White bread, ice cream, powdered Macaroni and Cheese, salted butter, Captain Crunch, boxed cake, mini-doughnuts, and cheese doodles: I sat surrounded. The couch was littered with items chock full of high fructose corn syrup and simple carbs, chemical dyes and artificial sweeteners. My fingers were sticky from the Rice Krispies Treat that I clung to like life-saving medicine. I was a thirteen-year-old maniac—an addict who had been clean until now. And I was working hard to make up for lost time.
My brother and I grew up in a strictly organic, health conscious home, years before the whole organic or farm-to-table movements became popular. My mother would drive all the way to Park Slope to purchase our healthy fair trade produce from a store called “Back to The Land,” the only market that sold what she needed. (It has since expanded into two giant stores on a block with a number of other organic markets.)
It was easy for her to keep us kids on the healthy food track. As babies she made our food herself, pureeing organic carrots and greens or fruit. As children we happily drank apple juice instead of soda, ate yogurt instead of ice cream, and chose grapes over potato chips. My father played his role as well, always making his own pancakes from scratch and happily eating turkey frankfurters, even though I am sure he preferred the beef kind.
And as incredible as it may seem, my brother and I really didn’t mind. There are many photos of me happily spooning organic yogurt while at a birthday party where everyone else is pushing chocolate cake into their mouths. I don’t think I even realized I was missing out on anything.
Until I entered junior high.
One day I went over to a friend’s house and we were told the pantry was at our disposal. Opening those double doors was one of the most magical experiences of my life, and in my mind I can still see it—a glowing light peeking through the open door, momentarily blinding me as I focused on the manna from heaven stored on each shelf. In retrospect I may have already been riding a sugar high from the powdered iced tea I was offered on arrival, one of the most delicious drinks I had ever tasted.
There in front of us was everything: a loaf of Wonder Bread, boxes of Kraft Macaroni and Cheese, cookies, candy, chips. Toppings for ice cream sundaes lined the top shelf, purchased to enhance the many containers that were nestled, romantically, in the freezer. I supposed it was surprising to my host when I chose the Wonder Bread first, slathering each piece with salted butter until tears of joy welled in my eyes.
For me Wonder Bread was a gateway drug, and I crossed that gateway with Nutella-fueled glee. I was hooked. From then on my cousin and I would walk to the supermarket by her home and use our “dinner money” to buy marshmallows and microwavable pizza and packages of individually wrapped slices of American cheese. Of course I never took these things home, and since I was active and thin the only indication of my addiction was my quickly changing teenaged skin, which rebelled against my food choices like a cornered bear. Still I would not back down, zits be damned.
But eventually having it at other people’s houses wasn’t enough. I began to work away at my mother’s organic purchases and healthy meal resolve.
“Just one ice cream from the truck,” I’d beg in an unnaturally high-pitched voice.
“Just a little salt on the popcorn,” I’d suggest while already pouring the shaker.
And slowly she gave in. It probably didn’t help that by this time both she and my father were working full time, and the need for quick dinner ideas and quick answers for nagging children were a requirement.
Soon enough my younger brother caught wind of my new diet choices and hopped right on the bandwagon, breaking free of the healthy food cycle far earlier than I had. When asked where he would like to eat dinner on his ninth birthday, his answer was Burger King.
Older siblings—the original corruptors of innocence.
But although my mother flexed a bit she never broke. And despite the many things she balanced at various times in our lives—work, college, grad school, family crises—she somehow managed to make sure we always had a salad with our dinner and carrots for snacks. White bread has still to this day never crossed our doorstep and sugar cereal will always be reserved for dessert only.
And while both my brother and I have eaten our fair share of Taco Bell, midnight pizza slices, Hostess Cupcakes and bacon grilled cheeses, as we entered our twenties we found ourselves returning to the organic and healthy ways we once knew. During a short bout of living together we even complained about the high cost of organic produce, wistful for the days our mother would fill our childhood fridge for free. (Something we still take full advantage of when home for a day or two).
But every once in a while, I’ll shift my eyes away from my heavy, healthy, shopping basket and catch glimpse of a loaf of Wonder Bread, or that blue Macaroni and Cheese box, or a Marshmallow Iced Devil’s Food Cake, and find my brain transported to that day I first tasted a slice of salted processed chemical heaven. I’ll run home and make a sandwich with whole grain bread, tearing the heavy tough pieces with my teeth, feeling some sort of triumph. And I’ll text my mom and tell her, so that she knows her struggle was worth it.