Good mothers require their children to eat their greens. My mother would tell us this, only she preferred to justify her demand in a way that went far beyond the food pyramid:
Greens are just full of phytochemicals! Chock full of so many antioxidants and anti-inflammatories! Think of them as Mother Nature’s multi-vitamin! A nutritional Goliath for fighting off the risk of cancer and all kinds of chronic diseases, including heart disease, Alzheimer’s, stroke, diabetes. You name it!
“Dr. Ann” is her brand and wellness is her game, and since starting her health consulting business a decade ago she has become a motivational speaker, author of four books, authority in the national media, and the mother a four children who suffered through the “Soda Ban” far before New Yorker’s and their Big Gulps. We grew up in the kind of house where Double-Stuffed Oreos and Pecan Spinwheels were the primary motivators for going home with other kids after school.
My mother spends her days steeped in research and nutritional science, and she likes to share her findings with her children, by way of circuitously disciplining them. What began as the casual dropping of statistics (…a 30 percent higher risk of…a 70 percent lower risk of...) eventually grew into weekly emails with WebMD or Science Daily articles attached, bearing subject lines like, “Make Sure You Get Your Vitamin D!” or, “Marijuana’s Adverse Effects on the Brain.” I also received a T-shirt that reads EAT MORE KALE in my stocking last Christmas. And I wear it.
Suffice to say, I eat my greens. And not only do I eat my greens, I wield them -- like a torch. When your mother has made it her life’s mission to drill home the importance of eating well and the apocryphal assumption that obesity will be the end of the world, it’s really not a hard thing to do. You just catch the bug.
A "bug" may be an ironic way to characterize one’s enthusiasm for a healthy lifestyle, but when people observe the bushels of kale I consume in a sitting, or the Everest-sized salads I bring for lunch daily, or the fact that I’ve run nearly 30 miles a week since I joined the cross-country team at 13 -- "affliction" isn’t a far cry from the way they see it. They think that I’m genuinely insane.
My boyfriend was one of those people. When we met, I had recently launched The Sexy Plate, my shameless web platform with the intention of “cultivating lust for nature’s bounty” and channeling my herbaceous hedonism into some kind of constructive project. I remember sharing it with him, and I also remember the lost in translation look on his face as he tried to rationalize that I had a passion for produce. This was a guy whose favorite meal in college was what he called the “Father-Son Special,” a breaded chicken patty with a fried egg and hot sauce on a bun, and some shredded lettuce if he “was feeling healthy.”
Initially, I allowed this to go unexamined, as did I with the cigarettes he often smoked and the confession that he had done so for the last 10 years. It didn’t seem right for me to judge him for what he was, which was a boy with unhealthy, albeit absolutely normal, habits. I’m also well aware of my own place on the margin -- that my diet is more hunter-gatherer than modern-day young adult, and that holding out for a boy who flips for sautéed Brussels sprouts with the same kind of mouth-watering mania as I do would likely leave me loveless.
Only then he began to evaluate himself. A few days after our second date, I received this message:
I’m now headed to buy a pile of spinach to whip up a nice little dish. You’ve got me inspired.
Get garlic and onions and mushrooms too! I wrote back.
An hour later he sent me a photo of the steaming finished product with the caption I Kulzed it.
I was jittering. All future forms of flattery were destined to fall short. Gold stars, I thought to myself. This boy gets some serious gold stars. It was genuine and endearing, but it also made me incredibly happy knowing that he was nourishing himself with something wholesome. I remember thinking that’s how my mother must have felt watching us drop blueberries into our mouths at the breakfast table, but then I reminded myself that we had only been dating for 2 weeks, and wished the maternal feelings away.
And then he went on the road. Cross country in a white van with four guys in the band he manages and a filmmaker. They drove from New York to Chicago to Nebraska to L.A. with a trunk full of beer and cigarettes, and the aimless hearts of cowboys or hitchhikers. Who knew what lay on the road ahead? I knew exactly what:
3000 miles of fast food drive-thrus, grade C roadside diners and gas station pit stops for slushies, Flavor-Blasted Goldfish and Sour Straws.
Nothing about this bothered me at first. I saw it as a memory in the making, one I hoped to contribute to by sending them off with a box of assorted baked goods, but then he left, and I started to daydream in my subsequent loneliness. At night I’d drink wine while mincing garlic and chopping Swiss chard, and I’d think of how he probably hadn’t had a single vegetable or fruit that day, had killed at least a pack of cigarettes, and that he was likely drinking more beer than water. It gave me anxiety, severely enough that I realized that I must be in love with the guy.
And like a girl in love, I began to fall into the motions of over-eager, irrational, forward thinking, only instead of fantasizing about our wedding or naming our future children, I saw myself silver-haired at 65, lacing up my shoes for a cancer foundation road race, and him in a grave somewhere across town. Morbid I know, but thus go today’s scientific stats -- the ice caps are melting by some percent, the national debt is growing by another, and people are getting fatter by the million.
But of course, counting numbers is no way to live a life, so when he returned home, I borrowed the rote mantra to “try and inspire positive change.” Only I didn’t even have to try, because he had already made the choice himself. Over the course of a week, he was getting up to run with me in mornings (in socks patterned with cannabis leaves), set a date to quit smoking, and was asking me questions like, “So how do you roast beets?”
He even began fixing his own salads for lunch, leaving his co-workers in awe at the contents of his Tupperware, let alone the idea of him using Tupperware at all. No Chipotle today? Dude, what is this girl doing to you?!
His parents also had their moment of disbelief when the two of us went running the weekend he took me home to meet them. The two of you went running?! I can’t believe it! You’re acting like an adult. Which was exactly his intention. He felt it was time to start acting like a full-grown man.
Yet sometimes men want to be boys, and all he wants is bacon pizza, and he’ll order one and eat half, and I’ll work on putting despairing thoughts out of my head.
Saturated fat, maybe even trans-fat, refined carbs, no fiber, no vitamins, so much lactose…Jesus Liz, just QUIT with the paranoia already. It’s like you think he’s cheating on you with Domino’s.
It’s during these moments that I force myself to remember some of our favorite moments together -- eating chorizo enchiladas and steak tortas in a Mexican deli on Coney Island, Pepe Aguilar’s Me Estoy Acostumbrando A Ti ringing off our plastic chairs, or polishing off pints of Ben and Jerry’s as he scolds me for mining for every last chunk of cookie dough -- moments where we were indulging, both in sugary, fatty caloric excess and in our own ability to be young and irresponsible and pleasure-seeking because that is what young people do. As he reminded me the other day, “We're already 70% adult, let’s try to hold on to the last 30% of being kids. I know I try to, and that's what allows me to keep equilibrium. ”
Which is where we stand now. Life is either 70% kale/30% cookie or 70% beet/30% burrito, but we’re learning to master the balance. Even my mother reportedly indulges in Starbucks’ double chocolate muffins when in the airport.