You came back on the 71st day of my solitary confinement. Through the iron wall of my self-imposed cell, I felt your valence as you waited in the dark cellar hallway. I caught the smell of your transfigurations—the warm lavender shortbread cookies, the steamy latte, the hot brick-oven bread, the spaghetti alla carbonara.
It was gale force, your pull—as scary as a phantom limb hopping around in search of its rightful body. I could almost feel my recently deflated adipose tissue singing a siren’s song of its own, predestined to seek its cells’ lost substance. I began to hum Gloria Gaynor just to drown out the noise. And so you’re back, from outer space. I just walked in to find you here with that sad look upon your face…
And then the miracle happened. Instead of tightening my resolve, I loosened my grip. Instead of railing and castigating, I said: Great! Just make the best carbonara possible. You can’t do it today, of course, you need to get those very rich eggs from the farmer upstate, that pancetta your friend is making in Virginia, that grana Parmesan. You should invite a few people over…
A week had passed by the time I’d gathered the ingredients and the guests, and in that time, the compulsion born of a futile surrender was transformed into a quest for excellence and the excitement of sharing it. I no longer wanted more than a small portion. I savored every bite.
Diets and programs can, I realized, be paths to enlightenment. But that state of peace is a fragile truce and a daily accommodation to the shifting demands of life, personal priorities, and metabolism. The carbs that served me well when I ran track and swam competitively are not my friend 30 years later. I’ve developed a sensitivity to sugar and dietary fat. Eating vegetables and protein and walking an hour a day works best for me at this point in my life.
But despite what you would like me to believe, my Mephistopheles, carbs, cookies, and bacon are not so many apples in Eden. The pleasure I take in them may make me fear banishment, may make compulsion seem inevitable. But it’s nothing that a brisk walk, a nice chat, a good laugh, a good deed, or a great dinner party can’t alleviate. When in doubt, make dinner, not war.
I know that it’s changed between us, my old friend. But stick around. Your same old songs return to haunt me, warn me. I take them seriously. I celebrate, I create, I cook. I hardly ever hum your tune anymore.
Molly O’Neill is the author of seven books, including Mostly True: A Memoir of Family, Food, and Baseball and One Big Table: A Portrait of American Cooking. Her ebook, This American Burger, was recently published by New Word City. Her most recent contribution to Gourmet Live was “Baking for a Better World.”