Of course, being a dedicated eater, and a woman, I’ve always had to reckon with the risk of weight gain, to balance sensual indulgence with sensible moderation.
I was a skinny kid, a happy glutton who ran around outside for hours a day. That all changed when I left home for the first time. At 16, a homesick teenager, I glutted myself on homemade oily nutty granola with whole milk, whole-wheat toast thickly paved with cream cheese and strawberry jam, meatball subs on long, soft white rolls dripping with meat juice, entire big bags of Doritoes, and calzones, those soft bricks of dough encasing melted, oozing white cheese. And those were just my after-school snacks. (As meager compensation, I took to drinking Tab, the ubiquitous diet soda of the era, but of course it didn’t help.) Soon, not surprisingly, I was not fitting into my jeans anymore. Being 16, I squeezed myself in anyway and hoped for the best and looked marshmallow-like.
Back home again during the summers, the weight went away as I reverted to my family’s sensible habits of small portions and a lot of exercise. It wasn’t rocket science, I found out.
At 18, living in France during the year after high school, homesick again, I found plenty of solace in food. Frenchwomen may never get fat, but I haven’t got a drop of French blood that I know of. I was an au pair girl in the countryside in the Allier district; being around kids, especially 4 little boys who didn’t finish their food, it was very easy to overeat to keep from throwing out their leavings. Nursery food is both comforting and fattening, and French nursery food is irresistible: buttery scrambled eggs with brioche; tartines made of baguette and Nutella, that cracklike chocolate-hazelnut goo; 4 platefuls at a time of uneaten roast chicken with potatoes au gratin — I was the family dishwasher; instead of scraping it all into la poubelle, it seemed so much more responsible to eat it. Soon, I was husky again.
In college and graduate school, I didn’t eat much. During my late 20s and 30s, I stayed very thin, although had a few bouts with weight gain. These happened when I was depressed, playing a lot of computer word games (and by a lot, I mean obsessively: during my Boggle addiction, I saw many dawns; Scrabble, the next addiction, was more of a daytime thing, but whole blocks of hours went by without my budging), and feeling stuck in some way. New York City offers plenty of comforting food, on every street corner, in every deli, or – if you don’t want to leave the house, as I often didn’t – there’s always Freshdirect.
The year I turned 40, when I was training for the New York City marathon and running up to 21 miles a day, I paradoxically, unfairly started gaining a lot of weight. I felt like I had a 10-pound water balloon around my torso and hips. I ran the marathon wearing this water balloon. Of course, I was carbo-loading during training because I thought you were supposed to eat mounds of bread and pasta, along with soy sauce for sodium intake.
It turned out, I discovered a year later, thanks to a naturopath, that I was gluten intolerant, and one of the side effects of gluten allergy is bloat. It was, literally, a water balloon. I went off gluten completely, and it magically melted away. And that, I figured, was the end of my battle with weight gain.
Then I turned 47. This was almost 3 years ago. My mother, who is always a reliable guide to the mysteries of getting older, had warned me about this. That year, after a lifetime of having a flat stomach, about which I had always felt annoyingly smug, I got my comeuppance: suddenly I had a poofy belly and a little muffin top over the waistband of my tight jeans. It just happened, as if my body had been programmed for it. I hadn’t changed my eating or exercise habits.
As problems go, this is a minor one. But I had recently fallen in love with Brendan, who is almost 20 years younger than I am. If there was ever a time when I wanted to look as young and cute and trim as possible, it was now, goddamn it. But when I tried eating less and exercising more, I lost weight, but not the poof. It wouldn’t budge.
As my late 40s went on, I left New York and moved up to New England with Brendan. We are both passionate cooks and eaters. He is 6 feet tall and thin and just turned 30, and I am 5’ 7” and turn 50 in August: the math is simple. He can eat more than I can: I’ve finally figured it out.
But for a while there, until a couple of months ago, I pretended otherwise. It made it easier that Brendan would say, “But I love you like this, you look so much better now than when I first met you, you were so scrawny then. Eat, eat. I adore you.” What woman could resist that? Not me.
But this winter, I came back from a three-day trip to New Orleans and recognized that I had hit an all-time high of weight gain. It’s a number so alarming, I can’t even say here what it was, but trust me: it was cause for concern, as was my stomach, which was suddenly not adorably poofy, it was a gut.
Gradually, since then, I’ve begun to revert to my old lifelong habits, learned from my mother and Michael Pollan: Eat well. Not too much. And not too many carbohydrates. Thank God, I’ve been losing weight, and I’m starting to feel like myself again. But the roll is here to stay. I have almost managed to embrace it.
Weight Loss Lunch
In a big bowl, mix 2 cups fresh mesclun, 2 ribs chopped celery, 1 grated carrot, and 1 sheet of chopped nori (sushi seaweed). Toss lightly with a dressing of sesame oil and rice vinegar. Wave a log of goat cheese over it so a few crumbs tumble in. Savor them as you eat the entire salad. Follow with 3 big cups of nettle tea, which tastes like mulchy bogwater but has magical diuretic properties.