Friday, February 24, 2012

Dine Like A Pauper

Friday night.  8:20 pm.  For dinner, I'm eating a bowl of oatmeal (organic and steel-cut, no less), with raisins, chopped walnuts and dried cranberries mixed in.  A little buckwheat honey drizzled over everything, then some milk.  Chewy, crunchy, a little sweet, a little tart.  Gratifying.

There are plenty of other things in the house -- more normal, dinner-ish possibilities, but... meh.  And let me stress, my choice has nothing to do with Lent.  I guess oatmeal just qualifies as 'So Easy to Make', requiring nothing more than a pot for boiling the oats, and a spoon and a bowl for eating.  From a nutritional standpoint, the oats qualify as vaguely virtuous, I supposed (well, there are the walnuts), but I'm not sure that dietary propriety is the issue.

And now that I think about it, the easiness of preparation is the point, after all.  Falling, as it does, under the general heading of self-care, where I still tend to miss the mark much of the time.  Especially when it comes to feeding myself.

I have an annoying and wasteful habit, I'm surprised to find myself revealing, of buying nice foodstuffs -- mostly lovely fruits and beautiful veggies -- and then, when I'm back from the store, I carefully put these delicious things away, and then proceed, for the most part, to... look at them.  To watch them, day after day.  As the shine goes off the apple, and the pepper begins to cave in.  There will be the periodic archaeological search through the vegetable bin, in hope of finding survivors -- carrots are especially sturdy, it seems.  The items which are well and truly on their way to becoming something else (mostly compost) are discarded.  And, much to my chagrin, I begin again.

For a while, when I was still a college professor, and had some more or less disposable income, I toyed with the idea of buying plastic fruit and vegetables, so the fridge would look well-stocked, but nothing would actually go bad.  I could always throw in something actually edible, in case of an emergency, but for the most part, it would be all show, no actual decay.

But fake food is really expensive -- especially if you're going to fool yourself for a long time.  And I'm so picky about what I look at.  So, it was back to the same routine.  More or less.

Of course, I know where this compulsion comes from.  (And, if you've read much of what I've written about my childhood, I'm suspecting you've got a pretty good idea of where I'm going)  There was hunger in my house, when I was a boy.  My three brothers were chained in bed at night, to keep them from sneaking into the kitchen to eat whatever they could scrounge.  I would often resort to sneaking wrapped baked goods from the freezer, and chewing off just a bit, and carefully rewrapping the item, so I wouldn't be found out.  Which never worked, as it happens.  Punishment for everyone inevitably followed. 

But this hunger was only for some of us.  In our house, there was a two-tiered dining plan, as it were.  'They' had things like fresh cherries in season, or containers filled with cubed honeydew melon, or plates of fatty chicken thighs.  'We' were indulged with pretzels and potato chips from my step-grandmother's restaurant.  There was always a dish full of candy, which we were not free to sample  We might have a banana or an orange from time to time.  And if it was an orange, we would hear my step-grandmother's Great Depression 'all I got for Christmas was an orange' story.  Making even the juiciest orange a little hard to swallow.  And at the dinner table, I became a master at navigating the crevices in the back of whatever unlucky bird was feeding my brothers and me.

Sometimes our meals -- those of us on Plan B, if you will -- were augmented with government surplus foods that arrived from someplace or other -- long military green tins of cheese-flavored food product, or peanut butter.  When we weren't in school, my brothers and I had lunch in the dining room -- sandwiches of bread spread with that square peanut butter.  And there was a timer sitting on the table, to make sure we ate quickly enough.  Meanwhile, our fridge would often be full.  It's just that most of that food wasn't for us.

Of course I was tempted.  I stole cherries, and with my mouth full, tried to plump up the remaining pile, so it would look untouched.  Same thing for the melon chunks.  As the chicken thighs were served at the table, there was no chance of pilfering.  We got to watch.

For the most part, though, I treated the fridge as though it were the cliched fancy restaurant, and I was a poor kid pressing his nose against the glass.  A poor kid who knew there was a cop walking the beat, a cop who only got an orange for Christmas, and who was carrying a billy club just for me.

The threatened punishment for transgressions great and small, by the way, was being sent back to the orphanage.  As we had already experienced institutional life, this threat was not an empty one.  And, not long after the bed-chaining period, my three brothers were actually sent away.  So the lure of forbidden foods in the fridge was only one part of the drama of home life.  And this was how it was, for the greater part of the seven years I lived as part of my father's second family.

When I joined the Air Force, at 17 years of age, I was over 6' tall, and weighed 150 lb.  I gained nearly thirty pounds in the first six months of active duty, and still looked kind of skinny.  I once bought myself a cantaloupe, and ate it all, all at once.  And an hour later, got humiliatingly sick.  These days, I buy myself big bags of cherries in season, and make a glutton of myself.  Some of the things I stow in the fridge aren't just for display.

And really, for all my hyperbole, I've gotten much better at actually 'allowing' myself to eat the fruit I buy.  But still, I feel a tug of guilt and resistance, when I look for something to eat.  I myself buy these foods, but at some level, they're still really for someone else.  I even tend to ask John for permission to eat one thing or another.  It must still sound weird to him, but the seven years of training I endured -- even though it took place nearly fifty years ago now -- have left what seems to be an indelible mark.
The oatmeal was delicious, by the way.  And in a while, I think I'll have an apple.

©  2012    Walter Zimmerman

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