I miss when we didn’t know any better

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.

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10 Responses to I miss when we didn’t know any better

  1. inthemainstream says:

    You can hang out with me any time for fake food fun. It’s my shtick amongst my greenie classmates.

  2. appellationmountain says:

    Thank you for this! I recently decided that the 4 y.o. had to have those cheapie freezer ice pops – y’know, liquid high fructose corn syrup with a bunch of numbered dyes that sell 100/$2.99 at the CVS? Because that’s what summer tastes like to me. We’ve been eating our way through the box because really, they might be dreadful, but I love them. No whole fruit, honeydew-n-mint homemade Martha Stewart pop can take their place.

    And fake cheese? Don’t get me started on Kraft mac’n’cheese. It’s one of those things I love, and no organic, whole wheat, locally sourced substitute will do on a cold, rainy winter afternoon.

    I love all the local heirloom tomatoes and small batch plums and peaches from award-winning orchards in our region – but some days … I’m with you!

  3. Kathy says:

    They’re not healthy, but Primanti Brothers sandwiches piled high with french fries, cole slaw and other goodies sure are tasty! Sadly, I don’t live in Pgh anymore. Maybe that’s a good thing.

  4. Make Tea Not War says:

    This is brilliant! I think someone should pay you to write a food column. I’d read it.

  5. musingsfromthesofa says:

    So true. I only really like the crappy Walls ice cream that I grew up with, made mostly from ingredients that had never met a cow. Sometimes, you just want junk food, and that’s when it’s time to get out the Kraft cheese slices and Jammy Dodgers (which are shortbread biscuits with jam in the middle and even imported from the UK cost $1.69. So what does that tell you?)

  6. Cam says:

    I am soooo trying to eat healty and was proud that I made tonight’s dinner from this week’s CSA allotment on delivery day, instead of avoiding some of that green stuff for a few days. And my meal was great, really it was, and I should feel good about eating healthy even if I shouldn’t feel self-righteous about the whole local grown/organic/hug the earth csa thing. But – TCBY. Are you kidding? I’d give up every fresh vegetable in my kitchen for a pint of that! And, when my son comes home for a visit next month, I’ll make mac & cheese with Velvetta, never mind that we jokingly call it Petroleum Cheese.

  7. Stefanie says:

    Ah the simpler days when pan fried spam was soooo good while camping and grilled Velveeta cheese sandwiches made me feel better when I was ill at home. A chocolate frosty from Wendy’s on a hot day was heaven and Arby’s roast beef sandwiches and spicy curly fries healthier than a burger. Oh and Twinkies, supremely made perfectly spongy 100% manufactured fake food goodness. I am glad to be vegan, but I know exactly what you mean!

  8. Courtney says:

    In the main stream – I love it. When can we hang out?
    A – you have been in my thoughts lately. And YES – I adore those CVS popsicles…S. and I were just longing for them the other day…
    Kathy – so great to see my favorite MI blogger here!
    Make Tea…your lips, God’s ears, all of that…
    Cam- my grandma used to melt velveeta over grade A prime rib and it was the best. thing. ever.
    Stefanie – I used to dip my fries in the frosty…is that weird?

  9. shoreacres says:

    Some years ago I knew a very intelligent Texas rancher whose doctor had told him to cut the crap – that is, the french fries, the chicken-fried steak, the peach cobbler with homemade ice cream, the beer, the fried shrimp… You get the point.

    One night, our Texas rancher sat down with his calculators and those actuarial tables and his family history and came up with a formula. Somehow he figured out that every chicken-fried steak with cream gravy he consumed was going to take 12 minutes off his life. Biscuits with sausage gravy, 9 minutes. Three dozen friend shrimp? 25 minutes, give or take.

    As he put it, you can cram a lot of chicken fried anything into 24 hours. Pass the napkins.

  10. Amanda says:

    Oh that is too hilarious!! Great post! Although I do love Pinkberry –only the pomegranate flavor though. 🙂

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