Cooking Connection: Balanced Eating

Goodlifer: Cooking Connection: Balanced Eating

“The problem,” he would tell me over and over again every week as I sat in my piano teacher’s living room, “is that people are either intelligent or physically fit. No one meets the Greek ideal.”

My piano teacher’s son was the kind of man you only realize was strange after you become an adult. He was a forty-five year who played the cello, baked all day and lived with his mother. When he wasn’t preparing muffins or pies for his own consumption, he pontificated his philosophies of life to his mother’s pre-teen and teen students. We were a captive audience, waiting patiently for the kids before us to finish their lessons. At well over two hundred and fifty pounds, Terry never argued that he had reached this state of balance and perfection that he so passionately talked about. But he firmly believed that he had the right steps to help us reach his goal.

Men should be athletic, but also good at cooking. Women should be domestic, but study hard in math. On the sly, behind his mother’s back, he’d give me reading assignments. If I successfully returned able to discuss the reading with him in my fifteen minute pre-lesson interval, I was rewarded with a muffin.

Terry wasn’t the only man in my life obsessed with Ancient Greece, nor was he the only person who rewarded me with food. My history teacher in the seventh and eighth grades spent weeks talking about the “unity” and “balance” the Greeks had achieved in everything from architecture to drama. According to him this success came by being good at everything, never failing. He loved to drill us on facts, almost none of which I can remember, about ancient Greece. If you answered correctly, you got a baby snickers bar thrown at your head.

As an adult balance and reward plague me in and out of the kitchen. I confess to maintaining a roller coaster diet that oscillates from healthy organic meals deliberately prepared to address my fears over prostate health to a sort of culinary depression where low grade polish sausages and micro-wave Saag Panir dominate. It’s the inability to find a middle ground, the persistent pressure to excel that spurs on this culinary schizophrenia.

For three weeks, I worked my way through a Provencal cookbook. From spinach omelets to homemade soups, I simultaneously was working through a book on sauces complimenting organic chicken or a fillet of fish each night with a new sauce. And then it happened. I tried to make a fava bean soup.

I drove all over the city looking for fava beans until the Houston summer heat destroyed my resolve and so at the advice of a clerk I bought lima beans. I don’t know why I did it. I didn’t know. I’m not a chef… I just didn’t know what would happen. By the time I’d put this mess through the food mill, I had a paste substance with the consistency of mashed potatoes.

I recoiled in terror, “Who am I kidding? I can’t make these kind of meals. I’m a failure. A joke. Worse, I’m a poser. And now I’ve got this giant god damn mess on my hands.”

That’s all it took. Darkness flooded in around me like the thunderstorm in the opening moments of the film Clue. For the next two weeks I gorged myself on canned herring and german barrel pickles. I even started buying fries and breakfast sandwiches through the drive-thru, skipping lunches. And with each passing meal out of the kitchen, away from the stove I felt more and more like a failure and less and less like a balanced and successful man. Until finally, my anxiety over the damage I might be doing to my health overtook the shame of my failure.

And so here I am coming back into the kitchen in the hot month of August wondering, how long can I keep from pushing myself back over the edge. Can I make it on a nice salad and baked chicken? Can I cut myself a break, and if so for how long? Isn’t the path to balance through simplicity and not misguided notions of excellence? And most of all is chanting enlightened statements like this, and writing them for all the net to see, enough to make me finally start believing them?

Cookbook image used in illustration: Gary Friedman / Los Angeles Times

About author
Alexander Hogan occupies his days teaching and conducting research as a professor of political science. Like many of us, he searches for the balance and peace in a hectic, materialistic world. He is a passionate home chef and foodie who resides with his wife and impressive house plant collection in Houston, Texas.
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