On this February 10, my 92nd birthday, I have decided to review my food habits perhaps to learn what has kept me up and running for so long and if any changes might keep me doing so for a decent while longer (like forever).
To begin with, I have always eaten exactly as I pleased and am fortunate to like a lot of things that are good for me save only, perhaps, kale and brussels sprouts. All other brassicas—and especially broccoli rabe and red cabbage—are welcome on my plate.
Since childhood in a Brooklyn public school I have seen charts indicating the basic food groups one should have daily, although these authoritative recommendations have changed much through the years. Not that my nutritional proportions ever adhered to any such recommendations. They have always been higher in fat, protein and salt, but as my internists have always seemed delighted with my blood pressure and cholesterol counts, I have had little reason to change. Instead of a sweet tooth, I have a salt tooth and my idea of a perfect nosh is a piece of chilled herring, a chunk of good cheese, or slices of salami, liverwurst or mortadella along with crusts of bread or those crackling crisp Scandinavian rye wafers.
I have eaten real street food (as compared to currently popular kitchen food sold from trucks) all over the world, including frogs-on-a-stick as well as locusts and silkworms in China. I eat lots of raw clams and oysters, for which I keep myself vaccinated against hepatitis A, not being a complete fool after all.
But twice through the years events have wrought big changes in my diet. The biggest such change automatically took place when, after almost 55 years, I stopped being a full-time restaurant critic, although I continue to write about food. The full-time job gave me every excuse to eat—a dirty job that somebody had to do—with the result that I left my post weighing 210 pounds and looking like a walking club chair. It took about ten years to lose 70 pounds, accomplished not through exercise nor a formal diet plan but merely by eating less every chance I got, meaning fewer calories. Although, I remain a restaurant junkie and still try every dish that sounds promising, but such occasions come fewer and farther between.
The second and the saddest event that altered my eating habits was the death four years ago of Richard Falcone, my darling and devoted husband, and eating partner of 60 years. For the most part this has changed the way I eat at home, something I do about three nights a week. Several of my widowed friends, all accomplished cooks, still enjoy preparing lovely meals for themselves and eating them at set tables. But not me. I do minimally decent, simple dinners and eat on a straight-backed armchair usually watching Jeopardy. I cannot bear to sit at my huge, glowing, mahogany table at one end of a very long room as that makes me feel lonelier than lonely. And so, at home, my diet consists of frittatas and omelets, pan-broiled steaks, chops and burgers, pasta, salads and many soups—some homemade, some purchased and doctored in the re-heating. But because eating in an armchair makes handling certain foods difficult and messy, I stick to short pasta forms, non-runny egg yolks and frequently cut my meat in the kitchen. I may even write a cookbook, The Armchair Gourmet—recipes for foods appropriate for such a setting.
Impromptu dining in a restaurant is also a bit more difficult now, especially if I do not feel like dining alone, as I often have done with pleasure in restaurants all over the world. It’s hard to find a companion on short notice and it can be awkward to try dishes meant for two by myself, and often those are the most ambitious and tempting choices. Full-size, high-quality pizzas are daunting too, being too large for one and I dislike reheated slices. Therefore, slice joints are my present fate. (Fortunately, there is Joe’s on Carmine Street close to the IFC movie theater in Greenwich Village where I often am.)
Age has also taken its toll on my diet. I now realize that eggs do not come in pairs and that I can have just one. I find myself wanting red meat less often and when I do, it is in smaller portions. Lately, when I try to decide on lunch or dinner I regularly think of pastas with various sauces, lobster rolls, fried clams and oysters, sushi, and the piquant, colorful southeast Asian fare of Thailand, and Vietnam as well as of the intriguing flavors of Japan and China. Increasingly, I am also tempted by the savory vegetable entrees of India and the Middle East.
Perhaps, I am lucky enough to get credit for never having smoked and for drinking very lightly. Lord knows I rarely exercise lest one counts walking from one food store to another or climbing some stairs at home. Not that I intend to alter the dietary ways that have served me so well, as I have never believed in arguing with success, which means to me a generous helping of Peking Duck as a birthday celebration.