Six french fries.
That may seem like a strange way to start a Christmas column, but bear with me.
Early in December, the New York Times reported on a nutritional study that talked about the health hazards of potatoes. It quoted Prof. Eric Rimm of the Harvard T.H. Chan School of Public Health as suggesting the best portion size for french fries was a mere six fries.
Professor Rimm is near-legendary now, his french fries comments virtually criss-crossing the globe on the combination of outrage and disbelief that the digital news industry loves so much. (You know the kind: deliciously fatty and without any real nutritional value whatsoever.)
The six fries quote sets up that wonderful world of the aspirational versus the actual: we may all aspire to live extremely healthy lives, but is that actually who we want to be or how we want to live?
It makes me think of my parents, long gone now, but in their time, great, lascivious lovers of tastes and flavours, able to lip-smackingly appreciate anything from a rich lamb stew to a deep-fried Nova Scotian clam. Paella, shrimp, the occasional lobster, turkey, fatty and rare roast beef, accompanied by homemade wine or Yugoslavian plonk. Rich blocks of foil-wrapped fruitcake so soaked and laced with cognac that you got a little tipsy just from the smell; dark chocolate with so much cocoa that it delivers a physical blow.
My parents found deep enjoyment in all of it. Especially my father; the only son of Eastern European immigrants, he was a big man with a great love of flavour.
Teenaged me shuddered at that naked appreciation; it embarrassed me at times, the raw verve and sheer fleshiness of it. (Teens can be such preciously judgmental things, making up for their lack of worldly knowledge with a hefty dose of undeserved self-righteousness.)
And it wasn’t just individual tastes he sought; he was not one for the amuse-bouche.
Do I miss them and wish they were still here? Obviously. Would I take away the things that made their lives so good just so I could still have them here? No.
When my mother took delivery of our semi-annual half a pig from a local farmer and she was breaking the carcass down for the freezer and boiling off the fat to make her own lard, my father would be constantly in the kitchen, snatching up pieces of deep-fried crackling over and over again as Mom lifted them out of the hot fat.
He found it impossible to resist; the kitchen was a veritable fug of suspended pork fat droplets, my mother’s huge iron pot steaming as water boiled out of the resulting lard.
He tried, various times through his life, to eat healthy. I wouldn’t be lying if I said the effort was very close to being physically painful for him.
Once, after I turned 19, I saved up and bought him a bottle of single malt Scotch, a variety he had never had before. He couldn’t resist it.
Neither of my parents lived past their 70s: both passed away relatively quickly. But they lived full, big, colourful lives. I remember once watching them have a pre-dinner drink of Genever out of the caps of Scope bottles (their chosen travel drinking glasses) in a down-at-the-heels red-carpeted room in a Dutch hotel that could easily done double duty as a brothel — and probably did. And they were delighted by the whole thing.
Maybe they traded a decade or so of additional life for experiences like that; maybe they would agree that it was a good trade. Do I miss them and wish they were still here? Obviously. Would I take away the things that made their lives so good just so I could still have them here? No.
So what’s my point? Enjoyment.
We fight our bodies all the time. Knowledge might tell us that french fries are unhealthy, but get a large order from a food truck, those good, properly cooked, rich brown french fries, and your body says “This is good, this is good, this is so damned good.” And six fries isn’t going to cut it.
Let me put it to you another way, as we settle into what is for many of us the excess of Christmas: I know a cat that barely ever goes outdoors.
He goes out when it’s warm enough, makes his way down a short flight of stairs, and lies on his back on a sun-warmed pavement square, writhing back and forth until he’s completely sated. Then, he gets up, blinking and almost stunned by the experience, and makes his way staggering back into his house.
That cat won’t live as long as I do.
But if only I could live life as large.
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Russell Wangersky’s column appears in 36 SaltWire newspapers and websites in Atlantic Canada. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org — Twitter: @wangersky.