I have never been on a diet.
Well, except for the time I ordered the wrong size bridesmaid’s dress and had to stop eating bread for a month in order to fit into that blue satin sausage casing. And when I say I “stopped eating bread,” I probably just mean that I turned down a cupcake once and then told everyone about how I wasn’t eating bread.
I don’t understand the concept of “restriction.” (Or the concept of “hot yoga,” for that matter.) I’ve never counted calories. Whenever I feel an attack of self-loathing, I pop a Prozac and listen to one of my mom’s Weight Loss Hypnosis CDs.
A year ago, I moved to Los Angeles and I started to feel a little pudgy after a few months of living in a town populated by juice drinkers and cheerful hikers. Then, I moved into an apartment with giant mirrored closets and I finally saw what the florescent lights at TJ Maxx had been trying to show me for weeks -- my body.
It had been a long time since I had seen it in such detail, and I immediately did everything I could to feel better about myself. I bought a dry brush and started scrubbing away at every dimple and stretch mark. I bought a pair of sneakers and actually tried to run around the block. I Googled “How to Do a Cleanse.”
Then I remembered Elizabeth Taylor’s diet book.
I had bought it about two years ago, in the dollar bin at a used bookstore in Pittsburgh. Liz’s best 1980s white ball gown had called out to me from underneath a pile of books about 18th century manners. "Liz Takes Off: On Weight Gain, Weight Loss, Self-Image, and Self Esteem" -- what a treasure!
The first half of the book is a memoir of sorts, reviewing Liz’s life and career. She talks about her passion for fried chicken, hot fudge, and Richard Burton. It’s juicy and a little snarky -- the way all good celebrity autobiographies should be. Even though she was once dubbed “The Most Beautiful Woman in the World,” she can still remember every nasty comment about her weight, from snide remarks from ex-husbands and directors to the very public attacks from Debbie Reynolds and Joan Rivers.
While married to Senator John Warner in the late ’70s, Elizabeth Taylor hit rock bottom. Stuck in Washington DC, bored with the company of Republican housewives, she turned to pills, booze and her live-in chef. Under those circumstances, who wouldn’t go up a few sizes?
One night, she finally took off her caftan and had a serious moment with her three-way mirror. (God, this violet-eyed woman and I are so alike!) She divorced her husband, checked into rehab, and slimmed down.
After a few chapters detailing ways to stay motivated, (write down everything you eat and tell yourself that “instant gratification is for babies”) she finally tells us that the way to stay thin is to follow her “Taylor-Made Diet.” Exercise is optional, but if you really feel compelled to sweat you can touch your toes or watch a water aerobics class.
It’s hard to believe that a woman who used to ship cases of chili from her favorite Hollywood restaurant all the way to the set of "Cleopatra" in Rome could lower herself to eat dry toast and raw veggies. She’s able to make dishes like tuna salad mixed with tomato paste and grapefruit almost sound almost like a culinary adventure. If this woman, whose hedonistic appetite was the stuff of legends, could eat baked fruit instead of ice cream for a month, couldn’t I?
So, I’ve started cooking every recipe in Elizabeth Taylor’s diet book.
I understand her unapologetic love of food. At a party this summer, a guy was actually speechless when I asked him to hand me the biggest slice of cake. But I’m also really starting to feel the self-loathing she describes when the director of “Suddenly, Last Summer” made her lose weight so she could look good in that iconic white bathing suit.
If I had the money and courage to live like her, I totally would. Since I can’t fill a hotel room with caviar and champagne, I’ll settle for a peanut butter and hamburger sandwich.
Yes, I actually ate a peanut butter and hamburger sandwich. It’s one of the more outlandish recipes in the book and it’s actually kind of OK. A little chewy, maybe, but definitely edible.
I’m not following the diet seriously. If I subsisted on one piece of dry toast every morning for breakfast, I’d faint before I even made it to work. Also, it’s a little expensive. I have to save up before I can afford items like swordfish, lobster, and squab. I also have to learn what a squab is.
The project is evolving into something more than a diet. I’ve started a blog where I detail what it’s like to taste a mixture of fruit and low fat cottage cheese and sour cream. I’m learning how to make low-quality YouTube videos in order to film my reactions as I taste steamed cucumber. For the first time since leaving grad school, I’m consistently creating something. I don’t need to lose any weight, I’m just happy to write about eating like Liz.
Lately, I’ve been determined to try some truly terrifying dishes. Dessert, which is my favorite and sometimes only meal of the day, has turned into something I view with horror in my attempts to make these Taylor recipes. The “Chocolate Fantasy” is an exercise in false advertising with ingredients like dietetic pudding mix, artificial sweetener and coffee laced evaporated skim milk.
But rest assured, I’ll be eating it all, once I figure out what dietetic pudding is.