I do not remember ever being admonished by my primary caretakers, my grandparents, to clean my plate. Still, I grew up with the awareness that the important issue was not like or don’t like, but rather have or don’t have. What we had was often whatever the commodities program was distributing.
It’s funny how I remember my childhood diet in like or don’t like terms. Because everything repeated, it seems logical that I would either dislike it all because I got tired of it or like it all because of gustatory nostalgia.
Like most people who grew up with commodities, I loved the cheese. Hard yellow cheese in big bricks with a plain black and white label. I was less excited about a common meat item labeled “pork shoulder” in little white cans. Later, I would come to know it behind a more colorful label as Spam.
I did not like powdered milk and still don’t. I was agnostic as between the butter we got sometimes in the commodities distribution and the margarine we bought at the grocery store. I no longer feel that way, but I can’t say how much of that opinion is taste and how much is the knowledge that margarine is fake butter.
The other grease that came in the white wrappers of the commodities distribution but also in the grocery store was lard, and I can’t imagine what Granma would have done without it. I grew up thinking the verb “to cook” meant “to fry.”
Granma kept a big old Folger’s coffee can on the stove to contain the leftover grease from whatever she was cooking. The grease might have been lard or bacon fat, but it stayed in that can until it was — in contemporary language — recycled.
I had none of the knowledge I would later acquire from dietitians and I would not have known how to count calories or carbohydrates…but suppose I had known? Our food supply was what it was and choices were limited.
In addition to the commodities, we had a big garden. Every year, my grandparents would hire somebody to plow the vacant lot next door. We grew lettuce and tomatoes and bell peppers as well as the Three Sisters — corn, beans, and squash. The onions came up every year without being planted. We usually produced enough green beans that my grandmother would put them up in sealed glass jars to be unsealed in the winter, along with pears from the tree in the back yard and peaches bought from farmers who would sell bushel baskets door to door in season.
I knew Indians were supposed to be hunters, so imagine my surprise when I discovered that to hunt you either had to own land or know somebody who did. Fishing was possible, and I brought home perch and catfish. The Cherokee Nation didn’t succeed in backing Oklahoma off requiring hunting and fishing licenses until 2015.
There was no elected Cherokee government between 1907 (Oklahoma statehood) and 1971. Even if I had lived in the Cherokee Nation, Oklahoma would still have claimed I needed a license to hunt and fish. Treaties be damned. I had no government to back me up, and the last Cherokee chief I knew anything about was John Ross. I knew he was dead but I did not know he died in 1866.
I was around ten years old, give or take, when I was deemed old enough to walk from West 12th to East 4th and visit my great-grandmother on my father’s side. She introduced me to more kinds of veggies than I was used to and to whole wheat bread.
That was the beginning of my self-definition as one who is adventurous with food. My problem, I could plainly see then and now, was not that I would not eat good stuff but that I would eat too much good stuff. Or whatever was being served.
Being fat feels like a disability less because of morbidity and mortality statistics I’ve learned too late but more because the roll of flab around my waist advertises to the world that I lack self-control despite accomplishments that required just that. Seeing the advertisement in the mirror for over sixty years has sold me, and so blaming myself is the framing I put on my relationship with food.
In the eighth grade, I weighed 263. How do I remember that? The coach shouted it out across a roomful of my peers, assuring that I would never forget it.
When I was 16, I weighed 235. I remember that because it was the weight I had to make so the Air Force recruiter would take me. The Marine Corps recruiter, strangely enough, didn’t seem that concerned about my weight. He said I would come out of boot camp with the “correct” weight.
When he said that, I was thinking if I came out of boot camp. I did not want to enlist and then get sent home. In addition to that fear, I had enough experience with hand-to-hand combat to know I did not want to do it professionally.
Most Indians can get to a warrior if they trace back far enough, but my ideal of a Cherokee was Will Rogers, who was smart and funny but not particularly violent. My doubts about surviving boot camp and my dislike of fighting are the reasons the efforts of the Air Force recruiter to palm me off on the Marine Corps recruiter were doomed.
A Marine would say I doubted that I have what it takes to be a Marine and he would be right. I was determined to become an airman. I made weight. My Air Force recruiter must have been desperate to make his quota because I found out later he fudged my scores on the Armed Forces Qualification Test (AFQT), or I think he did based on hearsay that seems credible in hindsight.
The AFQT came in four parts, or at least four that interested the Air Force. The score was reported by percentile and you needed at least 50 on all four parts. As best I can remember, my scores were 99 in “general,” 98 in “administrative,” 85 in “electronics,” and 45 in “mechanical.” Oops.
The recruiter apparently thought I would survive because the high scores were very high, so he pencil-whipped the mechanical score just over 50 and lowered the others. I am grateful he kept the rank order of the four the same, but I’m not certain it mattered because there was a lot more testing before I actually got a job.
I fixed my weight problem just enough and the recruiter fixed my test score problem just enough and I was off to USAF boot camp. The test scores would become submerged in more test scores. After boot camp, my weight went back up to 250 and stayed there during my entire hitch.
The whole time I felt I was fat and I made sporadic efforts to diet and exercise, but 250, give or take a few pounds, seemed to be where my body wanted to be regardless of what my mind wanted. In my forties, I underwent a midlife crisis. Unlike some men, I did not trade my car or my wife — I took up running.
I trained up to a point where I ran around the Austin International Airport every morning before the sun rose and around Town Lake (now Lady Bird Lake) after work. On weekends, I would run a 10K. The longest run I managed was a half-marathon and the lowest weight I managed was in the high 260s. I know now I was destroying the cartilage in my knees.
Now, 250 would be a great victory over my lifetime of fat. I fight to keep south of 400. I still eat very good food but too much of it, and I am shocked to report my age exceeds three score and ten.
My mother has always eaten terrible food. I once took her to a restaurant that specialized in healthy locavore foods. I was very happy when she ordered a four-veggie plate; less so when all four veggies were fried. I admonished her that fried things would shorten her life span.
Last year, I put on a party at the nursing home to celebrate her birthday. Her 90th birthday.
I suppose I have some of her longevity genes, but I have spent my entire life tired of being fat. I can only transform myself at the margins. The part I can control is like the difference between self-identifying as Jackie Gleason or as Jabba the Hutt.