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Battle of the Bulge

The David after a one month Italian vacation

My mom was very skinny. My dad was not. My DNA has been in a pitched battle between these two extremes my whole life. When I was young, Mom’s skinny DNA carried the day, but as I’ve grown older Dad’s chubby nucleotides have gotten a second wind and streaked into the lead.

As a boy, I was skin and bones. I could stand sideways, stick out my tongue, and you’d have thought you were looking at a zipper. Even in my teens I could have slipped through a hole in my pants and choked myself to death.

A more normal body type arrived early in my college days at William and Mary. As a freshman I worked for Crotty Brothers, the catering company with the food services contract for the college. On my meal shifts it was all you could eat, and I fully embraced that opportunity. Beginning with my first breakfast, I went to the steam table to load up my plate but suddenly heard a direct order from “Brown” the shift supervisor to “come to the kitchen”. When I walked in, I saw thick bacon, made to order fried eggs, buttered toast, and something the Surry County fellows called “fat back”, sizzling on the griddle. On the stove, a big pot of grits was bubbling, and fresh hot coffee was in the pot. Brown handed me a plate and said, “THIS is our breakfast”. Nothing like 1,100 calories to start the day.

Apart from the faux shrimp creole, all the grub we served was pretty good, and I ate like I’d never eaten before. And that was even before my donut-making career started sophomore year. It was a few more dollars per week, featured a Pillsbury training program, and I’d be my own boss. There was only one small drawback that limited the applicant pool; the 5:00 am starting time.

On the first morning of my new life as the Pillsbury Doughboy, my alarm went off at 4:30 am followed closely by the laughter of my roommate who thought watching me stumble around in the dark was high quality free entertainment. I had gotten up early in my life to go fishing, but this was the first time I could attest to the fact that 4:30 was even ON an alarm clock. In the cold darkness I walked across the street to the Commons building, put on my snow-white jacket in the locker room, unlocked the bakery, mixed the batter, filled the huge stainless bowls, cranked up the paddles, and dropped some new lard into the donut frier. I was on my way.

Thirty dozen donuts was the order that first morning and at every step in the process, I heard the voice of my Pillsbury salesman-coach. One rather odd warning that he had given me was this:

If you are cooking at home for your family and you get a little food on your fingers, it’s probably ok to lick them off if you follow up with a good hand washing. But trust me, while

donut batter is delicious, you are not going to want to consume it. And your customers will

thank you to keep your fingers out of your mouth at any point in the process.

Ok, got it. Always wear a baker’s towel over your shoulder or in your apron pocket and wipe your fingers when the inevitable glop of batter intrudes. Pretty straight forward.

The problem comes when the clock is ticking towards the delivery deadline, the batter bowls are backing up, the funnel is not dropping the raw batter into the oil in a consistent pattern, and your fingers keep filling up with delicious chocolate dough. A little sweet taste every now and then seems a small reward for this Sorcerer's Apprentice nightmare that you’re experiencing. I would wipe my fingers occasionally, and I did wash my hands multiple times during the three-hour shift. However, I did lick my fingers once, twice, oh, maybe thirty times during the morning.

Towards the end of the shift, as I was congratulating myself for the full baker’s racks of somewhat perfect donuts, I noticed an unusual pressure in my stomach. I tried to ignore it, but as I was walking back to the Fraternity House, I began to feel unwell. When I arrived at my room, I was beginning to get the sensation that I had swallowed a bowling ball. You see, my salesman-trainer had given me the warning, but not the chemistry of unbaked dough going into your mouth, down your throat and nestling into a nice dark 98.6-degree oven, better known as your stomach. You lick it a little at a time, but when joined together it creates a golf ball-sized mass, which rises to tennis ball circumference, and get the idea.

I recovered, but on my next shift, I regarded any foreign matter on my hands as though I was working in a waste treatment plant and not a bakery. Experience is a hard teacher.

Suffice it to stay that while I stayed away from the raw materials in the donut shop, I performed frequent taste tests to ensure the quality of my finished product. I also felt the need to compare them to similar bake wares in Williamsburg, Tidewater Virginia, and the beach. Research and quality control is a necessity in all fields. Twenty pounds later, I had a new body at graduation. Hello World, Here I Come.

While my dad’s DNA had not yet broken into the lead, my ability to gain weight was confirmed. Twenty pounds sounds like a lot, but when you are 6 feet tall and started out at 155, 175 is a light normal, 40 long.

This is the point in my presentation that I should offer the warning and public service announcement concerning fat-shaming in our society. My life-long battle with weight is about health and not looks or body shape. I have had blood pressure and heart issues in my life and both a father and grandmother who had adult-onset diabetes traced to obesity. I recognize that there are some people whose DNA has miraculously separated weight from health. In my family that is not the case.

I heard fat shaming in my household from an early age. Dad handled his adult battle with weight through “projection” or attributing his own unhealthy eating habits to others. He was a font of one-liners and was a real contrast to my mom’s empathetic world view. If she saw someone morbidly obese, she would always attribute it to some “condition”. Dad would counter in his best Archie Bunker impersonation, “Condition? I’ll tell you their condition, Fork in Mouth Disease.”

I understand now that we are all different. Let me say that again. We are all different. Some don’t need to lose weight. Some want to lose weight and can’t. Some have stopped trying. Some have let it affect their self-esteem. Some have embraced their body shape as individual as their laugh, their smile, and their fingerprint. Some of us can eat anything and not gain a pound. Some of us gain weight when a bread truck drives by. We need to cut each other some slack. We need to be empathetic to both the goals and realities of our fellow travelers.

Yes, we also need to educate our kids and give adults an occasional remedial course in healthy eating. If you don’t know the facts, it is hard to make informed choices. And if your zip code puts you in an urban food desert getting the right nutrition is a challenge. No food store. No car. It’s a long exhausting bus ride with toddlers to buy groceries and if you don’t have the cash flow to “stock up” it becomes an all too frequent nightmare. Is it any wonder that the neighborhood McDonald’s Dollar Menu is the poor nutrition safety net for many families?

And there is the tragic world of eating disorders which I know that I don’t know enough about even to make a comment. Just this. I do know there is help out there and encourage you to intervene with those you love and take advantage of professional resources.

As I was writing this blog it occurred to me that the sad truth is that I never saw my dad overeat. At big holiday feasts he would join the throng and go back for seconds, but the rest of the year he was a one plate, average portions person. His downfall were sweets and I have inherited that same gene that turns donuts into hips, wine into shrinking belts, and beer into butts.

As you’ll recall, my dad also loved trains. When the gents from Boulted Bread here in Raleigh opened their heavenly little donut shop I thought of my dad. The location for Bright Spot is right on the railroad tracks at the end of Carson Street in our neighborhood. You can sit outside, dine on donuts and coffee, and smell the brake dust, diesel exhaust, and bakery shop in a cacophony for the senses. I think of Dad every time I go. Donuts and trains. Heaven.

The timing for this blog is because I have been thinking about weight lately. As my readers know, Hayden and I have enjoyed a year of travel celebrating our 50th wedding anniversary. Wales, Eastern Europe, Florence, Southern Italy, and Portugal have been our ports of call.

One of the times we let go of our healthy habits is on vacation. When your vacations are back-to-back-to-back, you can’t even remember what the hell those healthy habits were. They have been smothered in a smorgasbord of beef pies, goulash, langos, pasta, mozzarella, croissant chocolat, gelato, beer, wine, Ginja, and more wine. If it were all at once, you’d call it a gluttonous orgy. Spread over days and weeks, while more civilized, it is a clear and present danger to your longevity on the planet.

You tell yourself lies like, “yes, but look at all of the walking we are doing.” 14,000 steps today, 17,000 steps yesterday. Aren’t we wonderful? Then you realize two things. First, many of those steps were taken to get from one food trough to another. And secondly, if you do the calorie math, you’d have to walk to Montana and back just to make up for the breakfast buffet. Vacation Self-Delusion. It’s a thing.

One thing I did not see in our Viking Cruise cabin, or in any of the hotel rooms we visited. A bathroom scale. There is good reason for that. The travel industry does not want you to speed dial Jenny Craig for an emergency intervention right in the middle of your vacation. They want you to travel home still believing the steps = weight equilibrium mythology. They want to be a happy memory just before you step onto YOUR bathroom scale and get the new digital message, “One at a Time Please”.

Well, I must go now and check-in with my NOOM counselor, who yes, I know is a computer. If I hadn’t taken all those vacations, I could afford a personal trainer. But yes, had I not taken all those vacations, I wouldn’t need one. There’s that.

Bon appetit.


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