Against my better judgment, and against the better judgment of loved ones whom I'd consulted before making my decision, I ate nachos for dinner last night. My guilty conscience required that I supplement the nachos with some kind of vegetable dish.* Unfortunately, as these nachos were purchased at one of New York's uniquely Chinese owned-and-operated Tex Mex establishments, the vegetable dish was, in a word, confusing. It was a sauteed mess of cabbage, carrots, zucchini and broccoli, all choppped up until each individual ingredient was only faintly recognizable within the resultant slaw. In retrospect, the vegetable dish was possibly more detrimental to my physical health than the accompanying aluminum tin filled with corn chips, cheese, sour cream, beans, chicken, and self-loathing.
Why am I so bad with food? (the nachos were a finale in a tuesday diet exclusively composed of a cinnamon roll from The Doughnut Plant, a tuna fish sandwich with a hundred thousand pickles, and a soy latte) This is the area where I make most of my self-destructive mistakes. Last weekend, as a friend and I were grabbing a five-minute slice of (terrible) pizza on the fly, I remarked that if my parents could see me, a grown adult catching a fast-moving slice for dinner, they would try to re-assume custody.
Whenever I eat like this I play a game with myself in which I try to imagine what my old high school girlfriend, who is now a pediatrician with a (presumably functional) family, is doing at the very same moment. My answer is usually, "scooping out some fresh fruit into glass dishes for her children" or "sleeping." I don't know why I use her as a barometer for normal living; we haven't spoken in over ten years. I guess I just decided that she has always been domestically-adept and, when we broke up, we were making two very distinct decisions about where we wanted our lives to go. She wanted to be married young, and bear children as soon as possible. I wanted to sleep with someone from France. (again, as soon as possible.)
I really do think I might require a full-time chaperone to insure my diet remains comfortably human, even in moments of alcoholic stupor or existential sadness. This includes cooking healthy foods, and knowing when those foods have ceased to be healthy. Currently, the only diet moderator I actively employ is my optometrist; not because he's a medical professional, but because his own diet is so deplorably vermin-like that even my most outrageous infractions of good, healthy judgment pale in comparison to his everyday, unconscious dining solutions. When I call him to talk about food, it's usually to unload my conscience. I know he'll patiently listen to the litany of poor choices I delineate and then reply, "So what? Everyone eats candy corn for breakfast!"
And if my optometrist expresses genuine concern, look out. Once, just after finishing a Cuban pot roast I'd been chipping away at for weeks, I called my optometrist to brag. I'd kept him apprised of my progress because I knew he alone would appreciate the lengthy tussle with this tremendous slab of meat.
"Hey there, Doctor!"
"Toddy! I can't talk. I got Laurel here."
"Long story. What's going on?"
"OK," I said. "This will only take a second. Guess what I just finished." Although I wanted to play it cool, and maintain suspense, it was difficult to subdue the stink of arrogance and greed in my voice when he answered the phone.
"Wha – Oh no, not the pot roast!"
I incorrectly assumed he'd be proud of me. While I appreciated his instant recognition – that's what friends are for, of course - I did not expect anything close to shock from someone who has a deep fryer at bedside.
"Yeah, the pot roast. Finally killed it. What's wrong?"
"Todd, that pot roast has gotta be four weeks old! You froze it, right?"
I replied with a dismissive snort. He was way off, on both counts. The pot roast was not four weeks old. It was six weeks old, and had been sitting in my refrigerator the entire time, sealed only by its own exposed juices, inside the crockpot with which I'd originally cooked it.
"This is serious, my friend. Are you OK? Do you feel dizzy? You know, you can't just eat meat forever."
It hurt to hear him say those words – "you can't just eat meat forever" – and I might have told him so if I hadn't already dropped the phone and run to the bathroom to induce vomiting. My optometrist warned that I should make sure to eat any kind of cooked meat within four weeks of refrigeration.
My father, whom I called next, amended that figure to one week and my mother, who grabbed the phone from my father mid-conversation, reduced it further, to three days. The Poison Control hotline felt, in their professional opinion, I could technically eat meat within two weeks of its original preparation and still walk away relatively unscathed providing the meat was given proper refrigeration and a properly sealed container. (Resting a dinner plate over the top of the crockpot, I was told, did not provide an airtight environment.). And the emergency room physician whose voice moved slowly, and without even a hint of modulation, suggested switching to a vegetarian diet, provided I was able to hold down solids after this incident.
*I think the vegetable dish is a symptom of a much larger problem. Very often, I refuse to fully embrace pleasure – particularly guilty pleasure. That's why a dinner of nachos, which I know to be terrible for me but am incapable of talking my fat brain out of, must be coupled with some kind of vegetable. And it's why I never order that sixth alcoholic drink – the cocktail that will carry me across the threshold between adorably slurred speech and voluntary karaoke. I do this all the time.
I'm certain my reluctance to award myself with pleasure stems from a hazy guilt about the voiceless suffering in the world around me. How dare I cut loose when there is so much pain in the world? I even have a name for this particular subgenre of guilt: I call it the "Masque of Red Death" complex.