My family’s proclivity for rich and abundant victuals has culled the gene pool. Those defiant few among us hoping to skirt an early demise, wrestle with our inner fat selves every day. I’m one of those rebels.
Yes, eating runs in my family. Not just the delicate indulgences required to sustain and propagate lives. No, my kinsmen endorse eating volumes of food and with panache. The ritual I grew up with included sitting around the linen-draped dining table with our sterling silver Reed and Barton forks poised for action. An antique chandelier flickered above and kept an elegant tempo with its reflection in the bay window.
In sepia-distorted images, my mother’s youthful contours teeter on sinewy. I don’t remember that version because the Mom I knew practiced her maternal trade wearing rippling tiers of flesh. At home, billowing dresses concealed some of the underlying corpulence. In public, custom-made appliances, bras, and girdles barricaded her encumbrance. Lane Bryant stockholders benefited from my mother’s extravagant appetites for good food and fashion.
Early photos of me also reflect a willowy physique. Unlike Mom’s doughy embraces that devoured me as a kid, my progeny have had to settle for less smothering, less yeasty shows of affection from me. As compensation, I offer them a body they can wrap their arms around. Having never encountered the kind of hugs my mother dispensed—mom only made it to 60—I doubt that my children appreciate the miraculously sculpted, easily clasped figure I’ve worked so hard to maintain.
Reared as a food aficionado, I remember our weekly Saturday outings to the big city, Pittsburgh. Pit stops for lunch and dinner fueled our shopping extravaganzas. Since my father worked in the lucrative family business, a meat-packing plant, we never suffered a shortage of cash to support this weekly tradition.
Lunches at Horne’s Department Store contributed enough calories to sustain a herd of oxen. Their in-store-bakery-manufactured dinner rolls provided a generous pillow on which to tuck a few chunks of real butter. The entrée, not one but two kid-size orders of the chicken ala king, made my day, at least until the next eating venue came along. A hedge of creamy mashed potatoes corralled a luscious gravy flecked with red pimento and green pepper. Copious and tender chunks of chicken complemented the smooth-textured sauce.
The meal transcended me into a near-state of nirvana until . . .
Horne’s bakery, situated behind the cashier where we paid for lunch, teased my not-quite satiated appetite. To avoid exposing myself as an ungrateful glutton, I contained my cravings. My intuitive mom must have seen through me and my accumulating layers of fat. I believe that’s why, with no groveling on my part required, she capped the meal with a sticky roll—the best in town—or a runner-up like the gingerbread man cookie.
After lunch we canvassed the competition, a department store located a few blocks away. We trekked the distance to avoid losing a good parking space. Any benefits bestowed to hearts or waistlines came about incidentally. We accumulated our necessities and with our new cache of clothes—maybe shoes or a toy tucked under our arms—we headed back to the car.
Before driving the 50-mile stretch to our little hamlet, Mt. Pleasant, we drove over to nearby Squirrel Hill, where the Jewish culture flourished. Kosher bakeries, butcher shops, delicatessens, and other business operations lined the streets. My mother took full advantage of the ethnic fare in this part of town. We visited the bakery and the kosher deli to stockpile our home with pantry products unavailable in our hometown. Mom precision-gauged just how much pumpernickel bread, tongue, and corned beef we needed to survive another week before the next shopping spree. Mt. Pleasant’s culinary offerings paled compared to Squirrel Hill’s cornucopia.
Afterward, my mother justified another round of good eating at Weinstein’s restaurant to stave off hunger on the hour drive home. I happily acquiesced to such rational planning. On the way home, we tore into the bakery boxes and nibbled on mandelbread.
Life revolved around this pattern of eating in my youth. By the time I reached college, my weight and proportions fell within a normal range. I had the sense to realize, though, that this type of consumption posed some serious risks to my longevity.
Those relatives who endorsed our family dining style no longer shared the planet with us. Mom, although thriving, lumbered through her days tired and frustrated from hauling around at least 150 pounds of extra flesh. My father, his brothers, dad, and uncles, all worked hard enough to minimize weight gain, but the fat took a shortcut and caked their hearts and arteries. They all succumbed at an early age, leaving devastated widows in their wake.
At college, determined to break away from this dead-end lifestyle, I tried to assemble less flamboyant, calorie-rich selection on my breakfast, lunch, and dinner trays. The unsavory repasts served in the school’s dining hall eased my challenge. I managed to maintain my modest collection of fat cells despite occasional deserts and outings to nearby restaurants with friends.
My food infatuation continued to haunt me after graduating from college. Now, at 69, I still lust over food, food magazines, recipe books, new restaurant reviews, and the restaurants themselves. I avoid chains, fast-food joints, and places I suspect of dishing up meals prepared without passion.
Unlike most of my relatives, I have learned to temper my appetite. In some ways, I suffer from my abstinence. I still drool at the mention of a Reuben sandwich with a mile-high layer of corned beef jammed between inch-thick slices of grilled buttery rye bread. For years a lean silhouette has concealed my hankerings. Every day my conscience deploys troops to quell my yearnings for fat-laced delicacies. Now and then I accept defeat. After such a setback, I convince myself, maybe falsely, that walks and exercise, counterbalance any of the deleterious effects. My doctor claims I’m fit. So short of joining a monkhood, I man my defenses and forge—no, forage—ahead.
Carol, in keeping with her tradition of pursuing low-income professions, has launched a new career—writing. She has completed two tongue-in-cheek-memoirs, Tails Behind the Scenes: The Uncanny Parallels Between my Zoo Career and Family Life, Desert Deliverance: A Tongue-in-Cheek Memoir, and a multitude of short stories. Most of her work is accumulating dust in the computer’s hard drive, but retirement from parenting, zookeeping, and teaching the visually impaired has stripped her of an identity. That compels Carol to edit her work in hopes of achieving a world-acclaimed-writer status.