Thursday, April 30, 2009

Ode to a Rice Cake

This essay is dedicated to any poor sucker who has ever been on a diet. You have my deepest regrets.

Ode to a Rice Cake

By Pamela Victor

I yearn with every fiber of my being for a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. Sometimes when I pack my daughter’s lunch, I take deep, gulping sniffs of the soothing smell of it all. In fact, I’ve been smelling a lot of food lately. You see, I’m on a highly restrictive “health diet” in my latest quest to rid myself of chronic headaches and all else that ails me. And it’s making me crazy.

During what was otherwise an exceptionally enjoyable evening out recently, I leaned over the table to deposit my nose in my friend’s brownie to sniff its delectable aroma. Once I had my snout firmly planted in the middle of her dessert, the inappropriateness of my actions suddenly dawned on me. Oops. (Fine dining rules #7: Don’t smell other people’s food.)

Imagine any food that tastes good or brings you the least bit of comfort. Those are the foods I cannot eat on this elimination diet. I can eat a lot of veggies, but few of the yummier ones like beets, sweet potatoes and squash. No fruit. No sugar of any persuasion. I am allowed only the least cheerful carbs, such as buckwheat and millet. If a dish elicits the response, “Yum. Doesn’t that smell delicious?” it’s a guaranteed stamp of rejection for me.

I’ve never before experienced the cruel, total restriction of complete gastronomical pleasures. That said, I endeavor to munch away as much as possible within the self-imposed boundaries of organic, unprocessed, locally-grown, free-range, hormone-free whole foods. My increasingly intimate companion, Age, further limits my diet with the likes of lactose intolerance and a potentially life-threatening allergy to, of all things, bell peppers. (Fine dining rule #12: Anaphylactic shock lacks charm at the dinner table.) Clearly, there is a karmic lesson somewhere here for me about food. Or else our American diet is slowly killing us. Either way, I’m hungry.

Worst of all, the If-It-Tastes-Good-Don’t-Eat-It diet is working. I’ve had just one headache in the last month, an event I haven’t experienced in the last six years. I’m distraught about it. How I wish to be subjected to 14 straight days of a pounding head, so I can chuck the confounded diet and dive head-first into a bowl of sesame noodles!

I cry a lot about food lately. I got teary while making my son’s birthday cake. I sniffle while I watch restaurant patrons eat my favorite dishes. (Fine dining rule #12: Don’t erupt in loud fits of misery when the woman at the next table is served her General Tso’s Chicken.) Dutifully crunching yet another salad, I choke back sobs as my family guiltily gobbles down spaghetti and meatballs with, alas!, garlic bread on the side. The scent of bread toasting brings me to my knees.

In addition to loss and sadness, I feel seething resentment to complete aisles of the supermarket. I am filled with such bitterness over the injustice that chocolate chip cookies are not healthy that I can only seek to somehow release my anger by legal means or else face a lifetime of disproportionate loathing toward the Massachusetts homemaker who first attempted to combine flour, sugar, butter and chocolate into an irresistible treat. I can’t help but to feel like all the delicious tastes on the Earth only exist to taunt and tease me to tears.

It's not just your typical sweet treats that mercilessly beckon me. Unexpectedly, an entire class of tasteless foods reveals its delights to me. Unadorned puff cereal? I would sell my first-born for it. Whole wheat matzoh? Beam me up, Scotty, I’m on board. Unsweetened gelatin? Mmmm, mmm, good. Airplane cuisine now seems worth the price. Tourist trap chicken fingers appear to me a pinnacle in dining pleasures. Recently, I found myself salivating when refilling the bird feeder.

I hit a low point last week when I was informed that my much anticipated weaning off of this diet would be delayed for another month. I thought I was just clawing my way to the finish line only to find the finish line was a mirage, and I am only halfway there! I hit the wall. Down to the cellular level, I felt I had to add something, anything, new to my diet. After much self-flagellation, I concluded that the addition of one item, plain rice cakes, to my regime would permit me to stay on the diet wagon. There you have it, folks. Behold my dietary rock bottom: the difference between my success and failure hinges on a plain rice cake. Previously, I held disdain for the taste of edible cardboard. Now I ache for it.

The twists and turns of life never fail to hold me in wonder and awe. Like the nerdy teenager blossomed into an intellectual hottie, the crunch of this simple snack rings out like a siren’s call to me. Who would have guessed that the plain rice cake would hold my fate in its styrofoamy hands?

Post-script: After over a year, I remain mostly true to this cruel and unusual diet. Although I succumbed to the lure of plain rice cakes, I haven’t eaten bread or sugar since February 2008. I still feel pretty annoyed that it worked, which is to say, health-wise, I feel great. -Pam

Note: A version of this essay appeared in “First Person”/Hampshire Life section of “The Daily Hampshire Gazette” (Northampton, MA) on June 6, 2008.

To read more tongue-in-cheek essays, check out my blog “My Nephew is a Poodle (and Other Random Thoughts)” at

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