One of the problems with losing weight is that everyone, especially people from back home, will ask me “so what do you eat now?” I think most people expect that I stopped eating sticks of butter and switched to eating sticks of margarine and that made me magically drop 60 pounds. I think this phenomenon scrapes upon an issue of mine with unhealthy eating: the fact that my “default” cuisine is junk, because I have such a limited palete, and most of the food I’ve eaten as an adult was purchased from a drive-thru, because I don’t know any better.
I was a picky eater as a kid. I had a huge list of things I would not eat, and many of these carry over to today. I knew kids who were much worse – I knew a kid that would only eat Oscar-Mayer bologona, and any attempt to sneak in some Eckridge or another brand would cause him to have a fit. And I guess pretty much every kid brought up by the current nanny nation has a huge list of food allergies and limitations – seems like everyone is allergic to wheat, dairy-intolerant, and unable to go near peanut products or processed sugar. (Good luck ever eating in Indiana, btw, where the closest thing you’ll find to a vegan meal is the big bacon cheddar sandwich at Wendy’s.) I did have a period of extreme allergies where some genius in my family suddenly said I was allergic to chocolate, and I spent a year or two with my family substituting out my Easter and Christmas candy and probably subconsciously damaging me mentally (only to find out a year or two later I was actually allergic to penicillin.)
But here’s the thing – was I a picky eater because I was a picky eater, or because my cuisine was so limited, and I was never introduced to far-out stuff? Anthony Bourdain often talks of his first culinary experience as a kid, visiting France and eating a fresh oyster, and suddenly having his world turned upside-down, forever destined to do weird shit like eat ox testicles in backwater Cambodian former Khmer Rouge refugee camps. I led a much more white-bread existence, food-wise. For most of my childhood, my mom stayed at home, and did the cooking. I’m not going to say she was a good or a bad cook – actually, she later worked as a cook, and there were certain dishes she would make that I wish I could have now. But we weren’t rolling in money as a kid. And we lived in Indiana. So most of our menu was derived from Kroger’s general and more economical staples: meatloaf, frozen pot pies, canned vegetables, shake-and-bake, casseroles. Spices other than chili powder and A1 steak sauce were pretty much foreign to me. Wonder bread was a way of life. We didn’t venture far out of the box, and if it wasn’t in the Better Homes and Gardens cookbook, it probably wasn’t at our kitchen table.
One strange deviation from this rule was asparagus. When we lived in Edwardsburg, Michigan, there was a farm across the street from us, and for some reason, asparagus grew wild right on the fence line between Redfield Road and this large industrial farmland. I think they must have grown asparagus there, and never tilled up the land right at the fenceline, and the stuff kept growing back like weeds. My dad used to go over there and pluck out a bunch of the stuff, and then my mom would cook it in a pressure cooker and cover it in butter. Most of our vegetable intake was canned corn, canned green beans, canned mixed vegetables, and the occasional head of iceberg lettuce broken up into a salad with no other vegetables and maybe some bacon bits. I still love asparagus, although the advent of the microwave makes it way easier to cook.
A few limitations shaped our menu, some making sense, and some more random. When you have a limited budget and three kids constantly screaming bloody murder and doing crazy shit like we always did, it’s hard to spend time perfecting your duck confit, or piece together anything that involves hours of immaculately dicing and prepping 17 different ingredients. That’s when the “throw three things in a bowl and bake for 40 minutes at 375” comes in handy. There’s also the economical advantage of buying a pound of hamburger, a box of hamburger helper, and a tube of ready-bake rolls versus buying all of the crap you need to make a good Coq Au Vin and three side dishes. And the local Kroger or IGA did not have much more than the basics, especially in the pre-foodie 70s. I don’t know if Elkhart had any old-school butchers or farmer’s markets or other produce shops where once could piece together all of the ingredients in four or five shopping trips, but good luck doing that with three kids in tow.
I also have no particular ethnic background that shaped my family’s food definitions. I guess my grandmother on my mom’s side made a lot of good food, but it was just your basic meat-and-potatoes stuff: turkey, gravy, roast beef, ham. She was from Poland and the rest of my grandparents were from Austria, but there were no specific dishes from the motherland that I remember. It wasn’t like my grandparents were off the boat from China/Japan/India/whatever and my mom would live to whip up Chinese/Japanese/Indian/whateverian food like her mom used to make. When we had time and money to eat fancy, and we weren’t already going over the hill and through the woods to grandmother’s house, that usually meant a butterball turkey and some Stove Top Stuffing.
When we did go out, I think the most ethnic food I ever ate was Pizza Hut. It wasn’t like Elkhart had an Ethiopian district or Koreatown where we could partake in a variety of food. And even if they did, I don’t think my parents had the patience to deal with bringing me or my sisters to a place full of unknowns. The reason McDonald’s is burned into my system so much was because the cheeseburger happy meal was an easy go-to for me. Maybe Italian was one ethnic derivative we had in northern Indiana – places like Columbo’s, that were mostly pizza joints but would dish up some good pasta or a chicken parm. But I don’t think I had Chinese food until I was in college, and I know that Indian, Thai, and even Russian food was something I didn’t learn to enjoy until after I moved to New York.
So when I suddenly decided to get in shape and stop eating Quarter Pounders for every meal, I was faced with the situation that I didn’t know what to eat instead. Eating just vegetables seemed impossible to me; it was like making Kool-Aid without water. Even if I ate 19 pounds of the most complicated salad possible, I still would feel like I was missing the meat course. And avoiding fried food was absolutely befuddling to me. Weight watchers kept me focused on point values instead of complicated rules, and I was able to figure out substitutions and what would make me get through the day without crashing. But I still can’t explain to people what I eat instead. I didn’t lose weight by suddenly only eating Ugandan traditional dietary staples or by switching french fries with only purple-colored fruits, or anything like that.
I still can’t eat like Bourdain. I still don’t like olives, mushrooms, most seafood, or anything that still has eyes. But I somewhat understand the cult of spicy foods now, and I think I’m beyond being fixated on long-passed fast food chains like Hot-N-Now and Burger Chef as my salvation. I still can’t explain what I do eat in under a thousand words, though.