One afternoon, when I was 14 and visiting Paris with my mother and her boyfriend, Bob, we stopped to picnic. I forget exactly where we were and what kind of cheese we ate. Here’s what I do remember: after we’d finished up, my mom reached into a white paper bag and handed each of us a madeleine. “We shall eat these,” she announced, “in honor of Proust.”
I took hold of the spongy thing, gave it a little pinch, and exclaimed, “It’s a Twinkie.”
“He’s right!” Bob said, and cackled, while my mom gave us a look that said she’d love to see us both keel-hauled from the nearest bateau-mouche.
Before anyone finds me out, I’d better confess: I’ve never actually gotten around to reading Remembrance of Things Past. But, thanks to allusions scattered throughout good old pop culture — for example, in the Sopranos, when the sight of cappicola spurs Tony toward a major therapeutic breakthrough — I get the basic idea. The hero bites into a madeleine and his childhood memories flood his consciousness, and the reader’s, for a whole gang of pages. Since last Friday, when Hostess Brands, Inc. announced plans to lay off its work force and liquidate its assets, remembrances of junk food past have dominated my consciousness. Sifting through them has made me realize just how well early associations of diet and social rank primed me for life as an aescetic.
My mother and I met when she was in the process of transforming herself from a South Jersey Irish Catholic, daughter of a service-station manager who pinched his o’s, Cockney stye, into someone more genteel. The values she meant to embody included cultural cosmopolitanism, social grace, and of course, a principled egalitarianism. Even if she had woken up one day as a Boston brahmin or a Jewish girl from Central Park West who’d gone from Calhoun to Bennington, she’d have been able to move among her former relatives with perfect ease.
I’m agog with admiration at how well she succeeded. She spoke in tones that gave life to the cliche dulcet, and in an accent that made her sound at least as much like she’d shared a zip code with Julie Christie as with Chris Christie. Though she’d never held a tennis racket or heard the words “hard-a-lee!” she carried herself in a way that suggested she had. Working on a shoestring budget, she pulled off this miracle partly through observing self-imposed dietary laws. She was what she ate, and wasn’t what she didn’t eat.
Unclean in her sight was anything that might be packed in an aluminum lunch box or lowered down a mine shaft in a bucket. This meant no white bread, no bologna, no processed cheese, no Dunkin Donuts, no instant coffee, no Coca-Cola, no flavored milk. Fried food was not, in itself, forbidden; she liked falafel, balls of fried chick peas, because it was served in restaurants with arch names like King Tut’s Kitchen. Turkey breast stuffed into pita bread was fine; stuffing and roasting a whole turkey for Thanksgiving meant running the risk of being mstaken for a Reagan Democrat. She loved scones, mainly, I think, because she could imagine Robert Lowell breaking Jean Stafford’s nose with one.
This involved serious sacrifice. My mother earned less than most hard hats, so abstaining from hard hat food often meant abstaining from food, period. A few years ago, in an article for Salon’s food section, I wrote that she “ate like a pillar saint who subscribed to The New Yorker.” I was exaggerating, but not by much. I’ve known chain-smokers, cokeheads and actors, but none of them could have survived long on her diet, which consisted of Yoplait, pita bread, romaine lettuce, smoked gouda, and maybe an occasional Pepperidge Farm Mint Milano cookie or Stella d’Oro Breakfast Treat. Consciously she was reinventing herself; unconsciously, she was showing her roots. Only a former Catholic schoolgirl, who’d grown up fasting before daily Mass, could have pulled off a trick like that.
As much as she could, my mother tried to roll with this. I remember her sitting across the booth from me at the McDonald’s on 83rd Street or the KFC on 86th Street, clenching her fists and averting her eyes as I dug in. She even gave ground on sweets. A scoop of French vanilla at Haagen-Dazs was something she could approve; on a special occasion, she’d even agree to soft-serve from Carvel’s. But allowing a whole box of sugar grenades by Drake or Tastykake or Hostess to take up space in her refrigerator was unthinkable. In one of those irrational conceits to which we’re all subject, she expected them to sublet to Swanson TV dinners and cereals, like Ka-Boom! and Krazy Kow, that came in colors unseen outside of a mescaline trail.
Around the time I started hitting the street to score, befriending kids who switched to falsetto when they tired of their normal voices, knowing they’d have Pop-Tarts at home, my mother handed me a dollar. “Go to the corner store and get us some stupid pies,” she said.
I drew a blank. “Stupid pies?”
“The ones with the disgusting imitation fruit filling with the consistency of mucus. The ones that have no nutritional value whatsoever. The ones made by the same revolting company that makes Twinkies. Go. Make mine blueberry.”
I made the round trip before she had the milk poured. For myself, I’d bought a lemon pie, and for once I didn’t bolt it down; all my attention was on my mother. I half-expected her to pick at hers with a pastry fork, but she didn’t. She ate it in good time, and toward the end, let out a faint grunt of appreciation. “I used to like these when I was a girl,” she explained. Then she bunched up the wrappers and hustled off to the garbage can.
Stupid Pies — it became a proper noun for us, since we never referred to Hostess Fruit Pies by any other name. It introduced me to the concept of guilty pleasure, which has stuck with me ever since. I can’t bear to enter a fast-food franschise more than once a season. I haven’t had a Hostess dessert since the last time I visited my mother, and that was mainly for nostalgia’s sake.
Still, unlike my friend Rick, the foodie, I don’t earn enough to subsist on free-range bison and organic potatoes. At 5’8″ and 170, I can’t make it through the day on yogurt and social ambition. So, every two weeks or so, I do the one thing that would have made my mother blush: I go to Wal-Mart and come back with El Paso chimichangas and Gorton’s fish sticks. That’s not my whole stash, by any means, but even my chicken breast is Oscaw Mayer, and my tuna store brand.
It doesn’t sound very ennobling, but, as I do my mother’s abstemious example, I like to see it in a Catholic context, that I’m cultivating poverty of spirit, sharing the burden of the poorest of the American poor.