February 27, 2008

My Sugar-Deprived Childhood

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Disclaimer: This is, in no way, an infringement on the Snack Food King. I wish I were the Snack Food King. I would love to be a connoisseur of all things junk. But, unfortunately, as you will see, my expertise is more in tofu than jelly beans.

My father loves to tell the following story: one morning when I was a toddler, he came downstairs to find me sitting on kitchen floor with cereal boxes and cereal piled up around me like the Indiana Dunes. Instead of trying to hide under the grain piles, I just grinned at him with my huge chipmunk cheeks, yelled “wee!” and threw handfuls of cereal in the air.
I contest this story, mainly because I would hope that I would be in a crib and therefore unable to get into the kitchen without aid. But this may either be proof that I have super powers, or, more likely, a representation of my parent’s laissez-faire attitude towards my rearing.
In fact, my parents were pretty lenient except for one thing: Junk Food. But when you think Junk Food, you probably think: French fries. Oreos. Pizza. Ha! To my parents, junk food was: everything and anything that wasn’t made purely from whole grains, vegetables or soy, with a little egg and fish thrown in for good measure with omega-3 fatty acids. If it was processed, sugar, dairy or any form of meat aside from the aforementioned fish, forget it. Even cereal (which was never even Cheerios, but instead was made out of organic cardboard and fruit juice sweetened) was considered dessert in the Block household.
Yes, I was a deprived child. Forget love, education and protection, I suffered from a lack of processed sugar. When I went to friends’ houses, I attacked snack drawers, scarfing down Cheezits while they watched in amazement. I was to be pitied, of course.
That pity caused them to open up their candy drawer — not a big deal for most, but my own personal mecca. School lunches were the worst. I watched enviously as my friends pulled out lovingly made Jiffy and jelly sandwiches with the crusts cut off, Kraft lunchables, cookies and Hi-C. And then, sad and embarrassed, I’d pull out my own lovingly made tempeh salad sandwich on falling-apart whole wheat bread, graying organic baby carrots, and fake Fig Neutons.
“Gross,” they’d say, wrinkling up their noses. “That looks like barf.”
That was not the only instance of how my parents’ eccentric relationship with health food disrupted our social or academic lives. When my brother took an IQ test as a child, his testers were appalled to learn he didn’t know what ice cream was, but I one-upped him when a boy in pre-school asked my teacher if I never ate sugar because I was an alien.
It was even hard to label myself, food wise. Everyone else was happy with a label: peanut allergic, lactose intolerant, vegetarian, diabetic, but I was none of the following. We ate like Californians in the ’80s. I couldn’t be a vegan or vegetarian because of we ate fish, I didn’t have to take insulin and I wasn’t actually allergic to anything.
But don’t worry, dear readers: we found ways to rebel. I, being the sweet child that I was, conned baby sitters and adults alike into giving me cookies and cupcakes. At birthday parties, my friends would take extra food and then smuggle it to the bathroom where I waited in anticipation.
My brother resorted to other means, using his allowance to buy bags upon bags of candy and storing them in the drawers of his bunk bed. Every year before Passover when it came time to remove the leaven, we had a life or death mission: I would stand guard at the door, keeping watch to make sure the enemy didn’t venture in and find our artillery.
My brother would take the many candy bags, climb out his window onto the roof and catapult them into the alley. Then we would both run downstairs, I would distract the enemy while he would nonchalantly sneak into the alley, retrieve the bags of contraband and plant them in our neighbor’s garbage bin to ensure we were never caught. It was a hard, healthy life, but someone had to live it.
That’s why I find it so incongruous that health food became en vogue. While it’s great that our frighteningly obese nation is finally aware of the shit we put in our bodies, I can’t help but be confused by the faux-yogis who choose to eat the way I was forced. Whole Foods does a great job of pretending to be healthy — hang up organic signs everywhere and no one will care how much sugar is in your baked goods or realize that pork is pork, even when surrounded by pictures of happy grain barrels.
There’s just one thing, future health conscious parents of America, that I ask — when you subject your children to weird healthy ways, never make them bring mashed tempeh to school. I beg you.