About five months ago I joined Weight Watchers with two of my girlfriends. It takes us a while to find a compatible meeting but we've settled in now with a group of Sunday morning regulars moderated by a sardonic woman a few years our senior. She's been at the gig so long that she trains other lecturers and doesn't necessarily ascribe to the party line. The home office sends out a weekly topic and guidelines for discussion. Our current leader may brush on the proscribed theme but mainly she free styles and it is a smart group and a number of salient subjects usually arise. I've been at this weight loss game for as long as I can remember and it surprises me when there's a fresh revelation or insight.
We arrive for a meeting with one of the less experienced leaders and there is a post-it note on each chair. We were divided into groups and instructed to brainstorm about social activities that don't involve food. My African American girlfriend rolls her eyes and I mutter, “this is bullshit,” a complete cultural anathema for either of us. Why would you even bother hosting or attending a social event without food? Years ago I attended an early afternoon birthday party for one of the kid's classmates at the Jewish Community Center Nursery School. While many non-swarthy types buy into the advantages of Jewish pre-school education (potty training is not requisite for admission) this family was waspy to Nordic proportions. There was punch and white wine and baby carrots and I huddled with a group of my coreligionists on the patio noting that it was about time for the host to get that barbecue firing. The Costco cake appeared and the party bags were distributed and after this bum's rush a few of us repaired to a coffee shop to marvel, over patty melts, at disparate cultural social mores.
After losing about twenty pounds in around three months I've hit a long plateau. Even when I'm fastidious about what I eat and walk the hills for an hour each morning I seldom lose more half a pound in a week. Weight Watchers works on a point system that's designed just like a financial budget. There are weekly bonus points in addition to the daily allotment plus extra points for activity. But the few weeks that I've actually availed myself of the extras I've gained weight. I don't mind the long slog. There are absolutely no forbidden foods but I'm getting a real education in portion control. This feels different than my usual lifelong state of either being “on a diet” or “not on a diet” and the psyche of “not on a diet” was conditioned by a lifetime of deprivation and long fasts. I have also developed a taste for whole grain pasta and breadstuffs so along with getting a grip with regard to serving sizes there are some healthful changes of habit. I feel that there's a good likelihood that I'll reach my goal and for the first time in my life I think I have a realistic notion of what it will take to maintain it. I'm in no hurry. My weekly meetings are followed by breakfast with the girls. Perhaps it attests to the staggering dullness of my life, but Sunday morning Weight Watchers is the high point of my week. Which brings me to the Festival of Fried Foods.
The big holidays on Fulton Avenue were Thanksgiving and Christmas and I loved the smell of sage and pie spice. I held the turkey (always a hen, never frozen) in my arms and waltzed around the kitchen. The bird was basted with real butter every twenty minutes. The cranberries were fresh and the mashed potatoes oozed butter and warm heavy cream. This is one of my least complicated memories of my mother's love.
Latkes and particularly homemade donuts don't figure prominently in my catalog of childhood food memories but I've made up for lost time. The family expects, and I know it is fully my own damn fault for starting the tradition, a minimum of two meals with latkes and donuts on the menu during the 8 nights of observance. I am aproned at the stove, testing the temperature of the oil. I throw in a few shreds of potato and there is a sizzle and the foreboding of how the house is going to stink for a week. I make applesauce with a bit of agave to replace brown sugar and it tastes fine. I will not stoop so low as to purchase non-fat sour cream and go for the real stuff. This meal requires that I man the stove until the last latke is fried and the family is told that they should go ahead and start eating, as I undoubtedly will catch up.
I apologize in advance to faithful readers who will groan at the repetition of this self aggrandizing anecdote. My firstborn returned from a playdate with another nursery school chum, and full of wonder, asked me if I knew that you could get soup in a can. The kids do get sick of my cooking, as I do myself. The truth though is what they get from my kitchen, given their budgets, might be a mite better than the grub they scrounge up elsewhere. Several weeks ago, too lazy to cook, I set an array of leftovers on the table with instructions for the family to fill and nuke their own plates. There are about eight small containers of stuff I'd made and a Styrofoam box containing a very bland and dry “chicken fajitas light” leftover from a restaurant meal. Spuds, bored by Mom's palette, opts for the doggie bag.
The Chanukah meal makes them all forget how tired they are in they are of my weeknight dinners. The three of them polish off a dozen latkes and then a dozen donuts and they are unstinting in their praise of the meal. I fail so much with all of them given our complicated relationships, baggage, ego. We misread signals or ignore them all together. It was mostly just me and Mom growing up and that was fraught enough but we are four four people living in one house together and are often conflicted by personal needs vs. the good of the family unit. The clearest and purest memories I have of Mom's love hark back to holiday meals. She was at her most effective and at her happiest. I flip the latkes in the hot oil and, with no tinge of the relief I felt when she died and I was no longer burdened by the ravages of Alzheimer’s, I miss her. I watch my own family eat and I hope that for the rest of their lives that smell of Hanukah foods frying will evoke, purely and without complication, Mom's love.