It is always my sense that other people have a firm set of beliefs, preferences and habits while I wander alone in the bleak wasteland of flakiness. I am influenced easily, attracted to trend and fashion, susceptible to admiring and emulating the worlds of movies, books and interesting friends. I return from trips filled with plans to eat tropical fruit, drink chicory coffee, paint all my furniture bright colors, or do Tai Chi in a public park every morning. Since childhood, I have been Jo March, Heidi of the Alps, The Little Princess, one of the disaffected “Outsiders,” and an entire cast of Trollope characters. Nowhere is this wayward, unstable, malleability more evident than in my relationship with food.
I cook for a living, and by choice I read food magazines and cookbooks. I get excited about the idea of a spatchcocked chicken pressed beneath a brick, cooking to crisp perfection in a cast iron pan. I feel a surge of adrenaline at the possibility that I could actually make croissants, Chinese soup dumplings, sourdough bread or perfect gazpacho. On a recent trip to Zingerman’s famous deli in Ann Arbor, I was nearly immobilized with delight at a room filled with Spanish ham, fennel pollen, smoky pimenton, Marcona almonds, and at least six kinds of blue cheese standing in creamy state on a high shelf. I felt worldly, chef-ly, a woman who could easily arise to a slice of toasted brioche spread with Andalusian plum preserves, a cup of Japanese coffee cold-brewed through ice cubes, and a plate of perfect figs.
Meanwhile, back at the ranch, I am getting older, my cholesterol is higher than it should be, the family hypertension has kicked in, and a winter of sedentary living and comfort food left me too snug around the waistband. Two weeks ago I made a change; I am taking advantage of summer’s bounty to make sure that I really eat five servings of vegetables and four servings of fruit every day, sticking to actual serving-sized servings of whole grains, and eating very little meat. It isn’t mercenary; it excites me. At night I read “Vegetarian Times” and Edward Espe Brown’s Tassajara Cookbook and fantasize about miso soup with tofu, mushrooms and a perfect shiver of diagonally sliced scallions. By the time I get to the Farmers Market on a Saturday morning I hunt kale, chard, beets and French radishes with the same passion I felt towards the fatty meats and rich cheese at Zingerman’s. Waistbands loosen, I feel more alert, and I have allowed a box of leftover pizza to sit in my refrigerator for two days without so much as opening the bag to inhale the riches within.
This is all well and good, you may be saying; she can describe a variety of food, she’s trying to lose some weight, and she’s big on adjectives. Is there, in the midst of all of this, a point?
There is. The point is that eating healthy can’t be a fad, a summer romance that sizzles while the produce is fresh and it’s too hot to eat anything smothered in cheese sauce. It has to be reconciled, balanced, and institutionalized. I have to consider how I will serve my “customers” the heavy, buttery, starchy meals they love when I am not so much “Lunch Lady” as “Green Goddess” in my head. As is always the case when I am obsessed with a new thing, I feel the urge to share, evangelize, and shake things up. This very night at work, although I am serving grilled burgers with cheese, I have also spent hours chopping broccoli, multi-colored peppers, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes and scallions to create a beautiful marinated vegetable salad. I am trying for balance – they get a standard American food in all its cheesy, fatty, white-bunned glory, but they also get a rainbow of crisp, cold vegetables in place of potato chips and macaroni salad. Will they hate it? Will they eat it? Is it right to impose my own personal tofu-loving, kale-scarfing taste on folks who have relied on me for over a year to make goulash, macaroni and cheese, Shepard’s Pie, and Chicken & Dumplings?
I know that I will never be serving tofu, miso, kale, tempeh, or whole-wheat pastry at work. Despite my most florid fantasies, I am not living in San Franciso in 1969 and cooking at the neighborhood vegetarian joint. I am cooking for stolid Midwestern folk, many of whom are old enough or young enough that they vastly prefer the creamy, the familiar, and the comforting. My personal odyssey in no way requires that any of them change their own preferences, and I am not in a position to force them into a collective “no thank you bite” because I have a wild hair. What happens, though, to me,when the air grows cold, the available produce is aged after a trip from points South, and it starts to seem reasonable again that there is never enough butter in a dish? I have to eat, I have to cook, and it is always possible that something will capture my fancy and make it seem wonderful to be Betty Crocker or Mrs. Butterworth instead of Alice Waters. I fear, deeply and seriously, that easy descent after a summer of fresh, green, whole things.
The obvious answer is that discipline will take care of my own food consumption, and moderation may allow me to keep serving up steam table classics alongside some healthier, fresher options. This real life thing is far more complicated and less amusing than living my life as Heidi of the Alps, or Jamie Oliver; I may succumb to the cheesy potatoes at work, and I may find that the folks who love me for my blueberry crisp really hate me for my marinated vegetable salad. I am stuck being myself, this time, eating at home like a 1960s Buddhist-hippie hybrid, cooking at work like an indulgent 1950s mother in an apron, and gawking at gourmet food websites like a 2011 foodie. Maybe, someday soon, I will start a Green Revolution (which would be fun because I could totally get into being Che Guevara). Until then, I’m stuck with my shape-shifting, fickle and irresolute self.