For this week, I am going to revisit some chapters of Canary in the Coalmine… thanks to my husband who, when I told him I was going to dump the data for the entire book… created an image back-up…
It is thanks to him, I have the chapter order, and subtle shifts and changes in voice and intent over the few months online.
I feel the urge to share these chapters, and review them because…
The other day, I had an interesting question posed by my oldest, “Mom, do you think we can change peoples’ minds about health and diet?”
Then wanted to cry.
Then laughed again.
The ironic humour again settled back into its’ nest in my psyche.
I used to believe, prior to 2012 and our health ordeal, that subtle shifts and changes in behavior would yield positive, ripple effects…
Even into 2013 and into 2014.
I told my husband, and the girls, regarding the diet necessary to keep them off of the operating table and off meds…
The fix? It was their culture that needed to change.
And… pointing to my chest, right over my heart I would tap furiously with my whole hand… and then pointing down to the floor, “Culture… our culture… begins HERE.”
I am a bit jaded.
Don’t get me wrong.
I still believe that culture… what defines me (or any thinking, reasoning, individual)… begins inside ME and not dictated by some string of other peoples’ karmic choices.
But… I grudgingly, laughingly admit… culture, at least in our societal sense… is ultimately about statistical norms.
If I am going to prepare my girls for the world…
They have to be okay with being an outlier.
Interestingly enough… my entire life, from the most profound to the minute circumstances and tests…
For this, particular, fight.
The following chapter is a snippet into my pre-coalmine, still-trying-to-be-sane, life. It was an attempt to explain what some may seem insane expectations.
You know… modesty, moderation… common sense?
It was the 1990’s.
The time of supersize me.
The time when I was told by a good friend, “You just have to get an SUV! They are so AWESOME!”
And… when I went to the dealership to test drive one… I asked the salesman what any normal car-buyer would ask: “So, what’s the gas mileage?”
The salesmen tucked his thumbs in his belt loops, lifted his chin, thrust out his chest, and proudly stated, “Oh, this baby? She gets EIGHTEEN on the highway.”
I didn’t laugh.
Though I really, really, wanted to… instead, he got the smirk.
If there were a toothpick stuck in between his teeth, he’d have dropped it – then and there. “Oh… um… price is too high?”
“No sweetheart. YOU ARE HIGH. That piece of shit Grand Am I drove onto the lot? Gets thirty-six.”
I was furious. I told my friend what happened. She huffed, and puffed. How dare I ask such a frugal question? What kind of cheapskate was I?
Like I said… tested, tried, and now? I have LOTS of stories to tell about the SUPER-SIZE-ME years.
Hey, at least it’s quiet and roomy.
I’ll save you a seat.
My Food History
Before I continue, I feel that I need to give you some of my background. This is in no way a family history, by the way. It is only that part of my history that helped to shape my opinion, and thus my philosophy about food. Hopefully, it will give you some insight as to where my crazy ideas about food originated. And why I have always fallen back to the natural whole food concepts and away from excess and convenience.
I grew up poor. My dad and mom supported an average of 5 kids and the occasional additional family member on working class wages. We moved A LOT, but we almost always lived in rural areas, or in small agricultural towns. It was not until I was a teenager that we moved to the ‘city’ and remained there (mostly) throughout my high school years. That move would be what would ultimately alter our diet. Before that, we had a very strict, yet, in retrospect, healthy diet. We also had a very different attitude about food. A lack of resources and availability did not allow for excess, or waste.
Eating out, even at McDonald’s, was a luxury and only occurred a few times a year. Eating at home was a feeding frenzy. It was an eat-or-don’t-eat, eat-or-possibly-be-eaten, environment. There were jokes about lights going out and people getting stabbed in the hand with a fork while reaching for a pork chop. There were jibes about slow eaters and those that ate too much.
I remember my mother going to the grocery store on payday. Thursday afternoons, she would bring home amid the usual basic items, 2 gallons of milk, 4 loaves of bread, and 4 boxes of low sugar cereal (we were not allowed the really sweet cereals except on ‘special’ occasions). By Saturday morning I would wake up to a sliver of milk left in the one remaining gallon of milk, boxes of cereal with only crumbs left in them, and bread bags with only the heels of the bread left in them. In fact, it was at that time that I developed a preference for whole wheat bread.
My mother made it a habit to buy one bag of Roman Meal whole wheat bread once or twice a month. It was my dad’s favorite. Out of necessity, and later, appreciation of the flavor and texture of wheat bread versus white, I left the white bread for my siblings to fight over. None of the other kids liked the bread with seeds in it. Survival in a large family is dependent on two opposing, but basic, social concepts; being able to compromise or being able to find something that no one will fight with you over.
My father, who spent much of his childhood on a subsistent farm in Eastern Kentucky, was adamant about vegetables and fruits. We always had fresh varieties around. It helped that we usually lived in the country or in small agricultural towns. Mom, regardless of where we lived, always managed to have a small garden. We were required to have 2 vegetables and a starch (potato, rice, or pasta) with our small portion of meat. It helped with the portions, I suppose, because there were 7 to 8 people to feed at each meal. Small portions were more a necessity than anything.
It seems strange that growing up with limited resources actually led to a healthier attitude about food. Sure, we had sweets and soda. My mom made the best peanut butter fudge, to this very day, that I have ever had, but we did not have it every day. And any sweets that we did have were portioned small, and reasonably distributed. Soda was always from a 16 ounce returnable bottle and mom would split the bottle between 4 kids. We would all get a small, 6 ounce glass, with 4 ounces of soda in it. As a treat, not a daily occurrence.
My husband, on the other hand, was an only child. And he grew up in the city. He ate fast food and convenience food on a daily basis. Prepackaged and prepared, and microwave meals were a norm. He hardly ever had anything green on his plate. Soda was a daily occurrence. His diet consisted mostly of carbohydrates and meat.
I did not even have my first microwave meal until I was in my late teens.
My family made our final move to the city when I was 12 years old. It took only 4 years before the change in our family diet was permanent. Sure, Dad was still adamant about the 2 vegetables, a starch, and a meat rule, but fast food was a weekly occurrence. Soda was in 12 pack cans. It was only the fact that there were so many to feed, that led to any level of moderation and economy regarding food.
Yet, no one got ‘fat’, or became unhealthy. But, that was only due to the fact that everyone in my family, except me, inherited a gene that allows for massive amounts of junk food to be digested without a single karmic pound gained.
In contrast, there were times in my life that I could just smell a brownie and gain 2 pounds. I began to ‘diet’ at age 15, despite the fact that I was nowhere near overweight. I simply was not rail-thin like the rest of my brood and was reminded daily of that fact.
I was not an extreme dieter. I did not pop diet pills like some of my friends. I just did not eat unless I was hungry. And I limited my portions. I stopped eating before I was full. I avoided junk food and fast food when possible. I did not eat a lot of meat. I had no idea what I was doing, by the way. I was just directing traffic.
To diet at that point meant to cut calories. And unfortunately, to this day, the only foods that list calorie and fat content on the labels are usually those foods you should not be eating. On those particularly stressful days, it was often easier to just eat a candy bar worth 120 calories and drink a soda worth 150. At least I knew how many calories I was consuming.
The counting calorie diet in high school did not last long though. I returned to moderation and variety and managed to keep myself reasonably sized throughout the years, with the occasional attempt at whatever new diet presented itself.
That is until I met my future husband…
It was 1996. I had just returned to the States and to civilian life after a 5 year foray of purposeful nonsense in the U.S. and abroad. I was on a date with a guy, who, unbeknownst to me at the time, in any fashion, would be my future husband. It was a casual date, we were still in the ‘friend’ phase.
He took me to one of those large chain restaurants with big tinted windows and over-sized booths. I hardly ever ate out at that time, and when I did it was certainly not at these, what I considered swanky and kitschy, types of venues.
The waiter was a young, skinny, blond guy with a pock-marked face. He was one of those cheery, chatty types. He was swooning because he had just witnessed a marriage proposal at a booth behind us. The waiter looked at me and at my date and back to me, smiling conspiratorially. To this day, it wows me that so many could see what I was completely oblivious to at the time.
“What can I get for you today?” He smiled sweetly this time, pen in hand poised to write down my order.
I had spent the last 15 minutes looking for something light, something small to eat. I was not very hungry. “Do you have a small chef salad? I can’t find anything like it on the menu. I’m not that hungry right now.”
“Oh, sure! I know just the thing!” He turned to take my date’s order and then left.
Twenty minutes or so later, he returned carrying a tray so large that he needed one of those folding stands to sit it on before he could move the platters from the tray to the table. I was perplexed. He was blocking my view of the now stationary tray, so I could not see everything on it. I just knew that whatever it was, the mass and density of it was affecting the air pressure around us.
He turned and, smiling cheerily, slid a feed trough sized platter onto the table in front of me. On it was an entire head of chopped iceberg lettuce, a half-pound of cheese blend, piles of cubed chicken and ham, a whole diced tomato, half of a cut-up cucumber, a few slices of red onion, chopped bacon, four boiled and peeled eggs cut in half, and half of a bottle of ranch dressing.
I was in shock. This was enough salad for four people! Was this normal? I looked at my date and back to the massive garden of food and fat in front of me. I could feel an expectation in the air and realized that the server was asking me something.
“Huh?” I looked up at him, shaking my head to clear it. My eyes still unfocused as I tried to make sense of what was happening.
“Is everything all right?” He looked worried.
I finally got it together. “This.” I pointed down at the feed trough platter of salad before me. “Is a chef salad?”
“For one person?”
“Um. Yes.” He had a look on his face like I had just asked him a trick question. He was beginning to fidget. His feet and legs were turning to leave, but his upper body still faced me out of obligation and a sense of work ethic.
I nodded, still not understanding, but letting him off the hook.
He relaxed. “Can I get you anything else?”
My date said, “No thanks.” Obviously, he was completely desensitized to the obscene portions of food before us. He made no visible acknowledgement of my distress.
The server looked back at me expectantly. I looked up at him sideways and said, “No, I’m fine. Just leave me here to graze.”
He looked confused again and somewhat annoyed, but decided against any rebuttal statements and turned to leave.
I grumbled through the meal, trying unsuccessfully not to complain. I could not help it. I was raised to ‘clean my plate’, that there were ‘starving kids in China’, leaving half of the salad uneaten was a painful act. But I just could not eat all of it. Yet, I still ate more than I wanted or intended to eat. A trend that would lead to 30 pounds of weight gain within one year.
It was 1998. I was finally losing, and keeping off, those extra pounds. I had lost 15, with 15 more to go. It took me well over a year to learn to navigate the large portions at those big restaurants by cutting the food in half and boxing it up for later, or ordering off the ala carte menu. I had successfully found a balance between my need to not weigh 300 pounds and my boyfriend’s, and everyone else’s, incessant need to socialize while consuming massive amounts of food and drink.
I was working retail in the mall at the time. I usually brought my lunch, but occasionally, because of boredom over peanut butter sandwiches or time conflicts, I would eat out at the food court.
One of my favorite fast food ‘treats’ was corn dog nuggets with honey mustard. I did not order them often, it was only a handful of times a year I allowed myself to get them. However, the adult menu portions, even at the fast food venues, had become larger than life (super-sized), so I had begun ordering kids meals to cut down the portions.
I walked up to my favorite corn dog nugget vendor. The girl at the counter was a little older than me. She was large, but not obese. Her hair was pulled back underneath a hair net. She had that medium black skin that tends to have a chalky, powdery, look to it.
She smiled expectantly.
“Hi!” I smiled back. “I would like the corn dog nugget kid’s meal with a root beer, please.”
She looked confused. “That’s for kids.”
“Yes. I know. You are allowed to sell me a kid’s meal, right?” Some restaurants actually require that their servers not sell kid’s meals to adults. Their excuse is that they are ‘priced’ with consideration of adult menu items being purchased at the same time.
“Sure. But, its only 50 cents more for the adult sized meal and you get 3 times the food.” Her eyes twinkled. She smiled broadly, showing all her even, perfect, white teeth.
I was in shock. She actually thought she was doing me a favor. I must have stared at her for too long.
“It’s, um, a better value?” She added lamely. Her smile and the twinkle in her eyes faded into confusion. Like our cheery server at the kitschy restaurant, she had the sense that there was a trick question somewhere.
I laughed. How cute. “I’m tired of wearing my savings on my ass.” I smiled and raised an eyebrow at her. “Thanks anyway.”
She looked annoyed and offended and confused all at once. Habit and work ethic kicked in. She smiled, more painful looking than polite, took my money, put together my meal and sent me on my way.
She was not the only fast food worker to be confused, annoyed, and offended by my kid’s meal ordering habit. In fact, there were times that I was, grumpily I might add, refused a kid’s meal by servers. She was just the poor soul that got the right response out of me at the right time.
 I think my dad used to joke and call it something like, “hollow leg syndrome”.
 When it happened, I called my sister for moral support. She laughed and said, “Oh, those are just happy pounds!” I sobbed aloud and said, “Well then I want to be sad and skinny again!”