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Michael Amsler

New twists on an old list

By Marina Wolf

WHAT IS IT about the beginning of a new year that brings on such a plethora of self-imposed demands for dietary discipline? "I will lose 20 pounds, eat no more than two grams of fat a day, and masticate each mouthful until it slips down my throat by force of gravity alone." It's almost as though we are trying to convince others--and ourselves--about how good we are, or how good we want to be, the thought being the thing that counts. Or perhaps it's that every year brings us closer to death, and by bargaining with the fates or God or the universe--I will be better, I promise--we can stave off that fateful day for another year.

The truth is, such rituals of deprivation are intrinsic to the moral relationship our society has with food; every person who participates, privately or otherwise, feeds the machine. If you manage, for example, to eat every meal at the table with no TV interruptions, you might miss some great X-Files reruns, and you'll probably start hating your kids, but at least you'll get a big gold star on your personal chart. You've become a better person. And even if--when!--you slip, you still play an essential part in the paradigm, providing moral illustration for others and fuel for your own renewed struggles.

This year, subvert the system instead of buying into it. Make your resolutions as expansive as you can. Reach out for the goodies. Get your hand stuck in the cookie jar. Be casual and curious and compassionate with yourself and all of your food desires and habits. Be bold in the face of a paradigm of deprival and scarcity.

TO HELP YOU on your way, here are ideas for some New Year's food resolutions. Take what you like and toss the rest, as freely and easily as you might toss that bag of prunes at the back of the cupboard that you bought in a fit of resolve two Januarys ago.

  • Don't hold it against yourself that you ate nuked Spaghetti-Os and scarfed on M&Ms every night for a week during deadlines. During times of stress, and the times when you feel like it, fuel is just fuel.

  • Experiment with one new food a month, and use it at least three times to expand your food vocabulary. Here are a few things to head the list: okra, spelt, pheasant, crispy onions out of a can.

  • Raise something in your kitchen windowsill other than black mold--something useful, like sprouts or parsley or oregano. Grow a Chia head if you don't have enough sun.

  • Learn how to sharpen your knives with a blade and steel the way the cooks do on TV. You are the kitchen warrior. Know your weapons!

  • Buy a new wok to replace the one you got at Cost Plus years ago. That non-stick coating has long since flaked off and vanished down your digestive system. And no, it definitely doesn't count as dietary fiber.

  • This one's especially for poor students and other lusty but low-income types: Get out of your garret and eat out at one sit-down restaurant a month, budgeting appropriately so that an evening exploring the finer side of the gastronomic world does not come back to haunt you on your credit cards.

  • Put a chair in your kitchen, one that you don't care about destroying with spills or cooking fumes. Every cook needs a place to sit down, to flip through cookbooks and rest the feet between steps in the recipe. If you can arrange it with a view, so much the better. Sprawled on a dusty purple half-chaise, even next to prosaic shelves of dried beans and canned tomatoes, you'll feel like royalty.

  • Use different utensils to eat with: chopsticks, a ladle at each plate, two butter knives, fingers.

  • Go for a week doing your meal-planning differently than you're used to. If you ordinarily just eat whatever you can find in the fridge or on the take-out menu, try planning menus, listing ingredients, and shopping with that list. If you normally always plan ahead, experiment with randomness by going to the store, buying only products with the letter Y on the label or only those items that come in 3-oz. cans, and see what you can make of it.

  • Go to a store where you'd never think of going: an Asian market, a Mexican carniceria, an up-market wine shop, an Italian deli. Buy something you've never seen before. If you can't read the label and can't tell what it is by looking at it, you get bonus points! Ask the shopkeeper what it is and how to use it, or look it up in a book. Then go home and try it.

  • Learn about and order the wines that you truly love, good taste and food-pairing principles be damned. Hell, spend a year investigating the relative merits of only those wines with raffia wrapped around the necks of the bottles. The research might be a challenge. But you're up for it! Hic.

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From the December 31, 1998-January 6, 1999 issue of the Sonoma County Independent.

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