Wednesday, 8/28/02

Road trip! Most people find the I-5 drive, 400 miles of monotonously spacious skies and amber waves of weeds, to be something short of exciting. Even when traveling with a companion, classic forms of automotive entertainment are hampered by the lack of anything to spy; car games are usually along the lines of "Roadkill Bingo" or "Count The Cows" (wherein the passenger's eyes compete with the driver's nose) or "Argue About Paying A Dollar A Minute To Use The Damn Cell Phone In Roam Mode". During a solo journey, the options are more limited. "Eat The In n' Out Burger Without Staining The Clothes" is one that I tried, with moderate success. Lost a couple battles but won the war, as they say.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of driving through the middle of nowhere is being approximately equidistant from two or more radio stations broadcasting at the same frequency. The tuner tends to flop from one to the other every few seconds, the end result being a rather unique musical experience. One real-life example went something like: I'm in a hurry to get things done, like Cleopatra, Joan of Arc, or Aphrodite, she's so hiiiiiiiiiiiiiii'm in a hurry and don't know whiiiiiiiiiiigh above me, she's so lovely, y ahora sí que no puedo vivir sin ellos yo... As long as I like all the individual songs, this sort of thing doesn't bother me at all. It's kind of fun. DJ PLL, mixing it up.

In any case, I don't mind the drive. Driving for six hours is no different than walking for six hours; the body switches to autopilot, and the mind sort of wanders off and composes music, or does Fourier transforms, or hopes oh god please let there be a restroom nearby, or thinks about things that are inappropriate to discuss in a Family Blawg. Once, all four simultaneously, but that was really weird.

I was only alone for the journey south; I was accompanied on the return trip by a pair of visiting preteen nieces and their vast, varied, and continuously replenished assortment of junk food. The girls' aptitude for gluttony was incredible. Every time a gas tank or stomach or bladder compelled us to stop the car, they would immediately scuttle into the nearby KwikStöpp and emerge with arms overflowing with sugary snacks, looking as if they were reaping the spoils from a mass slaughter of piñatas.

Perhaps it was a form of youthful rebellion; they had both inherited their mother's slim figure, and we all know how unfashionable it is at that age to look like one's parents. Or maybe it was a race to be their generation's first heir to the family's diabetic legacy. Who knows.

Well, actually, I know. The real reason: Because They Could. "On their first day in California," their mother lamented to me, "I took them to the supermarket and they went straight to the candy aisle." Piteous sigh. What's a mother to do?

What this mother did, of course, was acquiesce and indulge to the point where her body seemed merely an extension of her credit card. Throughout their visit, the girls would run into any store that appeared to stock food products, seek out and capture the sweetest and the saltiest, and drag them up to the counter without so much as a "Mother, may I?" Why even ask? Mother would just shake her head and silently purchase whatever their little racing hearts desired.

I was not brought up like this. I was brought up, in fact, believing that candy was simply unpurchasable. Candy entered my house on one day and one day only -- the last day of October. Thereafter, I was allowed to eat, at most, one piece a day. Thus, my Halloween candy typically lasted six months or so, with the particularly undesirable confections (such as "Bit o' Honey") often wrapping around to the next year.

I suppose I even thought my parents generous for rationing me any candy at all. Perhaps now is the time for the oft-recounted but heretofore unblawged account of the dietary restrictions that shaped my youth. By youth, I mean the first eighteen years of my life. These are the rules that governed all food prepared or served in the home.

This is all completely true.

No sugar, nor anything containing sugar. No salt, nor anything containing salt. Nothing with preservatives, artificial colors, artificial flavors, or ingredients with names that were difficult to pronounce. Nothing that had ever killed or sickened or remotely inconvenienced a lab rat. Even if every ingredient was acceptable, BHT in the packaging was grounds for rejection.

No egg yolks, no non-canola oil. Milk was nonfat. Butter was not even allowed in the house, nor was mayonnaise. I expect there was a pendant over the door to ward off saturated fat. "Frying" was something that I only heard of through schoolyard rumors. I got ice cream on my birthday.

Lunch meat was out of the question. Pork, or any of its derivatives, didn't exist. Chicken was for people, but chicken skin was for the cat.

Salad dressing was yogurt. Cheese was a tasteless fat-free mozzarella that seemed better suited for making tires than sandwiches. Rice was brown, pasta was whole wheat. Peanut butter was 100% peanuts (with the separated oil poured off), jelly was 100% fruit, canned beverages were 100% juice, breakfast cereal was 100% gravel, or something remarkably similar.

Bread was whole wheat, of course, the wholest wheat there was, until it was no longer possible to purchase bread that met the standards. (Partially-hyrogenated soybean oil, I think, was the culprit.) A bread machine was obtained and used exclusively from then on. Our wheat was truly wholer than thou's.

Dessert was sorbet (100% fruit) and fat-free juice-sweetened disc-shaped objects which we affectionately referred to as "cardboard cookies". (The latter is still being sold, surprisingly enough, but in a different box. It is now labeled "biscotti", which is apparently the latest approximation devised by the unenviable folks in Health Valley's marketing department.)

Did I mention, no salt? At all? In anything?

Anything that did not meet the above standards was deemed "poison", and I was taught that its consumption would cause me irreparable harm. Think of something that you enjoy eating. If it doesn't grow on a tree, chances are my mom said it would kill me.

And then I went to college. If you predicted a culinary culture shock, you're right. My stomach was ill-prepared for the real world. Greasy dorm food did not sit well with me; greasy dorm food after a two hour track practice frequently did not sit very long at all. It took a couple years before I could eat creamy pasta sauce or more than a few cookies without being sick all night. And so on.

The physical effects eventually subsided, but psychological effects remain. My view of eating probably parallels a Puritan bride's view of sex: It's necessary for life, but any pleasurable aspect is evil and sinful. Food is something to be feared, not enjoyed. And although I'm quite a bit more liberal in the kitchen than my parents, the spectre of paranoia is ever-present. I'll go ahead and use an egg yolk or soy sauce, but it requires fighting off the sort of guilt that would set Arthur Dimmesdale a-flogging.

Not good. But if I had grown up instead with an unlimited and unrestricted supply of candy to shove down my gullet whenever I felt hungry or bored, would it have been any better? Of course not. My nieces will have their own serious issues to deal with when the time comes. Balance, I think, is everything.