Oh, the afternoons when my friends and I bolted down thick milkshakes, gorged on gooey grilled-cheese sandwiches and brownies, loaded with so much sugar they could induce a diabetic coma. I recall the baby lamb chops with their delicate fat-streaked bones, which I gnawed on several nights a week. I consumed so many that I secretly believed the sheep police had a warrant out for my arrest.
Those were the days when moms never left their kitchens, treating them as holy shrines where magical moments took place. Culinary fragrances filled the air, wafting through the house, long after meals were over. Each home had its distinct aroma. Mine reeked of vanilla from my mom's baking obsession. Jane's house smelled of burnt toast. Angela Fiore's house was wonderfully Italian with a pot of red "gravy" bubbling away on the stove. No matter when I visited, there was sauce cooking. Angela's family ate spaghetti seven days a week.
Life is different now. Eating is no longer as much fun as it was since we've become diet-conscious and dull. The scents of yesterday have vanished, Often, meals are prepared in microwave ovens where baking a potato takes under seven minutes. We live in aroma-challenged homes where the only fragrances are citrus-laced detergents or flowery room deodorizers. Where we once loitered in the kitchen until dinner was ready, we can now satisfy our hunger pangs with a press of a button. Social discourse is diminishing, and instant gratification has replaced coming to the table famished. Often, we eat on the run, cramming meals between our busy lives. Leisurely dining is passe -- a weekend indulgence rather than a nightly tradition.
Peering over labels is now the norm, insuring that our foods are "lite," low fat, sodium-free and artificially sweetened, adding nothing to our hips and even less to our taste buds. Mealtime lingo has become a study in cliche phrases -- "on the side" is part of the vernacular -- where food arrives at the table unadulterated and lacking adornment and sentiment.
I miss the days when we didn't use words like "trendy," "vertical" or "macrobiotic" to describe a salad -- when cleansing our palates meant a good burp. Oh, how I long for my mother's chocolate cakes made with real eggs, sugar and pounds of butter. When fried chicken meant leaving the skin on the bird, and cholesterol counts weren't a major topic of conversation.
I recall Thanksgivings past when we lingered at the table for hours, pies were made from scratch, conversations seemed endless, and TVs didn't rudely intrude upon the familial ambiance. Those were the unrushed times when we sat and drank long into the afternoon until the slate-blue autumn sky floated into evening, and we settled into a kind of tranquil inertia.
Last night I had a dream: I was being chased by a giant hamburger dripping with cheese, tomatoes, pickles, and greasy onions, which forced its way into my mouth until I consumed the entire thing. I awakened feeling peculiar and happy.
Life was deliciously dangerous then. Whatever happened to real food? I'm starving.
Judith Marks-White is a Westport writer. She can be reached at email@example.com or at www.judithmarks-white.com.