Sunday, January 8, 2012

The Doug Diet: Part 1

When it came to health food, my Mom was ahead of her time. While my friends were merrily drinking soda with every meal, eating baloney sandwiches on Wonder Bread, happily slurping the colored milk from Fruit Loops and topping it off with Oreos and Snickerdoodles, my sister and I drank milk and fruit juice, had Quaker oats or Shredded Wheat for breakfast, ate turkey on whole wheatish bread for lunch and dessert was whole wheat cookies with little ladders around the edges (don’t bother to look—this from a local bakery named Dugans). Every meal, I lined up an arsenal of vitamins, cultivating my visual spatial skills by arranging them in different patterns around the plate before the unpleasant task of swallowing these life-saving supplements.

My Mom was a devotee of Carlton Fredericks, a self-proclaimed expert on nutrition who had a radio show and wrote several books. He advocated for vitamins as necessary to offset the lost nutrients of over-processed foods, despised white bread and alerted the public to the dangers of hypoglycemia, a kind of reverse diabetes that my Mom either actually had or was led to believe she had. I hadn’t thought about Mr. Fredericks until this Blog’s theme popped up and so I dutifully clicked on the Google search. First entry was from a site called Quackwatch which was far from impressed with Carlton’s credentials. By the end, “nutritional charlatan” was pretty much the conclusion. Sorry, Mom!

Now don’t get me wrong. We were hardly eating tofu and stir-fried vegetables in 1950’s New Jersey. It was strictly meat, potatoes and over-cooked boiled vegetables. And when I was old enough to “cook” for myself and indeed, had to when my parents left me alone for two weeks in my junior year of high school, it was the glorified White-Castle’ish hamburger for breakfast known as Minute Steaks and a whole freezer of Swanson’s TV Dinners—fried chicken with potatoes, peas and carrots and a little apple turnover my all-time favorite, Salisbury steak second on my preferred list.

By college, I had moved from TV dinners to a loosely macrobiotic diet of brown rice, miso soup and such. Quite a switch! Now I had to cook in earnest and The Tassajara Bread Book was my steady companion—Tibetan barley bread, buckwheat rounds, whole wheat pancakes. From there, it was the vegetarian years, baking my own bread, sprouting Alfafa sprouts, culturing yogurt in the bathtub, making homemade granola and such. Diet for a Small Planet lay open on many of my kitchen counters and I still remember fondly Easy and Elegant Cheese Souffle and some soy bean casserole whose name escapes me.

The Community Food Stores (of which only Rainbow and Other Avenues remain in San Francisco) were my shopping digs, scooping out from big bins and sweeping the store before leaving. And then came the Moosewood years, which pretty much raised my children. They seemed perfectly content with their mostly vegetarian diet, but now, for reasons of marriage and location and perhaps repressed longings, they both are avid meat-eaters. Oh well.

My strict vegetarian years ended on a school camping trip with 60 kids. It was a cold and drizzly night and chicken was grilling while I sat huddled eating a cold potato salad with the smells of barbecue wafting to my nostrils. My ancient hunter and childhood meat genes kicked in— goodbye, vegetarianism, hello chickenatarianism. Just in time for my increased travel giving workshops. As a novice vegetarian in the 70’s, I traveled in an unfriendly Europe and kept my protein afloat with some disgusting yeast (not the later flake kind), whatever peanut butter I could find (not much) and more sensibly, French cheese. Later travels in India were a vegetarian Mecca—and passing the meat stalls with hanging carcasses, flies and no refrigeration made me grateful. Now adding chicken and turkey and shrimp and made traveling on planes and teaching in Europe in the 80’s and 90’s much easier. When turkey bacon and chicken sausages started appearing, my last regrets about a red-meatless diet disappeared and that’s how it has been ever since.

This is a glorious time to be a vegetarian— or close to it. Quinoa, risotto, cous-cous and more have joined brown rice, farmer’s markets are displaying a renaissance of vegetables—kale, poblano peppers, portabella mushrooms, Japanese eggplant, arrugula, words that I’m sure no one in New Jersey ever hear of 50 years ago—and the once exotic world cuisines (only Chinese restaurants in my childhood) are now commonplace—sushi, pad Thai, green tea salad, pupusas, paella, chile rellenos, etc. etc. —as American as apple pie. Backyard and community gardens are thriving and meat-eaters are killing their own turkeys and slaughtering hogs in neighborhood gatherings to be more honest and get closer to nature. Michael Pollan is the new Carlton Fredericks, only this time with real credentials.

And so it was in the midst of all this variety and plenty that in my 60th year, I decided to go on my first diet. Tune in tomorrow.

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