What we are eating and – additionally – how much of it we are eating is big news right now.
It’s certainly big news in this house where, with just 2 weeks to go before I swan off to celebrate my 60th birthday in Sri Lanka, I decided that unless I wished to be mistaken for Moby Dick washed up on a tropical beach, then losing a few of my excess pounds might be a good idea. No problem, help yourself – I have plenty of those excess pounds to spare, unfortunately.
I know that, to some extent, the predilection for stacking on weight is about one’s genetic make-up. Both my parents tended to be slightly or moderately overweight for most of their adult lives and to some extent this was about their body shape, which inclined toward short and stocky rather than svelte and slim. Not surprisingly, I have picked up these genetic markers and have probably been slowly piling on the pounds since my early 40’s.
My folks were also ‘foodies’ – they approached mealtimes with considerable gusto well into their seventies. My Mum was a pretty accomplished cook of the traditional English type and, unfortunately, derived far too much of her self-esteem from what she put on the table. In later years, with money a bit more plentiful, they took to eating out a bit more often and would frequently regale us with tales of meals they had recently eaten whilst on holiday in Cornwall or France, even whilst in the midst of consuming a meal in this house.
Not that this offended me, you understand; both of my folks were always very complimentary about my cooking, which – to be honest – has become lazier and more uninspired as the years pass. However, this ability to enthuse endlessly about meals already eaten was not lost on the Princess who grew up – perhaps unsurprisingly – to undergo an ‘eating disorder’ phase in her mid-teens. The two issues may not be connected, but I suspect that they are….
Giving up smoking a while back also accelerated this whole process; after all we all know about the compulsive oral aspects of sticking a cigarette in your mouth and once you stop that, food tends to take over and on go the pounds.
The other issue is probably lifestyle. I do a reasonable amount of walking as a non-driver – that’s walking, not hiking – but have nonetheless became too sedentary for anyone’s comfort, least of all my own.
So, all in all, not a great recipe (so to speak) and I have slowly ballooned up to Zeppelin proportions over the last 12 months. Finally, the penny dropped and I realised that the ‘I’ve quit smoking and now I’m fat but this will pass‘ mentality was just another example of false consciousness.
The real situation is that gaining weight is not a corollary of stopping smoking but is, in fact, another manifestation of the same thing – in other words, my erstwhile and lifelong tendency to eat, drink, smoke and ingest whatever I wanted to, in whatever quantity suited me, without having to particularly cope with any adverse consequences. That ship, like the one containing my carefree youth, is now hull down over the horizon and vanishing fast. Bottom line: I just can’t live like that any more if I want to live much longer at all.
So, how to deal with this new and unpalatable set of circumstances? Well, if I tell you that I live with a partner who is obsessed with her appearance in general and her weight in particular, you can probably guess that there was no shortage of advice on offer. Trouble is, though, I’m not a Weight Watchers joiner or a calorie counting obsessive – it just won’t happen, no matter how many photocopied articles from mid-market tabloids shrieking about ‘New Year, New You!’ or ‘Try our new Miracle Diet!’ are left lying around for me to read. Just not going to happen, I’m afraid.
Monitored by the Princess, I initially tried to be more judicious and make healthier choices about what I was eating and not to snack between meals. I also tried to build in a 30-minute walk every day, but it just wasn’t working. I was still taking on board too many calories for my lifestyle and my weight was such that even a short walk was playing havoc with my knees and lower back. It got to the point where even getting dressed in the morning was a major effort and with a short walk to the local High Street now often leaving me wrecked, I could see the horizons of my world closing in. This must be how it happens, I thought; before you know it, you’re housebound and can only get somewhere in a cab or when somebody offers you a lift.
So, about a week ago, I just decided on a radical solution which so far seems to be producing promising results. I have simply stopped eating during the day and now just eat an evening meal. I drink juice and coffee during the day and have been known to scarf down the odd tomato as I pass the bowl, but no solids really.It’s hard, of course; not as hard as quitting smoking but still pretty difficult. The rewards after a week seem to be that I simply feel ‘better’ in a vague and undefined manner, walking around is easier, my clothes don’t pinch so much and I have actually lost the best part of a stone. My aim is to take to the beaches of Sri Lanka in a fortnight or so as a moderately walrus-sized obstacle rather than a genuine shipping hazard.
Strangely, all of this personal angst and re-assessment is going on at a time when the Government is telling us that we are in the midst of an obesity epidemic. We also seem to be eating quite a lot of horse-meat, apparently, which is blowing a lot of people’s ‘My Little Pony‘ dreams out of the water. I seem to recall eating minced horse-meat a couple of times in Sweden in the 70’s and my recollection is that it was like a slightly more intensely flavoured version of ground beef. Back then, I think the Swedes also sold a version of ‘biltong’ – wind-dried horse-meat in chewable strips. Yum!
I think my appreciation of life’s ironies only grows more substantial as I grow older (and larger). So it is that I find myself more than a little amused by the fact that it is at this very juncture of my life that I have discovered the joys of a TV show called ‘Man versus Food’, which is shown on cable over here and is a great favourite with the Princess and many of her friends. The name of the programme kind of encapsulates my current predicament whilst the content is the kind of stuff which will – for better or worse – always be beyond me.
The leading light of ‘MvF’ was Adam Richman, a genial actor from Brooklyn in his late 30’s who between 2008 and 2010 travelled around the USA, seeking out local culinary specialities and the diners, bars, cafés and restaurants that serve them. These places often come up with ludicrous ‘challenges’ that speak directly to the competitive drive of Americans. Typically, people are required to consume insane quantities of the local ‘delicacy’, often within a time limit. The reward for those attempting (and succeeding in) these challenges is often nothing more than getting their meal free or getting their name on a ‘Wall of Fame’ in the restaurant or perhaps a t-shirt (usually XXXL) that promotes the establishment in question.
In a typical episode, Adam and the ‘MvF’ crew will descend on an American city having previously researched the local delicacies. Adam will visit a couple of places to try out said local delicacies before the main event, where he visits a place specialising in one of these deranged food challenges. He starts in the kitchen to chat with the owner/proprietor or manager, finding out how the local speciality is cooked/assembled. He then goes out front and takes on one of these ‘challenges’ in front of a crowd of hooting shrieking locals who cheer him on like they were at a baseball game.
Adam Richman attacks another ludicrous plateful in ‘Man vs Food’
For example, the show I watched most recently saw Adam up in Portland, Maine, trying out one of Maine’s famous Lobster Shacks before moving on to a burger joint that specialised in a ziggurat of a burger with 8 beef patties, foie gras and grilled pork belly slices, bookended by a bun and pinned through with a long wooden skewer to keep it all together. Surprisingly, that was not the (ahem) ‘Maine Event’. That turned out to be a giant 6-pound plateful of frittata with potatoes, onions, pepperoni, bacon, broccoli and cheese, all bound together by 4 eggs. It’s a bit of a blur now, but I seem to recall that the challenge was to take this lot down in 20 minutes or less; then again, I could be mistaken, but it’s hardly important. The main point of the show is that we get to gawp at the colossal burgers, steaks and plates of barbecue served up to ordinary Americans on a regular basis. All of this is mediated by our engaging host Adam, who as he says in the show’s intro is ‘an ordinary guy with a serious appetite’. Certainly, he can boast a high success rate in terms of defeating these challenges and can certainly put away huge quantities of food.
On the other hand, my experience of the USA, whilst limited to New York City should have taught me that what goes on in ‘Man versus Food’ is hardly unique to that show. I can remember one of my first ‘eating out’ experiences at an Italian restaurant in The Bronx where I ordered an Escalope Milanese – generally a thin escalope of veal, dipped in a mixture of seasoned breadcrumbs and egg, then swiftly pan-fried. My dish arrived in a rectangular cast-iron dish, about 18 inches long, 6 inches wide and 4 inches deep. The majority of it was filled with a mixture of fried Mediterranean vegetables (tomatoes, capsicums, onions, aubergine etc), on top of which were perched 3 colossal Veal Escalopes, each one beaten to a thin, irregular disc about the size of a standard dinner plate. Just in case I was peckish, I got a huge pot of garlicky sautéd potatoes as well. In Europe, this lot would have fed 3 hungry adults but this was mine, all mine. It was indeed delicious, but my pleasure was diminished by the fact that I could only eat about half of what was on offer – and had to push myself to the limit in order to achieve that much. This was hardly an unusual experience in New York and among the locals, there does seem to be the expectation that if you go out to eat, the ‘calibre’ of your meal is, to a considerable extent, determined by the size of the portions.
Thankfully, living here, I don’t really have to suffer the temptation of American Diner food, though the ubiquitous Birmingham Curries are something I’m having to limit. Of course, there will be plenty of curry in Sri Lanka as well, but just as much fresh fruit.
Sri Lankan Crab Curry
However, even once I return from my 60th birthday expedition, I am going to need to be judicious about what and how much I’m eating and that is something that I’ll simply have to put up with from now on. Just another of the delights of growing older…