The Devil’s in the Diet

Published in Gourmet Live 01.11.12
Molly O’Neill transcends the demonization of food

Food, I loved you first in a dark cellar pantry when I was 5 years old and you’d assumed the form of brown sugar. Even then, you were ancient, weren’t you, my Mephistopheles? Morphed for that moment inside a sunny yellow box, you emanated the promise that has driven men to war and women to cook.

“Eat me and you will be happy,” you said. And I did.

I was a lonely little girl, barely able to spell out the letters on the box—D-O-M-I-N-O—as I ripped it open, grabbed you between two fingers and pushed you into my mouth.

“What happened to this box of brown sugar?” asked my mother. “It’s mangled and half gone.” Silence.

“Maybe we have mice!” she said. Wide-eyed wonder, followed by a lifelong terror of rodents, particularly the one who just might live within.

I tried to run away. The 50-yard dash, the 100-yard dash, the 440. I weighed myself after every race, and every time I’d lost a pound, I was free! Life could begin again! But every time you found me again, generally that same night, in some purloined, sugary form. When I was young, I could never say no to you, my Mephistopheles.

I made my first confession in the United Church of Weight Watchers when I was 15: Five feet ten inches, 147 pounds, I was 7 pounds above My Goal in the only faith in which achieving more than normal is considered less than good. Like most religious dietary law, the UCWW guaranteed enlightenment (a.k.a. My Goal) to those who lived within its parameters.

The dietary code also made friends of strangers. Gathered on folding chairs in a church basement, we were acolytes in your thrall, united in dietary fellowship, each polishing the gem of resistance: cooking. There was a recipe-swap ambience to the meetings—toothsome creations fashioned within the bounds of the food plan were greeted with the same applause as lost pounds at the weekly weigh-in. I was eager to test-drive the recipes, and doing so meant learning to cook.

“If you want pumpkin custard made with fake sugar and sorbet made from diet chocolate soda, it’s fine by me,” said my mother, “but you’re going to have to make it yourself.”

Once I put my diligence and imagination into inventing recipes instead of sneaking sweets, applause and approval quickly followed. My ricotta-cheese-and-egg-white flan was a particular favorite, at home and with the church-basement crowd. Soon, I was applying the fine-motor skills required for slyly hollowing out chocolates to knife skills instead. The perfect 1/8th-inch dice, the 1/16th-inch mince, the julienne.

“Where did all the carrots go?” asked my mother.

“I’m making mirepoix.”

You must have suffered so, my Mephistopheles, watching as I changed water and bones to broth, sugar to caramel, egg whites to meringue. There is no greater power than the power to transform ingredients into dinner. You’d rather have people grab fast food, protein powder, and store-bought diet food than glean the sense of mastery that comes with turning the raw into the cooked.

But you were patient. You gave me space—a decade, and then another. Back then, it felt like a gift. Today, I know that you had no choice: Food, you have no power when you are loved, when you are celebrated, and especially when you are shared. You work in consort with bad days and internal demons. And, being ancient, you well know that opportunity comes to those who wait.

So you waited for the curdled custard, the fallen soufflé. You waited for the boy who didn’t call, the impossible assignment, the times when life became so dense and demanding that meals were consumed on the run. When the parent died and the baby was born too soon, you stood in the waiting room, biding your time, didn’t you, my Mephistopheles?

You came back as pasta, the crown prince of the low-fat empire. I bowed. I twirled my fork. I scraped Parmesan islands from rivers of olive oil. Self-doubt settled in, the wage of age, like a gray veil full of empty little pockets. You filled each of them, providing insulation, and then more insulation, then soft little pillows, and eiderdown bolsters.

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