The Memorial Day acai bowl just will not work. Neither do I want to see a tofu hot dog or an Impossible Burger vegging out at my table. Save the kale smoothies for another time. This year, after all the pandemic deprivations and accommodations and missed celebrations, I look forward to an old-time cookout, me and my old friends: carbs and salt and fat.
Even as I write this, it feels transgressive. I’m a good girl — I am. I eat healthy day in and day out. For heaven’s sake, even on Thanksgiving I now prepare stuffed butternut squash as a main dish and cooked fruit for dessert.
Eating natural didn’t come naturally. I didn’t grow up breakfasting on mango, granola and yogurt, lunching on avocado toast and dining on six ounces of salmon. I grew up the old-fashioned way, boosted by sugar, highly processed cereal, egg salad with mayo for lunch and liver and red meat for dinner. I stored bags of potato chips under my bed. I know, you’re as surprised as I am that I reached this age.
My parents’ childhood diet was worse. As Jewish people of European descent, they ate everything with a scoop of chicken fat on top. Chopped liver was a fave. They were poor, so my mother’s family of six would share one chicken and fill themselves up with mounds of mashed potatoes (laden with chicken fat, of course). They served up pots of soup, also glazed with fat. The preferred cooking method was frying, and they weren’t using canola oil, believe me.
My mom and dad lived to 95 and 97, which does raise the question of whether chicken fat is an undiscovered health food. In their 60s they started eating fish and chicken, broiling instead of frying, consuming very little sugar and bulking up fruits and vegetables. They also started exercising, every day, in dogged moderation.
My food evolution began in college, when, after playing the vending machine cookie and cocoa slots, I gained 12 pounds. I hadn’t thought about it before: Would eating cookies and drinking sugar make me unhealthy? Was I prepared to buy all new clothes to accommodate my chocolate chip cookie habit?
As my parents improved their eating habits in the 1960s, I too educated myself about nutrition and began grazing at the salad bars rather than the dessert buffet.
I was an awful cook when we set up our first apartment. At my first official dinner party for the family, I cooked Cornish hens, plated them, and served them to our parents. They were hens on steroids, and it looked as if a flock of geese had landed on our table. When my mother-in-law stuck a fork in hers, blood spurted out.
Some food fads of the day were fondues, either chocolate or cheese, processed white bread and Tang (dehydrated orange juice). I did own a fondue pot, but eventually, dipping bread chunks into melted cheddar lost its appeal. Everyone I knew had a bun warmer to hold the doughy rolls we served with dinner.
Eventually I learned to cook, and have been doing it every day for more than 50 years. We have moved toward the food paradigm of lots of vegetables and a small amount of protein, preferably fish. I eat lower-fat foods and less sugar because I believe in science, and I know that a hot dog a day will put me away. But one or two a year is good for my personal sense of well-being.
We all associate food with memories, and the coming together on Memorial Day, a holiday both celebratory and somber, has always included a gustatory launching of the summer season. The meal demands fresh corn and watermelon. Beer for the grownups.
This weekend, as we honor those who have given their lives keeping us safe and strong, let’s go back to basics. Even as fake news, fake intelligence and photo fakery overtake us, let’s serve up real hot dogs, rolls, sauerkraut, relish, hamburgers and ketchup, and let’s top it all off with a gaudy and gigantic red, white and blue Jell-O mold, which has no real ingredients at all aside from food coloring.
I don’t know why the prospect of an old-fashioned barbecue feels so satisfying, and I’m not going to analyze it. Just save a seat for me at the long table with the paper tablecloth and pass me a dog with the works.
Copyright 2023 Randi Kreiss. Randi can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.