My Dad's Diet

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My dad loves ribs and Red Hots and Red Hawaiian Punch. Jujyfruits and Walgreen’s Spice Drops. Andy Capp Cheddar Fries. The 2/$1.00 generic gas station candies: pink mints, peach rings, sour straws. Murphy’s Irish Stout. Black and tans. Whiskey sours — pretty much juice plus whiskey. Whipped cream in coffee. The leftover syrup from a can of Dole Pineapple chunks. Halved bananas (he shares with the dog). Questionable lunchmeat my mother has thrown out. My dad eats all of that because my dad eats what he loves — or cheaply and without worry, utilitarianly, he eats.

When we’re at a restaurant, if soft butter accompanies crusty bread, he slathers up. “I don’t eat this that much. Warm bread and butter — good night.”

Me? I too love warm bread and butter, but I avoid it before a big meal. I love Chubby Hubby ice cream but I can’t bring myself to buy a pint because of the flavor’s 300-plus calories per serving. I love, also, White Chocolate Wonderful Peanut Butter from the jar. Barbecue eel. Foie gras torchon with vanilla bean brioche. Fritos, Cheetos, and Cape Cod Chips. Garlic naan. Bacon dunked in warm maple syrup. Puppy Chow (or Muddy Buddies, depending on what suburb you grew up in — and not Crispix versus Chex). But rarely do I eat foods so nutritionally bankrupt because for the past twelve years—maybe longer, ever since I left home for college, maybe earlier — I’ve focused on pruning my gustatory appetites.

Or merely redirecting them. Avocados with fleur de sel, coconut butter, raw beets, champagne vinegar on tatsoi: those are foods I love now, whole and gluten-free, no added sugar, no artificial, non-GMO certified, mostly vegan things. If I don’t love a certain superfood food yet (hello, kombucha), some hazy obligation towards health impels me to learn to love it, quick.

My eating habits have grown up; why haven’t my father’s?

“Buy Dad something vaguely nutritious,”

I say to my Mom. It’s easier for me to offer such blanket suggestions from the other side of the country, in a state where the de rigeur meat inside a bun is lobster rather than hot dog. “He liked the kale salad I made when I was home.”

“I’m done cooking,” my mom says, with what sounds like mild, wild abandon. “Your father and I don’t eat so much.”

I sigh— and move on. Mostly, I internalize my frustration with my father’s diet. Growing up, I committed a mantra to mind: you control what you eat. Those days, in my head and in my journal (where I copied out the phrase to seal in my dieting will), the emphasis was on the first “you,” and the phrase pertained exclusively to me. You, JoAnna, control what you eat … and don’t you dare let any one of these food pushers (cough … family members) convince you of any different; you can change your life.

Maybe it’s because food—abandoning it, complicating my relationship with it, demonizing and sanctifying it—did change my life that, now, as an adult, I look at my dad and wonder why he doesn’t use those same tools—meals and snacks—to change his, to become a new man, to improve on his intelligence and resolve, to dedicate himself to his health the way he dedicates himself to work. It’s not too late; he could learn to love lemon water instead of lemonade. But I can’t force him to change, and so often I think of my old mantra, revised: You [can only] control what you eat, JoAnna, so let your parents feed in peace.

According to

human ecologist Kelly Musick and sociologist Ann Meier, “Family dinners may be part and parcel of a broader package of practices, routines, and rituals that reflect parenting beliefs and priorities.” As a child, my family ate together at least three nights a week—the number of meals researchers find constitutes regular or habitual.

I grew up accustomed to a rotating cast of dinners prepared by my mother. There was meatloaf, slathered in brown sugary ketchup sauce, always accompanied by mashed potatoes. There was chicken simmered in gingery soy, with water chestnuts and the rare-thus-prized pineapple, served over rice. There was homemade pizza on Friday, baked ziti on Sunday. There were Italian beef sandwiches, the gravy purchased from Jewel’s deli case, but even Turano rolls and glistening sheets of fatty meat were accompanied by vegetables: sautéed green peppers, sweet yellow onions, giardinera.

I know all the foods my mother made, but I can’t see her consuming them. I can’t visualize how she moves a bite from plate to mouth. My dad, on the other hand, is a vivid eater: even a thousand miles away, I can picture him.

Flickr/David Reber

My dad is a scarfer, a slurper, an occasional gorger.

I don’t mean to suggest he is messy: he isn’t. He doesn’t chew with his mouth open or speak before swallowing. He just happens to revel in every bite, an unassuming, unsnobbish gourmand. He likes meat — and he likes a lot of meat. He is, surprisingly, not overweight; he is perhaps proof the simple math of calories in, calories out does work.

I mention math because my dad is a mechanical engineer, and the world, I think, is largely logical and theoretical to him. He likes research and explanations as much pulled pork and cigars.

A few weeks ago, he visited me. It was his first time seeing my apartment, a space my husband and I have lived in for three years, and he set his bags in the entryway, along with a bottle of Arizona Iced Tea, Half & Half Raspberry.

I made us iced espressos. My dad and I sat at the kitchen table, and clear, spring sun spilled through the windows. For a moment only my small dog’s nails clicking across the floor salted our easy quiet.

I didn’t ask my dad if he traveled like me—fasting until the airplane peanuts, two packs of seventy calories that’d tide me over until touchdown; instead, I asked my dad about his flight. How was the airline, did he have to share a seat? Within a few minutes, he had found his yellow legal pad and black ballpoint: complete with diagrams and equations, he was explaining the workings of … wings.

I followed along, offered the few words I knew related to airplanes (“fuselage” and “foil” garnered nods), and soon we were ready to leave. I had a plan: I would take my dad to a local candy shop and then we’d go for a hike. 80s and sunny: it really was a beautiful day.

On our way out, I recycled his bottle of tea, scanned the ingredient list, and cringed.

Why did I cringe?

Because I stopped drinking regular soda when I was twelve, stopped chewing gum and stopped eating the cone part of an ice cream cone when I was thirteen. Because I dated a vegan; became a vegetarian the second I entered my college’s dining hall, the Hard Knox Café; because I dated a man who taught me the compound word, “partially-hydrogenated oils.” Because I buy sushi when I eat lunch at Whole Foods so I can Google the calories, know most-to-all calories before I let a food approach my mouth, record in a diary my daily weight. Because I’ve belonged to three food cooperatives, one CSA, and two families—the one I grew up in and the one I’ve made with my husband, the one where I used food to self-annihilate and the other where I learned to love food that nourished me, food that made me feel good, food I truly wanted to eat. Because I hoped my dad would quit drinking useless sugar and start revering his health.

I didn’t say any of that to my dad nor did I suggest it. Instead, I told him about a good place to get caramels because even though I know that sugar is poison, I also know my dad loves chocolate.

I grew up with exotic Cadbury bars he brought home from his travels to Europe. They tasted so much better than American candy bars, Flake and Aero and Ripple, Fruit & Nut before they were available in any drugstores. My mom and dad, to this day, bond over chocolate; sometimes I think they agree more about what candy to buy than how to parent. Day trips around the Midwest invariably included stops at Fannie May outlets, where white paper bags slashed with red marker meant the dark chocolate caramels inside were “seconds,” fifty percent off.

My dad and I stopped for Dixies at Richardson’s Candy Kitchen. We each bought one piece of chocolate, four bites, maybe three hundred calories max. Yet, as I bit into a cashew Dixie (that heady rush particular to sweets after eating nothing—or little—all day), I was both savoring the indulgence – and thinking about my dad’s diet. The sweetened iced teas. The fruit juices I knew he drank at home. The meat loaded with Sweet Baby Ray’s barbecue sauce. All that sugar.

Why couldn’t I eat that way? Would I want to? What would happen to me?

My dad gets most of his calories in one shot.

He’ll drink coffee in the morning and eat nothing all day, until he gets home, microwaves whatever is left of anything my mother has prepared for dinner. That’s what I can see, now that family meals are a thing of the past: my dad getting home late, sitting alone, his mustache temporarily collecting crumbs. That’s why on his visit, at the end of the night—after we’ve hiked up a mountain, sat at a patio overlooking a river, munched on soft pretzels and pimento spread, later gone out to a pizzeria for dinner—he’s so tired. He falls asleep fast and early, earlier than he’s wont to retire, before ten o’clock.

“You watch yourself pretty closely,” he said to me, once, last year, when I visited my parents at home. I was counting out raw almonds, the only food without added sugar in my parents’ cupboards.

“I try,” I said. “We’ll probably eat something decadent later.”

And that’s true: these days, I watch myself closely so I can eat with cautious abandon when an occasional meal or treat arises: spinach gnocchi with cream and peas, a scoop of brown butter gelato. The truth is, I can’t imagine eating like my father. I don’t have a taste for sugary beverages; I prefer fish to red meat. Unlike him and unlike the girl I was when I still lived under his roof, I can’t subsist on barely one evening meal. These days, I eat five or six times a day, a series of measured small snacks, and with my husband, a slightly more substantial dinner.

My dad likes to tell the story of his cholesterol. Ten years ago, he saw a doctor who told him it was low. A prescription was suggested to raise the number to a preferable level. But my dad had a better idea: “Couldn’t I just eat a scoop of ice cream every now and then?”

“Well,” the doctor concurred. “I suppose that would work.”

“The next time I saw him, what do you know?” My dad smiles, always, when he recounts this outcome, like a child who’s proven his parent wrong. “Cholesterol was perfect.”

It is this sort of mild, responsible roguishness

that I admire in my father. He is a self-regulator: gain a few pounds, eat a little less. He is thrifty: why spend money on food? He is joyous: he is visibly giddy when confronted with large cuts of meat.

And yet, I can’t help worrying about him. His sugars and cigars. His nocturnal noshing. Even across the country, I think about the foods he chooses to eat and the foods he automatically turns to: what do they say about him? How will they serve him as he ages?

In adulthood, we often remember food fondly from our childhoods, and those memories influence our own habits and indulgences. They influence, too, our aversions. My dad, for instance, can’t eat sour cream or cheese: an unrefrigerated creamy potato salad his grandmother served to him as a little boy has shaped half a century of consumption.

What I remember, and what I notice, are the foods my parents eat, especially my dad. Those foods, more than his ability to teach me about wings, reveal his tastes and values, his desires and weaknesses, his spirit, a tender and boyish obduracy. They teach me who I am, and show me who I might be, someone not so different than my father: an appetite managed by a thoughtful mind, a stomach hungry for butter and warm bread.

JoAnna Novak is a writer of fiction, poetry, and nonfiction. She lives in Massachusetts. @JNovacaine