Health, that new American Holy Grail, had me in its grip. My friends all seemed to be eating brown rice, vegetables sprinkled with sesame seed and protose soaked in whale oil.
My own feelings about food have long been ambivalent. No one can lure me to dinner by promising to cook a meal like mother used to make. My mother was a woman of infinite virtues, but cooking wasn't one of them; she raised my brother, sister and me on an endless succession of rubber roasts, boiled potatoes and peanut butter. We dreaded Sundays, for that day mother was apt to bake a cake as a special treat. The only "treat" that could match it for indigestibility was her lemon meringue pie. Her most spectacular catastrophe, though, was home-brewed root beer, an adventure that kept us in the kitchen for most of one day. The product added up to about 50 bottles of a dark, odorous brew that was finally corked and stored on a shelf in the basement to ferment. One summer morning the hazards of the fermentation process overtook us. We awoke to the sound of corks shooting out of bottles like bullets, followed by jet streams of sticky spray and shattering glass as the bottles rolled off the shelf onto the concrete floor. That morning my mother stood in her nightgown at the top of the basement stairs, observed the damage and declared, "Children, I give up! From now on you'll have to make do with store-bought food." It was one of the happiest days of our lives. Ever since, I have existed on food produced, prepared and packaged by invisible hands.
So that's my case history, and I might have gone on forever chomping on processed crackers had not a sporting crisis arisen that led me to investigate health foods.
I was taking judo at the time, in a ladylike sort of way. My only distinction in the sport was that I had been a white belt longer than anyone in the school. No one, not even children, avoided me. I had a propensity for lying down on the mat at the first sign of aggression. I have always been small, and no amount of exercise has improved my natural condition. I am a weakling.
"Switch to health foods," my friends advised. "What you need is nutrition for extra stamina." The idea was already in the back of my mind when I met Lady Goliath, a green belt bucking for brown who turned up in the dojo one evening, and, after wiping the mat with most of the class, challenged little old me.
"I am told that you couldn't toss a coin," she said. Very funny. I chose not to argue the point. She was one enormous cookie.
"Some other time," I said. "What I'd like to do is put on some weight so we'd be more evenly matched. So if you don't mind waiting until I add an extra hundred pounds or so...."
"You coward," she said, a fairly accurate description.
"Sticks and stones," I quipped lightly, remaining seated with my back to the wall, my legs tucked under me in the approved Oriental position of rest. Fortunately, the class ended at that point and I escaped to the street.
"She'll be laying for you," said one of my friends. And indeed, I began to hear rumors about what Lady Goliath was planning to do to me. I dismissed the talk as absurd but listened more carefully when a brown belt told me, "You have to start eating properly. Health foods will give you energy, a sense of well-being. You get the feeling you can take on the world."