Food at the Fork in the Road

December 28, 2011 · 14 comments

I’ve been laughing all day.


We’re three days past Christmas, and last night was the very last candle of Hanukkah. It’s been a holiday season that’s been both blessed and difficult (as holiday seasons usually are. This is a universal truth).

The house this year was gorgeous. The tree was perfect. The menorah — we eschewed the tiny silver one and instead pulled out the big recycled metal one I bought for a dollar at my local Waldorf School’s holiday sale a few years ago — and filled it with stunning white tapers that we wound up not lighting, mostly because things just got away from us.

There was roasted, herb-crusted fillet. Oven-blasted root vegetables and potatoes tossed with rosemary and whole garlic cloves. There were Brussels sprouts and tiny lardons cubed from the bacon that my friend Steve-the-Butcher makes. I ate virtually none of it during Christmas dinner, instead tasting very tentatively as I cooked. I avoided the sourdough boule. I had one chunk of a crispy, golden-roasted potato. I had a Brussels sprout and one lardon. Un lardon. I set the Christmas pudding ablaze despite a debilitating fear of fire and drizzled it with hard sauce which I scraped off my hummingbird-sized portion. I ate not one Christmas cookie, and drank not one cup of eggnog. I ate one tiny latke bound together with rice flour instead of wheat — it performed as I’d hoped, and crisped up much more enthusiastically than when I make it with its white whole wheat flour cousin — and topped it with a tiny slice of smoked salmon from the Gaspe peninsula, and a petite dot of black tobiko, which I dolloped, ceremoniously, off the end of an antique silver salt spoon.

It was all very nice.

But today, with the holiday pretty much being over — trees are starting to appear piled up at the dump and in the streets next to city garbage cans; the torturous, endless loops of sterile Mitch Miller carols are growing mercifully fainter — I’ve been laughing.

Not a good laugh, but a nervous, embarrassed tic. Because every single year around this time, I’m in the exact same place both gastronomically and healthfully: I visit the doctor on the 23rd, as my health insurance year draws to a close and the news — just as we’re about to fling ourselves into the land of trifles and game birds, sufganiyot and latkes, standing rib, vintage port and aged burgundy — isn’t wonderful. This happened last year, the year before, and the year before that. Without getting into specifics, the instructions are always the same: Cut this. Cut that. Cut the other stuff. Your numbers are off the scale. 

I’m a food writer, I tell my doctor.

That’s your problem, she says, staring at me over her glasses.

It’s the holidays, I say.

Tough, she answers. Be creative. 

And every year, I am.

Until I’m not.

“I’ll change the New Years’ menu,” my dear friend Lisa says, when I tell her what’s going on. “We don’t have to have a rib roast. Or any wine.”

Sure. No wine. 

“Absolutely not,” I tell her, refusing to drag her and her partner into the milquetoasty world of health-related culinary blandness, where conviviality gets bogged down by worry, like an immovable anchor on a party ship.

But this year, two days before Christmas, when every wealthy holiday table in America sits creaking under the weight of the extravagant excess that we seem to believe is our right, I learned that I am one of the others.

I am not obese. I have been athletic my entire life. I don’t eat sweets. I don’t like chocolate. I don’t eat anything white, or any baked goods, cakes, candies, or pies. I eat meat once or twice a month, and pasta a bit more than that. I love rice and Asian food and whole grains and towering piles of sauteed kale with tons of garlic and hot red pepper, and I can eat an entire bucket of heavily-spiced chole in one sitting.

I don’t live in a food desert. Very far from it.

But as a comparatively monied American who grew up in 1970s semi-suburbia, I also love pizza, and cheese, and sausage, and good wine, and hand-crafted ale, and barbecue, and the very occasional grass-fed hot dog. I am kept in local, organic eggs by chickens who live next door, and I eat those eggs poached and served on whole grain toast, or fried and tucked into a griddled roll with a tissue-thin slice of ham, or fried and perched atop a tangle of soba noodles heavily doused with Sriracha sauce. My idea of a swell Sunday night is roasting a local chicken (not a neighbor) surrounded, as Laurie Colwin once described it, like a tugboat in a sea of olive oil-slicked vegetables glimmering under a snowy shower of salt crystals.

In my home, the pizza is produced from organic, local ingredients. The cheese comes from a cow whose name I know, and the sausage is house-made by Steve-the-Butcher. The salt crystals are hand-harvested. The chicken has a grassy, earthy taste, from noshing on the slugs in the fields where it has spent its chickeny life gleefully roaming around. It’s all, generally speaking, pretty healthy stuff. And expensive. It’s what food professionals like me rave about. It’s the way we want to eat — the way we want everyone to eat; folks would be a lot healthier if they did  — and we’re very lucky if we can.

But we shouldn’t. Not all the time.

Not in the quantities that we, in this country — that I, in my home — have come to know as normal. It doesn’t matter if it’s locally sourced or hand-crafted or made from a cow named Ernestine who lives on the north side of a pasture in Vermont. I am proof positive that, however spectacular the ingredients, too much is just too much. Whatever it is. As I once said here, grass-fed beef is lovely. But it’s not a vegetable. Not. A. Vegetable. 

Given the quality of the food that I eat and the way that I cook it, I really shouldn’t have this issue with triglycerides and the beginnings of glucose intolerance. But I do. And knowing this fact — finding out about it just as 2011 is poised to leave — is the greatest gift that anyone’s ever given me. Despite the tears.

I am representative of those of us who run screaming from fast food, who don’t eat anything processed, who rarely eat anything cured, who are members of $70-per-month gyms, who take their two dogs on long walks every day in their nice, tidy towns, who drink small-batch bourbons procured at high-end liquor stores, who shop mostly at organic cooperatives and CSAs and farmer’s markets and who know the names of the people who grow the corn that we eat with our veggie burgers. I ostensibly do all the right things; I can afford to. Many can’t.

But I now understand that sometimes, it’s not only what we eat, but how we eat it, how often we eat it, and in what quantity. Repeat: Too much is just too much.

So now, with a new year ahead, I’ll be thinking about food very differently. There will be a lot more vegetarian and vegan dishes showing up here, despite the little piggy who lives up top. The ingredients will still be the local, organic, natural, and freshest I can find. There will be far more single-plate dishes, and those plates, physically, will be smaller.

This is my New Year’s gift to myself and my partner.

This is my fork in the road. I can go one way, or the other.








{ 13 comments… read them below or add one }

1 the tasty tRuth December 28, 2011 at 5:10 pm

Glad I finally found your blog! I love your writing style and your stories; very enjoyable to read. Your New Years’ Gifts to yourself sound perfect and similar to mine…cheers to a happy, healthy, good food-filled 2012 🙂

2 Sharon eisen December 28, 2011 at 6:26 pm

Another gem from you. I’m with you all the way.

3 Elissa December 28, 2011 at 6:30 pm

Thanks Sharon- hope to see you soon!

4 Elissa December 28, 2011 at 6:30 pm

Thanks so very much Ruth. Glad you found me too!

5 Nikki December 28, 2011 at 7:18 pm

I am so excited! Love your blog (and silently stalk it) but I have abandoned all my fav food blogs in the last few months as I try to rethink how I eat and what that food is doing to my body. I’m ready to take this journey with you! It’ll be fun … really … it’ll be fun

6 Elissa December 28, 2011 at 7:29 pm

Hi Nikki- Thank you so much for silently stalking Poor Man’s Feast (I think!). This may be a very interesting culinary journey. I appreciate all your support! E.

7 Marie Simmons December 28, 2011 at 7:40 pm

Your story is familiar. I was forced to begin a similar journey one year ago. You are so wise: the quality counts big time, but it’s the quantities that catch up. Congratulations on a terrific essay. I savor each word from your “pen”

8 Elissa December 28, 2011 at 9:13 pm

Thank you so much, Marie.

9 Annie December 28, 2011 at 11:59 pm

That sucks, but the good news at least was that you were in a position to find out, and you did, and now you can do something about it.

Take care of yourself. I miss Laurie’s voice still, and I damn sure don’t want to be missing you, too.

10 Marge December 29, 2011 at 12:17 pm

As I continue to battle the same poundage that’s been lurking around my middle far too long, and which brings with it an unwanted sidekick of triglycerides, I swore I would try Brian Wansink’s 9-inch dinner plate idea. Alas, there is no longer such a thing made! (Salad plates are the new 9-incher). But since life without cheese and wine seems bleak, I will keep working on portion control until I get it right. Good luck to you (and to all of us living too well).

11 Victoria December 29, 2011 at 1:16 pm

I once read an interview given by Shuna Fish Lydon. She was eating with the interviewer and was asked why she ordered something very plain. I believe it was a baked potato in a diner. Her response was that she used her calories wisely, the implication being that was most what she wanted to eat there. I’m sure you will be able to do it – and still enjoy the pleasure of your food.

Happy New Year!

12 Rocky Mountain Woman January 9, 2012 at 4:09 pm

I’m kind of at that fork too. My family has a long and unhappy history with diabetes and I am in my late fifties and well, it’s just time. I too shop locally and can afford to and do buy beef from my neighbor, eggs from a guy down the road, and vegetables from the farmers’ coop.

My Dr. appt. was December 27, so I had a nice Christmas with all the goodies, but now it is time to cut back, cut out and put the butter dish in the frig…

I’m excited to follow your journey….


13 DoreenFinnell January 23, 2012 at 8:44 pm

Your style reminds me so very much and deeply missed Laurie Colwin..I just love reading your blog.

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