As far back as I can remember, there was an invisible wall that separated me from my dad, a distance that I could never completely penetrate. His closest relationship was with the bathroom scale—his first stop every morning and his last stop every evening. It controlled his moods, our days, what we were going to eat, and basically ruled our family life. My father, a brilliant copywriter in the Mad Men era of advertising, was known for his witty ad campaigns—he was responsible for such iconic slogans as “Coke Is It,” “This Bud’s for You,” and “Leggo My Eggo”— and being able to solve any image problem that was thrown his way. Unfortunately, he was not able to use the same problem-solving skills when it came to his weight. My dad was fat while I was growing up—450 pounds at his heaviest. His weight would go up and down like an elevator, depending on what diet he was on or not on that month. For six months, he only ate white rice; another time, he only drank shakes; and another time he only had Special K—hoping that after a week of eating the cereal, there would be only an inch to pinch. What was most vivid to me about those early years with my parents was the constant feeling of hunger that consumed me as my obese father rotated from diet to diet.
Each week he would discover a new miracle plan, and my mom and I were forced to eat whatever freeze-dried, saccharin-loaded concoction he was testing, so as not to tempt him by eating “normal” food. Before I entered grade school, I was an expert on Atkins, Weight Watchers, the Barbie Diet, the Grapefruit Diet, the Cabbage Soup Diet, the Drinking Man’s Diet, and the Sleeping Beauty Diet, able to recite their rules and agreeing with my dad that the world would be a better place if food did not have calories. Of course at five years old, I had no idea what a calorie was, but I knew it was something that was really upsetting to my father, and he would be much happier without them.
My mother, on the other hand, never understood what the big deal was with food and ate only one small meal a day—usually a can of StarKist light tuna right out of the can with a plastic fork—while standing up and chatting on the phone. She had no interest in preparing meals. Mostly what I ate consisted of my dad’s diet foods, a meal replacement shake, or on a good day a bagel or pizza in the car. We never ate meals together as a family. In fact, we never ate sitting down, which was really troubling to my pediatrician, Dr. Levy, who shook his head each time he weighed and measured me at my checkups. He would constantly tell my mom to put some meat on my bones, scolding her as he handed me an extra sucker, telling her she must feed me if she wanted me to grow.
Despite Dr. Levy’s recommendations, my dad lined the shelves of our kitchen with mystery powders, shakes, and basically anything that had the word “NO” on it. No Sugar, No Starch, No Fat, No Calories, No Taste! With each new diet came an elaborate array of rules, until he could not take the boredom of the routine anymore—justifying the chips, the Mallomar cookies, the fried chicken, and fast-food burgers as market research for his ad campaigns. My dad felt that in order to create a good campaign, you needed to believe in the product you were selling. And he was always the best customer for the products he advertised, testing them excessively—especially when he was working on Kentucky Fried Chicken, Schlitz Beer, Sprite, and Pringles Potato Chips.
“Regardless of what it looks like, I am eating to further my career,” my dad would proclaim, as he gobbled every morsel without sharing any with me. “My campaigns are nothing if they are not authentic,” he declared, closing his bedroom door behind him as he went in there to work, taking his “research” with him. Sometimes I would sit at the door listening to him peck away at the typewriter, imagining that each potato chip he ate inspired him to come up with a witty slogan.
While the diets came and went, the feeling of loneliness and the constant uncertainty lingered in the air. My only glimpse into a nourishing, normal environment, my only model of healthy eating, were the weekends I spent with my beloved, maternal grandmother Beauty. It was in Beauty’s kitchen learning to cook, and deciding what we were going to prepare, where I learned what love and happiness were—one recipe at a time. And Beauty always made sure I was the one who always tasted whatever we were making first. In her arms, I was never hungry for food, love or affection. She was my mentor and my savior—saving my life, spoonful by spoonful.
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