My children were born in the autumn so, for me, the “holiday season,” begins in September and continues right on through January 1st, at which point, I take a long hard look in the mirror and see just why it’s become so arduous to zip my jeans. Birthday cakes, Halloween candy, stuffing, pumpkin pie, latkes with sour cream, Christmas roast, (because we’re a mixed faith couple), pie and pie and pie, all washed down with wine and capped with a Champagne toast.
Thus begins the yearly urge to eat “clean” food. Every woman’s magazine at the checkout line touts a New Year’s cleanse. The newspaper health section offers helpful hints to clean out your kitchen cupboard and Oprah urges us to clean up our acts. And for the most part, I’m in favor of all this cleanliness. It feels good to eat steamed spinach and lentils and roasted vegetables and tofu. It’s lovely to spritz a bit of lemon juice over a plate of greens; so darned satisfying to munch up a bowl of brown rice…
Maybe it’s because my college boyfriend turned vegetarian only slightly before he turned celibate that at a certain point in my clean food crusade, I have to get just a little bit dirty. It starts small. I’ll have a square of dark chocolate. For the antioxidants, I’ll rationalize. A midweek glass of red wine is helping my heart. That slice of white toast spread with butter and sprinkled with cinnamon sugar is a trip down memory lane. How can something so comforting be dirty?
And then, slowly, but slowly, I begin to construct solid defenses for more and more food that, at first glance might appear suspect. Home baked chocolate chip cookies are not as dirty as those that are store-bought. And, by the same token, a grilled cheese sandwich toasted to gooey perfection on your own stove can’t possibly be as naughty as one made by a complete stranger at your local diner. Seeking to right further injustice, I spend a day stirring ground beef, veal, milk, wine and tomatoes together until they marry in the perfect sauce Bolognese. It would be a crime to serve this over anything but the most hearty of egg noodles.
Because my parents were born in the Midwest and traveled with the carnival, I believe myself to be a kind of expert on dirty food. Chocolate chip cookies skim the surface. I’ve dug deep, through the loam to the hard clay below. Cheese curds, for example, with their earwax shapes and squeaky exteriors, are most certainly dirty. For family picnics, my grandmother made what was known as a “dump cake,” an ungodly (yet delicious) combination of fruit cocktail, yellow cakemix, and melted butter all dumped unceremoniously into a pan and baked. On the midway, we ate corn dogs and chilidogs, and candy apples with their burnished red sheen of a classic car. We devoured churros and funnel cake fried in oil the color and texture of a prehistoric tarpit.
My father’s father passed to him a taste for canned corned beef hash and he, in turn, passed this love to me. And it’s a dirty love. Mary Kitchen Hash comes in a big can with a red label. With the first plunk of the can opener blade, the salty, sweet scent of chopped corned beef wafts through the air. When the lid is finally cranked open, the meat, studded with waxy cubes of potato stares up at you pinkly. Congealed fat holds the meat and potatoes together in a cylindrical shape that is so solidly packed into the can, it must be scooped out with a heavy spoon. This step of preparation can be slightly off putting because at this point, the hash has the aroma and texture of dog food. Forge on. Scrape the last stubborn bits into a frying pan and let it sizzle. When the hash has browned and bits are sticking to the bottom of your pan, do what my dad always did and crack a few eggs over the whole mess. Let everything cook together and then scrape it all out on two plates. We always enjoyed the hash with raisin toast and a couple of good laughs.
A fancy schmancy coffee house in my neighborhood serves up the most divine scrambled eggs with house-cured salmon and spring asparagus. I love it, but I would gladly pass up this bowl of organic, free-range goodness for life if I could pull up a chair next to my dad and dig into one more plate of his hash and eggs.
Clean food is good for the part of the heart that pumps the blood, but dirty food seems better for the heart’s more sentimental workings. When I think back to that college boyfriend, I remember once when we argued, he threw a piece of broccoli at me, but I don’t remember the taste of his steamed broccoli. What I do remember is his French toast. I think fondly of his floppy blonde hair and the lobster rolls we ate in Maine. I imagine the rough wool of his favorite sweater against my skin and I can almost taste a plate of blueberry oatmeal pancakes we shared on spring break.
It isn’t that I don’t enjoy cleaning up my food act. I actively like lentils. I love kale. My cupboards are filled with mung beans and black beans and grains of all kinds. I harvest fresh chard from my garden and my husband has, on occasion, had to ask if we could have a meal that doesn’t include squash. Brown rice is better than white, and the whole grain is a good grain. These foods will keep me strong and healthy, but truth be told, it’s the filthy cupcake that keeps me young.