Sauteed mushrooms on toast. Black-olive and cream cheese sandwiches. A casserole my mother made from canned clams, crushed Saltines, and lots and lots of butter.
I ate artichokes and asparagus happily enough, but peas and I had an on-again-off-again love affair, although my mother always fixed them the same way—out of the frozen Bird’s Eye package, boiled and served with butter and garlic.
I dreaded being served stews, pit fruit, and that staple of American childhood, the PBJ.
Relatives and friends’ parents looked horrified or anxious when I said I’d had enough, thank you. Often as much food remained as had been served. I’m not quite sure how I survived childhood without nutritional deficiencies; it must have been those Flintstones vitamins.
My parents had both been raised to finish every last bite of Swiss chard or calves’ liver on their plates, so they determined not to impose food-related demands or ultimatums on my brother and me.
Sometime in my twenties, I started finishing what was in front of me. Perhaps because I’d bought and cooked the food myself, or because my taste buds had developed, I learned that many items I’d turned up my nose at were really quite yummy.
I still steered clear of pit fruit and corned beef, but I discovered the wonders of kale, of chili con carne, even of boeuf bourguignon. Once, at a roadside restaurant in Italy, I even ate donkey (not a repeat).
Once I hit forty, my metabolism—which had raced like a bullet train through adolescent feasts of Pepperidge Farm cookies and bowls of Lucky Charms with half-and-half, through college-age fondue fests and quesadillas and fettuccine Alfredo (cheese, cheese, and more cheese)—hit the brakes.
I could no longer keep eating the way I once had. My cholesterol climbed, my blood pressure spiked, my size went from ten to fourteen.
I still finish every last morsel on my plate, often prompting predictable jokes from servers at restaurants. “Didn’t like it, huh?” True, I could (and should) slow down, enjoy it just as much, and leave some behind.
Years of eating alone made me into someone who eats quickly, getting up to serve myself another helping rather than chewing each bite twenty times. My waistline, and my intentionality, would surely benefit from smaller portions.
I’ve had to make adjustments—less butterfat, less salt, less refined sugar. I rarely whip up a batch of biscuits on a slow writing morning, or a bowlful of chocolate cookie dough, much as I’d like to.
But I try not to be draconian. I try to keep some pleasures within, if not arm’s reach, a five-block radius of two corner stores and a bakery.
I’d like to say that I now enjoy food more because I appreciate what went into the making of it—not just the cooking, but the planting, the raising, the mulching, even the butchering—that I’ve matured into someone who graciously accepts what she’s been served, even donkey.
Saying that sounds a little self-satisfied, though, doesn’t it? How I can even write about the pleasure of food, the bounty of choice around me, the luxury of getting up for seconds, when too many people go hungry?
The other night my friend Leslie and I met for sushi. Not just sushi but fresh, wild king salmon and ahi tuna poke. We hadn’t had a meal together in more than a year and prior to that, probably two years.
When we see each other, we walk or attend one of her kids’ basketball games or school plays. So, last week, when we made a plan to meet for dinner—the way we used to, back in New York, when we were both single—I felt almost giddy.
We had a grand time. It felt good to share food and make eye contact across the table. This was the first time we’d seen each other wearing something other than sweats in far too long.
Last Christmas, my husband’s mother gave us a gas grill. A small round thing, cute as a bug, it closes like a clamshell and opens big enough for kebabs, steaks, or—last night—two pork chops coated in chili-cumin powder, and four peaches, halved and pitted.
Yes, pit fruit.
When I looked through the grilling cookbook for ideas of what to do with pork chops, I said aloud, “with peaches, ick,” and turned the page. Then I went back, thought again. What did I have against peaches in the first place?
Avocado has a pit, after all, and I adore avocado. Maybe it was time to try peaches, grilled soft and served alongside tangy pork chops, grated zucchini on the side, maybe some black beans too.
I feel giddy again—this time at what has become our Sunday-evening-in-summer ritual: Dinner on the grill.
I marinate and prep. My husband hooks up the propane and wields the tongs and keeps on eye on the time. Five minutes per side? Six? Together we lean over, touch the flesh of a chop to see if it’s ready.
And when it is, we both dig in, finishing every bite.