Just like everybody else, my sense of myself was formed by my upbringing.
As explored on this week’s Real Life Survival Guide, we are all conditioned to eat in ways that can really wreck our perspective when it comes to what we eat…
Growing up in mid 20th Century whitelandia (the suburbs of New York City) with a Wall Street lawyer father and an interior designer mother, it was always clear that both thought that the years of their lives before spawning and World War II were the best years of their lives, and the time since then was one of compromise and disappointment – a classic John Cheever story.
My father had a body type kept trim by a daily intake of between 30 and 40 Kent cigarettes. My interior designer mother had the ectomorphic perfection of a high fashion model. I also had a beautiful eldest sister who tried hard to live up to my mother’s style and body type, and an older brother who ate everything and anything in unlimited quantities without gaining an ounce. Being the youngest amid various prototypical maelstroms of mid-century American suburban family life made me hungry on a variety of levels for a host of reasons. Since I was subject to a metabolism and activity level that stored rather than burned excess calories, I effectively translated family stress into bodily bloat. Not surprisingly, I lived a “husky” childhood. At least that was the section of the department store my mother stopped in when she bought my clothes.
For my parents, athletics were for others – somehow seen as demeaning, and certainly for the lower social echelons. They danced and golfed before they had kids, and my father went nuts mowing, raking and gardening on weekends, but did little else with his body. My mother was similarly only physical when cleaning the house or engaged in other chores. Thank God for them that T-ball was yet to be inflicted on parents and soccer was only played by Communists. We children were never signed up for Little League or Youth Basketball, or even taken to sporting events – despite the fact (perhaps because of it) that my grandfather had come over from England to play immigrant-league professional soccer. Somehow, just like brown rice has a low-class taint for the haute Asian chef, sports had the stank of blue collar physicality in a mid-20th century home striving for high bourgeois identity.
Despite my role as the family “husky boy” in this post-World War II period, there was one central food tenet – that three square meals a day were the gastronomic metronome and entitlement that all people should have . My family’s meals were ritualized but largely joyless and perfunctory, so ease of preparation and minimizing cleanup was at least as important as taste. Having said that, take-out food was a rarity – both too costly and too self-indulgent. Similarly, foods intended to be “snacks” were not part of our WASP family’s daily dietary regimen. So although the content of what was consumed was largely unexamined, the pattern of consuming the named meals at their appointed hours was largely inviolate.
My memories of this pre-“health food” era’s guilt-free embrace of highly processed salty and fatty foods are filled with the same nostalgic Boomer bemusement we have for pre-AIDS sexual activity – all blithe enjoyment without any sense of negative consequences.
The mealtime food served to me as a child was almost farcically 1950s and 60s fare. Un-frozen vegetables, Asian food, and whole wheat anything were about as common as exercise —i.e., “didn’t happen”. “Miracle” “convenience” frozen foods by Swanson, Howard Johnson’s and Pepperidge Farm were the dominant fare. Pre-fab meant high fat, high salt, and no pots and pans. It was speed over nourishment and fiber. A zipless feed of brand name delicacies. Mashed potatoes that did not come out of a box only happened at the high holy days of WASP feasting – Thanksgiving, Christmas, and the re-election of Eisenhower. Similarly, instant Sanka removed both caffeine and the taste of coffee from my parents’ favorite non-alcoholic beverage.
Amid all of these regular meals was my own constant solo ingestion of non-mealtime eating. I didn’t call these “snacks” because the self-indulgence of pretzels, peanuts or potato chips was not tolerated in my family unless served at parties, so I eschewed chewing them. However, at least for me, any change in venue seemed to require a special food moment. Coming home from school meant milk and cookies, finishing up homework after dinner meant an extra slice of cake, watching the afternoon TV movie on weekends meant crackers and Cheese Whiz. Despite eating “classic” foods throughout my youth, I never (never!) had full-sugar sodas. Coke or 7-Up, somehow viewed as “too sweet”, never darkened our door. So Tab, Fresca, and the dearly departed Diet Rite Cola were the faux sweetened wash down of many a “treat”.
Despite my gluttonous “sneaking” between meal delights, they never involved mass marketed Cheese Doodles or Twinkies due to my mother’s deeply held view that Julia Child’s Francophile menus were the reference standard for fine dining. My mother was offended by the very idea of Pop Tarts or “ethnic” food. However, chocolate milk in the form of Bosco, virtually every Pepperidge Farm cookie ever made, and Sara Lee baked goods were plentiful in our home, and I ate them appropriately as dessert or “cheating” as an evil acting out episode. Looking back on this three-a-day refined carb and fat fest, one can see how it would be very easy for an sedentary child who spent his time going to school, studying, or watching endless television shows on the 7 channels of his black and white TV could pack on an appreciable amount of lard while having a paucity of calorie ingesting muscle tissue.
This consequence-blind stealth engorgement had a conflicted and ironic role in my childhood. Food was a nice ‘n’ easy way to blunt the sharp edges of pre-adolescent unhappiness. Whether I ate for solace or to fulfill mass marketing’s enticements — and maybe that’s a distinction without a difference — I ate too much to have a “normal” body. By today’s metrics, I think I was actually about average in size, but by the standards of a very body-image focused Mom, and in the wake of a classically self-conscious teenaged sister and a rail-thin older brother, I was grotesquely overweight. It didn’t help that pants were all “tapered leg”, and shirts back then were cut and sized for a lower average body weight. It was an age before the super-buff ideal, yes, but at the same time fat tolerance was at a low ebb– Elvis and Rosemary Clooney were still human sized (even the fat Elvis wouldn’t be considered grotesquely fat by today’s standards), and Judy Garland was popping dexies to stay slim.
Not surprisingly, my childhood was filled with grief-producing weigh-ins at doctor’s offices, in locker rooms, and on my parents’ bathroom scale – all of which reinforced the reality that the elation due to occasional pounds lost was never as great as the inevitable sense of failure and astonishment at the usually increasing tally.
It took me 50 years to get “real” about how food and me had become a weird relationship. I kinda have a way that food and I can coexist without the overwhelming spice of denial…but, there are many side trips into places of plausible deniability…
Duo Dickinson has written seven books on architecture. His latest, “Staying Put: Remodel Your House to Get the Home You Want”, was published by The Taunton Press in November 2011.
He has been the contributing writer for home design for Money Magazine, is the architecture critic for the New Haven Register, and a contributing writer in home design for New Haven magazine. He has written articles for more than a dozen national publications including House Beautiful, Home, Fine Homebuilding and was the “At Home” editor for This Old House.