This essay of mine was previously published in Meat For Tea: The Valley Review in March, 2019.
My mother reaches for a small square book with a picture of a bowl of fruit on the cover, its title, “The Calorie Counter.” We are in the checkout line at Food City, north of the QEW in Oakville, Ontario. It’s 1976. I watch her finger the book, flip its pages, lips pursed.
“Might as well try it,” she says to no one in particular and drops the thing onto the conveyor belt.
I eyeball the chocolate bars displayed next to The Calorie Counters and pick up a Kit Kat. Mother shakes her head, no.
I put the Kit Kat at the front of the conveyor. Mother grabs it before the checker can ring it up and sticks it back in the wire rack.
She mutters something about not listening to her and being sorry when I’m older.
I am seven years old, and I can tell that The Calorie Counter is bad news.
There has never been a time in my recollection that my mother wasn’t down on herself about her weight.
“I look terrible in this,” she’d say in department store dressing rooms. What she meant was she didn’t look like the size-four model in the catalog. She wore a sixteen. She had full breasts, a round belly and a butt to balance it out.
“The doctor says I need to lose weight because…” fill in the blank: high blood pressure, arteriosclerosis, diabetes, “but I just can’t seem to do it.”
The Calorie Counter claimed that the average woman her age needed 1,200 calories a day to keep the lights on; therefore, if she wanted to lose weight, she had to restrict her intake to at or below this level. But was my mother average? Is anyone? Did a forty-five-year-old woman who walked to work and stood for between four and eight hours in the discount department store next to Food City, kept house and looked after a seven-year-old need more than 1,200 calories to live? What about the quality of those calories and their positive and negative effects? The Calorie Counter had no idea, and neither did my mother. To them all calories were equal. Yes, my mother had the notion that apples were more nutritious than cookies, but they weren’t as satisfying.
Using The Calorie Counter, Mother recorded every bite and its caloric value in her daily diary. Each day she would add it all up. On days when the number hovered at around 1,000-1,200 calories she took pride in her will power, but confessed she went to bed hungry and cranky. They weren’t happy days.
She often caved to hunger in the lonely hours between mid-afternoon and supper, gobbling up leftover pie or cheese and crackers or even some of the ingredients she was preparing for dinner.
Within a month’s time I noticed The Calorie Counter hidden from sight in our kitchen’s junk drawer, where it rattled around in the dark for years until we moved house and into the garbage it went, a wicked reminder of my mother’s failure and shame.
Something else was hidden around the house. Chocolate. In closets, armoires, the basement. Only it wasn’t my mother who stashed the sweets. My father did. “Might as well be fat and happy,” he’d say. He didn’t believe in counting calories. He didn’t believe in restriction. At one point he tipped the scales at around 200 pounds. He measured five-ten if he stretched his spine and puffed out his chest. When I reached around his middle to hug him my fingertips didn’t meet. He never exercised, unless you counted cutting the grass when we had a lawn to cut or painting the house whenever we moved. My nickname for him was Lard Butt. Strangely, he seemed to like it, but I was the only one who got away with it.
One of my brother’s nicknames for me was Boney Ass (also Big Mouth, but that’s another story). I was okay with Boney Ass.
Food was central to my family’s bond. If I dropped by my grandmother’s house after school, she almost always asked me what I’d had for lunch and if I was hungry. Even if I wasn’t, she put something in front of me—cabbage rolls, a ham sandwich, or maybe kiflies, which were a crescent cookie filled with jam or walnuts popular in the Hungarian village she came from—and I had to eat it. She’d take it personally if I didn’t. When I was little she stored Coffee Crisps in a drawer low enough for a four-year-old to reach. All I had to do to get that bar was promise to be good even when she wasn’t around to see me.
My parents and I ate dinner together every night. (In case you’re wondering, my brother moved out when I was five and he was seventeen.) Pop praised Mother’s cooking, especially her desserts. She made his favorite Hungarian foods, things that brought him comfort and reminded him of a childhood spent in the kitchen of his own grandmother back in the old country. Paprikas, beef goulash, stuffed cabbage, schnitzel, sausages, all of these dishes rich with sour cream and pork fat, staples of the peasant diet, providing energy for field work, such labor as absent from my father’s day-to-day reality as pork from a vegan’s. On Sundays my mother baked pies, strudel, cookies and on special occasions a Dobos Torte, which is a multilayer cake of chocolate buttercream topped with caramel. Pop wasn’t much for vegetables. His favorite restaurant was the Charcoal Steak Pit, a place where a twelve-ounce New York strip loin topped with some kind of brown sauce and herb butter filled a plate, the baked potato, a russet the size of a football—or so it seemed—banished to the side, alone on its own plate, bacon bits and chives dotting a cloud of sour cream billowing from the crevice bisecting it.
You’d think that all of this bonding over food would mean harmony prevailed in our kitchen. For the most part it did, until the incident of the broiled grapefruit, something my aunt turned me on to, a thing out of the 1960s and her first Betty Crocker Cookbook. Broiled grapefruit on a winter morning is simplicity made divine. Cut a grapefruit in half, separate the segments, top with brown sugar and cinnamon and heat under the broiler for four to five minutes. Aunt, younger and cooler than Mother, would top it off with a maraschino cherry. Mother didn’t make it.
I was home from university for the weekend. Snow powdered the rooftops. My laundry churned in the basement washer. Coffee and bacon infused the whole house. I took a grapefruit from the fridge, sliced it, and then went to the pantry for brown sugar. At the same time, Pop read the paper and Mother pushed eggs around in a skillet.
“What are you doing?” she asked.
“Broiling grapefruit. Want half?” Conjuring the grapefruit idea made me happy. It was impossible to cook a hot breakfast in my dorm room, unless you counted zapping oatmeal in the shared microwave on my floor, its innards stuccoed orange and brown with burned macaroni and cheese.
“There isn’t time, eggs are done and they’ll get cold.”
“So what. I’ll have the eggs first, while this heats through.”
“Sit down and eat. Never mind about the grapefruit.”
“It won’t take long.”
“Sit down dammit. I’m serving.” She hardly ever swore.
“What’s the big deal?”
She put the pan of eggs down and slapped me across the face. She hadn’t laid a hand on me since I was a little gaffer running in front of traffic.
I struck back.
“Stop that!” My father growled over his newspaper. “Don’t hit your mother.”
I didn’t stay for breakfast. I left the grapefruit, the eggs, and her and went to my boyfriend’s house in tears, completely blindsided by what had just happened. His mother fed me pancakes.
I ate out a lot more when I came home on weekends after that.
Back then the violence, the irrationality of what had happened prevented me from seeing the dance between mother and daughter, dependence and independence, control and freedom, let alone having any compassion for my mother. It was about a ding dang grapefruit, and I was seven years old again.
For a long time I pitied Mother. I wasn’t overweight and, secretly, I thought myself more virtuous because of it. She should have gone for a helping of my grapefruit and skipped the bacon. A dozen or so years later she’d receive a triple bypass and two new heart valves harvested from a pig.
I finished university, moved out of my parents’ house for good, and started working forty hours a week at a desk. At the same time, I fell in love with someone new, a guy who stayed skinny no matter how many burgers he ate. We saw each other mostly on weekends because we lived in different cities. On Friday and Saturday nights we’d eat at a chain restaurant or get take-out and stay up all night drinking wine and screwing. I put away as many calories as he did. About six months into the relationship I noticed my figure resembled a smaller version of my mother’s. A tummy stuck out and my hipbones no longer did. My thighs were heavier, looser. Dear god, when I lifted my arms to blow-dry my hair in the morning I saw flab where it seemed the day before I could draw a firm line. Genetics, I thought. How does one fight them? Buy a scale! Join a gym! Get a calorie counter!
Yes, I viewed my triceps with dread, but I was also fat and happy. I didn’t buy a calorie counter. I bought a scale and joined a gym. I also made a conscious effort to eat less and better. What exactly did this mean? Fewer burgers and fries and more lean proteins and vegetables. I knocked off the booze and gave up dessert. My fitness had suffered since leaving school and the gym helped me recover it, grow muscle and reduce fat. Soon the prospect of wedding pictures added to my motivation. I dropped a size, roughly twelve pounds, and kept it off a long time.
At the same time I was anxious about my looks, mostly because I didn’t believe I was attractive after a lifetime spent in the company of my mother, the queen of faint praise, who, on the morning of my wedding, told me she liked my dress but not my hair. My anxiety was compounded by the fact that my husband was so good looking. He’d tell me how the women in the cafeteria at work swooned over him and gave him extra stuff for free. Also, his older sister, who he had kind of a crush on, lived in California and maintained a California aesthetic. She ate one meal a day, living on coffee, fat-free Yoplait and wine the rest of the time. Built like her brother, tall, nearly six feet, with broad shoulders and narrow hips, I felt like a ham next to her. Even when slim I had boobs and an ass and short legs, nothing like the stilts with which she loped through the surrounding hills of San Jose. For a while food became my enemy. I went to bed hungry sometimes, just like Mother did.
The more I think about it, the more I realize how food played a role in the downfall of my marriage. It brought us together for a while, two unsophisticated kids eating burgers and pasta together. I learned the basics of cooking in those years, and as I expanded my repertoire I became interested in expanding my palate beyond The Campbell’s Soup Cookbook. I grew frustrated with a man who refused to eat mushrooms because, well, fungus, you know? Or yogurt because, well, bacteria, you know? Who looked upon my homemade banana bread with suspicion because of the black specks in it. Where did they come from? Was I trying to poison him? It was the beginning of the end. He saw me as deeply as he did a banana, which is to say not much beyond the peel.
In those days I experienced the lonely hours in between work and supper with a kind of longing. I tended to get home ahead of my ex. I filled the waiting time with wine and meal prep while listening to the music that reminded me of summer days at the beach in Port Dover back in high school. My friend D’s father picked up an early ’70s Cadillac Coup de Ville for a couple of thousand dollars, which was hers to drive as long as she looked after her mother when she needed a ride. Or was it an Eldorado? I remember two doors, green paint with white vinyl on the roof, fins, and a broken air conditioner. We drove that car up and down Highway 24 with the windows down, hair flying like we owned the road. We’d buy a bucket of KFC on the way to the shores of Lake Erie and spend the afternoon getting sunburned, eating that green coleslaw not available anywhere else—perhaps it doesn’t exist anywhere else?—wiping grease from our lips, and sipping wine coolers wrapped in paper bags. We were eighteen and had no idea how great it was to be eighteen and skinny and beautiful. We spent those sunburned hours talking about the future, unaware that there might be lonely hours to fill before supper some day.
Now, twenty-five years later, thinking about the tricep flab and the skinny husband that moved me to join a gym, I can say with certainty that I regained and lost the same dozen pounds four times. There’s a pattern to it. With significant life changes—new job, a move, infertility treatment, divorce, a new relationship—my weight teeter-tottered. Whenever I became anxious or depressed I lost weight. When grief and anxiety fell away, I gained weight. The pattern of my life, then, is I’m skinny and depressed or fat and happy.
With these fluctuations new complications emerged. A year or so ago I found myself heavier than ever, probably seventeen pounds, not twelve, over my benchmark weight. The blood tests that used to come back with terrific results now showed that my cholesterol had risen to a level of concern. My blood pressure had my doctor’s attention, too. She told me I could avoid drugs for these two conditions by eating better. That’s it. Eat better, she said. Time was up. The next patient waited in a plastic chair in another examining room.
It seemed that fat and happy and middle age didn’t go so well together. The combination might kill me, worse, a miserable old age could lie in wait. Aware of what it could mean to survive a stroke after my friend Chuck suffered a massive bleed in the left side of his brain leaving him partly paralyzed and aphasic, I wanted to avoid a similar fate. But how? At the time I thought I ate pretty well, avoiding processed foods and eating fresh, often vegetarian meals.
The literature on diet and nutrition was useless, full of contradictions and few answers. Advice like skip the bread and eat the bacon or eat for your blood type struck me as absurd. The conflict between low-fat, low-carb, high-protein, high-fat advocates and the news media’s reports on the latest study supporting one or the other left me utterly confused. Then came a landmark study from Great Britain on intermittent fasting where you could eat all the Big Macs you wanted as long as you fasted two days a week—what to make of that? I couldn’t figure out what was best for me.
Luckily I found a reputable scientific wellness company focussed on disease prevention through lifestyle modification. Their approach is tailored to individuals based not only on standard blood work but also genetics, supported with one-on-one coaching from a qualified nutritionist schooled in the science of nourishment and disease prevention. With hard data and advice from my coach, I now know what to do to optimize my diet for heart health and weight control. I’m a low-fat girl all the way. Genetically speaking I get fat from fat, and the older I get the more likely I am to gain weight. My body doesn’t convert dietary fat into energy as efficiently as other people’s. I have genetic markers for heart disease but not diabetes. The only reason my people get diabetes is because they get fat. It turns out I’m lactose intolerant too, something that snuck up on me over time. It’s in the genes! I had no idea.
In as little as two weeks on a low fat, high fiber diet I lowered my blood pressure and dropped four pounds. In six months my cholesterol levels returned to the healthy zone. My triglycerides, A1C and insulin levels were also lower, though they weren’t too high to begin with. I’d lost twelve pounds. In effect, I’d altered the environment inside my body. I’ve learned that genetically based health outcomes are not necessarily inevitable. You can push against them, and I’m pushing.
All of this is good and rational, but these facts don’t address emotions surrounding food. Making this way of eating a lifetime pattern requires more than tracking nutrients and daily activity, both of which I monitor with a Fitbit and apps on my smart phone.
It’s already a struggle for me. Eight months into my new lifestyle and I’ve stopped tracking my daily food intake because quite frankly I can’t imagine logging everything I eat into my smart phone for the rest of my life. For months I input my recipes into my app to get a solid understanding of the nutritional value of everything I cooked. This was useful in that I came to understand how I could modify recipes to maximize their benefit, but it’s an activity that sucks up a lot of brain space I’d like to devote to other things; yet, I know I won’t lose any more weight if I don’t pay close attention to the numbers—calories consumed and burned, grams of fat, protein and fiber. Worse, the pounds could come back and with them health problems and a cruddy old age.
I find myself craving cheese, a food high in the sort of fat that can lead to heart disease, because cheese is tied to happiness. Macaroni and cheese is comfort food linked to love. When I make it, my family flies to the table. Wine and cheese parties are coupled with friendship and good times. How do I rewire my reptile brain to associate happiness with skinniness? The old associations—fat and happy—are buried deep in my psyche, tied to my parents. That grapefruit? A skinny person’s food threatening the loss of my mother’s love. Chocolate? Finding hidden stashes of it was a fun game I played with my father, a small connection to a man who was largely absent even when he was home.
I’m convinced that without emotional support most people regress. Unfortunately, it isn’t practical to have a nutritional coach on my payroll until I die. So, what now? Like an alcoholic, maybe I need to make new friends, totally change my lifestyle. But is this at all practical or desirable? Is my relationship with food as debilitating as an alcoholic’s relationship with a bottle? Doubtful, at least on the surface it isn’t nearly as devastating, although it is like an addiction where a substance is used to dull some emotional truth.
Mother wasn’t lacking in will power. She lacked knowledge about not only nutrition but also her own body and its connection to her mind. One might say she remained willfully ignorant, but nevertheless if she’d known what I now know, she could have avoided becoming overweight too. She’s eighty-eight years old heading for eighty-nine this year with type II diabetes, gout, and high blood pressure. She uses a walker to get around. She needs a pill organizer. Though she doesn’t have dementia, she shows signs of the sort of cognitive difficulties I dread. This is the definition of a poor quality of life in old age.
Mother didn’t love her body. She’d been conditioned to be ashamed of it, its messiness and its femaleness. Fifteen years ago she told me she had cervical cancer and asked me to accompany her to the surgeon’s office for an initial consultation, a hysterectomy was scheduled. I learned from the surgeon that she didn’t have cervical cancer at all. She had endometrial cancer. My mother didn’t know the names of her own body parts, barely understood her anatomy. She ignored her body all of her life except to criticize it; in neither loving it nor expressing indifference, it seems to me she didn’t respect it and by extension she did not respect herself. Conversely, my father did respect himself by accepting the price of indifference toward his body. He knew the odds and he played them, blaming no one when he lost to the house. He died from a fatal stew of Alzheimer’s, alcoholism, and stroke.
As I write this I’m reminded of a family dinner at my parents’ apartment. My brother and sister-in-law, my ex-husband and me, Mother and Pop seated around the dining table. Me tipsy from the wine. The platter of chicken paprikas nearly empty. Pop announced that they’d formalized their wills and funeral plans: cremation and internment of the ashes in Mt. Hope Cemetery near their parents. I can’t recall exactly how the conversation went after that except that it stopped when my mother said, “I don’t care what you do with my body after I’m gone. Just throw it in a ditch.”
There was an awkward pause before my father scooped the last of the chicken onto his plate.
And so it comes to pass now, many years after the fact that I can assert the words I could not speak then. My mother did not respect herself and this has infected me like a replicating virus unseen below the surface of things. I have never made chicken paprikas myself, nor asked for the recipe.
After my dad died, Mother and I were looking through some old photographs and came across one of her in a bathing suit, reclining on the beach at Port Stanley in 1951 or maybe it was 1950. She wasn’t sure, but it was before she married Pop in 1952.
“Can you believe I ever looked that good?” She was twenty-one years old and as beautiful as any twenty-one-year-old, ever.
“Can you? Did you know how pretty you were?”
She looked away and couldn’t or wouldn’t answer. Likely because she couldn’t say nice things about herself, my mother rarely complimented me on anything either, which could explain her behavior on my wedding day.
I am guilty of criticizing my body too, obsessing with all the wrong things: the tummy that isn’t flat as an Olympian’s, the short, chubby thighs, and on and on. Here’s the beautiful thing about it: My body is a vessel for all of the experiences that make a life. The fact it isn’t shaped like a natural athlete’s or a supermodel’s is irrelevant. It is strong, magical, and foundational to everything that follows. Skinny or not, health and happiness are fed not only from a knife and fork but also gratitude for the one thing no one else can care for, the thing that will shepherd me into an old age in which life continues to expand rather than shrink. If I want a bold life, I must love and nurture my body, putting aside the emotional legacy inherited from my parents.
If I concentrate hard enough on visualizing my mother as she is today, maybe I can rewire my thoughts to redefine comfort, associating those foods that don’t support a healthy old age with a war against the self instead of solace or friendship. To avoid a fate like my mother’s I need to respect myself, for self-respect fuels a lifelong commitment to my optimal eating habits. Self-respect is also the source for the self-forgiveness needed after chowing down on a cheeseburger once in a while.
Mother did her best all of her life. She rose each day and did her duty, cleaning up after her children and husband, literally and figuratively. She was also very much alone, her parents dead, her brother estranged. She had some extended family but no one she’d seek shelter from if she left my father. Her friends became fewer and fewer with each move following Pop around the country in a seemingly random pattern from job to job, hoping the money wouldn’t dry up. Food was her only friend a lot of the time. Feeding me was more than a duty, it provided purpose and reassurance of her place in the world. My mother spent her life unmoored from place, dreams, and from the people closest to her including herself. These days she’s cared for by my brother and his wife. The angry teenager who left home at seventeen is now in his sixties, providing a home for Mother, while I have flown the coop to America.
Four years ago in the Reno airport I discovered Sausage McGriddles. I marveled at this great example of corporate food engineering and fell in love with them even though I knew they couldn’t possibly be good for me. The mix of salt and sweet, the burst of syrup behind my molars as I bit into one took me back to all those feelings of belonging deep in my lizard brain. My mother’s Dobos Torte, Grandma’s kiflies, KFC at Port Dover, and I was hooked. Since I’ve taken up the challenge to nurture myself into a vibrant old age, I’ve skipped the McGriddles. They’re bad news like Mother’s calorie counter book, symbolic of self-disrespect.
Today when I spend the in-between hours in the late afternoon reading recipes dedicated to health and happiness they are no longer so lonely. Food is not solace for me as it was for Mother. It is love. Love for Life. Love for the people who share it with me. It connects me to more than my own stomach and the orphan inside who once felt abandoned by everyone except Kit Kats and Coffee Crisps. My attention to food is a gift to myself and the people I cook for. My mother and I were both seeking connection during those lonely in-between hours, but in the past I didn’t understand that during the hours spent producing comfort food I was disconnected from not only other people—the children I didn’t have, the absent husband—but also from myself.