Monday, September 28, 2009

The Best-Laid Pancakes of Mice and Men...

So, the Serious Eats challenge this weekend was pancakes, and I fully intended to so it because, hey, how hard can that be? I've never made pancakes from scratch, which seems hard to believe, unless you hear my full pancake history. My mother, as I have mentioned, was no cook, but for some reason she felt every now and then, because I asked, that pancakes were my right as a wee tyke. So she would make the entire serving of pancake batter (designed to make oh, 6-12) and pour the entire thing in a pan. Her motto was: "if it is not good, at least it is done!" The result was a large yellow-and-black speckled disc about an inch thick and rather spongy. So if you ever wondered what and ENTIRE serving of Aunt Jemima mix--yep, she used the politically incorrect stuff--looks like when poured in a skillet, now you know. Some parts of it were good--I didn't eat all of it thank heaven, and I remember liking the softness of the center, where the pat of butter rested, and the crunchy outside of the skillet.

Then came the Awakening--I went to McDonald's with my grandmother and beheld three small fluffy disks, pancakes I only thought possible to achieve on TV commercials. The maple-scented sausage and grandma's plying me with toys afterward (plus McDonald's cartoon characters on my high chair) only added to my disillusionment with my mother's pan-cooked cake. "That is what pancakes are!" I cried. My mother, undeterred switched to Aunt Jemima waffles, which required even less preparation and looked in my estimation at least like real waffles.

I had a love affair with Perkins as an older child--silver dollar pancakes, chocolate chip pancakes, real bacon on pancakes, I mean it's dessert for dinner, what's not to like? You could have pancakes followed with dessert from the rotating racks in the Perkins bakery.

But it's been a long time since I have craved pancakes. The one time I had them homemade properly (as in not an entire pan full of batter) it was at a 'college house' from very old pantry staples, and the flavor was what you would expect from Bisquick from the 60s. This Sunday was sultry, and the last thing I felt like after yoga class was a stogy stomach full of an attempt of pancakes.

I have concluded that perhaps I like the idea of pancakes better than pancakes themselves. Platonic pancakes, anyone?

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Book Review: The Gerbil Farmer's Daughter

I really hope the title of this book, The Gerbil Farmer's Daughter, doesn't deter people from buying it. But then again, given how many people, including myself, kept gerbils as pets when they were small children, perhaps it was a good idea for Random House to give Holly Robinson's memoir of her eccentric childhood this name. Robinson grew up when childhood fads were still common--hula hoops, paint-by-number kits, BB guns, and yes, keeping small animals you ordered from the back of comic books. Robinson's father, a navy man, sought to capitalize upon this trend. First, he kept the gerbils mainly to be sold as pets and even produced one of the first books on gerbil-keeping, using young Holly and her siblings as models. In fact, there is a good chance I may have read his book--I was an careful reader about my various obsessions as a child, and when I was interested in a subject, had a habit of reading my library's shelf left to right, cover to cover. However, I can't remember his name, of course, given that most of those pet books were quite anonymous then, unlike today, when pet experts have their own TV and radio shows.

Robinson's father and mother hated hippies--but also hated the Vietnam War. Robinson's father wanted out, so, planning for his retirement he began to breed gerbils for laboratory use. The family finally settled in a dilapidated old farmhouse in rural Massachusetts, where the 9,000 gerbils Holly's father eventually kept remained, if not unnoticeable (although gerbils have less of an odor than most small animals, 9.000 members of any species apparently gets a bit whiffy after a bit) than less noticeable. The stable of riding horses, pygmy goats, peacocks, cats, dogs, and other animals the family collected over the years provided camouflage--different kinds of weirdness covering up the weirdness of the gerbils, on which Holly's father hoped to make the family's fortune.

The gerbil farming of specially inbred species for medical research made money, although not the sums hoped for originally. As well as the chronicle of a truly, wonderfully weird family (I particularly enjoyed the stories of Holly's mother, an unflappable woman who gave riding lessons, during which the horses were dive-bombed by cats with bared claws, and learned to dance on pointe in her late 30s) the book also illustrates the strange emotion of people who are carefully raising animals to die--a curious mix of identification, protectiveness, love, respect, cruelty, and distance.

What is so spectacularly endearing about Robinson's parents is their failure to understand how profoundly eccentric their lives were--they follow Robinson's every boyfriend, every brief foray into normal teenage sexuality with hawk-like vigilance, even while collecting animals like knickknacks. Robinson's mother can ride the wildest horse and take down walls with a crowbar, but her husband still insists on the greater competence of males, too--while raising tiny, fragile creatures in the basement.

This book is a must-read for anyone with romantic longings about starting their own farm, and I would recommend it to anyone who ever thought their parents were weird and embarrassing.

Sunday, September 20, 2009

Two kinds of dogs....

In Amy Tan's The Joy Luck Club, the narrator recalls her mother saying that there are two kinds of daughters--obedient and disobedient. Well, in terms of dogs I'll be more flexible about that typology--there are dogs that do as they please, dogs that can herd sheep on command, and dogs like my dogs who obey when it's necessary and she knows I really mean it, but have flexible approaches to rules about 'not jumping on the furniture when the person I share my home with isn't looking.'

When I first got my dog, I was determined not to make the mistakes my parents made with me about food--I wouldn't make her feel anxious about not having access to her favorite foods, so she would never feel a need to overeat.

Also, my first dog, Lucky, a stray I got from the ASPCA (named Lucky, like so many dogs, because she was lucky to be saved)pretty much had no interest in food. Other than roast chicken (which I have found is crack for just about every dog), Lucky found most foods too stinky, too hard to eat, or suspiciously novel. Probably how she survived so long in the wild--not eating garbage. Getting Lucky to eat enough was the challenge. It could be she was half-chihuahua, half-corgi. Corgis are Queen Elizabeth II's favorite dog, and deep down inside, Lucky knew that she should be having beef drippings on Yorkshire pudding at the feet of the queen, rather than Mighty Dog in a suburban Jersey kitchen.

My current dog, Asta, on the other hand, never read my personal version of Dr. Spock's eating guide for the New Age pooch, and promptly hoovered up everything in her bowl, no matter how much I poured in. I thought this behavior would level off, until the half-blind 85-year-old woman on one of our (long, especially for a chihuahua) walks said "gosh, your dog is getting fat."

So I came to the conclusion that there are two kinds of dogs: those who will eat anything and those who will eat nothing, and to heck with the AKC class divisions.

The sound of me opening the refrigerator for my dog is like the sound of wrapping paper to a child on Christmas morning. Cooking can be downright dangerous, as she plants herself at my legs, in case I drop a crumb. Her intense gratefulness at finding a crumb makes me feel like the workhouse owner in Oliver Twist. "Oh, thank you kind mistress! A crumb! A crumb on the floor! For me?"

Poor little Asta, who must maintain a weight of 10lbs max to even be a chunky rather than an obese chihuahua. I carefully measure out her food, and feel guilty.

Here is my first dog:

Oh, the eating issues that are played out in our animals, who just want to obey their appetites and be done with it!

I'm sure my dog would be thin, if she could run as much as she wanted, and chase squirrels. But in the unnatural environment of suburbia, she is instead on lean adult dog food.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

My mom: 9/19/04--I can't believe it has been five years

When I was in high school, my mother gave me a calling card number (yes this was quite a few years ago) so that if I ever needed her, she would always be a phone call away. I resisted, but of course I found myself needing that number for many years, in many different cities, countries, continent—to talk, to laugh, to cry, to complain. My mom always there for me. I memorized that number so that my fingers dialed it automatically—only if I thought about it too much would I forget the sequence.
Of course, I’ve completely forgotten that number now—but even if people still used pay phones, it’s been five years since I’ve had that kind of certainty that someone is always there to listen, no matter what.
Mom, you didn’t always (often?) agree with me, or understand my need to find things out for myself. We fought a lot when I was younger, but the last few years we had together were good years—I was less angry and you were less controlling. But I understand your need for control now. Life was a struggle for you. You felt you had to always put other people before you. You got your GED at sixteen to work to help support your family. Some of my earliest memories of you involve you cleaning the whole house, the yard, then going over and doing the same thing at my grandmother’s, then taking care of me, then my father. After the divorce, you worked full time and took care of me, my grandmother, and various pets that I had over the years.
Mom, I wish you had taken more time to appreciate yourself and your other gifts.
Sometimes it’s the little things when someone is gone that seem strange. Like I can’t believe that they still show Fred Astaire films on television, without my mom to see them. Or release a new Harry Potter or Sex in the City film (we both loved these particular franchises), or make perms for hard-to-wave hair.
Today is a beautiful day, and I’m going to go out and enjoy it—just like my mom, I have to mow the lawn. However, because of her efforts, I have so many things—an education, some security, a stronger sense of self—that I wish she had enjoyed when she was my age.

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

Book Review: Born Round

Frank Bruni's memoir Born Round was presented in excerpted form on The New York Times website in July, and was deservedly praised in the press and 'round (ha!) the blog-o-sphere. I already knew, upon cracking the spine, that the author had struggled with what are politely called 'eating issues' (bulimia, laxative abuse, fad diets oh my!). But I admit when I read "I was a baby bulimic" on the Times website beforehand, I was shocked. I had read and adored Bruni's writing throughout his tenure as food critic, but had tended to assume, particularly after his review of the best fast food to be found on the road across the nation, that Bruni was one of those sorts of effortlessly athletic individuals who burned off calories as easily as a spoiled teen burns through a trust fund.

Far from it--Bruni was athletic (he was a competitive swimmer until college) but even the four hours in the water he spent during swim practices didn't give him the body he desired or balance off the calories he ate (or wanted to eat). One of the most beautiful and hilarious sections of the book details his mother's Thanksgiving (T-Day) preparations, an epic Battle of the Bulge or storming the beaches of Normandy with extra white turkey meat and ham. Bruni conveys perfectly the sheer excess of hysteria and calories of the event, but also how the need to fill every moment of the meal with food, even the between-course bits (like fruit and nuts between the second helpings and dessert courses) is a stand-in for his mother's need to fill every moment with her love for the family. I also have to note, to counter some comments about the book, as a half-Greek person, that I wasn't shocked at all about the volume of food prepared, even the sandwiches with leftovers to 'tide people over' on the long ride home from the feast. After all, I've been to Christmas parties where every woman bought a pastitio.

The narrative of Thanksgiving also shows his mother's talents in the kitchen and as an entertainer: Bruni's mother was a woman who had mastered the staples of traditional American, French and Italian cuisine, as well as homemade Egg McMuffins and women's magazines staples like Chicken Divan. She was also fluent in that other staple of women's magazines--the fad diet. When Frank Jr. showed a tendency to put on weight, given what Bruni depicts as a somewhat genetically 'hard-wired' big appetite, Frank was prompted to try the Atkins diet under his mother's supervision. Bruni became perhaps one of the first but sadly not the last school-age child to learn the word 'ketosis' as part of his vocabulary words for the week.

Thus the consequences of this American abundance were not all happy, contrary to some sunny food memoirs: Bruni is unsparing in his depiction of the depression and despair and alienation from one's physical self caused by over-eating and being over-weight. Ironically, hyper-consciousness about his body drove him even deeper into the cycle of starving and exercising, binging and vowing to never eat again. Bruni also talks with wonderful, open honesty about the havoc bad body image played with his sex life--far more than concern about his sexuality, weight was the 'weight' upon his conscience: his attempt to hide his body in an, um, sexy windbreaker in the middle of sweltering North Carolina shows the type of 'hot' date you don't want to duffer.

Finding a love for exercise again in the form of running, and later strength-training and pilates, saved Bruni--as did becoming the Times bureau chief in Italy. There, he reconnected to good food after years of numbing his appetite with take-out and convenience food, food eaten for the sake of speed and volume not quality.

Bruni hits on what I think is a central truth, better than any other author I've ever read--it's a common complaint that 'food is an IMPOSSIBLE addiction to kick' because unlike alcohol, drugs, or gambling you 'have to eat.' However, as I well know, the eating of a compulsive food addict is nothing like the eating habits of a healthy person. Standing with a spoon in one hand and a jar of peanut butter in the other, and telling yourself "just one more spoonful" (lies, lies, lies) is very different than having a peanut butter sandwich and then stopping. Eating disorders are just that--disorders of the METHOD of eating food, food itself is not the problem.

Becoming a restaurant critic took away that favorite defense of the dieter--that after this long weekend of a binge, "I'm NEVER going to eat again--okay, I'm going to live on lemon juice and boiled greens, this is my LAST piece of chocolate--well, better eat the whole thing because I AM NEVER BUYING THIS AGAIN." Bruni knew he was going to be eating out every night, as part of his job and that curtailed the binging and the starving. He even began going to bars and dating again, in another irony, given that so many people call having to eat out for a living a 'killer' for their social life--Bruni incorporated his family, friends, and love life into his criticism, as sharing his meals and portion control were so important to his new attitude towards food.

I loved this book, although I do admit the restaurant criticism section of the book seemed to deviate from Bruni's general theme of dealing with a complicated eating disorder that seems to defy an easy definition or diagnosis. The content detours into too many funny wigs and fights with Jeffrey Chodorow, not enough self-analysis. I suppose Bruni 'had' to to satisfy the section of his readership most interested in his life as a part of the New York dining scene, rather than his personal struggles, but the division between that part of the book and the rest of the work can be a bit jarring.

Still, Born Round was an eye-opener regarding my own mentality in the binge/starve cycle, and also about men and their struggles with food. Although you'd have to be blind not to notice the body-fixation in the male gay community (I used to go to gay bars in college with my gay male friends), there was always a part of me that thought, simply because men can eat more, that a man with an eating disorder couldn't be as tormented as a woman. After reading Bruni's book, I see that I was wrong.

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

I can't believe I ate the whoooleee thiiingggg....

I only took one psychology course in college. True to form, all of the craziest people I knew were psych majors. I'm thinking of one particularly brilliant girl who often locked herself in her room, listened to the Violent Fems, never changed her clothes for four years, and cut her own hair. Given my unstable mental state until age twenty-six, trust me when I say that my decision to concentrate in Religion and English was a good thing. However, I do know a fair amount about psych, from independent reading, and I've always been fascinated by Piaget's experiments with children in the conservation of matter.

Basically, what the developmental psychologist Jean Piaget said was that until children's brains develop to a certain point, they cannot perceive, for example, that a squat glass filled with water and a skinny glass filled with water have the same amount of liquid, even if they are shown that a pitcher has poured a certain volume into the glasses.

Supposedly, we eventually achieve a more rational understanding about spatial relations--but if that is the case, then why, for example, when I am served a huge portion of food at a restaurant, and do not eat everything, I am often told "I don't eat." However, if someone cleans his or her plate, somehow they have eaten?

For example, I've never seen my father leave food on his plate--he's quite proud of that fact--even when dining at a diner. If you've ever been to a New Jersey diner, you know what a feat finishing a full-course entree entails, especially if accompanied by a salad with generous lashings of olive oil (sometimes, no joke, half the bottle). After all, if they wouldn't serve it all if you weren't meant to eat it all, right? Ditto for several appetizers and a full pizza at Pizzeria Uno.
I've seen my stepmother cook up a whole platter of chicken souvlaki, and without irony, say because literally one tiny, tiny piece of breast was left, that they really 'ate healthy' that night.

And I'm embarrassed to get into my own perceptions of peanut butter. I look at a two tablespoon serving size and it just. can't. be. true. that something that tiny is 190 calories. Time to even out the jar of Crazy Richard's.

But there is another strange misperception about calories regarding the quality of the food itself, which irritates me even more. That is when someone who is thin eats a burger or a cookie and someone descends upon them saying "how do you eat that and stay thin?" A friend's skinny boyfriend (well, friend-with-benefits, but that is another story) in high school was a beanpole, and she'd always complain 'he eats nothing but McDonald's and is a rail." Now, I had observed Alex and noticed that 1. yes he ate nothing but junk food but 2. he was the sort of boy who would only eat if food he liked was literally placed underneath his nose. So that meant he ate a Quarter Pounder with Cheese, fries, and a vanilla milkshake one day, but nothing else, and then didn't eat at all the following day, ate three slices of sausage and cheese pizza the next day, and so forth. Clearly, the calories 'balanced out' in his favor, but the idea was that simply eating one 'bad food'=fatness. But then, there was a great deal my friend didn't notice about Alex and the way he felt about many things, not just food.

Growing up, incidentally, no one ate Big Macs, only Quarter Pounders. I never understood mayo on burgers. I guess it is a regional thing.

This is something you often see in the blog-o-sphere when individuals publish tasty treats. People look at the user pics of said poster and there are a million comments that don't say "oh, that looks good," but " are you soooo skinnny and eat all of thaaat." Which makes me feel bad for the person who cooked, because frankly, it probably makes them feel guilty, and when they bake a whole cake, they probably aren't thinking 'hey, this is a single serving.' I don't know why we Americans have the idea that simply eating sugar of any kind will make them fat. Again, the missing link about 'portion control' in the brain.

Not that Greeks like my dad don't seem to have this problem as well, given how my father will still, after all these years, hover at the dessert table 'round Thanksgiving and say, I kid you now "caaalories, caaalories" after eating pastitio, turkey, spinach pie, and so forth. Pastitio btw, is basically a brick of Greek baked cheese with a few bits of pasta thrown in for fiber, and ground lamb. Nope, no calories in that lasagna at all. But a slice of pumpkin pie, that is automatic admission to Weight Watchers...

I hope I don't sound too superior with my little 'Piaget' analysis of portion control and the way sugar is viewed as a ticket to fatness. Yes, I know, blah blah, it's supposed to make you hungry and turn you into a raving lunatic. But truthfully, only on my fad 'all sugar diets/ calories are all that matters' did I really get those types of insane glucose cravings...

But I still struggle with balance, because as I said, sugar is all that I like, and desserts, in my warped brain, always look too tiny, just as main courses always look too large.

And don't get me started about eyeballing fits in Home Depo when I need to make repairs...

Here is a picture of me, briefly skinny before I really er, porked out again in high school. I felt strong resisting all that Halloween candy. However, being thin was definitely transitory for me until my mid 20s, given my warped very un-Piaget brain development regarding portion size, conservation, and mass and sugar.

Monday, September 14, 2009

True fiction

"Turn on the TV!"

I'd often hear this, when I was growing up. TV was exotic for my parents--my father, an immigrant from Greece would regale me with stories about his first encounters with "I Love Lucy" and "All In the Family." My mother grew up poor, before having TV was considered a necessity, as it is today, right up there with Internet access and orthopedically supportive running shoes.

The idea that TV, this strange wonderful box that connected you to world events, was bad, never occurred to them. Walter Cronkite, "60 Minutes," and "This Old House" were all on TV. Need I say more?

So you might assume that the media had no affect on my eating habits, given I was a bookish child. I liked Snoopy cartoons and Mary Poppins and "Mr. Wizard's World," but buy me a book to get me through shopping (with a few pieces of cream-filled Brach's pic-a-mix) and I was far happier. I liked to enter into the world, the mind of a character.

Of course, linking TV consumption to childhood obesity does not mean a lack of TV yields a thin child. I loved to create feasts built upon books. Sara Crewe in The Little Princess, for example, receives a great hamper when she is at her most poor and desolate, confined in an attic by a cruel headmistress. She also buys sticky buns with a penny given to her, when she is mistaken for a beggar--of which she eats one, and gives to an even poorer girl. (Sara is largely beyond food, except when she is emaciated). Or in a less highfalutin note, in the TACK mystery series for kids, I came to enjoy peanut butter and banana sandwiches, because they packed that for an outing at the zoo.

I hate to say it, but although there were books that portrayed very healthy foods in a positive way, like one short story I read in grade school about a wee Eskimo girl who waits all year to get a perfect orange from a trading ship, I tended to get more excited about the peanut butter sandwiches, Christmas cookie aspects of stories. Turkish Delight in a wardrobe, anyone? (Candy had to stand in for that--I didn't eat TD until I was in my 20s, living in England).

I also hate to say that although reading was great, I also remember in these books that it was the thin girl who was the protagonist, the fat girl who was the 'friend.' Oh yes, a nice friend--but as in The Little Princess and Anne of Green Gables, the fat friend is always the less nimble friend, the less creative one, the one who is loved because she is nice, rather than brilliant and witty and athletic. Stories about fat or even mildly chunky girls were focused on their fatness, their overweight status was never merely incidental.

Perhaps that is why I tended to prefer stories about animals, who often liked to eat without issues, and whose bodies were furry or bony, never fat or thin. Templeton the rat in Charlotte's Web never had 'issues.'

As I grew to middle school age, I began to read slightly more adult fiction, likethe 19th century mystery of mistaken identity The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins (which was actually the first slightly 'grow up' book I read) I also noticed that heavier people were not approved of, like Count Fosco. The heroine I identified with was brown-haired, dark-skinned, and disliked fat people. The man who threatened her liked to drink cubes of sugar dissolved in water. So much for the purity of life before Coca-Cola, eh?

I guess the take-home message is: sorry, but sugar for kids does have a special power, no matter how you try to dress up fruit (although I adore fresh fruit now) and that good books are no protection from problematic body messages. I did like Barbie, incidentally, although never identified with her shape. It's hard to feel envious of someone who can't rest on her hells.

Sunday, September 13, 2009

Things you learn from old photographs

This is my Uncle George. Perhaps the most normal member of my family.

Notice that he is eating. Now my Uncle George is slim, very slim. Yet if I look through my photo album at photos of my slender Uncle and Aunt, they, and their skinny (blonde) kids--my cousins--are quite often eating at family occasions. Half-eaten, homemade cakes, meals in progress like this one.

None of the anxiety that surrounded food when I was growing up.

My parents ate out. A lot. My mother hated to cook, and my father loved to eat, so that was the compromise--she didn't have to prepare food (after slaving to clean the house--and her mother's house, plus do all the yard work, take care of me all day) and my father had access to lots of food. As a result, as this was in the days before food blogging and people taking photos of every bite of their meal to blog about it, there are very few pictures of mom, dad, and me as a family eating.

I didn't realize that cookies came from flour, not mixes or boxes, until embarrassingly late. I was in college, and shocked to see someone even make pancakes from substances that didn't have a politically incorrect African-American woman on the front. We served McDonald's at my birthday parties (look closely at the picture of my friend) or pizza from an incredible Italian pizza parlor nearby (hello, NJ and Carvel ice cream cakes.

Of course we loved it--kids and family alike--but it taught me some bad lessons. Food was something prepared by other people so it could rapidly be taken away. Good food was rich, exotic, caloric, and tasty, unlike the bland fare we at at home. Good food was theatrical like a cake, something like broccoli was meant to be eaten plain, as penance. My mom, especially, who lived her life for other people, wanted someone to do something for her, just for her, in a restaurant--usually grill a steak.

Even now, cooking is something I struggle with. Oh, I cook food of course, but despite all of the 'Cooking for One' books that exist, I'm still apt to subside on fruit and veggie burgers for weeks at a clip, experimenting with different combos, textures, and levels of doneness, yet, but the idea of pan-searing with a whisper of flour seems strange to me. When I lived with my mother and I cooked, and it was just us, sometimes I'd put on spagetti for her, which I detest--spagetti and canned red sauce, usually--and she'd say, make the whole all at once, then I can just eat it over the week. Who cares if it gets gummy and only takes ten minutes to boil?

Cooking food, I was taught, was too much trouble.

Saturday, September 12, 2009

Biography Part 2: I discover the calorie

When I was a student at Wesleyan University, I recall strolling past Olin-Atwater Library everyday, and of course, often studying there--usually on Friday nights (but that is a different story). You would think, going to a prestigious liberal arts school, that I would be mulling great philosophical questions (I studied literature and religion) or politics (Wesleyan is one of the most socially aware campuses in the country). But often my brain would be generating this scroll of thoughts:

"One of those tasty corn muffins at breakfast--about 200 or so, perhaps? And the milk in my coffee, won't bother with that. Now if I have an oat bran muffin (they are tiny, so about 200, well, maybe 250)...I will be at 500. Then 500 for a West Wings pita sandwich at lunch. 1,000 is good. But if they have the turtle pie--I'll eat maybe half the pita, then I can have the pie and maybe some of those yummy warm cookes....if only the meals had labels, labels, like the Lean Cuisine pizzas, then I could calculate it PERFECTLY."

Some days, I would eat nothing but sugary foods, ignoring the hunger headache. So long as stayed under my limit, hey, I was fine. Sure, I looked kind of pasty, flabby, despite working out at the gym, despite the fact that I never looked as toned or had as much energy as I should, given that I worked out. I figured I had lost 60 pounds since my high school high weight, and if I could eat a l0w-calorie diet that was all sugar, why not?

The irony of course, is that the scientist the library was named after discovered the calorie--Wilbur Atwater Olin. But did I know or care? Not at all. My mind was on important things, like how if I had the carrot cake for dinner tomorrow, it would be 400 calories, so I had to budget my chocolate consumption accordingly. They had the best carrot cake at the campus cafe--dense, rich, moist...I loved the sour cream cheese icing, the whispers of crumb, the chunky lumps of nuts spattered across its surface.

Studying--oh yes, that, what were we talking about? Um, birthday cake?

The take home message: Today, I am a runner, vegetarian (although I support ethical and mindful meat consumption), and comfortable with my weight and body, finally at age 35. But whenever I deny myself sugar, I feel like a little kid throwing a tantrum--I want more! I want to become more proficient at baking, but I'm scared I'll eat all the batter. I eat real food, because I have to, but I would like to enjoy it more. This blog is a journey of my progress to find a healthy balance in my life in the name of food, exercise, and self-improvement. With some sweetness along the way.

Bon Appetit, as Julia Child might say (mom loved to watch her, even though she never cooked a single meal she saw on PBS)! But don't forget the dessert!

Biography of The Sugar Fiend Part 1: Is it possible to be born with a 'no real food' tooth?

Ever since I can remember, I have always been a sugar fiend.

I was a chubby child. Although I have sculpted this away with exercise and some bit of dietary restraint, anyone who has ever been the last girl picked for soccer in gym class because the captains were afraid the chubster with the frizzy hair couldn't run across the field without getting winded--"oh, I guess we get the fat girl," said the disappointed person who was forced to bear my lack of athletic skills--knows what I mean when I say you never forget your fat self. You can lose the appearance of flab, but just like they say you can never lose fat cells, you never lose that memory of being the fat girl. No amount of Slim Fast and Jane Fonda will burn that away (can you tell I grew up in the 1980s).

Now, you probably assume I'm going to tell you that as a child I had an unrestrained appetite, that I always wanted two rather than one cheeseburgers with my Happy Meal. Many people who have struggled with their weight have 'outed' themselves as unusually hungry kinds.

However, with me that was far from the case. Meat that looked like meat repulsed me. I hated the gummy texture of even the smallest piece of fat on steak, much to my parents' displeasure. They grew up poor, and dreamed of being able to afford steak. One of my mother's sorriest memories was when her grandmother's poodle devoured the roast intended for the Friday night payday dinner, back before everyone had credit cards to buy what they wanted, when they wanted it (see, I told you--child of the 80s).

I liked pepperoni, meatballs with ketchup, anything that didn't look like meat, and at the time, although neither I nor my parents knew it at the time--only if it was cured in sugar. Hot dogs I loved, McDonald's hamburgers I could tolerate (but not the ones made at home), and deep fried clams if I could dunk them in sweet tartar or cocktail sauce.

But overall, my mother, a woman who feared food, who had given so much of her life to caring for others that dieting was what she 'did for herself' made very boring meals that I rejected. Slightly pink chicken with paprika (the universal 80s seasoning in the suburbs). Lamb chops. I preferred to eat the mint jelly. And vegetables? My perennial failed New Year's Resolution (always gamely given,because I loved holidays) was to finish one tomato, one apple (unprocessed rather than refined sugar did not stimulate my discerning palate).

I was a sugar fiend.

I was the kid who would automatically throw away her lunch and snarf down an ice cream sandwich instead, running the cool texture of the vanilla against my tongue, eating some parts of the chocolate alone, stripping the top chocolate wafer off on other bites, other parts eaten like a proper sandwich. I fantasized when eating jelly beans or gum drops that I was eating jewels. When munching on M&Ms, or fishing multicolored marshmallows from a bowl of Lucky Charms, I had a certain order: the most populous ones, the commoners, would be eaten first, until only the best, usually the red or green, were left. It was like a play in my mind, how they quivered in fear of the mighty mouth of The Sugar Fiend.

Vanilla soft serve with sprinkles, the dessert cart at my mother's favorite restaurant, eclairs from Delicious Orchards' me that was real food. To hell with protein, vitamins, and nutrients.

My mother served me celery and creamed spinach as after school treats, depending on the season. But I wouldn't really eat, not with pleasure, unless it was dessert.

And it didn't help that my parents tended to alternate between abundance and abstinence in their own eating styles. Although the one good thing they adhered to, they thought (you low-carbers will love this) was that sweets would make you could (at least according to my cheese-a-holic father) eat whatever you liked except sweets (and perhaps butter) and stay slim. Foods were magical--eliminate sweets, you will be thin, drink orange juice, you will be healthy forever, eat a bowl of Raisin Bran and get the picture...

I suppose anti-obesity childhood advocates will blame my culture for this sweet tooth of mine. But I feel that it was hard-wired in my brain, to some degree. The theatricality, yes even the fussiness and precision of a slice of cake always out-rivaled some lump of tomato sauce on a piece of bread. Unless it was oily Pizza Hut, of course, loaded with that luscious sweetness the regular pizza parlor lacked...

Of course, my parents could only control my eating habits for so long. What happened when I could contemplate my own dietary structure.

Coming up next...I discover the calorie