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On the Road in Food World (written Memorial Day weekend)

Posted Jan 22 2009 6:31pm

By Barbara Berkeley

It’s a gloriously sunny day and my husband Don and I are on the road for three days. We’re driving to the wedding of a friend’s daughter on the east coast.

There’s nothing like a little travel to take you out of your maintenance comfort zone. Travelling makes me appreciate the steps I’ve taken to structure my personal food world. Now that I’m out the comfort zone, 7½ hours from home, the protections I’ve come to rely on are gone. I am in the thick of the SAD world of American eating.

Day One:

Almost 8 hours on the road with no food except fast food or the stuff that passes for food at highway rest stops. Generally, Don and I are better prepared with things to eat for travel. We usually bring fruit, baby carrots, nuts and left-overs. But we were late getting out of our house. “We’ll stop on the road”, we said. Big mistake. At a Sbarro’s on the Pennsylvania Turnpike, there wasn’t a salad or vegetable to be had and even if we’d wanted the pizza or pasta, it looked toxic. Outside of McDonald’s in the same rest area, a hugely overweight couple stood in front of a colorful sign which read, “Great Choice!” and showed a life sized picture of a breaded, fried fish sandwich. The stores that sell logo shirts (I heart Pennsylvania!) were full of snacks, but even the bags of nuts were oily and crusted with salt. We settled for rounds of diet soda and some pretzels. ( I eat a diet that’s 95% Primarian and occasional pretzels are one of my 5% deviations. Particularly the big pretzels shaped like a “Q” that they sell at the Cavs games at Quicken Loans arena! I scrape off about the half the salt though.)

We stop quite a bit with all that diet soda. At each bathroom break, I am impressed by the new size of America. People are simply huge in a way that I can’t remember from when I was younger. As always, that makes me feel angry, because no one chooses to be that size. I feel angry at the fact that food manufacturers, schools, doctors and governments aren’t providing the information and support that Americans need to stay at a weight that doesn’t endanger them.

We check into our motel at 10 p.m. Back in the day, motels were one-story buildings arranged around a pool and a set of swings with a tiny office out front. If you happened to wander in after 9 p.m., you had to ring a bell and dig the owner out of bed. This motel, on the other hand, is a veritable palace, complete with anxious-to-please desk clerks pushing room keys across polished granite counters.

Our motel lies in the midst of what can only be described as a fantasy island of food. Before we get off the highway, I ask Don if we can stop and get something real to eat; a bowl of soup or something. “I don’t think anything will be open at 10 o’clock”, he says. Not open? After exiting the highway, we spend about 30 minutes on a major road that passes from one town to another through an endless unscrolling of places to eat. Like sea sirens luring sailors to death on the rocks, each one calls out alluringly. Pretty signs. Flashing lights. Billboards full of dripping sandwiches. Almost everything we pass is a chain restaurant and many seem to rely on architectural “hooks” to get attention. Of course there are the familiar shapes: the golden arches, the KFC rotating bucket of chicken, but now they are joined by fake Mexican casitas, fake western saloons, fake Italian villas complete with fake deteriorating plaster, fake beach houses with hurricane shutters....a veritable Disney World of food.

Once we turn off the main road onto a smaller one, we find ourselves in a compound of three motels (ours being one). Although food world is less than a one-minute drive away, there are two large chain restaurants within the compound itself, each flashing its neon beacon late into the night. We stop and I am able to get a single, pre-frozen piece of soggy chicken and a thimble sized portion of limp broccoli at one of them. Clearly, this place is better at constructing towers of onion rings and nacho platters.

On check-in, we are handed a goody-bag from our hosts. I love goody bags, but since switching to the Primarian lifestyle, they have become more of a spectator sport for me. A friend of ours meets us in the lobby, already bemoaning the fact that she has eaten most of hers. She is worried about being able to fit into her outfit in the morning. A bit overdramatic?

Allow me to accurately describe the contents of this goody bag: Four oversized bakery cupcakes (with the name of bride and groom inscribed), 2 Nutrigrain Strawberry Yogurt bars, 1 Nature Valley Trail Mix Fruit and Nut Bar, 1 Caribou Coffee Caramel High Rise bar, 1 Caribou coffee chocolate mocha bar, 4 squares of Ghirardelli chocolate, 1 box tic tacs, 27 hershey kisses, 28 large individually wrapped mints, a lip gloss and 2 packs of puffs facial tissue.

Because this is a fancy place, the management has placed two chocolates on the bed. But just in case a guest is still hungry, the hotel also provides instant access to delivery food. A large, colorful brochure in the entryway of our room displays foods that can be brought in from local restaurants at the snap of a finger. The brochure has over 20 pages and features Mexican, Italian and Indian choices among others. On the cover: a large bowl of spaghetti and meatballs, a slab of ribs, a hoagie and a plate of fried chicken.

By the way, it isn’t necessary to worry about the morning, since breakfast is included and will be served in the cherry-wood lobby.

Day Two:

We find the invited guests downstairs at breakfast. There’s fruit, fake scrambled eggs and a chafing dish full of little, flat sausage patties. Everything else on the buffet is an instant sugar load: potatoes, muffins, bread, bagels, cereal, Danish and several very sweetened juices. Again, I notice many very over-sized people at the motel. I can’t help but worry about what those muffins and bagels are doing to their insulin levels. In the elevator, I am standing next to a couple who are bringing their breakfast up to their room. It’s free. They can hardly manage the trays.

At the wedding, food is actually a bit sparse. I notice that the bride and groom and their friends are mostly lean. To see their weight future, you only need to swivel your head to the older tables. I’m actually getting very hungry, when by 4 p.m., I still haven’t had anything except some vegetables and dip. Everyone else is having cocktails instead and are racking up the sugar calories with margharitas and other mixed drinks. The dinner finally arrives. A salad drowned in bleu cheese dressing, baskets of rolls with butter, a small piece of chicken drenched in an unknown sauce on perched on a mammoth bed of rice, followed quickly by large slabs of wedding cake. Shortly after the catered party, we adjourn to the motel where a friend from college has ordered several pizzas. The day ends up with pizza and beer, cupcakes, cookies and the pooled left-overs of various goody bags.

Day Three:

I wake up feeling off balance. Even though I’ve tried to control my intake, I’ve been unable to get the kinds of foods I would normally eat and I don’t feel right. I like to eat light and pure and that simply hasn’t been available. I usually start every day with a skim milk café mocha (Starbucks, 2 splenda). I’m not a breakfast eater, so that’s my substitution. It begins my daily eating process and keeps me full until noon. Now, at day three without it, I’m adrift. I was so hungry the night before that I gave in to a slice of pizza. Sure, I know that one piece of bread won’t do anything to me, but I don’t enjoy departing from routine. And the next day, I always find myself being more interested in starchy things.

I clean out our motel room and toss the uneaten cupcakes in the trash. Ditto the candy and granola bars. Don and I say good bye to the wedding party. They are getting the most out of their last free breakfast by loading up on anything that has insulin written all over it: toast, bagels, muffins and little pastries. A guest I met at the reception corners me. “I hear you’ve written a book about weight loss,” she says between bites of toast. “I’ve cut back on drinking alcohol and I’m doing more exercise. But I’m not losing weight. Should I get my thyroid checked?”

Don and I hastily load the car. Can we find a Starbucks somewhere? One skim milk mocha and maybe I’ll be able to turn a blind eye to the barrage of rest stop food that I’ll have to confront over the endless drive through Food World. Eight hours to food sanity!

We wave goodbye. As we pull away, I hear a faint call, “Let us know when your book comes out…”

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