The Chance Mama Cass Never Had


If you ever wondered whether it’s possible to eat a Cobb salad in the car with your hands while you’re driving, rest assured that it is—although I don’t recommend it if there’s dressing on it. Honestly, it’s just generally a bad idea. But if you are the sort of person who can eat a bagel while you’re doing 65 on I-90, the driving salad is within reach. 

While we’re on the topic, it is also possible to eat a salad with no dressing. To drink coffee without cream. To consume oatmeal straight up and almost forget that you used to regard it as a vehicle for brown sugar. I don’t necessarily recommend these things, either, but this is what I’ve been doing lately. 

Six months ago, I stopped eating anything with added sugar or sweeteners, everything made with any kind of flour, and any food that wasn’t part of a meal. The chase: no honey, no stevia, no aspartame, no whole-wheat muffins, no “gluten-free” bread or whole-grain pasta, no snacks. 

I eat a lot of vegetables, a little bit of fruit, a tiny bit of fat, and pretty much any kind of protein, animal or plant-based. Protein is a whole other kind of complicated, so don’t get me started on that one. Suffice it to say that the way I have been eating is the way I should eat forevermore. That is too scary to consider. Tragically, it is also too scary NOT to consider. For six months, I’ve been enjoying being off the queasy Tilt-a-Whirl of food addiction (for lack of a better word), so I don’t see much upside to overthinking the future. For the moment, I am happyish, which is probably as good as it gets for people who never met a quart of ice cream that couldn’t be consumed in one sitting. 

It’s pretty bold to presume that anyone cares what I eat, and yet two impulses nudge me to share. One is that I want to apologize for having become One of Those People. Hadn’t you been looking forward to trying out that new crème brulee recipe? And yet only AFTER you invite me to dinner do I mention that oh, by the way, I’m just another snowflake shunning the fun foods.

I know. I’m sorry. 

The second reason I’m writing this is that in my months of abstinence, I’ve discovered that many of us actually are secretly but deeply invested in what other people eat. In our family, when one of the hardy, big-appetite women quickly devours dinner, the man of the house (a very thin person and moderate eater) sometimes observes, “Wow! You were HUNGRY!” — not altogether without judgment. This is the American table writ small. 

And maybe it’s not even peculiar to Americans. Perhaps it is just human nature to watch each other across the trough and assess, silently or out loud: Wow, you eat A LOT. Or: Gee, you haven’t eaten A THING. Or: Why are you vegan? Or: How can you eat a formerly living animal? Or: Do you know how many calories are in that? I used to attend a big party where the hostess put out a giant spread then stood in the corner being thin. I literally never saw her take a bite. What was up with THAT?

Darwin could explain why we’re wired to judge each other’s food; I’m just here to say it happens. I’d like to be judged based on accurate information. 

I was in single digits when I first felt my brain light up at the thought of a cookie. Ten when I knew I was the only kid who just wanted to scramble out of the water for the snack-bar pizza. Thirteen when Mama Cass Elliot suffered the supreme indignity of dying while fat and allowing a sloppy medical examiner to suggest (erroneously) that she choked on a ham sandwich. 

I was fourteen when people started to spout observations about my weight and twenty-three when I got very thin for a minute with our helpful friends, coffee and cigarettes. I was everything-years-old when I reserved a solid ten percent of my energy for envying women who seemed effortlessly thin. 

Even the nice ones. Even Mary Tyler Moore. 

At every possible age, I loathed the brain that couldn’t find the shutoff valve and the body that made my weakness of character so glaringly obvious to the casual observer. 

Then I was fiftysomething. I decided to see what happened if I completely ceased consuming certain things that other people can eat without losing their minds. The bad news: It works. The good news: It works. I have located the shutoff valve, and it is, sadly, not in the kitchen. 

Nixing trigger foods stops me from craving more trigger foods. It has radically reduced the incidence of food- and weight-based self-criticism, though whole meadows bloom with other types of neurosis. I skip merrily through them all multiple times a week, but I do it in smaller pants and my knees don’t ache as much.

The even-better news is that neuroscience has been making significant strides in our understanding of how food affects the brain—or, more specifically, how different foods affect different brains differently. We understand now how sugar can be like alcohol can be like gambling can be like shopping. We know more about how far willpower can take us and how to avoid wasting it on the wrong things. 

In the years preceding Cass Elliot’s death, our best advice for fat women was to stop being sexually repugnant gluttons and drink more Tab. She never had a chance. 

One more thing is worth mentioning. There may be an itty-bitty minority of people who are overweight because they’re too lazy to do better for themselves, but fat really does not equal character. This cuts in both directions. In my six-months-to-date experiment of taking my brain off refined carbs, a few friends have kindly complimented my self-discipline. It’s not modesty when I say that I’m not all that self-disciplined. I’m just finally figuring out the chemistry. More to come, I’m sure. 

Wish me luck.