"Whenever I go into a restaurant, I order both a chicken and an egg to see which comes first"

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

‘Tis The Season To Overeat

The latest statistics from the CDC are that Americans gain an average of 1.5 lbs. from Thanksgiving to New Years.  This doesn’t sound like much, but the same researchers conclude that this little pound-and-a-half stays with you throughout the year.  Most people never lose it come Spring.  Which means that after five years of ‘modest’ weight gains over the Holidays, you end up with a jelly roll, some extra flab under the arms and the beginning of puffy cheeks. Yet, there is so much especially good food to eat during this time, and people have gone to so much trouble, that it is hard to turn down and very impolite to refuse.

So we tuck into seconds of dark meat, Auntie Angie’s Italian stuffing with sausages and mushrooms, creamy cheese-whipped potatoes; thirds on freshly baked sweet potatoes with creamery butter and Vermont maple syrup. We ladle on thick gravy made from turkey fat and skin crumbles, a dash of Cognac, and lots of fresh cream. We take seconds on cream puffs, chocolate cake, pumpkin and pecan pies.  We eat extras of mince with hard sauce – a devilishly good mix of butter and sugar – put swirling dollops of whipped cream on the pumpkin pie, and take a last few bites of chocolate cake.

My mother and my aunts did things the Italian way for Holiday meals.  We started with an antipasto – freshly-sliced sopresatta, mortadella, capicola, and salami with pungent country cheese, roasted red peppers, Italian olives, and capers – then moved on to the pasta course, usually a rich lasagna, gooey with cheese and dripping with all-day tomato sauce.   

Finally we ate the main course, a full, traditional American turkey dinner with all the fixings but with a few Italian twists.  My Aunt Leona made eggplant parmesan the old-fashioned way – eggplant slices dipped in egg, sautéed in olive oil, then layered with mozzarella, parmesan, parsley, and a few sprigs of fresh rosemary, and covered with another rich tomato meat sauce.  Leona’s tomato sauce was so thick and rich that the bubbles almost couldn’t break the surface.  She used cuts of pork, veal, and beef, lots of garlic and let the pot simmer from early morning till dinner.

My uncle always brought Ferrara nougats to eat with coffee and vin santo after dinner.


I ate so much that I had a stomach ache after every Christmas dinner.  I couldn’t resist.  My eyes were not bigger than my stomach – it simply expanded to make room for extra helpings of turkey, a few more walnuts, and three canolis.  No one ever thought of weight in those days, so I am sure that that meal alone accounted for at least five pounds of extra weight.

There was another Italian tradition – always to offer seconds to dinner guests and to never take no for an answer.  No matter how stuffed you were; no matter how little room in your stomach there was for that extra slice of cream pie, you had to take it.  A pas de deux had to be danced however.  Too quick a yes meant the dish wasn’t really that good and you didn’t have to fight temptation; too late a one and you showed indifference and disrespect. So, when Auntie Angie extended the ricotta pie towards me, I said:  

“No, I couldn’t, but thank you anyway”

“No, please”, Angie would say. “Mangia. You hardly ate anything”

“It was delicious.  The best you have ever made, but….”

“I insist”, said Angie, brows now furrowed, wrist trembling under the weight of the pie.  “You’ll hurt my feelings if you don’t have just a little piece”.

Who could resist that demand – and demand it was.  Italian mamas always prepare far too much food for the number of guests invited.  The worst shame of all is for them to run out of food.  At the same time, these very women had to insist that it all be eaten – the mounds of uneaten eggplant, the corn fritters, the joint of baked ham, the turkey.

“Come on.  You don’t expect me to put that little piece of lasagna in the refrigerator, do you?”

I heard that refrain again and again.  No matter how simple or elaborate the meal, my mother insisted that nothing be left on the table.  That alone accounted for an extra few pounds every year.  By the time I went off to boarding school I was a rotund, coddled, and flabby fifteen-year old.

A number of years later after I had met my wife who comes from Irish-Scottish parents who served and ate modestly.  At the first dinner I ate with them, a ripe Camembert was served with the salad course.  My wife’s father politely asked me if I would like a bit more cheese – none of the pressured demands of my mother’s family, but a polite and generous offer.  I said yes, and took the remaining piece on the cheese plate.  I saw the slightest but still perceptible grimace on her father’s face.  In my desire to leave nothing on the plate, no sagging section of the now over-ripe Camembert, I took the whole thing – a good four portions for the parsimonious MacLeods.

A few years later I decided I wanted to lose a little weight, and I was wondering how to do it.  “First”, said my wife, “if you don’t want it, don’t eat it”.  This was an epiphany, an ascension of something I had always suspected but never believed.  If you don’t want the extra piece of turkey, pie, or ham, don’t eat it!  In her house there was neither shame nor trouble in putting leftovers in the refrigerator.  Those few words of advice were good for at least twenty pounds.

In non-Italian households, like my wife’s, you took what you wanted and politely refused the rest.  One day she and I were visiting the parents of a Newark friend of mine.  They lived on the Jersey Shore, and were far more deeply-rooted Italian than my family ever was.  They had been born and raised in Down Neck, Newark, and finally after the roofing  business had given them some financial space, they moved down to Neptune.

We had just dropped in, so Mrs. Pantucci had not prepared anything special for our visit, but kindly offered us a piece of the cake she had prepared for dinner. “We’re having company”, she said.  It was a rum cake with maraschino cherries. It was perfectly prepared – round, moist, and tempting.  Most importantly, it was whole, waiting for the evening’s guests. 

Without hesitation, and before I could warn her, my wife said that she would love a piece of that luscious cake.  I saw the muted but shocked expression on Mrs. Pantucci’s face, and I felt the pain of the cut as she sliced into the cake, leaving a gap as ugly as a missing front tooth.  I knew that this cake was the piece de resistance for the friends and relatives that night.  I knew that the very last thing Mrs. Pantucci wanted to consider was a cut into her beautiful cake; and every Italian would have known this as well.  They would have all ooh-and-ah’d, gushed, and praised, but always refused.  Mrs. Pantucci, pleased with the attention and admiration would finally say, after offering the cake at least three times, “Well, OK, what about some cookies?”.

Mark Bittman, writing in the New York Times (12.4.13) consulted Marion Nestle, ‘one of the wisest and sanest people I know when it comes to nutrition’, about how to avoid weight gain during the Holiday Season.

“The basic principles — in the Fifties and now — are variety (eat many different kinds of foods to get all needed nutrients), balance (don’t eat too much of any one food category, especially meat, dairy and junk foods) and moderation (balance calories). To these, we can add: Eat more fruits and vegetables.”

At Christmas time?? This well-meaning advice conjures up a plate of carrot sticks, boiled chicken, a few marbly peas, white rice, skimmed milk, and an apple for dessert – not the sumptuous feasts and cocktail buffets of the season.  My favorite seasonal outing was to the Davises’ annual Christmas Party.  Their table was impressive.  They had smoked salmon, homemade chicken liver pate made with port; a steamship roast, rare and juicy, Virginia ham, lobster mousse, homemade icebox cookies and dream bars; macadamia, Brazil, filbert, almond, and cashew nuts; fresh baguette, unleavened rye, pumpernickel, and multi-grain breads with cream cheese and European cultured butter.  The only fresh fruits and vegetables were the parsley used as a garnish for the ham and the few Spanish mandarins arrayed in a silver dish for color.

However much nutritionists may insist that the 1.5 lbs. gained during the Holidays will stay with you, everyone else knows that this is nonsense. With very little thought and discipline, that extra bulge will be gone in a week.  It is after New Years that one should consider carrot sticks and marbly peas.  A week of an abstemious monk’s diet will do wonders for unwanted pounds.  To speed things up there is always the gym – add an extra ten minutes per day to the stationary bike, another ten to the rower, and five to the Stairmaster, and you will be back to svelte in a matter of no time.

The problem with obesity and weight gain is that few of us have any will power.  It is bloody hard to drop a pound or two when we are offered the cornucopia of American plenty.  It is not just the rednecks and hillbillies eating badly who gain weight – all that cornpone, fatback, fast food, and snacks that pump them up – the Eastern Establishment can’t put their forks down either. I don’t really need a 16 oz. Angus dry-aged Prime New York Strip for dinner.  A 12 oz. would do.  Nor an extra helping of French scalloped potatoes au gratin, bubbling with full-fat Emmental, cream, and fines herbes; or a full lamb shank roasted with garlic and fresh rosemary when a modest piece would do.  We simply can’t help ourselves.

The difference is that the crackers work two low-end jobs, haven’t the energy to reach for another beer let alone crank the stationary bikes at Sport and Health; and can’t afford the healthy meals of grilled Rockfish, grouper, or Atlantic Snapper that we can to purge the arteries after Big Meat.  The rednecks get fatter and fatter.  We overeat then over-fast and over–exercise to get back down to fighting weight.

The Holiday Season is indeed one of eating to excess, but why not?  For most of us it is an adventure into once-a-year delights.  How often do we get a chance to eat home-baked butter cookies, chocolate truffles, or goose liver pate? So, eat the foie gras, seconds on Auntie Angie’s lasagna, all the nougats, macadamias you can find. Take big slices of baba au rhum, banana cream pie, and chocolate cake. Pile on the creamy, whipped mashed potatoes and pour on the gravy.  It’s only 1.5 lbs., a mere trifle; and besides, you only live once.

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