by Jon Pine
In the hilarious 1980 film, “Fatso,” Dom DeLuise, as Dominick DiNapoli, is trying to lose weight. So he joins a group called the Chubby Checkers – sort of a cross between Alcoholics Anonymous and Weight Watchers. When Dom gets the urge to overindulge, he’s supposed to call his fellow Chubby Checkers, who will come over and talk him down.
Dom has locked the refrigerator and all the cupboards with a chain and padlock, and has given the keys to his brother, Junior (Ron Carey), for safekeeping. Under no circumstances, no matter how hard he begs, is Junior to turn over the keys to Dom. That very night, however, Junior finds himself roused from his sleep by Dom, who is pointing a gun in his face. “Gimme those keys, Junior!” he growls.
A hilarious chase ensues, but Junior holds firm. He calms his brother down and convinces him to call his Chubby Checkers – two portly gents who rush right over. But the intervention soon turns to a discussion of their favorite foods. Sonny, one of the Chubbies, asks for a cup of hot water with lemon. Then he asks, “Did you ever suck the jelly out of a jelly doughnut and then fill it with chocolate swirl ice cream?”
Suddenly it becomes obvious that hot water with lemon is not going to satiate these particular Chubbies. Sonny asks Junior for another cup of hot water “with just a drop of honey in it this time.” “Are you sure that’s a good idea?” asks Junior. “Besides, the honey’s locked up in the cupboard.”
His voice returning to a growl, Dom says, “Get the honey, Junior!” Intervention’s over. It turns into a chant: “Get the honey! Get the honey! Get the honey!” as Dom and the Chubbies converge on Junior, tear the doors off the cupboards and begin a food orgy that would choke even Monty Python’s Mr. Creosote.
Italians have, uhm, how shall I say it – a “special” relationship with food. And Anne Bancroft, the director of “Fatso” and an Italian-American herself, understood this relationship perfectly. No other culture takes its cuisine to such wild extremes. We take foods that are already decadent and way too fattening on their own, and then we smother them in cheese, or layer them together in casseroles, or stuff them inside each other, reaching gastronomic heights seldom reached in other cultures.
Even our salads – which we call “antipasti” – are loaded with cured meats and aged cheeses, drenched in pungent olive oil and sweet balsamic vinegar. We consider that a “light appetizer.”
What’s worse, we are literally weaned on these caloric conglomerations. In the opening credits of “Fatso,” a crying baby Dom is comforted not by a pacifier but by a cannoli. Later, as an adult, we see Dom gaze at a photograph of his mother and say, “How you loved to feed me! Look at your chubby baby now, ma. I’m a fat, fat man, a damn fatso.”
My own Italian mama, God love her, treated us kids pretty much the same way. Got a hangnail? “Here, eat this, you’ll feel better.” Stubbed your toe? “Have some chicken cacciatore.” Didn’t make the basketball team? “I’ll put on a pot of water for macaroni.” There was always a big pot of sauce either cooking on the stove or waiting in the fridge to be heated up.
Even if you were feeling fine, feeling great, like when you did make the basketball team, a fat slice of cheesecake would add to the celebration.
No one trusts a skinny Italian cook. It means he or she is doing something wrong in the kitchen. It’s no accident that my mom, the best cook of the four sisters in her family, is also the roundest. She didn’t serve just turkey at Thanksgiving – we also had a tray or two of lasagne. Same was true of Christmas and Easter. Even now, when I visit her, even before she says hello, my mother wants to know what she can make for me to eat.
Years ago, I sat my maternal grandmother down and, with pen and pad in hand, I grilled her for her recipes for some of my favorite dishes. I soon gave up in frustration. She gave me no specifics, because like all great cooks, she used no measuring devices whatsoever. “Add some fresh garlic,” she would say. “How much?” I asked. “Well, add some, then taste it, and if it tastes okay, that’s enough. If not, add some more.”
Or she’d say, “Cook the fettucine until it’s done.” “How long is that?” Same sort of answer: “Taste a piece every now and then, and you’ll know when it’s done.” I suspect that her caginess was more than just the sign of a good cook who measures ingredients by instinct and boils pasta with the help of an invisible timer in her head. Rather, I believe it’s a matter of Italian pride – no Italian woman ever admits that she is a better cook than her mother. And that is probably as it should be. It is certainly true of my own mother.
The maternal instinct to feed your children never really goes away, but my siblings will agree – our mother takes it to an extreme. And as a result, we have all struggled with weight issues on and off all our lives. Right now, I’ve got Dom’s body shape from “Fatso” – not quite obese, but certainly fatter than I’d like to be.
Becoming a quasi-vegetarian (I still eat seafood) didn’t help, and might actually have made things worse; pasta is a good fall-back as the main course when meats are no longer an option. There are plenty of meatless Italian dishes to tempt me – eggplant parmigiana, pizza, calzone, ravioli, risotto, stuffed shells, manicotti. I even created my own recipe for vegetarian meatball lasagne, which was good enough to fool my mother last Thanksgiving, believe it or not, if only for a little while.
But still my waistline grows. A few years ago, I bought a cookbook with low-fat alternative recipes for popular Italian dishes. I tried a few – but it’s just not the same. I even tried making cannolis with low-fat ricotta cheese. It can’t be done. They come out way too soupy and run all over the place. Besides, cutting corners on these dishes just seems so… sacrilegious. My Italian readers will understand what I mean.
Like Dom, on occasion I have turned to food for comfort. I tell myself it could be worse – I could be turning to alcohol or drugs. But it’s just as unhealthy, at least for me. I am on two medications for high blood pressure, and my joints strain and ache under the extra poundage. Not good.
So what to do?
My cousin Joe – we shared the same aforementioned Italian grandmother, and grew up surrounded by the same temptations – has hit upon a solution that is so simple it might actually work. He calls his system ELFS, which stands for (are you ready for this?) “Eat Less Food, Stupid!” Brilliant, huh? Basically, he’s come up with a computerized way to keep track of the calories and grams of fats, carbs, etc. in the foods you eat regularly. You enter your body mass index (BMI), and it helps you compute how much food you should be eating to achieve and maintain a healthy BMI.
Over time, as you enter your favorite foods into the database, you start to learn just how much we ALL overeat. Portion sizes – on packages, in restaurants and at home – have grown WAY out of proportion in our culture. It’s no wonder we are the fattest country on the planet.
So I’m gonna give Joe’s idea a try. I’ll keep you all posted here, on this blog, hopefully having some fun with it along the way. I know that at some point I will have to add an exercise component to this experiment, too.
That should be interesting…
© 2010 Jon Pine