The other day in Whole Foods, as we were shopping for groceries to bring to the farmhouse for five nights, I said jokingly, self-mockingly, to the cashier who was ringing up our groceries, “Did you notice how healthy our food is?”
Instead of giving me shit for the heap of organic produce, the organic free-range eggs, the organic red rice and gluten-free organic pasta and organic steel-cut gluten-free oats, wild-caught Alaskan sockeye, free-range bison, organic free-range chicken thighs, and so forth, he said earnestly, “Oh my God, doesn’t it feel good to buy a bunch of food like this and go home and eat it?”
Caught off-guard by his fervor, I laughed.
“Yes,” I admitted, “it does.”
We paid $264 for five sacks of food, loaded it all into the Subaru, and off we went, leaving the contractors behind in our gutted kitchen to make loud banging noises all day. We drove the hour and fifteen minutes from the coast up into the mountains on narrow, sleepy, quiet country roads, pitted now with frost heaves and slick in places with refrozen ice. It was dusk. It always seems to be dusk lately, lingering late-winter twilight, a chilly pinkish-then-bluish waning light on glowing, slushy snow, a lowering fog through bare branches, and the mineral smell of water that somehow presages the sudden, mad, wild, manic, aggressively sexual explosion of life that means spring up here in the north.
We got to the farmhouse just after dark, backed the car up to the porch on the snowy lawn, and unloaded the groceries, Dingo’s bed, our backpacks, and the sack of books I’m supposed to read. I put everything away while Brendan turned the water back on and let it run in the pipes, turned up the heat, checked the wood supply in the cabinet by the fireplace, and made a fire. We drank red wine to go with the red dinner I made: baked salmon with harissa spice rub, steamed red chard, and red rice.
The next day at lunchtime, yesterday, I mixed the leftover salmon, rice, and greens all together and tossed them with a little mayonnaise for a madly delicious instant fish salad. Last night, Brendan made moist, dense, meaty, slightly gamey bison burgers, Yukon Gold wedge oven fries, and a heap of steamed baby spinach; I made a sauce of (organic, Omega-3) mayonnaise, stone-ground mustard, (organic) ketchup, and Cholula chipotle hot sauce to go with everything. We ate the burgers on springy, bready toasted gluten-free hamburger buns.
After a breakfast this morning of steel-cut oatmeal with maple syrup, cinnamon, and enormous frozen blueberries that tasted like distilled summer, we had the same bison burger meal again for lunch, this time with steamed chard, so tonight’s supper is just vegetables: meaty round “Frost Kist” artichokes and sliced baby zucchini sautéed with a bit of chicken broth and plenty of fresh tarragon, with olive oil and kosher salt.
Meanwhile, I have a pot of Jacob’s Cattle heirloom beans soaking for tomorrow’s baked beans, which we’ll eat with steamed broccoli and organic chicken Andouille.
I keep thinking about what the fresh-faced, wide-eyed young guy at Whole Foods said. He really meant it, without either ironic hipster self-mockery or smug hippie self-righteousness: “Doesn’t it feel good to eat this way?”
On our walk this morning, the same fast, hard four-mile walk up and down hills to the end of the dirt road and back that Brendan, Dingo, and I take every morning at 11:00 when we’re here, I chuckled to myself at how wholesome my life has become, realizing that I haven’t eaten any junk food in more than ten years. I’ve had plenty of potato chips and dark or bittersweet chocolate and gluten-free ginger cookies and Red Hot Blue corn chips, but they’re all made with organic or at least healthy ingredients; they’re not what I’m referring to.
Back in the years when I ate gluten and occasionally smoked cigarettes when I drank booze and lived in industrial Brooklyn and thought I’d live forever, I used to love to scarf a sack of White Castle jalapeno sliders with onion rings and fries, late at night, drunk and starving. God, they were good. I used to love to go to Coney Island for fried clams and Nathan’s hot dogs. I cured my frequent hangovers with a deli breakfast: either a fried egg with melted American cheese and nitrate-laden bacon on a toasted, buttered roll, or a greasy Western omelet on toasted rye with 8 packets of (non-organic) ketchup. If that didn’t work, I went to a hot dog cart for lunch and inhaled a couple of obscenely juicy, tasty hot dogs fished out of filthy water and served with onions and mustard on stale industrial buns. And I drank a can of ice-cold, bitterly bubbly Coke.
I loved French fries. I still love French fries, but now they have to be gluten-free and fried in oil that’s gluten-free, which is not easy to find, so I rarely eat them anymore, but back then, I ordered them every chance I got. I used to cure my severe bouts of PMS with Little Debbie peanut butter bars and Hostess Ding-Dongs and Entenmann’s chocolate cake. I would rush into a deli, any deli, grab a cellophane-wrapped sugar-and-chemical sweet, and stomp moodily, crabbily, despairingly along the sidewalk, shoving the thing in my mouth and barely chewing it, ripping the spongy, soft, gooey, sugary, artificially-flavored thing with my molars and swallowing it as fast as I could. My mouth exploded with animal satiation. It always worked.
That was twelve, fifteen, twenty years ago. I’ve been gluten-free since 2002, for eleven years; my eating has shifted since then from a purely pleasurable and decadent and fearless gourmandise to something else. I don’t regret this, and I don’t ever miss any of that stuff. I’m older now; my appetites have changed in many ways. I’ve known since my fortieth birthday, when I went through a sort of existential crisis slash spiritual awakening and became viscerally aware for the first time of certain basic but terrible facts of human life, that I am certainly going to die. My fiftieth birthday last summer arrived with even more dire news, but this time it wasn’t a crisis. This time, being older and more seasoned and accustomed to bad news, I absorbed it without flinching: Not only am I going to die, but I’m going to get old.
Dingo already is old. The world as we know it also feels old, and dying, and drastically sick.
So yes, sweet, wholesome checkout man at the Whole Foods in Portland, Maine: It feels very good to eat like this. I’m grateful that I can.