My Diet vs. My Mother: The Art of Camouflage

The end of the holiday season brings the inevitable New Year’s resolutions, most of which involve a commitment to living healthier — exercising, cutting out junk food, watching our fat intake or carb intake or something else that is invariably detrimental to our health and keeps us from looking good when we’re naked. I made this same resolution four years ago and I’m proud to say I have kept it. I watch what I eat (and not the way I used to, which was watching the fat- and sugar-laden food on my plate disappear into my mouth and thinking “Yep, there it goes.”); I’ve cut out a lot of the sugar and fat in my diet and replaced them with copious amounts of fruit and vegetables; I’ve relegated the naughty foods I love to one meal a week; and I got a gym membership, working out 60 to 90 minutes a day during the week and walking on weekends. Recently I even took up running, which is going slower than I anticipated due to the substandard knees I inherited from my maternal relatives, but at least I’m working on it. I’m also flirting with the idea of investing in a fitness tracker and starting a “Couch to 5K” <> program. This diligence on my part has yielded marvelous results: I’ve dropped pounds and inches (I won’t say how many but trust me, it’s a lot); my endurance is through the roof; I have muscle tone I didn’t have before — I have guns now! — and I feel stronger, more energetic and alert and yes, healthier. And though this endeavor has not been an easy one it’s been completely worth the effort, as well as a bit addicting! The only speed bump in my journey comes every November in the form of my mother.

Every fall, Mom leaves the chill climate of her home in the south and spends the winter months with me in the desert southwest. She and I were estranged for most of my twenties, so for the two of us to now have such a close relationship is wonderful, and I’m thrilled to have her with me for the holidays. My new healthier habits, however, are the one bone of contention in our relationship. My mother is a relentless saboteur. She’s a traditional Southern cook, and soul food does not naturally lend itself to healthy eating. Lots of meat, lots of salt, and lots of butter and fat, particularly bacon fat. To my mother, bacon fat is a cooking medium, a seasoning, a condiment — it is the alpha and omega of cuisine, nature’s most perfect food. Her philosophy of eating is taken straight from the words of Ouiser from the film Steel Magnolias: “I try not to eat healthy food if I can possibly help it.” The first winter she spent with me, my weight loss progress chart — which up to that point had been in a nosedive comparable to that of the 2008 economy — completely flatlined. It took two months to get back into my previous groove.

Part of this lack of empathy comes from the fact that my mother is one of those blessed individuals who has never had a weight problem, a trait I most definitely did not inherit. In her youth, she had a figure on par with that of Raquel Welch or Halle Berry without ever once breaking a sweat. She went on a diet once when I was ten — she lost thirty pounds and never gained it back. With this inborn ability to eat anything she wants without gaining an ounce, she finds my new routines somewhat bewildering:

Why would you need to watch your carbs? Aren’t grains healthy? How can you eat vegetables with no bacon grease? Or at least some butter. Your skin will dry out if you don’t eat some fat! Unless something was chasing you, why would anyone run?

Meals without butter or fat or cream? Unthinkable. Sushi? Unacceptable. Vegetarianism? Ridiculous. Veganism? Downright laughable. I can’t tell you how many Meatless Mondays have ended up as Meatless Wednesdays or Thursdays because she’s already planned dinner before I’ve even gotten out of bed in the morning, scratched from the race before it even got to the gate. I suppose I should be more assertive but in the wrestling match of assertiveness my mother has me pinned to the mat before I’ve even got my singlet on. It’s always been this way. So I’ve resorted to using the same tactics I used as a kid to get around my mother’s will: I meet her sabotage with camouflage.

In an effort to trick her into eating the healthy dishes that have now become essential to my lifestyle, I have become adroit at the art of culinary trickery. I’ve learned how to substitute her beloved bacon fat with olive oil and Bacon Salt; I replace heavy cream with fat-free half and half, and full fat cheese with a mixture of reduced-fat and fat-free; I work in lowfat, low sugar, and low carb foods wherever I can, all without her knowledge. My greatest achievement has to be tricking her into eating vegan food. The first time I served her a dish made with a meat substitute I held my breath, waiting for her to call me out on it: “I don’t know what this is, but it tastes like whang leather!” To my utter amazement and joy, she happily ate it in blissful ignorance. It’s now my favorite cooking trick. When I watch my defiantly carnivorous mother digging into a plate of spaghetti made with soy crumbles, or pepper “steak” made with seitan, stopping only to rave about them, my glee is unparalleled. The only real hurdle is when she catches me stifling a giggle: “It’s nothing, Mom. I was just thinking about something funny.” Like you scarfing down that vegan soy piccata — now *that’s* funny!

My mom and I will never see eye to eye on what she calls “the healthy kick” I’m on, but that’s okay. It’s just prepared me for a world full of saboteurs, couch potatoes, vegetable haters, and food pushers, none of which can hold a candle to the bacon fat tsunami that is my mother. It has served to give more confidence that this is not just a kick, it’s a real lasting life change, one that I can and will keep up for the rest of my life. If I can stand up to — and occasionally get one over on — my mom, I can take on anyone.

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