This week's guest author is my mother, Judith Manzoni Ward, who taught me to love writing and very local food. Click here to annoy her with a Facebook friend request.
As the daughter of post-Depression hunter/gatherer/farmers, I knew “unprocessed” to just mean food as usual: wild game in the fall and winter made good company for the root cellar’s carrots, onions, potatoes, and an occasional turnip. Canned garden tomatoes provided color. Ham and bacon and pork chops were the products of my grandfather’s farm; roast chicken and eggs were from our own backyard. It was interesting, in a gruesome way, (especially with snow on the ground,) to witness “chickens running around with their heads cut off,” but a steady diet of it made me long for the antiseptic packages neatly stacked in the refrigerators and cupboards in the homes of my playmates.
Was that long-ago diet, which was forced upon me by necessity, healthy? Probably. Boring and embarrassing? Absolutely! Was I fat? Nope!
Luckily, public school gave me a more realistic view of the outside world’s eating habits. Being fat wasn’t a big deal then anyway…everybody was too interested in being part of progress, part of the big changes that were unfolding. No self-respecting U.S. child of the 50’s wanted to be caught dead without cream-filled cupcakes, marshmallow fluff, bagged chips of odd shapes and odder colors, packaged cookies, luncheon meats, or, of course…Coke. TV dinners? Yeah! Canned ravioli? Wow! Hot dogs ‘n’ beans? Yippee! We were the post-war prosperity kids; hunting, gathering, and dirt farming were way out of style; we were building our bodies strong in 12 easier ways…with Wonder bread! It was soft as cotton candy, substantial as a puff of smoke from the factories that created it. We all wanted a piece of that action; it went with the machine age. It tasted good, it was fast; it got our mothers out of the kitchen and into the stores to buy stuff. Those times of innocence and hopeful good will, however, turned and delivered a good slap to our fluff-smeared cheeks; it gave birth to cravings that could be satisfied only with massive quantities of what we demanded: cheap tasty food, with emphasis on the “tasty.” Nobody was sicker than I was of the bland flavor of shriveled root cellar carrots on a cold February day. We wanted our food to be “out of this world” like the Jet Age we lived in. America, along with its boundless energy and big-hearted generosity, was also a land of limitless opportunism where moderation had always been a dirty word. Our cravings opened the door of opportunity to King Corn and his cohorts: chemicals and mass-produced foodstuffs. Before we knew it, corn sweeteners, corn starch, and countless chemical compounds started to pop up in the oddest places, like in toothpaste, spaghetti sauce, and canned soup. The great generation that had given the world antibiotics, Salk and Sabin vaccines, and all but eliminated TB, polio, and whooping cough, accidentally ushered in rampant asthma, chronic fatigue, and physical fatness.
People say it’s all in the genes, whether we’re fat or not, but anybody, no matter how slim, can work up a layer of flab without much effort. All it takes is a diet of tasty junk. Less than a year ago, I finally admitted to myself that I was jelly-like, and also didn’t feel so hot. Having just passed my 66th birthday didn’t help. There was more to it, though: achy joints, back pain, crankiness, zero patience, constant sinus infections, icky thoughts. A wise and enterprising chiropractor took me on as a patient, along with three of my teaching colleagues, who all felt as washed-out as I did. His night job is nutritionist, and he put us all on a food diet. This was definitely not a bad idea. Since none of us seemed chubby, he never mentioned weight loss; he just emphasized feeling well. All we had to do was give up junk. Junk included most wheat products, corn products (surprise, surprise!) and that old devil sugar. He never said “unprocessed,” but he made up for it by using “fresh” and “organic” as often as possible. Within weeks, life started being fun again. Trips to the grocery store became adventures, farmers’ markets were heaven, and pick-your-own farms the finest of amusements.
Decades-old memories of gathering took on a rosy glow. I stuffed my face with real food, a lot of it from bush to mouth, with no package in between. Wonder of wonders, eleven pounds of flab melted. All this from one summer’s eating! My teacher pals have experienced similar results; all of us, far beyond the initial blush of youth, feel well and look healthy. That pale pinched look, so often seen on faces of dieters over 40, seems to have bypassed all of us. Observers can’t be quite sure of why we look different, but one of my students put an honest spin on it when she commented last week, “you don’t look so old today!” How’s that for a compliment? Happy eating!