Sunday, July 25, 2010

Oh Boy! Food!*

I think about food a lot. For example, right now, I’m using about 40 percent of my brain to focus on writing this column, while the other 60 percent is fixated on the Lean Pockets waiting for me in the freezer. I wonder what they’ll taste like. Are they any good? Should I eat both? If I only eat one, will I be gnawing my own arm off an hour later? How, in fact, does the crisping sleeve work?

In particular, as I referenced in an earlier posting, I am fascinated by the relentlessness of mealtime, relentless in the way that TLC and HGTV bombard you with shows about young couples looking to buy a home. Incidentally, it took me about a year to realize that all these riveting stories are depicted on roughly forty different shows. Property Virgins. House Hunters. Real Estate Intervention. Anyway, other than oxygen and water (both of which are easily accessible), food is the only thing that you HAVE to have on a frequent basis. And it's the thing that takes the most work.

Even eating out is a complex task involving (1) the selection of a place (I like the idea of the Urbanspoon app on the iPhone (a random restaurant selector), but I never like the option it gives me, so I run the app over and over, which basically renders it useless), (2) traveling there and (3) the often shocking expense of it. Further complicating matters is the added dimension that your life literally depends on the food choices you make every day. It’s like taking the SAT and finding out that answering too many questions incorrectly will result in the proctor taking you out behind the gymnasium and murdering you. Pencils down, b*tch!

My own eating habits were ingrained at a young age. We didn’t eat out often, and my parents shared the cooking responsibilities pretty equally. Given that very few Middle Eastern men his age cook, my father is a bit of a rarity, sort of like the rock that Andy directs Red to at the end of the Shawshank Redemption, a rock of “black, volcanic glass” that had no earthly business in a Maine hayfield. My dad -- the black rock in a Maine hayfield of Lebanese women.

Once a month or so, we’d get the Friday night trip to Red Lobster, where I would proceed to lay waste to the popcorn shrimp platter. These excursions were tremendously exciting in our household (at least for me and my sister) because they meant a temporary reprieve from my mom’s stuffed grape leaf cannon and hummus gun, both of which she fired indiscriminately. Not that the food wasn’t good, but when you’re a first-generation American, the last thing you want is to give some hint to the schoolyard masses that you’re somehow different by lugging in a lunchbox full of Middle Eastern-looking grub (and that was back when the Russians were the bad guys, before anyone had ever heard of al-Qaeda).

Since I could pretty much rule out the prospect of buying my own lunch (I went to private school, where, looking back, I would agree that lunch was ridiculously expensive), all I wanted was a bologna sandwich and a bag of Cheetos in my lunch bag. Yes, I do find it ironic that I’m now willing to drop 40 bucks a day at the Lebanese Food Festival or in one of the area’s Mediterranean delis to get a little taste of the food that I rejected so often. Strangely, as I’ve mentioned before, I was pretty chubby as a kid, which is a bit mystifying because I basically ate the South Beach diet until I went to college. This leads me to wonder how much popcorn shrimp I actually ate during those Friday night outings.

So I toddled off into adulthood with these food lessons -- (1) men cook; (2) eating out is for suckers; and (3) Red Lobster makes awesome popcorn shrimp. I haven’t been to Red Lobster in more than twenty years, but I’d bet the popcorn shrimp still tastes pretty good. Because you could deep fry my iPhone and I’d probably want to take a bite.

We’ll write off the college years and my 20s, which, probably like yours, is a hazy string of memories glued together with pizza cheese and sprayed with beer, and focus on diet in adulthood. First, you actually have to think about what your eating (take it easy, you grammar ninjas, I was just trying to get a rise of out of you with that "your eating"…). As for me, I recently came to the extremely troubling realization that I need about 400 fewer calories a day than I was consuming. I know this because I’m now in Week 12 of the P90X workout program and, despite becoming fitter than I’ve been since high school, I’m able to power through the 5-6 workouts a week on about 1600-1800 calories a day. A Chipotle burrito, even without cheese and sour cream, is pushing 1,000 calories by itself. That just depresses me.

Sometimes, I think this overall sadness that strikes you about your diet has contributed to the popularity of farmer’s markets, especially of the vendors hawking the locally raised meats. After all, it’s a lot easier to convince yourself of the nutritional benefits of eating local baby rack ribs rather than the ones from Outback. That they are still baby rack ribs is somehow lost on me. (By the way, go look up how many calories a rack of ribs has -- I’ll wait).

Back yet?

Yeah, reading that was a kick in the stomach wasn’t it? Sort of like watching Tony Almeida turn on Jack Bauer in 24.

So to really embrace a healthy diet but still feel like you enjoy what you’re eating, it seems like you have to brainwash yourself. Believe me, nobody likes getting a bag of Chinese takeout more than me, so when I’m feeling like H.I. McDonough at the beginning of Raising Arizona and driving by Chinese restaurants that aren’t even on my way home, I remind myself that once I feel full, I won’t care what I ate to become full. This usually brings me back from the brink, and we whip up some whole-wheat spaghetti and turkey meatballs. Usually.

Mmm… Chinese….

Me looking around awkwardly...

You still here? No, I’m not getting Chinese for dinner. I swear!

Lunch can be as big a pain in the rear as dinner, if not more so. I used to be really good about making my lunch the night before, but as the years have worn on, it’s become a little game of what I like to call pull-and-pray (admittedly, not nearly as fun as the original Pull-and-Pray it’s named after, but with far less serious consequences). Assuming your prayers that there’s something lunchworthy waiting for you after you’ve pulled open the fridge door have not been answered, you’re staring down the gunbarrel of dropping ten bucks for a lunch that probably violates virtually every tenet of healthy eating.

I seem to operate under the impression that lunch prices have held steady since the late 1980s. I think the reason for this is that when I started going out to eat without parents in tow and paying for meals with my own money, our destination was invariably Taco Bell, which, as you may recall, once sported a menu board with no item more expensive than a dollar. A lunch tab of $2.38 apparently imprinted itself on my brain as an appropriate baseline, and so whenever I see a lunch bill for ten dollars, I am, on some level, appalled.

And if you have kids, your work is exponentially harder -- not just because you’re molding the eating habits for a hopefully healthy adulthood but because you have to perform said molding while your son is holding your daughter’s My Little Pony hostage, threatening to snip off her luscious mane with a pair of safety scissors. It may be an exaggeration to say that since my kids have already eaten out more often than I did during my entire childhood. But only a slight exaggeration. And the kids’ menus at most restaurants are abominations - chicken tenders, corn dogs, mac and cheese, and so on -- so that, plus the desire to have a peaceful meal, conspire to make it virtually impossible to have the kids eat healthy while eating out.

We are pretty careful about the kids’ diet, and they are generally happy to eat whatever we put on their plate at home. Then again, my kids spend most of their waking hours running around chasing things and climbing on monkey bars, so it shouldn’t come as a surprise that they’re both little string beans. It’s things like this that make me want to grab my son by the shoulders and shout, “why do you want to get older? WHY? WHY? You fool!”

So yet again, I come to the same conclusion in this column as I have in several others – when it comes to matters of grub, you are not alone. We’re all standing in front of the open refrigerator door, eyeing that pastrami sandwich, but the apple is always in the corner of our eye, making us feel guilty as hell.

*I owe this week's blog title to the name of a catering company in the end credits of a movie I saw one night in college. I don't remember the name of the movie, but I do recall it appeared on USA Network's Friday night movie series titled "Up All Night".


  1. How can you gloss over our college years without mentioning the fact that we would frequently eat at Bodo's and consume 2 to 3 bagel sandwiches, each of which were the equivalent of eating an entire loaf of Wonder bread? Talk about carbo-loading.

  2. Because the Internet isn't big enough to go over all the crappy food we ate in college. Two chicken filet sandwiches and a side of fries? Yes, please!

  3. Four for lunch? Anything to drink?

    And your catering company has an IMDB page. Shockingly, the company appears to get the majority of its work from the adult film industry.

  4. Eric, that just makes my day.

  5. Chris has a funny story about rejecting his parents cooking as a kid. He grew up with homemade Italian. But all he and his sister ever wanted was Chef Boyardee spaghetti. His mom refused. After all she could make a version that was a thousand times better. But they still lived for the day they could have the forbidden pasta.

    One night they were at a friends house and the mom there offered them a can of the "good stuff." Chris said he and his sister woofed it down. Then got sick as dogs from it.

    By the way, you're not alone. I didn't appreciate your parents cooking enough either as a kid. Now I'd kill for some of their home made Middle Eastern food.

  6. Hard to Die or Sorority House Massacre II? That's right, IMDB even tells you the caterer MFer. :)

  7. Thanks for your responses! I have received such encouraging words from so many people, especially from those who have tried P90X. It's like a fraternity. Keep the positive emails ..
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