When I left the hospital last year following my March stroke, I received a binder of rules. Paramount among ’em: four pills per day and 2,300 milligrams of sodium max.
No more gooey cheeseburgers or life-affirming pizzas in the abundance I’d enjoyed. “These things, in addition to stress, almost killed you,” doctors warned, forcing me to reconsider my long-popular habit of shoving whatever down my chute, fat be damned.
Silly rabbit. I thought I had province over the Me, brain over mastered limbs. Nope. Turns out your body can toss you whenever it wants, like a bartender at the breaking point. You can’t eat like you’re 16 forever, no matter how fun it may be.
At first, I hated it. Existence reduced to math. Nutrition tables as religion, not art design to be crushed in a 7-Eleven wrapper. Worst of all, I had to, ugh, cook. Shop. Use a stove.
Prior to last spring, I’d never cooked for free. I’d last caressed a pot when Reagan ruled the land (seems quaint now, does it not?), and I was a teenage changa boy at Albany’s El Comedor, where I earned $3.25 an hour firing burritos at suburbanites. My oeuvre was insanely limited: pancakes, hot dogs, and I was pretty sure I could prepare an omelet sans cheat sheet. I felt accomplished after purchasing — and even using! — a microwave. Otherwise, sustenance came cellophaned or delivered and cradled in grease. The journalism diet in all of its late-night, panic-famished glory.
Sadly, those days had ended. All that remained were cruel come-hithers of dormant rapaciousness. You never notice how conditioned we are to fast-food consumption until you shouldn’t eat it anymore. Towering cheeseburgers rule mid-valley billboards, bathed in sensuous light. “POSSESS ME,” they cry. “SWALLOW BURSTING BAGS OF MY FRENCH-FRIED SOUL.” You never see a building-sized rutabaga in tantalizing repose: “DON’T I LOOK DELICIOUS?” I wept for cheese pools I could no longer suck through straws and cursed the gods of carbohydrates. Why had thine oil-caked rapture forsaken me?
Luckily, the pandemic snuffed many of my addictions. No popcorn consumed at the movies (though, God, I miss the cinema; streaming ain’t the same). I’ve stared forlornly through restaurant windows at stacks of tables and chairs, peeking tip-toed past “PICKUP ONLY” signs at effigies of interrupted life. I now barely recall the distant chatter of glasses, murmured conversations, amplified music, passing waitresses, and necking (waitresses) in the dark. I could call for delivery (they’re making a killing), but who wants to pay $50 for a six-inch Subway with Fritos?
So, instead, I shop. As a result, I discovered grocery stores carry more than magazines, Pepsis, and heat-lamped rotisserie chickens. Were you aware that you can actually purchase food in raw form? And it’s cheaper? It doesn’t have to be powdered into boxes or frozen into acceptable shapes. You can mash a potato; apparently, that’s legal. You don’t even need a college degree. Cracking eggs requires no apprenticeships. Quelle liberté and all.
While I’m not exactly cooking-show material at this point (I lack the right sweaters and froufrou nomenclature, like souffle or roux), I rock a widening epicurean palette, teaching myself soups and fish and following shared recipes to completion. Last month I finally braved the stove for baking, shedding the training wheels of burners and learning to trust timers. Potatoes were my reward. My pan game: on point. Even better: I tolerate more vegetables, and bacon’s a specter of a shameful past. I’ve lost 100 pounds since last March and it’s a pleasure to breathe through clear passages again.
I’ve still so very far to go. However, the feeling of accomplishment is immense. I can pour my own work onto a plate and serve it for awaiting appetites, not just my own. It’s better than paying the check at Denny’s.
This week I tackle my biggest challenge yet: a new slow cooker, which, according to this manual, has the power to slow time. I’m not sure what that means for cooking, but maybe I can get rid of these wrinkles. Nonetheless, I have a pot roast in the freezer and rusetts just in case. Stay tuned. Send recipes. Remember to rock ’n’ roll.