Mashed Potatoes Excerpt

Mashed Potatoes from Good Enough To Eat

The first conscious memory I have of food being significant was the Thanksgiving after Dad died. I was four. We gathered at my grandparents’ house, made all the right noises; there was football on the television and a fire in the fireplace. But no one seemed to really be there. My mom was still nursing Gillian, and spent most of the day off in the guest bedroom with her. And the food was awful. Overcooked, underseasoned. I remember thinking that Daddy would have hated it. He loved to eat. It’s what killed him. Well, sort of. The police found a half-eaten Big Mac in his lap after the accident. They assumed that he was distracted by eating when he ran the red light and into the truck. I remember looking at my family and feeling like Daddy would be so mad at us for not having a good time, for not having a good meal. And halfway through dinner my grandmother said, “Oh my god, I forgot the mashed potatoes. They were Abraham’s favorite. How could I forget!” And then she ran off crying. And I thought, I’d better learn how to make mashed potatoes quickly or the family would completely disintegrate.

“Okay, Mel, let’s start with something good,” Carey says. “What happened this week that was really great?”

I have to think about this for a moment. “Well, the store showed a small profit this week. . . .”

“Wow, that’s like three weeks in a row, right?”

“Yeah. Not anything huge, but my accountant says that all we need is a trend. If I can do three more consecutive weeks in the black, we should be able to project the rest of the year’s income. You know, since this is the slow season.”

“Why slow?” Carey asks.

“Well, it’s February. The New Year’s resolutions to eat healthy and exercise have worn off, it’s four degrees below zero, and everyone wants comfort food.Chicagoin February is no time to run a healthy take-out establishment. No one wants to get out of their cars to pick up a decent good-for-you meal, they want stick-to-your-ribs fare and they want it delivered.” I’m babbling.

“Well, then, I’m even more proud of you that you’re doing so well in such a tough time.” Carey is unflaggingly supportive. She’s so much more than a nutritional counselor; she is like my life guru, friend, and therapist all rolled into one bundle of positive energy, and I’d never have gotten through the last three months without her. “But I’d like to hear about something good for you personally, not related to the business. Did you have anything good this week?”

“Well.” I take a deep breath. “I threw out my bed. I just put it out in the alley, along with all the pillows and bedding, and went and bought a new one.”

“Well, that sounds like fun! A little shopping spree for your new place, right?”

“Yeah. I mean, when I moved out it seemed logical to take the bed, since Andrew was staying at Charlene’s.” I hate having to say their names out loud. “But, I don’t know, it just felt like . . .”

“Bad ex-husband juju in the bedroom.”

“Yeah. Exactly. I got home from the store, exhausted, went to go collapse, and couldn’t bring myself to get in the bed. It was like his fucking ghost was in the fibers or something. And I know that he said he never brought her there, I mean they never did it in our bed, but still. I slept on the couch. In the morning I remembered that the nice woman who did all my window treatments had given me her husband’s card. He’s over at American Mattress on Clybourn, and she said that he would hook me up if I ever needed a bed, so I just went over there and picked out the tallest, biggest, squishiest, most indulgent bed they had. And then went to Bed Bath and Beyond to fit it out with down pillows and eight-hundred-thread-count sheets.”

“That’s awesome!”

“It was ridiculous. And I couldn’t really afford it, but I felt like I couldn’t afford not to either. Wanna know the weird thing? The bed is named Waking Hours. And at first, I wasn’t really sure why Serta would name a bed that, since the point of a bed is supposed to be sleeping hours. Except that after the first night, I wanted to spend all my waking hours in it too!”

“And how has the sleeping been since?”

“Better. Much better. But I’m dreaming about cakes again.”

Never fails. Stress or sadness, my dream life is all about food. When I decided to lose the weight two years ago, I left the law and went to culinary school, and then got a degree in holistic nutrition. That’s where I met Carey. She was one of my teachers in the nutrition program. My store, Dining by Design, is a healthy gourmet take-out café, amazing food that is amazingly good for you.

But no matter how much I feel in control of my relationship with food, my subconscious craves the habits of my former life. The days when Andrew and I would eat spaghetti carbonara as a midnight snack after sex, when there were always cookies in the cookie jar and a cake under the glass dome in the kitchen. The days when food was celebration and joy and reason for living and cure-all. A substitute for two dead parents and a little sister who lives inLondonand rarely calls. A replacement for the children I never got around to having, and now don’t have the energy, money, or husband to make feasible. A way to patch the holes created by a soulless job. A way to fill up that empty pit of hunger that seemed never satisfied.

“And how do you feel about these dreams?” Carey asks. “Are they still about denial, or are you getting to eat the cakes?”

Carey has been with me through everything, the hardest-to-lose last twenty-five pounds, the purchase and opening of the store, the surprising end of my marriage. She knows my dreams almost as well as I do.

“I don’t get to eat the cake. I’m just in the room with the buffet, and the cakes are everywhere, and I’m loading up plates with every possible flavor, and putting them aside to take home, to eat in secret, but then there are people and I have to mingle, and then I can’t find the plates I put aside. It’s extraordinarily pathetic.”

“Not pathetic. Natural. You’re feeling deprived, physically and emotionally. It’s February inChicago, and your desire is for comfort food. And you’re working very hard and going home to a place you haven’t fully embraced as home yet. And you are probably a little lonely . . .”

“And horny.” If we’re going to be honest about it.

Carey laughs. “Of course, and horny. Will you do something for me?”

“You know I will.”

“Get your butt over to Sweet Mandy B’s tomorrow. Buy every flavor of their mini cupcakes that appeals to you. Go home, pour a glass of champagne, light a candle, and eat every one, slowly. Lick the crumbs off the plate; savor the different flavor combinations, the texture of the frosting. Eat until you are full, and then stop and throw the rest away. We have talked about this before; sometimes you have to eat what you crave purposefully so that you don’t fall into a binge of fog-eating.”

“I know. And I know I’m in a dangerous spot. But you’re right, I do need to address the cake craving soon or I’m going to jump off the wagon and land in a vat of frosting and eat my way out.”

It doesn’t matter how much I know about this process, how much I am able to counsel others, being a compulsive overeater is no different from being an alcoholic or drug addict. The only difference is that you can avoid drugs and alcohol completely and you have to have a relationship with food every day for the rest of your life. It’s actually the hardest addiction to live with. If you were an alcoholic and someone said to you that you were required to have a single drink three to five times a day every day, but were not supposed to ever drink to excess, or a drug addict who was required to take just one pill several times a day every day, but you’re not supposed to ever take more than that . . . no one would ever make it through rehab.

“You’re doing great,” Carey says. “I’ll send you an e-mail about our major stuff from today. Keep up the good work, and don’t forget to call or e-mail me if you have any questions.”

“Thanks, honey.”

“Thank you! Great session today. I’ll talk to you in a couple of weeks.”

“Okay, Carey. Talk to you later.”

I hang up the phone and stretch my arms above my head. I head to the bathroom, where I throw my thick, straight chestnut hair into a ponytail to get it out of my way. I wash my face carefully, my skin being my one vanity, and slide a lightly tinted moisturizer on, surprised as I am every day to find that I own cheekbones, and have only one chin. A coat of mascara on my lashes, making my slightly close-set gold-flecked hazel eyes look bigger. This is as cute as I intend to get today. I check my watch. Eleven a.m. A long day stretches ahead of me. I know I should love Mondays, my one day off, but they always scare me a little bit. Especially since Andrew left me on a Monday. I always wake up feeling like something bad is going to happen, like aVietnamflashback. Tuesday through Sunday I’m up at five for a forty-five-minute workout, and am in the store by six thirty. By the time I open the doors at eleven, Kai and I have cooked in a frenetic burst of energy, and the cases are full of delectables.

Half Japanese, half African American, and only twenty-two years old, Kai was the star of our graduating class from culinary school. He has better knife skills than anyone I have ever seen, and a cutting wit to match. And along with Carey has kept me sane and functioning these past weeks. Not only did he come sit with me that horrible day, which he refers to as our Abominable Snow Day, but he also essentially did all the heavy lifting at the store for the first week while I walked around in a numb haze, burning things and giving people the wrong items. At the end of that week he came over after work, made me pack a bag, and forced me to move in with him and his boyfriend, Phil, a successful trader. Phil pays the bills, but is out of the house from about five in the morning till about three in the afternoon, which was why Kai could afford to take the job with me for essentially minimum wage, since it is only six hours a day, and only four days a week. On Tuesdays and Saturdays I have an extern from the culinary institute: every other month a new fresh-faced budding chef to train, currently a slightly dim thirty-year-old former dental assistant named Ashley who thought cooking would be more fun than poking around people’s mouths all day, and forgot to find out if she had any real passion for food.

In the afternoons and on Sundays I have Delia, who lives in the women’s shelter up the block. It’s part of a job-training program they started with the local business owners. Delia escaped her abusive husband inColumbus, and a sort of Underground Railroad for battered women moved her toChicagofor her own safety. New in town, with no contacts, she has been living in the shelter for the past nine months. When she started taking over in their kitchen, the shelter volunteers recognized her love of cooking, and approached me about the program. I pay her minimum wage on weekdays and time and a half for the Sunday hours. She’s a homegrown soul-food goddess who learned at her grandmother’s knee, and it’s been a struggle to hamper her desire to cook things in bacon fat, but she works like a dog and is a fast learner, and reluctantly admits that the food tastes good, even if she thinks the whole idea of cooking healthy is a little silly. “Sisterfriend,” she says to me at least once a day “at my house, it is going to be fried chicken like the good lord intended. None of this oven-baked-skinless nonsense.”

All week long there is work to do from sunup till way past sundown, and lovely people to help. There are regular customers to catch up with, and new customers to convert, and bills to pay, and product to order, and precise cleaning to do to keep within sanitation regulations. Occasionally on Wednesday nights there are cooking classes to teach, and on Friday nights there are special events. The other nights there are new recipes to test and perfect.

But Mondays. Mondays are long. Do the laundry. Change the sheets on the dream bed. Clean the condo that never gets very dirty since I’m at the store six days a week for sixteen hours a day. Go to the grocery store and make sure that the fridge is filled with washed and cut-up veggies, fresh fruit, yogurts, and cottage cheese and easy makings for salads and healthy snacks. Try not to think about what Andrew and Charlene might be doing. What sort of plans they are making, if they are talking about me, wondering if they have spent these last three months in a haze of sex and food and happiness while I have uprooted my entire life. Or rather, while they have uprooted it.

When Andrew finally confessed that it was Charlene he had fallen in love with, Charlene he had been sleeping with, it doubled the betrayal, made the humiliation exponentially worse. Charlene is the managing partner at the law firm where I worked in my former life as a medical malpractice attorney. The life where I made a substantial six-figure income, was married to the man I thought was my soul mate, and lived in a gorgeous brick house in Lincoln Park that was built in 1872, right after the Great Chicago Fire. The life where I leased a new BMW every two years, put fabulous designer shoes on my feet, and ate whatever my 289-pound self desired. The life where I had ridiculous amounts of energetic sex with a man who reveled in every soft curve of my ample frame.

Charlene was more than my boss; she was a friend. At about 275 pounds herself, she was my partner in crime, quick with a midday candy bar or cookie, the first to suggest an order of onion rings to accompany the after-work martinis. The one who celebrated every one of our wins and commiserated about our losses by taking us to lunch somewhere decadent, where we would order half the menu on the firm’s generous expense account.

But when I decided to take control of my eating, to try to reverse the diabetes I had acquired, to ease the pain in my joints, to prevent further health issues and hopefully ward off a heart attack, Charlene pulled away from me. And when I left the firm to go to culinary school, she essentially dropped off the face of my earth. I tried to maintain the friendship, never preaching about my program or even suggesting she make changes herself, knowing firsthand that there is nothing more irritating than someone currently successfully managing her weight trying to get a fat person to drink whatever Kool-Aid is the flavor of the day.

I even tried to get together with her at nonmeal times so that she never had to listen to me order something healthy and feel pressure to do so herself. Because you know what sucks? Sitting across from little Miss Egg White Omelet with Tomato Slices Instead of Potatoes, when what you want is a stack of pancakes dripping with butter and syrup and a side of sausage. If you order what you want, you feel judged, and if you order something healthy, you feel like a phony, not to mention disappointed. I suggested spa dates instead, afternoon shopping, theater matinees. She found a million excuses to avoid me, and eventually I stopped trying.

You’d have thought that as I started to shrink, Andrew’s ardor would have increased. After all, while there was less and less of me to love, what was there was more and more strong and flexible. We could have managed positions that would have been impossible before, but the smaller I got, the less interest Andrew had in sex, and what had been a three- or four-night-a-week habit dwindled first to once a week, then every other week, then once a month. By the end, it had been so rare I stopped keeping track. He supported me through culinary school, helped me buy and open the store, and then he left.

It was a month after he left me, at the final walk-through when we sold our house, that I found out it was Charlene he had been sleeping with for nearly two years. He left his phone on the counter, and when it rang, I saw it was her on the caller ID, and everything fell into place.

“CHARLENE?” I had screamed. “You’ve been fucking Charlene?!?”

“Lower your voice, the real estate brokers are right upstairs.”

“I don’t care if the goddamned Queen of goddamnedEnglandis upstairs. It’s Charlene, isn’t it?”

Andrew sighed, as if it were very inconvenient to have to deal with me. “Yes, all right? Is that what you need to hear? Yes. I’m in love with Charlene, I’m moving in with her. Please don’t be a drama queen about this.”

“I’m the drama queen? You’re the one behaving like you’re starring in some afternoon soap opera. Really, Andrew, you couldn’t have gone more cliché if you tried. It’s pathetic.”

“I had really hoped we could be friends, Mel, after all this time, but you’re making it very hard.”

That was when I realized fully that I hated him. That I hated who he was and what he had done to me and what he had turned me into, some shrill ex-wife berating him in public, embarrassing herself more than him. I would not let him turn me into the worst version of myself.

“Andrew, I don’t think I want to be friends. In fact, I’m pretty sure that if I met you today at a party I’d not want to know you.”

“Have it your way.”

“Don’t you worry. I intend to.”

I’m not the only woman to lose her man, and certainly not the only one to lose him to someone she thought was a good friend. But I do believe I’m the only woman I’ve ever heard of who got thin, and then had her husband leave her for a big girl. If it wasn’t so humiliating and hurtful, it would be almost funny.

So now, I focus on my new life. The life where I make barely enough to keep my head above water. The life where I’m divorced from the man I thought was my soul mate, who turned out to just be a lying, cheating piece of shit with a serious fat-girl fetish. The life where I live in a little two-bedroom condo in Ravenswood Manor, a quarter the size of my old house, but all I could afford to buy outright with my settlement from the sale of the Lincoln Park house, since with the cost of the business, I couldn’t afford to carry a mortgage as well. The life where I drive a Honda, wear Crocs instead of Jimmy Choos, and eat the way a normal person is supposed to, while trying every day to quiet the demons in my head that crave butter and cream and sugar. The life where I am diabetes-free, fit, and strong, with a healthy heart and a prognosis of a long life, and every day hoping that I’m getting closer to believing it can also be a happy one.

I look around me, at the haven I’ve tried to create for myself. When I bought the condo, I’d done it fast, because I’d needed a place to be, and I couldn’t stay at Phil and Kai’s forever with my belongings languishing in storage. Andrew and I, being lawyers, knew exactly how to get around the legal issue of separation, signed affidavits that we had been living separate lives under the same roof, which unbeknownst to me, we had, and got the Chicago version of a quickie divorce the same week we sold our house. My broker luckily found out about the condo before it was listed, and I made a full-price cash offer. We closed within two weeks, and I moved in right away.

I purposefully attempted to make it a sacred, healing space. I decorated in shades of dove gray, silver, and ivory, with touches of robin’s egg blue. I picked soft textures and natural elements: mohair on the down-filled sofa, chunky tables of waxed driftwood. I built on my collection of bird’s-nest-themed art, finding prints and small sculptures to scatter around, focusing on the symbolism. The work that goes into the creation of a simple and functional place of safety and comfort. The life-affirming message of making a nest. The life that might happen within.

I get off the couch and stretch, the warm light coming through the tall windows reflected in the wall of muted silver-leaf, a major splurge requiring two artisans to work for three days to painstakingly apply the six-by-six squares of delicate leaf and then burnish and seal the wall with a darkening agent, so that the whole thing glows like moonlight under a gossamer pewter veil.

I head to the kitchen, which had been the thing I fell in love with the first time I saw it, a bright space with stainless-steel appliances, treated concrete counters, white subway tiles on the walls and a subtle blue floor. It’s a third the size of the kitchen in my former house, but economical use of space makes it a cozy place to work. Everything I need is within reach: my best knives on the counter, spices and herbs in a specially installed wall unit, pots and pans hanging overhead from a wrought-iron rack.

I need to shake off the morose thoughts, and nothing does that as well as testing new recipes. WithChicagoin the throes of comfort-food cravings, I have been working diligently to find ways to create some healthier versions.

And today, what I need, what I want, is mashed potatoes.

Reprinted from GOOD ENOUGH TO EAT by Stacey Ballis by arrangement with Berkley, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc., Copyright © 2010 by Stacey Ballis.


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