Last week I found myself walking through Oakland, the part of Pittsburgh that is home to both the University of Pittsburgh and Carnegie Mellon University, as well as many of the city’s hospitals. I welcome any opportunity to go to Oakland – I spent three years of graduate school studying in the different libraries, going to class, teaching and just one whiff of Primanti Brothers Sandwiches on a muggy summer day sends me back to those days and they are happy memories. As I was walking I noticed a new store off of Fifth Avenue. I looked up at the name and found out it was one of those yogurt places, the kind of yogurt place that offers unsweetened natural frozen yogurt and healthful toppings like granola, fresh melon, local strawberry compote or dried blueberries. I stepped in for a quick minute, immediately underwhelmed by the bright green walls that screamed “Eat this yogurt! It is GOOD for you!” I tried this fad – this frozen yogurt without the fat and sugar but with a nice natural tang- when I was in San Diego last year. I’d read an article in the NYTimes about Pinkberry and its popularity and it didn’t sound all bad so when I had the opportunity to indulge in a cup of this kind of frozen yogurt, I did. And I did not like it. Indeed, I had the same reaction from that small cup of Pinkberry frozen yogurt that I did last week, when I stepped out of whatever this new yogurt store is called – I suddenly and distinctly longed for a cone of Colombo frozen yogurt.
Remember Colombo frozen yogurt? Or when you couldn’t go five blocks without hitting a TCBY? I don’t remember exactly when frozen yogurt became possible but I do remember it came about as a reaction to our nation’s crippling fear of fat and its now tenuous link to cholesterol, and, dude, it was like, salvation. For practically no fat at all you could consume a huge cone of whipped up from some nebulous mixture of high fructose corn syrup, hydrogenated oils and artificial flavorings and it was, quite frankly, lovely. You could get frozen yogurt in all kinds of flavors, from french vanilla to chocolate to mint to strawberry to butter pecan, and, hell, since it didn’t have any fat if you really wanted to you could top it with chocolate syrup or cookie crumbles or candy because it was still better for you than ice cream. I worked at the Dockside Deli in Alpena for three summers in high school and we featured four different flavors of frozen yogurt at any time and during those summers I subsisted on little else, concocting floats, sundaes, flurries and cones of all shapes and sizes. My favorite combination was chocolate and mint, and often my best friend M and I would get a cone each and walk the break wall next to the bay, feeling very virtuous that we had replaced our icecream habit with frozen yogurt.
We didn’t know any better then. We were all swept up in the anti-fat craze, all desperate to find anything that tasted like something. Now I think we all understand better that whole, natural foods, grown as locally and sustainably as possible, are really what lead to good, overall health but even this movement, while I admit to embracing it, can exhaust a person – there are times when I don’t want a farm fresh egg cracked over a pan sizzling with nitrate and nitrite free bacon, or just-picked asparagus swimming in a pool of homemade pesto – what I long for, sometimes, when faced with an organic, once grass fed filet of beef, looking all rare and healthy and juicy on the plate, is a damn Subway sandwich.
Because you know what? Subway was good for you then, too, and there is little I loved more than some terribly preserved lunch meat squished between two pieces of what can’t even be called bread anymore, smothered in pre-chopped and pre-sliced vegetables and fat-free mayonnaise. The whole concoction ended up tasting like onion glue and it was fabulous. And I miss the days when diet coke was as good for you as water because I found little as pleasurable as the tang of the artificial sweetener when it hit the back of my throat, preferably when washing down my onion-glue sandwich. So many of those foods that were created as a reaction to our fear of fat were really so much worse than if we had just eaten the damn hamburger and fries in the first place, but they are the food I was raised on and sometimes I wish I didn’t know as much as I do about health and food and what one should be eating so I could buy the giant box of Lean Pockts from Costco (chicken parmesan for me, thanks) and a bag of fat-free chips the size of my dog, accompanied by a case of diet coke (bien sur) and call it a day, instead of worrying whether the the flour in the bread I purchased had all its nutrients bleached out. Seriously, I MISS FAKE CHEESE! Remember how it wouldn’t melt, like, at all? I didn’t care – I adored the way it clung to the wrapper like it was the wrapper itself, as though there was no distinguishable chemistry between the cheese and its plastic covering. The food industry – that industry that is now trampling all over the farmers of American in an attempt to grow more corn, more soybeans, more wheat and subsidize the very companies that made all of this “food”, kept throwing odd concotions our way – fat free cookies! Baked Lays! Boca burgers! Meatless chicken nuggets! – and we gobbled them up, these approximations of the real food we enjoyed – and so long as the food we ate didn’t have fat it wasn’t fraught with implication. Red dye number five? Yes, please! MSG? Why not? One thousand servings of salt? So long as there isn’t any fat involved, I am good to go.
I wouldn’t trade the knowledge we’ve gained in order to go back to those foods, I really wouldn’t. But sometimes when I read one too many food blogs in a row groaning and moaning about the beauty of rhubarb, or sit at yet another restaurant determined to do something new with local corn and cilantro, or when they serve their latest maple and black bean infused butter with hunks of artisan bread I find myself thinking Olio! I just want some Olio! It spread across bread just beautifully and unnaturally and oh, how I loved it.
I am, I have no doubt, healthier and stronger for all the fresh fruit, organic meat and farmer’s market vegetables I eat, but every once in a while I do miss when I didn’t know any better, when a large butter pecan frozen yogurt and diet coke could be a dinner anyone would approve.