Catherine Ford Gets Personal

One year: A challenge for change

Archive for October 2009


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So it has come to this: an attempt to regulate dinner by means of a proclamation from U.S. President Barack Obama that the fourth Monday in September be known as Family Day. Nothing wrong with that, although former Alberta Premier Don Getty beat him by a few years — 19 in fact — when Getty proclaimed Family Day for the third Monday in February.

When Alberta’s brand-new holiday was first observed in 1990, nothing was mentioned about families eating dinner together. The idea of actually having a holiday in February, breaking that long, cold and unrelenting slog from New Year’s to Victoria Day, meant people didn’t care what it was called, as long as it was there. Even the criticism leveled at the premier for what some believed to be the blatant abuse of his office didn’t have much staying power. (The rumour was that Getty announced the holiday designed for family togetherness in response to his own son being charged with drug possession which the premier reportedly said was a result of the family not spending enough time together.)

But now, Family Day has been embraced by all of the do-gooders, all those Pecksniffian busybodies smugly asserting all the problems faced by modern families can be resolved if we just eat dinner together.

How pathetic have our lives become that government-mandated mealtime is seen as necessary?

It’s not that there isn’t solid research into family life and the fallout from modern eating habits. Excuses notwithstanding, obesity would be less of a problem if fast food became a treat and not a lifestyle. Joseph Califano, chair of the National Center on Addiction and Substance Abuse at Columbia University, and a former U.S. Secretary of Health, Education and Welfare has put it bluntly: “If I could wave a magic wand to make a dent in our nation’s substance abuse problem, I would make sure that every child in America had dinner with his or her parents at least five times a week.”

Everyone assume that “substance abuse” means drugs. I contend it also means a much more powerful substance than illegal drugs — food and its abuse. When Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food and The Omnivore’s Dilemma wrote “eat food, not too much, mostly plants” he put in seven simple words the secret of weight loss and health. No “diet” plan. No “pro-biotic” drinks. No pills, no protein powders, no process. Just seven simple words.

I laugh whenever I announce I am the undisputed winner of the Ford Family Knife and Fork Race. I remember my father, looking up from his post-dinner cup of tea and saying to my mother: “Hang on to your saucer, Peggy, she’s clearing the table.”

“She” was me. Their oldest child. The one who could polish off a complete dinner, ask for seconds, (please and thank-you mandatory) and still manage to clear the table of everything before Dad had put down his fork. Guess what? My father was skinny, although one could suppose that a stint in a prisoner-of-war camp kept him thin for life. Maybe it was genetics. Maybe it was the pouch of Buckingham cigarettes he smoked a day. Whatever, the fat gene missed him.

But maybe, just maybe, it was because Dad never gobbled his food. Maybe that stint as a POW when a potato was worth its weight in cigarettes or gold or even a man’s wedding ring (Dad’s went for a loaf of bread) gave men like him an appreciation of bounty and the ease with which dinners appeared each night after work.

At the same time that dinner appeared, so did the Ford children. Like their parents before them, Bob and Peggy Ford ate dinner together with their children. Not occasionally. Not in between hobbies and classes and bridge games. But every night.

I am never one to underestimate the zeal with which well-meaning people will try to organize their neighbours and their communities. And backed up with a wealth of statistics and studies that put family mealtime on a par with regular dental checkups and mandatory schooling, the movement from the United States to Canada and elsewhere cannot be long in coming.

But here’s the problem: The families who need to be regulated to eat together are either too busy to do so or too uncaring to bother and aren’t listening to all the studies and official pronouncements.

I’m still trying to reconcile today’s busy families with the one in which I grew up.

The first time I met a kid who was not required — on pain of death — to be home for dinner I thought it was nothing short of strange. Didn’t every family eat dinner together at 6 p.m.? Didn’t every family have a rule the only person permitted to answer the telephone if it rang during dinner was Dad?

Our friends quickly discovered in order to avoid a stern talking-to, not to phone between 5:30 and 6:30 p.m. (The real secret was that our father could scare the crap out of any kid with his voice, but he was a pussycat on the inside. Mother, though, was another matter.)

What kind of families did not sit down to eat together and why was this kid calling when he should be eating dinner with his parents?

Such were the understood rules of our house when I was growing up. Much has changed since the 1950s.

In her illuminating look at dinner and dining and all of the elaborate manners that accompany mealtime, Margaret Visser in The Rituals of Dinner writes: “Where families spend less and less time together, removing dinner-time talk may well be a serious deprivation: it takes away what was scarce in the first place.”

The diner table is where families share their day and their stories. The food was always secondary to the ritual of dinner. (Luckily so. Mother never was a great cook.) Even today, in the world of food as high art, the meal is only the supporting role.

Not to eat dinner with your family, especially as a child, is to be deprived of all those boring lessons about which fork to use and how to eat in polite company. They were excruciating to the child; invaluable to the adult.

Mother may have been an unimaginative and unwilling cook, but none of us ever went hungry. And none of us ever complained about the quality or the quantity of the meals. What did we know about exotic food? Indeed, what did we know about spices beyond salt and pepper? Mustard would appear rarely; ketchup, never.

I was in university before I ever met pizza. Not until my parents moved from Edmonton to Red Deer, after my first year at the University of Alberta, did I ever meet garlic, cabbage rolls, poppy seed cake or other “ethnic” delicacies. (This move, my father being transferred, meant for the rest of my life I could joke about never leaving home — home left me.)

I had to find a place to live for the next couple of years and after one year in a Catholic girls’ residence, overseen by a group of Ursuline nuns, nine of us found a house to rent close to the campus. Thanks to living with an ethnically diverse set of young women, I was introduced to a world of food I didn’t know existed. When Shirli’s Hungarian mother came up from Lethbridge and proceeded to take over the kitchen for a day, I had no idea any room could smell so appealing. To this day, the aroma of warm dough rising sends me into a reverie.

NEXT: The expensive cost of cheap food


Written by Catherine Ford

October 27, 2009 at 11:27 am

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When the restaurant chair collapsed underneath me, tumbling me to the floor of the pizza restaurant in full view of a floor-to-ceiling window and thus the entire passing parade, I did not immediately blame the condition of the chair. I blamed myself, for being too fat.

Even as I joined in the laughter — what else could I do, with my skirt up around my waist and my dignity somewhere in the basement — I knew blaming myself was ridiculous.

But public perception is a mighty thing, as are the mores and ethos of the culture. Often I figured that I should have been born of a different tribe, one that valued women based on their heft.

But we are stuck in a world that is cruel to the fat.

There are seven deadly sins: pride, anger, sloth, envy, greed, lust and gluttony. In an on-line poll that asked individuals to name which of the seven “sins” represented their worst failing, lust and anger shared top spot; envy and greed the bottom. Gluttony ranked in the middle with pride and sloth.

The surprise statistic is that gluttony did not rank last. That’s probably due to the fact that the poll was self-selective and not done in public. Who today would admit to be a glutton in public? Who would show such lack of restraint? Consider the grotesqueries of eating contests that never feature women. What woman would enter one? What woman would leave herself open to the charge of public gluttony?

We are merciless in our judgment of others. We can talk all about “fat acceptance” and “inner beauty” and recite all the politically correct terms and smile as if we are agreeing, but inside, you’re judging the woman next to you by her appearance. No? Then explain to me how every study done on success and achievement ranks appearance right up there with brains and education.

Beauty matters. Luckily, beauty is still in the eye of the beholder, an adage that explains why Prince Charles chose Camilla over Diana, clearly the revenge of the middle-aged woman. (Or, as I prefer to believe, the triumph of sense and sensibility over narcissism and neediness.) Regardless of the personal insults leveled at the long-time mistress and now wife of the Prince of Wales about her appearance — “horseface” being the kindest; “rottwieler” being Diana’s chosen sobriquet — Camilla still fell within the parameters of acceptable appearance.

Camilla was homely, not fat. Obesity is the real deadly sin in our world. Is it right? No. Is it fair? Indeed not.

I envy any woman who can accept her looks and her appearance and leave it at that. But here’s the problem: Try as I may, I cannot love myself when I wear as size 18 dress. I cannot like myself when I have no choice but to search out the “above average” departments. And Additionelle and Toni + and Laura Woman aren’t fooling anyone. No euphemism disguises the amount of material needed to make a size 24 skirt.

Gluttony is our society’s deadly sin. “Fat pig” carries a stunning insult: You’re showing other people you have no control over yourself and your desires and you wallow in them. In medieval times, St. Thomas Aquinas said gluttony shows not just a desire to eat and drink, but “an inordinate desire . . . leaving the order of reason, wherein the good of moral virtue consists.” (The punishment in hell for gluttons is to be force-fed rats, toads and snakes.)

That’s where the public condemnation comes in. No obese person can hide the fat. All the other deadlies can be hidden. Anger can be masked; sloth can be excused. Pride seems a prerequisite for Wall Street. Lust is so common as to be regarded as normal, if what passes as song lyrics and videos are to be believed. As for envy and greed, both are easily disguised. But the outward show of gluttony is obvious.

Indeed, there are fat people who are not gluttons. But I’m not talking about the beautiful inner person, I’m talking about what other people think. Regardless of hormones, glandular imbalance, whatever, obese people are regarded as gluttons, the conventional wisdom being if they weren’t a glutton, they wouldn’t be fat. It doesn’t necessarily make sense, but such thinking fuels the billion-dollar diet industry and all the weight-loss gimmicks that promise so much for the frantic and desperate.

The truly sad fact is that being fat is no sin. The “fat” woman of today would have been the envy of her peers a generation ago. Consider Marilyn Monroe, once the sine qua non of sexuality. The icon has not changed, but our perception of what is attractive has altered, diminished to little-girl proportions, to hipless, breastless, pre-pubescent thinness. This is what the fashion industry presents to us as normal, presents to us in the clothes the industry wants us to wear. Kim Chernin writes in The Obsession: Reflections on the Tyranny of Slenderness, that young girls who envied Marilyn Monroe’s womanly body “yearned as growing girls to look like her.” Look what has happened, writes Chernin, to the perception of beauty. If Marilyn Monroe “were alive now and still as grand and voluptuous as she was then, (she) would today no doubt be considered fat. It is unlikely that today someone seeing her for the first time would be taken with jealousy because of the abundance of her body.”

We are shaped by public perception. What keeps the diet industry in business also feeds the coffers of mental health professionals, self-help experts, psychiatrists and psychologists the world over.

Ask any fat person how she or he eats in public. Likely as not, you’ll get two divergent answers: One group will shyly admit they overeat only at home, out of a sense of public disapproval; the other will brag they don’t give a rat’s ass what anyone thinks of their eating habits. But the next time you’re in a mall, stop off at the food court and just watch how people react to others who do not fit within the narrow parameters of our standards.

Chernin writes about just such scenes, where public disapproval is based not on actions, not on beliefs, but on appearance. “It may be that I feel so much sympathy for these women because I have always imagined that I looked like them. I have walked out on the street or on the beach or on the dance floor, feeling that people were casting just such knowing looks at me. But I don’t think even I could exaggerate the pain these women suffer because they are large. In the face of their obesity our normal standards of humanity vanish and we are possessed by a form of racist revulsion for the bodies of these women.”

Fat people are the last group which can be openly scorned. How do I know? I’ve been there and done that. I have seen both sides of the issue.

Remember the scene in Gone With The Wind, when Scarlett O’Hara talks about “eating barbecue” with her long list of beaux, especially the twins, Brett and Stuart Tarleton? Prissy brings a plate of food for Scarlett, who refuses to eat, saying she will “do my eating at the barbecue.” Mammy promptly gives her a tongue-lashing, telling Scarlett: “You can always tell a lady by the way she eats in front of folks like a bird and I ain’t aimin’ for you to go to Mr. John Wilkes and eat like a field hand and gobble like a hog!”

In a 1980 edition of Homemakers Magazine, Janet Polivy, a researcher into the psychology of eating and dieting at Toronto’s Clarke Institute was quoted as saying: “We are obsessed with overeating because gluttony is the last sin left. In a world where politicians steal, where promiscuity is sanctioned and where youth and beauty are revered, gluttony is the sin we can see.”

NEXT: Much depends on dinner

Written by Catherine Ford

October 23, 2009 at 5:37 pm

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Never let a man join you on a diet. It will lead to anger, divorce and, if there was a guaranteed way to get away with it, justifiable homicide.

Every woman in the world knows exactly what I am talking about A man decides to go on a diet and he gives up dessert. That’s it. That’s the extent of his commitment. What happens? He loses 10 pounds in two weeks and is insufferably pleased with himself. Worse, he doesn’t understand why you have given up bread, butter, cheese, doughnuts cake, pie, cookies, ice cream, anything chocolate and everything fried and after the same two weeks, you’ve lost maybe a pound. It wouldn’t be as bad if they weren’t so smug about it.

Luckily, I am not married to that kind of a problem. Ted’s weight varies by one or two pounds one way or the other and he eats whatever he chooses. I’m undecided whether this is actually better than being marred to a man who obsesses about his weight and constantly goes on one diet or another. Who am I kidding? One of us in the house on constant alert is enough. The dreaded “doctor’s scale” from Ted’s old office now lives in our upstairs bathroom. It’s the third thing I do every morning. (The second is taking a handful of pills, but that’s another story.)

Regardless of advice from diet experts, ranging from every Weight Watchers leader to every diet counselor I’ve ever met, I get on that scale each and every morning. It has nothing to do with whether my day will be good or bad, whether my mood will be upbeat or down, it’s what I do. Why? If it’s a habit, I won’t wake up one morning and be 60 pounds heavier. No of course it doesn’t work that way, but as someone who has actually gained and lost the size of a decent soccer team in her lifetime, I know myself better than anyone else. And fear is a great motivator. About three years ago I lost 50 pounds and this time it’s not going to sneak up on me when I’m not paying any attention.

People who have never had a weight problem don’t understand this: they don’t get it. They don’t know that’s what happens — let your guard down and bang, the fat monster’s back. So, every morning I get on the scale.

Ted eats whatever is put in front of him except for parsnips and beets. When his doctor told him his cholesterol was high, did he give up his daily afternoon snack of half a wheel of gouda or half a pound of aged cheddar? Did he give up eating double-yoked eggs fried in butter with three strips of bacon? Did he eschew wurst and scrambled eggs for Sunday breakfast? Did he cut down on the amount of butter he layers on his toasted poppy seed bagel ? Of course not. He took the prescribed pills for six months, went back to the doctor who pronounced his cholesterol just fine, threw out the remainder of the prescription, and went about his merry way.

That I have not shot him as he was eating a hot buttered bagel in front of me while I had to be content with a single piece of whole-grain toast with a slice of low-fat cheese is testament to how much I love him. I just wish he’d understand that being blessed with his kind of metabolism is something rare.

So sometimes it’s better to avoid temptation than take a chance. This past weekend in Canmore, rather than go to my favourite restaurant for lunch, we picked another. The reason was simple: Sage Bistro’s lamb burger and sweet potato fries are to die for, regardless that my husband insists they’re yam fries. Whatever. And if I had the burger and fries, I would have to have an ice-cold Grumpy Bear — or two — made by the Canmore-based Grizzly Paw micro brewery. So we picked a new restaurant neither one of us had been to: O Bistro on Main Street, only to discover that what came out of this tiny hole-in-the-wall restaurant (it was the original site of Crazyweed) was a feast for the eyes as well as the taste buds.

Here’s the difference between great restaurants, small or otherwise, and those who just think they’re serving food: The side salad I ordered with chicken (dressing on the side) was so beautifully arranged it seemed a shame to eat it. And because it was so attractive, I did not feel deprived. This is the bonus of great restaurants – a willingness to serve good food that looks great, to the customer’s specifications.

I remember about 25 years ago being in La Chaumiere, still one of Calgary finest restaurants, with a visiting colleague who was a vegetarian, not exactly a common practice at that time, especially in beef country. The staff didn’t turn a hair with his request for a meal containing no meat. They presented him with a cornucopia of perfectly cooked vegetables, arranged as painstakingly as an artist’s still life.

The point to all this is that if you are going to spend your money in restaurants why waste it on meals that are an insult? Why would anyone go to a shopping mall food court for fast food unless she was desperate? That’s not real food. It’s what a former colleague called a “squat and gobble.”

In her 1985 book, Across the Table: An Indulgent Look At Food In Canada , the aptly named Cynthia Wine wrote: “A visitor to Canada from one of those countries that’s smug about its cuisine told me once that the dish he met most often in roadside diners was brown meat on white bread with gravy. We have the world’s most succulent beef and even the Russians envy our wheat. How did we manage to turn them into the hot beef sandwich?”

There is probably an answer to Wine’s rhetorical question, but fancy food and fine dining has come late to Western Canada. The most exotic dish one could find when I was growing up in the 1950s was sweet and sour chicken balls. The thought still makes me gag. Not that I didn’t love them, because I did. They were part of my childhood, but eventually I grew up to learn what real Chinese food should taste like. And growing up with a mother who truly did not like to cook, but was forced to feed a family regularly does not leave one with much passed-down knowledge about how food really should taste.

If there was a cuisine worse than English cooking, it had to be English food cooked by an Irish woman. But every child has some fond memories of her mother’s cooking — mine was her green apple pie and her bread and butter pudding. The horrors included the time she made split peas with pork hocks. Yum! Green meat!

What saved Mother from much criticism was the happy fact she married a man whose own mother was a worse cook than her. Grandmother had many fine qualities, but cooking wasn’t one of them. She once served corn flakes and milk for dinner.

But the champion of family horror stories was the time Grandfather had invited the minister of Central United Church and his wife for dinner and Grandmother decided to cook a turkey. Unfortunately, she neglected to thaw it out first, so when the plump and browned bird was placed in front of Grandfather for carving, the knife couldn’t quite slice through the still frozen interior. He looked down the table at his wife and said, coolly: “Kate, I believe this is not quite cooked.”

Grandmother didn’t turn a hair. She put it back in the oven and as far as family lore goes, they all sat around the living room for the next three hours. I would presume — because none of them actually imbibed, having been stern Methodists before most of the Presbyterians, the Congregationalists and the Methodists amalgamated to make up the United Church in 1925 — that they passed their time drinking tea, singing hymns or playing bridge while waiting to be fed. I didn’t dare ask if she remembered to take out the bag of gizzards, liver and heart.

NEXT: The last sin in the world.

Written by Catherine Ford

October 19, 2009 at 3:40 pm

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That’s not a typographical error or a spelling error. It’s one of the winners from The Washington Post’s annual Style Invitational contest. Each year, the newspaper asks readers to “take any word from the dictionary, alter it by adding, subtracting or changing one letter, and supplying a new definition.”

“Decafalon” was one of the 10 winners. Here’s the proposed definition of the noun: “The grueling event of getting through the day consuming only things that are good for you.”

That’s somewhat how I feel at the moment, two weeks into the Calgary Herald Health Club challenge. I’ve eaten so much celery I’m growing leaves on my hair. I can’t even get the fun of eating the celery out of a Caesar, because I’m allergic to clams, so Mott’s Clamato juice is out of the question and a Bloody Mary doesn’t feature a celery stick. (Also, if one is allergic to something like that challenging any bartender not to mix up the clamato juice and the tomato juice is asking for trouble.) But I digress — only to deflect the snarky comments that the real reason I was eating celery was because there was liquor involved in the process.

During the week not a drop passes my lips — usually — and while Himself has a giant gin martini (with olives, straight up) and about a half-pound of sharp cheddar or, this week because it was left over from the Thanksgiving weekend family get-together — a pound of hot capicolla — I’ve been drinking diet grapefruit pop. Not quite the same as a J & B and water, but the point here is to lose some weight and get fit, so eschewing liquor for most of the week seems logical.

Okay, for those of you who don’t know why it makes sense not to drink when you’re on a diet, it’s simple: liquor has the unfortunate habit of shutting down inhibitions and caution. A couple of drinks of red wine and the need for chocolate becomes imperative, the two being natural companions.

Liquor itself isn’t a killer if all you’re doing is counting calories — any graduate of Weight Watchers knows that a bottle of beer is worth about 100 calories (the equivalent of a glass of milk) and an ounce and a half of hard liquor is worth 80 calories (a good sized-apple.) But obviously, the nutrition from a glass of milk or an apple will do some good, while liquor calories are all empty, nutritionally speaking.

But that’s not the real danger. It’s the stimulant effect of liquor. (A curious thing for a depressant). It battens down your restraint and heightens your hunger. Not for nothing is an entire class of liquors named appetite enhancers or aperitifs — champagne, preferably Dom Perignon, being my personal favourite. After all, if one is going to drink champagne, why drink the cheap stuff? Notwithstanding, mimosas need only inexpensive bubbly.

My personal “decafalon” is subject to adjustments, in that consuming only stuff that’s good for you is a bore, and almost impossible if one eats out. Notice the word “almost.” There is nothing impossible if you want it bad enough and if it’s within your abilities to get it.

There is also no point in not living as close to normal as possible, regardless of your challenge for change. I know for a fact that I’m not giving up liquor for the rest of my life, so when the occasion warrants it, I have a drink, martyrdom not being my strong suit. Parties, receptions and, especially, eating out and banquets pose the greatest challenge.

In order to stay motivated for this year (and I hope for the rest of my life) I’ve again turned to The Washington Post’s annual contest. Each year the newspaper publishes the winning submissions to its neologism competition — held at the same time as its style contest (see decafalon) in which readers are asked to “supply alternative meanings for common words.”

(Not for me to argue with the editors of the Post, but neologism actually means “a newly coined word or expression.”)

There were 16 winning submissions. Two are worth repeating, if only for their appropriateness for all of us on a journey to self-improvement. Flabbergasted — “appalled over how much weight you have gained.” And, abdicate — “to give up all hope of ever having a flat stomach.” How many sit-ups does one have to do, anyway?

The challenge for busy people and those whose work days means business lunches and a social life that includes dinners and banquets is to make small adjustments in order to stay on a program and not sabotage your efforts.

I’m about to go out to a dinner and reception this evening put on by The Famous Five Foundation. It’s in celebration of the 80th anniversary of the Persons’ Case and the five women who persevered in their quest for women to be recognized as persons, right through to the Privy Council in Britain. Tonight’s dinner will also launch the Enbridge Famous 5 Youth Leadership Award, for young Albertans aged 15 to 245 who have demonstrated a commitment to community activism and the social fabric of the province. I’ll do what I normally do on such occasions. I’ll eat half the meal and certainly have a drink. Or two. The evening is labelled as the Howling Boa Bash, so I’ll be wearing my black feather boa. (How many chances does one have to drag something like that out from the trunk?)

Eating out is a snap if you stay away from places where the so-called good food still packs a caloric wallop. A good rule of thumb? Anything that can be delivered to you in less than 10 minutes is likely not a sensible choice. To the argument that the kids want food from McDonald’s or Burger King (the number 1 and number 2 fast food restaurants on the continent) I ask one question: Who’s in charge here? But if you give in, thereby setting your children on a path of fast, easy and cheap food for life – if not a lifelong battle of the bulge — at least order a salad with the dressing on the side. And throw away the dressing unless it is specifically low-calorie.

One of the distinct advantages of better restaurants (that doesn’t always mean too expensive) is that you can ask for something to be made for you. Never order a Caesar salad unless you also ask for the dressing on the side. Ditto for any other salad. Indeed, having spent a lifetime eating out on a regular basis, I know you can order any dish to your specifications. If your needs can’t be met, order something else or go elsewhere.

Buffets are a particular problem. They encourage food frenzy because, so the argument goes, you’re paying for it and you might as well get your money’s worth. I’ve only seen a true group food frenzy once, and I’ve still not recovered from the stampede to the “free” food. That should have been enough to put me off buffets for the rest of my life.

Every time I am faced with a buffet, I remember my friend Lee Heinemann who weighed maybe 100 pounds soaking wet. She ate like a horse and the year we both lived in London, Ont., she decided to take up bread-making while her then-husband got his MBA. I was one of her testers. She didn’t gain an ounce. I won’t even try to remember how many pounds I packed on scarfing down hot bread and butter — just to test it, of course.

Lee had the buffet situation down cold: Go straight for the expensive dishes — shrimp and the roast beef. By the time she had eaten her weight in shrimp, there was little room left for anything fried, breaded or sauced.

It’s really all about choice, isn’t it?

NEXT: The unfairness of guys on a diet.

Written by Catherine Ford

October 15, 2009 at 2:55 pm

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When the New York Times thumped onto the doorstep this past Sunday, setting the visiting dog off on a paroxysm of woofs, the cook was up to her elbows in turkey. Both hands were wrestling with 32 pounds of plump, headless, uncooked fowl and the stuffing that had to get from bowl into bird.

This year I had the sense to take off the wedding rings and tennis bracelet, having last year “lost” the bracelet inside the stuffing, necessitating a bizarre search through bread, onions, celery, pine nuts, parsley, sage and, of course, rosemary and thyme. While I am sure the bracelet would have survived five hours in a 325-degree oven, I’m equally sure no guest wants his or her dinner to contain the hostess’s jewelry.

What the Sunday Times delivered along with still-more depressing news about the strange and convoluted discussions of American responses to health care reform — responses based on ignorance, ambiguity, greed and anger — was a magazine devoted to food. Appropriate for the day, although the United States is largely unaware there is an earlier Thanksgiving weekend taking place geographically above their heads. The concatenation was purely coincidental.

(As a matter of interest, Martin Frobisher held the very first feast of giving thanks in North America in gratitude for his surviving a search for the Northwest Passage. The celebration in Newfoundland and Labrador in 1578 predates by 43 years the first Pilgrims’ Thanksgiving feast in Plymouth, Massachusetts in 1621. But thanks to the American penchant for believing nothing happens until the United States is involved — see any movie about the Second World War — the Pilgrims get all the glory. )

What Canadians get, thankfully, is a holiday closer to our more-northern harvest season and equally thankfully, farther from Christmas than the fourth Thursday in November.

But none of that was on my mind Sunday as I wrestled with a giant bird that had to be ready — with all the trimmings and accompaniments — for 19 hungry people by 6:30 p.m.

I thought of all the exercises suggested in the Calgary Herald At-Home health challenge that were designed to build up muscles and decided there should be a separate category for cooking. In the words of Charles Dickens from A Christmas Carol: “It was a Turkey! He never could have stood upon his legs, that bird. He would have snapped ‘em short off in a minutes, like sticks of sealing-wax.” Manhandling (should that be woman-handling?) 32 pounds of dead weight from sink to counter to oven to counter to platter to table may not be traditional weight-lifting, but it should suffice for one day’s worth of exercise. And all the bending and stretching must be worth something, too.

The weekend’s festivities of food and wine, of laughter and games, of family and friends and cousins and assorted relatives did not pass without consequences — two pounds on the scale this morning, likely better than I had imagined it would be.

One of the features of the Sunday Times magazine was Rules To Eat By, in which Michael Pollan, author of In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto asked readers to submit their personal dietary do’s and don’ts. The magazine included 20 of them. My favourites? “If you are not hungry enough to eat an apple, then you are not hungry,” submitted by Emma Fogt. “Avoid snack foods with the ‘oh’ sound in their names (like) Doritos, Fritos, Cheetos, Tostitos, Hostess Ho-Hos, etc,” from Donna David. Carrie Czauskas offered: “Don’t eat anything that took more energy to ship than to grow.” Of course living in Calgary that latter suggestion would eliminate from our house most fruits and green vegetables for the bulk of the year.

Why were readers asked for suggestions? Culture, writes Pollan, “the accumulated wisdom of the tribe.” After all, he writes, how did we eat before the experts and the scientists, the nutritionists and governments got into the act? We relied on our mothers, mostly, who relied on their mothers. Which might explain why I feel a meal without potatoes (my mother was Irish) is a meal somehow lacking in an essential ingredient.

As a child, if I told my mother I was hungry, she offered bread and butter, no child’s idea of a decent snack because it contained no hint of peanut butter, cookies, sugar or candy. Curiously enough, the humble combination of bread and butter when mixed with raisins, milk and sugar and baked, resulted in bread pudding, a childhood favourite. Why was such a thrifty dish so favoured? Because Mother made it so rarely, as our father detested it. It would only appear when Dad wasn’t around which accounted for its rarity.

Dad had two favourite desserts, a boiled raisin cake with chocolate icing and a screechingly sweet concoction that nobody but him could stomach which may explain why I have completely forgotten the ingredients for the cake.

But at least the desserts he occasionally craved featured real ingredients. How does one shop when science has given us the dubious pleasures of faux food: chocolate-flavoured syrup, no-fat sour cream, artificial sweeteners? What, for example, is “cheese food?” Combine all of this with fast food ads for super-double-giant burgers with bacon and cheese and restaurant portions big enough to feed an entire family and you have a recipe for obesity or, at least, a triumph of quantity over quality.

When whatever association is in control of such things increased the standard restaurant dinner plate size from 10 inches to 12 in order to accommodate the amount of food people wanted to see as a full meal, of course the result would be a nation of fatties.

But eating out, like eating in, doesn’t mean gorging oneself on the equivalent of two days worth of calories in one meal. “Embrace hunger,” says my svelte friend from Toronto, where the female population clearly wants to pretend they are New Yorker-lite. In the Sunday Times, Nancy Ni offers a Chinese saying: “Eat until you are seven-tenths full and save the other three-tenths for hunger. That way, food always tastes good and you don’t eat too much.”

Personally, I’m siding with Laura Usher, who offers: “I try to eat healthfully, but if there’s a choice between eating ice cream and spending all day obsessing about eating ice cream, I’m going to eat the ice cream!”

Which is why I savoured the Thanksgiving dinner I cooked with love for my family — the turkey and stuffing with cranberry sauce, mashed potatoes, brussels sprouts with chestnuts, sweet potato casserole, and the full red wine with which to toast each other, those who are no longer with us, and the spirit of the day.

As the Allan Sherman doggerel goes:
“Oh I diet all day and I diet all night
It’s enough to drive me bats.
Got no gravy or potatoes
‘Cause the whole refrigerator’s
Full of polyunsaturated fats.
Fare thee well, Metrecal,
And the others of that ilk.
Let the diet start tomorrow,
‘Cause today I’ll drown my sorrow
In a double malted milk.”

NEXT: Eating out and the dreaded buffet

Written by Catherine Ford

October 13, 2009 at 5:17 pm

Posted in Uncategorized


with 5 comments

Apparently there are Birthday Rules. Who knew? The rules are similar to those involved when one eats ice cream standing up (all the calories from sugar and fat fall right through) or breaks a cookie in half before eating (all the calories crumble and fall out.)

As pronounced by Arleen, my friend from high school who now lives in St. Catharine’s, Ont.: “All the calories you consume today do not count. Birthday Rules.” Her e-mail was all in capital letters, the equivalent of shouting, so I know she’s serious.

Good, because lunch was a bite of my husband’s Grandpa burger (who even knew A & W made Grandpa burgers for granddads?), three French fries, a bottle of water and one still-hot-from-the-Cookies-by-George-oven oatmeal and raisin cookie. No, I did not break it in half to reduce the calories. (See Birthday Rules.)

My favourite (guess why) nephew-by-marriage is the man behind Cookies by George. The birthday message he sent with the jumbo tin of assorted cookies said they were for sharing. Yeh, right. Like I’m sharing any of these with anyone or anything other than my deep freeze, where they will wait for the clarion call of my need for a cookie. Okay, so I’ll share with the kids next door because, well, they’re kids.

One of my fondest memories of childhood was going next door to Walter and Jane Campbell’s house where Mrs. Campell always had homemade cookies. (And yes, I called her Mrs. Campbell.) Fifty-five years later, I still remember, so naturally I’m sharing my birthday cookies with the kids next door. Maybe Jack and Sasha will one day have this kind of a wonderful memory, although I’m sure they understand I can’t make these myself. It’s the thought, right?

Another friend sent an e-mail with these birthday wishes: “I hope you get a special, big salad loaded with all kinds of healthy stuff for your birthday lunch. Just think, by next birthday you will be in great shape and feel fantastic.”

Which brings us to the first week of the Calgary Herald At-Home challenge. It has been well-meaning but ill-timed. Not for everyone, just for me.

So let me get the explanations and excuses out of the way first. My personal program started exactly one month ago, when the realization my 65th birthday was in one month — that would be today — and I wasn’t exactly prepared to be called a senior citizen. I doubt any of us are, even when we look in the mirror in the morning. My plan was — and still is — to spend the next year getting the 18-year-old who lives inside me and the 65-year-old on the outside to agree. If I can get fit enough to pretend I’m 45, I’ll be happy.

When the Calgary Herald Health Club started, just as I was forming this plan, I decided it would be a great idea to join in.

One week has passed and my daily food diaries are still blank and my fitness level still undetermined, although the husband and I are still spending Wednesday morning at fitness class. Yesterday’s class with Helen seemed better than usual. I didn’t poop out half way through some of the more fiendish lunges and squats. I even managed — almost — to keep up with what yoga calls a “tabletop” on an exercise ball, with my head on the ball, my feet flat on the mat and my back straight with nothing but air between me and the floor for support. It helps if one thinks of being roasted on a spit over an open fire and trying to stay just above the flames. I’m not sure Helen, who’s all about harmony and peace would approve of that mental image, but if it works, it works. Sometimes, so does thinking that each day in hell must consist of a million squats.

When the program started last week, on October 1, I was packing to go to Edmonton for the University of Alberta alumni weekend, known in younger and more casual circles as Party Time. The husband was going to his 50th year medical school reunion and I was tagging along, being — ahem — much younger than he.

By way of explanation and a nod to the theory of six degrees of separation, the year Ted graduated in medicine — 1959 — was the same year the wife of one of his classmates was my Grade 9 teacher. I remember her vividly for a single reason: She was the first, and is still the only person I know who could do push-ups on her fingertips. Fifty years later, I still can’t do push-ups, fingertips or otherwise.

This, of course, was one of the prerequisites for the at-home fitness assessment. “Count your push-ups,” said the instructions. I doubt whether zero is a number acceptable to the unseen trainers in charge of us at-home participants. The beginner level goes up to eight. The so-called elite level for push-ups by women is more than 50. (My personal guess is that any woman my age who can do more than 50 push-ups is unlikely to need much fitness “training.”)

My favourite is the one that tells me to stand up straight — “erect” was the word used — and then lie back down again. This time the word was “sprawl.” This was to be repeated until one minute had passed. “Count your sprawls.” I am presuming this exercise should not be done after a couple of stiff drinks, the hazard to body and surrounding furniture obvious.

Last weekend did start with a couple of stiff drinks, now that I’ve mentioned it, and went through appetizers, wine, dinner, more wine, more food, some sleep, breakfast, lunch, cocktails, reception — well, you get the idea. It ended with, what else? Food. This time, on the way back to Calgary at the A & W in Red Deer. I know, I know, I could have had a salad and coffee. Instead, I had a Papa burger, fries and milk. And yes, I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Is this a reasonable excuse for not filling in a food journal? No, but it’s my excuse.

And just to make matters more difficult, today’s birthday is followed by Thanksgiving weekend with the Shout Family, more affectionately known as my immediate family. More drinking, more eating, more fun.

And, a little voice in my head says, more excuses? More reasons not to get on the program?

This week, and this week only, I have a simple plan: Moderation. Eat what I want and what I cook for Thanksgiving dinner. (If you cook it, you control it. Sweet potato casserole doesn’t need marshmallows and brown sugar; mashed potatoes don’t need butter and cream; vegetables don’t need oil and sauce.) Cookies are already in the freezer.

So I turn to Oxygen magazine only because my friend Jeanette gave it to me. (Otherwise, trust me, I wouldn’t pick it up. Leafing through this magazine, there is page after page of ads for so-called “fat burners”, weight-loss supplements, protein bars, and a myriad of lose-weight-fast gimmicks, all accompanied with photographs of amazing bodies — none needing to lose an ounce of weight. The inference is that all one has to do is take this powder or drink this potion and you, too, can look like that.)

I persisted to discover real information in the magazine and valuable tips. Jeanette had already helped by highlighting what she though was most important. I quote from the magazine in an article on how to stay on track. External forces aren’t enough; wanting to look good for someone else isn’t enough: “Although thinking externally may have some benefit, intrinsic motivation or exercising either because you find it interesting and enjoyable in itself or have internalized the value of good health, is more likely to keep you going . . .”

The one point Jeanette had underlined? “If you’re doing it for someone else, you need to write yourself a new script, where you set the course for your own success.”

Been there, done that. I just need to get through the weekend.

NEXT: Eating out, eating in and the dreaded buffet

Written by Catherine Ford

October 8, 2009 at 1:49 pm

Posted in Uncategorized


with 4 comments

Would I trade all of Oprah Winfrey’s money, influence and power for her too-public battle with her weight? Not for a moment. Nor would I trade places with Kirstie Alley, the comedic actress whose public weight loss as a spokesperson for Jenny Craig made her the target of the tabloids when she gained back the 75 pounds she lost.

Both women made their efforts a matter of the public record and both gloated when they reached their goal weight. Good for them. At least they did it, and did it loud and proud. So what if they both failed? When did failure become a matter of moral opprobrium?

The last time anyone made a comment about unacceptable public behaviour that made it into the lexicon, it was the 19th century English actress, Mrs. Patrick Campbell, who when posed a question about homosexuality remarked: “Does it really matter what these affectionate people do, so long as they don’t do it in the streets and frighten the horses?”

Would we all were so liberal about public actions.

It’s brave to go public and while just about everything Oprah does is a matter of public curiosity, her weight has made little if any difference to her outstanding career, her status or the love with which her audiences greet her. Maybe it is because she is so public with herself that fans love her without reservation.

Maybe her fans see in Oprah some of themselves and can relate to her more than some vapid, stick-figure celebrity.

Most of us fail at this. That’s why the diet industry flourishes and makes billions of dollars each year on the hopes and dreams of desperate people. Why, though, are we desperate? Who sets the tare weight for women? The fashion industry? The film industry? Men?

If you ask most men what their ideal woman looks like and ignore their comments about boobs and buttocks, you’ll discover they don’t really care. I have a friend who is short and fat and her husband treats her like a goddess. So, of course, she is a goddess. What she sees reflected in his eyes is love, respect and honour. He doesn’t care she doesn’t conform to anyone else’s notion of attractive. All that matters is that she is happy and he loves her.

Good for those women and men who carry around extra pounds and couldn’t care less. As long as they are healthy does it really matter?

Ah, but then we come to ourselves and our own expectations and what we want. Personally, I’m determined to lose 20 pounds in the next year and get fit and healthy trying. I’m doing it for myself because, frankly, my husband couldn’t care less as long as I am healthy and happy.

We have devised a vicious culture of expectations: one that permits other people to decide what is right for you. Newspaper columnist Lynn Crosbie writes this week in the Globe and Mail: “It was reported that the “265-pound” Kirstie Alley checked into a “fat farm.” Alley still looks beautiful; she is funny, and bright. She is somewhat heavy because, as Jack Black says, in School of Rock , ‘I like food! Do you have a problem with that?’ No, we do not. But fat chicks are treated differently: They are pigs who reduce on a farm. They are constantly scrutinized, mocked and tsk-tsk’d over by a lunatic world that has mistaken thinness for virtue. The day I saw a sweaty, 400-pound man on Hell’s Kitchen call a mildly chubby woman a ‘fat cow,’ I understood the rules of this Animal Farm, our culture, all too well.”

George Orwell, whose Animal Farm is only slightly a less dystopic novel than 1984 knew only too well how bullies behave. And how society can pressure people into behaving badly.

As for Oprah, she talks about being 142 pounds for one day in Make The Connection: Ten Steps To a Better Body And a Better Life. Oprah contributes her own story to the book largely written by Bob Greene, who was her trainer.

“I was 142 for one day. The next day I was 145. In two weeks, I was 155,” writes Oprah. One year later, she was 175; two years later, she was 226.

Yet Oprah still finds the determination to do it again.

Naturally thin people don’t get it. They don’t understand how anyone can go to all the work to lose more than 50 pounds and then gain it all back. Trust me, it’s not easy. It requires a great deal of self-delusion to one day wake up 60 pounds heavier. And to do so more than once.

Maybe one of the problems is that one cannot quit eating like one quits smoking. If I could do that, I’d be laughing and thin. If I could rid myself of the food addiction in the same way I rid myself of the cigarette addiction, I wouldn’t be writing this and trying, once more, to lose weight.

My Oprah moment came about 30 years ago. If she was 142 for one day, I managed 137 for maybe five minutes.

I can remember the exact moment when I weighed that. I was 33 years old and playing cribbage with my mother. I laughed so hard I tipped over one of the kitchen chairs (with me in it) cracked the back of my head on the refrigerator door and took that as a sign that I needed a snack. I deserved a treat, especially as I had just won a crib game against my mother and thus needed to celebrate.

I remember that morning, stepping on the scales and being smug about the fact I had lost more than 50 pounds over the previous few months. Not only that, but I’d ditched the really bad live-in boyfriend. Perhaps “ditched” is the wrong word. In order to be shed of him, I had to leave myself, driving from Toronto to Red Deer in three days, leaving behind a job, a house and most of my belongings.

I left Toronto on a Friday at 1 p.m. and pulled into my mother’s driveway in Red Deer at 1 p.m. Monday. All those thousands of kilometers I had put between him and me were for naught when he followed me west. While he knew where every one of my relatives lived, he didn’t know where all their friends lived, so I went into hiding for a week when he tried to find me. One would figure if anyone had a good reason to eat her face off and binge because of stress and emotional turmoil, it would be me. But no. I had in the previous few months — again — lost 50 pounds and I wasn’t going to give anyone, let alone some control freak, the opportunity to sabotage all my hard work.

I could do the sabotaging all by myself. So, like the little red hen, I did. But it took awhile. Meanwhile, thanks to some judicious planning and well-placed letters, I was rid of him finally.

So then I ate? Not quite yet. I found a new job, went to Europe for vacation, moved out of my mother’s house once more and somewhere between one year and the next, all of weight came back. Poof! Like magic!

Oprah writes on her Web site that she believed the last time she lost weight, she thought she was finished. “I was done. I’d conquered it. I was so sure, I was even cocky. I had the nerve to say to friends who were struggling, ‘All you have to do is work out harder and eat less.’ ”

That was in 2006. Oprah gained 40 pounds in three years. “I’m mad at myself,” she writes. “I’m embarrassed. I can’t believe that after all these years, all the things I know how to do, I’m still talking about my weight. . . . How did I let this happen again?”

“So now everybody’s asking about my new plan to take the weight off. And here’s what I’ve come to: My focus is no longer on the weight. . . .

“My goal isn’t to be thin. My goal is for my body to be the weight it can hold—to be strong and healthy and fit, to be itself.”

NEXT: Happy Birthday and how is the birthday girl doing so far?

Written by Catherine Ford

October 6, 2009 at 6:17 pm

Posted in Uncategorized