Thursday, March 15, 2012

What to eat: Field Season in the Ozarks

My recently-widowed mother now carries around an 8x10 sheet of paper folded into quarters in her large black purse. She offers it to me repeatedly on her recent visit to Missouri, "it's your father's heart," a crude black and white drawing of a human heart with little squiggle lines showing areas of major blockage. "It shows all his blockage, all the years of sausage and catfish poboys," 50% blockage noted in one passage, 10% here, 40% there, but none of the blockage significant enough for major heart surgery. I really don't know why she carries this drawing from the ER physician around with her, and why she, his ex-wife of 25 years, has it to begin with. My daddy, on his recent visit, was embarrassed that she had it, he had no clue, and asked me (located a 12.4 hour drive from them) how she acquired it and why she insists on pulling it out every time she starts diving into her purse looking for her phone or keys. I don't offer an answer for him.

When we lived together as a family, my parents ate very healthful and well-prepared meals. Even though both of my parents worked full time jobs as elementary and middle school teachers for over thirty years (and repeated that they would pay me a full time wage to NOT be a teacher when I grew up...), we always ate dinner together and always had a hot breakfast and packed school lunches with little notes and cards reminding us that we were good kids, well-loved and all that. My mother's an outstanding cook, and so is my dad. When you live in Louisiana with all that fresh seafood and a year-long growing season for produce, it's difficult to be a bad cook. My standards for good food are pretty high because of this. My father grew up with a mother who couldn't cook well at all, who would serve Depression-era food in the 1940s: lima beans and peanut butter, bacon fat and rancid meat, food that always gave my mother food poisoning when she went to his house for supper. I earnestly believe that it was my mother's cooking skills that initially attracted my dad to my mom, that and her first chair status on flute. She could really rock the flute in college band.

Anyway, we always had good meals together as a family. If my mom wasn't home to cook, Mabel, our maid, would cook supper for us (usually really unhealthy soul food cooked in bacon fat and no life left in the vegetables as they had stewed in butter and chicken stock for hours and hours on end). Mabel, the wonderful woman who taught me my first words, how to brush my teeth, how to tie my shoes, was a master of fried chicken and fried fish. (One time she fed me fried gar, much to my mother's horror. "She ate GAR?!" We didn't eat gar in my family. It was like eating raccoon or something.) Anyway, I guess it's been surprising to find that my parents, now in their 70s, have, in recent years, forgotten their cooking skills and the lessons of eating well-balanced meals. It is not uncommon to call my mother and learn that her diet for the entire day has included: "I had a Payday, and a cappuccino, oh, and chocolate covered cherries..." by 7pm. And she wonders why she always feels like hell.

Both of my parents are really unhealthy and I can't do anything about it from Missouri. Oh, I try, I complain, I encourage, I ship food, but my parents are as stubborn as their spawn. After having dealt with both parents visiting Missouri separately in the course of two weeks, after having fed them properly and showing them just how easy it is to eat healthfully, I decided to focus on my own eating habits.

In one year, I have gained a lot of weight. Oh, most of it is stress-related, granted, but a lot of my 6 pounds is due to field work. In one year, I have grown from a size 2 to a size 6--still in the normal weight range at 105, according to the FDA, but my clothes are tight, and that's unacceptable. I spend several nights a week in the field foraging for vegetarian suppers and often depend on my field food for dinner: an oatmeal raisin Clif bar, peanuts, a banana. It's better than a Payday and a cappuccino from a gas station, but not by much.

As I prepare for a very long, fun, exciting field season visiting all of the units that burned during fire season 2011-12, I plan to seek out restaurants in the Ozarks that can offer healthful vegetarian meals in order that I may depend less on food out of my pockets like smoked almonds and dried cranberries for a meal. I'll also need to find lodging with treadmills that work properly (unlike the one in the Niangua Basin that won't allow the runner to run faster than a 9 minute mile. I could get that workout just walking in the store shopping for produce ...), and I may find myself eating poached eggs and dry wheat toast for every dinner at breakfast places to avoid the overcooked vegetables and meat products. Well, it's an adventure, and one that will hopefully result in getting back down to 98 lbs. as I launch into the old as dirt age of 40 come September. The metabolism slows, I hear, and I refuse to be an overweight desk worker who can't hoof it up a hill because of my extra five pounds.

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