May 26, 2005

So I'm a scoundrel.  But I'm *your* scoundrel, dear friends.  I'm still working my way through my notes from Scotland; I'll be done soon, but in the meantime I thought that the following, originally published in December 2003, was particularly appropriate, not only because I'm still living, breathing and dreaming Scotland, but because the weather here in New York has been foul, about 20 degrees cooler than Edinburgh was on our last day there.  It's good porridge weather.  It's also good stovie weather, but that's for another night.

Although it doesn't happen much anymore, one of the most frequent topics of "you know what you should do?" conversation was the one on which I solicited the least advice: dieting. I never knew whether it was because I was, once upon a time, an easy and obvious candidate for weight loss, being much more of a muchacha than I am now, or whether diet regimes are so embedded in the landscape that it has become expected of all of us. I will never forget the look on Lloyd's face when I told him that a friend and co-worker, a stunning 23-year-old Taiwanese woman, already a hardcore gym rat, decided to go on Atkins. At least in New York, or at least in the circles in which I work, there is an idea that it is somewhat immoral not to be on something. If you are not in need of dimunition, then maybe you need to do something about your triglycerides, or your HDL/LDL ratios, or your insulin resistance, or maybe all of these are fine but you want to know how to make them better.

In my case, though, no one would have looked twice at me if I announced that I was going on Atkins, because once upon a time there was much more to this bakerina than meets the eye. (There also used to be less than meets the eye, but that is for once and future times.) What garnered looks was my polite thanks for the advice, but no thanks, I'll figure it out for myself. I could see the unspoken assumption in their eyes: but wasn't it figuring it out for yourself that got you fat in the first place, dear? Depending on the receptiveness of the friend in question, I would explain that I had spent years taking similar advice from people who knew the trick, who had the key, and all I needed to do was follow their path. I spent years on Pritikin and Atkins and Stillman and a particularly wiggy diet by a particularly wiggy female bariatrician who was famous in the late 70's/early 80's, a woman who regularly wrote diets for Teen magazine and counseled us that there was no reason for a fat teenager to eat more than 850 calories a day. I tried Weight Watchers, safest of the bunch, which gave me an excuse to obsess over every blessed thing that went into my mouth. I even tried a regime of, shall we say, disordered eating, the kind favored by ancient sybarites and frightened college girls. I was rewarded for my efforts by losing 5 pounds, then gaining a minimum of 10, yearly, for 10 years. You can do the math.

In the end I decided that I couldn't do any worse for myself than I had allowed the experts to do for me, so I started making sneaky little changes, the kind where every time you find yourself with a craving for stale candy from a vending machine, you force yourself to have a cup of tea instead. (The stale candy habit is gone, but now I have a wicked tea habit.) Last February, when I suspected that I was pregnant, I started eating a lot of broccoli and craving foods with a lot of sesame in them, like hummus and halvah. The pregnancy turned out to be a false alarm, but the broc habit stayed, and I remain staggered by how much halvah I can put away. Most importantly, though, I decided that I was not going to cut anything out. More vegetables? Why, yes, thank you. Lean meats? Mais oui, bien sur. But I am not going to panic if I go to Zarela for dinner and the gallon of mole sauce her chef made that afternoon contains a teaspoon of lard in it. I will give up the stale vending-machine chocolate, but if someone offers me a brown-butter-flavored ganache from La Maison du Chocolat, I am going to thank that person profusely, and possibly plant an open-mouth kiss on him/her. And I am not, not, not going to give up starches.

Yes, I know that you lost 50 pounds. I know that you have more energy. I know that our ancestors were hunter/gatherers, more suited to hunting mastodons than cultivating grain. I have heard it all, and I'm glad that it works for you, but if you tell me one more time that our wee baby little intestinal tracts were not designed to eat that big bad bowl of oatmeal, I am taking that oatmeal, and the little pitcher of heavy cream and the brown sugar and the wee dram of Macallan 18 that accompanies every proper bowl of oatmeal in my house, and I am going home. And before you make some well-meaning comment about how much faster I would get thinner if I just gave up all of that oatmeal and millet and amaranth and barley and polenta on which I warm up during the winter, let me remind you that there was 37 pounds more of me to tell this to when I did it your way. Pardon me while I add one more dram of Macallan 18 to my oatmeal.

If you are not a fan of oats but you still like the idea of a hot breakfast to power you through a cold morning, any good cookbook on grains can give you instructions on how to cook them and what to serve on/in/with them. One of the best is Mollie Katzen's Sunlight Cafe. It is an all-purpose breakfast cookbook, filled with recipes for eggs and potatoes and breakfast puddings and pancakes and waffles and muffins, but for me the crowning glory is the comprehensive grains chapter, filled with clear, friendly instructions on how to cook and serve them. One of my new breakfast staples is amaranth wafers, made by patting cooked amaranth into silver dollars and pan-frying them at a high temperature in high-oleic safflower oil. Because the oil can be heated to high temperatures without smoking, the wafers stay crisp even at room temperature. Lloyd likes his as a sweet, with maple syrup. I prefer mine savory, with tiny dabs of sour cream and a little Maldon salt. There are recipes for oatmeal cooked in sweetened milk with chai spices, couscous with dried fruit and yogurt, barley cooked in apple juice, and my very favorite, Orange-Pecan Skillet Millet, made by cooking millet risotto-style in vanilla-spiked orange juice. I love it like mad, and Lloyd does too, even though every time I make it, he crows "who's a pretty boy?" in a spookily-accurate parrot voice.

If you are a fan of oats, you may want to try to procure a copy of this. It is out of print, but copies pop up here and there. I got mine from my home away from home, Kitchen Arts & Letters (212-876-5550). If you buy it, be prepared: People will look at you oddly, wondering at you as you chuckle over this little book of whimsy. Let them look. You and I know good stuff when we see it.

Posted by Bakerina at 12:15 AM in incoherent ravings about food • (1) Comments
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