War and Buffet

A couple of months ago the family and I went out, as is our habit, to the Marriott hotel for their annual Easter Brunch.

Brunch is one of those meals that I can really get behind. For one thing there are an unlimited number of goodies to chose from, most more at home at the dinner table than the breakfast nook.  I’ve always been one of those guys for whom any category of foodstuff would qualify as appropriate A.M. sustenance; in fact, I can say with almost no shame that in the early hours of the day I tend to be more inclined to go for the dinner left-overs than for the traditional eggs/bacon/cereal cuisine anyways. I mean, who, when faced with the choice of either slurping a bowl of Grape Nuts or reheating last night’s Roasted Lemon Rosemary Chicken with Haricots Verts wouldn’t chose the latter?

Of course, I wrote “reheating” and “Roasted Lemon Rosemary Chicken with Haricots Verts” only to be illustrative; chances are that my breakfasts usually involve me standing in front of the fridge at 5:30 in the morning and inhaling, with my bare fingers, nutriments as varied as meatballs, leftover takeout, shredded cheese, raw hot dogs, innumerable pepperoncini, and even – on more than one occasion – clam chowder.  The point is, unlike my furtive, pre-dawn gastronomical indiscretions, attending the typical well-stocked brunch is a perfect excuse to eat whatever the hell you want – and lots of it – with almost no guilt at all.

And there’s even alcohol – that is, if you want to call champagne alcohol. Me, I prefer to call it Carbonated Headache in a Bottle. I generally avoid imbibing of the stuff, with some possible exceptions being on the occasion of a New Year’s Eve celebration, the rare wedding reception, or the even rarer ascension of a Democrat to higher office. But a brunch, well…when in Rome, right?

But while the experience of gorging myself in one sitting on about twelve pounds of eggs, pasta, meat, shrimp, cheese, and pastry should normally be viewed as without a single drawback, I have to admit that there was one gray cloud that threatened to dampen my otherwise perfect mid-morning: I’m talking about the often excruciating process of Waiting In Line At the Buffet.

Or, as I like to put it for brevity’s sake, WILAB.

WILAB is only one of several trials or ordeals that have recently been testing my outlook on my fellow man. Some other well-known episodes are Waiting In Line To Use the ATM, Waiting In Line For a Shopper To Pay For Her Groceries With A Check, and, perhaps the most egregious, Waiting In Line To Put Sugar and Cream In Your Coffee.

The latter experience has pained me the most over the years, as nothing puts the average person into such a pronounced state of casual languor and meditation, apparently, then doctoring his or her freaking mochaccino. I’m sure you know what I mean – you’re waiting there by the condiment station at the coffee shop while some thirty-something hipster adds his organic turbinado sugar one grain at a time. These people treat the process like something sacred and not to be rushed, on par with some hallowed ceremony like Catholic Communion or Buddhist Pirit. I mean, the Mayans practiced Báalchequicker, and with fewer spices, than these freaks. It’s damn frustrating, and nearly makes one despair of humanity.

I’ve often thought that the main problem here is that the environment surrounding your typical coffee shop is too idyllic. Warm, soothing music lilts inoffensively from unseen speakers, generic and unchallenging artwork line the walls – that sort of thing. It tends to put people into a kind of trance.  If I had my way, I’d set up a t.v. screen at the sugar and milk station that played, on a loop, something horrific and repellent. You know, truly nauseating imagery like World War II battle footage, videos of autopsies, Ethan Hawke Screen tests – anything the average non-sociopath would avert their eyes from. Trust me, people would be in and out of that coffee shop in no time.

But back to brunch. WILAB is its own special thing.  And I don’t mean the part where you linger in line while waiting to approach the buffet; no, I mean the part where you’ve finally made it and you’re standing there in front of a succession of chafing dishes, each one beckoning you to help yourself – yet you have to wait for the guy next to you to finish what he’s doing before you can continue.

Even if what the guy was doing, as was the case when I approached the buffet line displaying traditional savory fare like bacon & eggs, was absolutely nothing.

Now, maybe it’s just me, but I never thought of this process as a complicated one. I mean, the food is already paid for, and no one was going to monitor my selections. The way I look at it, all that is required of me is to approach the buffet, pop open the chafing dish, excavate contents within, and move on to the next tray. Not exactly rocket science. Plus, it just so happens that I’m known far and wide for my iron stomach; consequently the contents of the dish are immaterial and I can work the line indiscriminately. But if anything failed to catch my fancy, well then to close the lid on the offending victuals and move on down the line would be for me the work of only a second or two. That’s the way it should be – it’s what they call etiquette.

But on loading my plate with bacon and moving over to the next chafing dish, I was stopped firmly in my tracks by the presence of a fellow bruncher standing motionless in front of said dish. Strangely, he wasn’t doing anything – just standing there, looking straight ahead with a marked expression of vapidity. I gave him a second, of course, assuming that he would come out of his private reverie and either commence with the self-service or move on, but he remained idle.

Well, I wasn’t going to let this go on for long, not with all that unseen food there waiting to reveal itself. So, keeping with my habit of avoiding verbal communication when standing in line for anything, I respectfully reached in front of him – being careful not to encroach on his personal space – and lifted the lid to the chafing dish. The idea being, you know, that if Mr. Silent Reverie wasn’t going to be proactive, then I would quietly help myself and move on.

I opened the lid and was about to go for the goods when from behind me I felt him stir, and before I was able to register surprise he had shifted himself in front of me, taken hold of the serving tongs, and was piling the contents of the dish – breakfast sausage, it turned out – onto his plate.

That’s right – by all appearances the man wasn’t in a silent reverie at all, but was, in fact, waiting for me to open the chafing dish for him. And in case you were wondering, he was not infirm, significantly aged, handicapped or otherwise encumbered; nor was I wearing a name tag, chef’s whites or a funny hat, either.

Okay, so maybe I was wearing a funny hat – but it wasn’t that kind of funny hat.

Needless to say, the experience marred what would have otherwise been the perfect brunch. In fact, the prospect of having to follow this person around, opening chafing dishes the whole morning, handing him plates and cutlery and perhaps even slicing his Roasted Lamb, was enough to induce me to withdraw from that particular buffet line and instead queue up by the waffles and sweets.

Not my first choice, you know, but as I said – when it comes to brunch I don’t discriminate.

Juiced! or: How I Made it Through Eight Days Without Solid Food.

I’ve always been someone who loves food a little too much, and, like many a Miller before me, I don’t need the holidays as an excuse for over-eating or heavy drinking.  I’ve always known my limits and had the metabolism to keep me relatively healthy despite my appetites, but I’m rapidly leaving my thirties now and I’m beginning to think that the aforementioned metabolism is pulling the old bait-and-switch. After gorging myself this holiday season on, among other things, roast turkey, shrimp scampi, goose, lobster and clams with butter, pounds and pounds of pasta and endless pies – washed down with plenty of beer, wine, vodka, whiskey, champagne and, on one regrettable occasion, a combination of all five – it became pretty clear to me that I was starting to look a little on the heavy side. As in fat.

A quick trip to the closet to try on some old pants confirmed my fears. It was time for some detoxification, and I’m not talking about any old diet, either – my gastric excesses required something much more significant. Over the years I’ve learned to listen to my body, and what my body was telling me this time was that it needed at least a week of staying away from the solids all together.

The solution? An eight-day juice fast.

I had fasted before some years ago, if two and a half days of consuming nothing but water and herbal tea can be called fasting. I did this on a whim, and I must say I managed it quite well, though I ultimately decided to break the fast prematurely after realizing, with no little degree of clarity, that I was really rather hungry. I’ll never forget the first meal I had that day: a Chicken Caesar Salad. There’s no easy way to describe the effects that first bite of crispy romaine, cheesy croutons and baked poultry had on me.  I don’t know if you’ve ever seen one of those sculptures by the Italian Baroque master Bernini, where there’s a person – usually a saint or some biblical character like St. Theresa or the Profit Daniel – who’s in the throws of a sort of spiritual ecstasy, hand clutching the heart and face lifted upward towards the heavens.  Well, that was me after the first bite. A pleasant warmth enveloped my body, my mind cleared instantly, and I was nearly overcome by a general sense of goodwill toward all. My memory is foggy, but I can’t say for sure that I didn’t hear angels singing.

So yeah, I broke that fast rather early, but one thing that I took from that experience was the realization that I could go that long without food – I mean, two and a half days! – and without much difficulty. Let’s face it – most of us would either collapse from low blood-sugar levels or go into a ravenous rampage if we missed even one meal. Add to that the abstention from alcohol and caffeine, and for a food-and-drink lover like myself the task would seem positively Sisyphean.

I did a little research and found pretty quickly that with a juice fast you simply run whatever vegetables (and some fruit) you can find through a juicer and drink about eight ounces of the swill down with an equal amount of water whenever you’d normally be eating. That means that I’d be getting a constant source of raw vegetable nutrition – enough to keep me humming along for days – just no solids or animal bits.  The idea is that denying your system all the junk it’s been forced to manage over the years will give it time to take a breather, look around, and refocus its energy on other, more important tasks.

As far as side effects go, there didn’t seem to be anything to worry about. Sure, my research indicated that headaches, bad breath, oily skin, general irritability and the frequent and rapid exodus of whatever lurks in my intestines from my body would await me, but let’s face it – that sounds like a normal Saturday morning for me. In fact, higher energy levels and clarity of mind seemed to be in the cards as well, along with some serious weight loss (estimated at an average of a pound a day). So I wasn’t worried about feeling weak.

Fortunately we have a juicer; all I needed was the produce, and a trip to the Sunday farmer’s market here in Long Beach provided all the veggies I would need. Pounds of carrots, cukes, celery, beets, tomatoes, kale – you name it, I loaded up on it. In retrospect there are several vegetables I now know to avoid in the future – I’m talking to you, turnips and cabbage – but for the most part any common vegetable combination turned out to make a rather tasty, if unfamiliar, concoction.

The first day was tough, as you might imagine, but take away the foul mood, the pounding headache and all the retching and it really wasn’t that bad. Simply avoiding each of the regular meals and replacing them with a cup of juice wasn’t really much of a problem –  what surprised me was how often I caught myself almost putting something in my mouth. I came out here to Southern California to work in the film industry as a Producer, which means that when I work – which is infrequently – I’m so busy that I never even see my family, much less hang around the kitchen. When I’m between jobs, however, I’m at home pretty much all day.  Add to that scenario the presence of a constantly snacking three year-old (and all of her accompanying food-based detritus), and you can begin to imagine how often table scraps find their way into the gaping maw.  I am also a bit of a gourmand (having spent several years in the culinary industry) and do all the cooking at home – a habit I had no intention of breaking, despite my wife’s assurances that she and Sarah would be just fine on a diet of cereal and Annie’s macaroni and cheese. So I had to stop myself on a number of occasions from unconscious grazing, as well as soldier through breakfast, lunch, and dinner preparations for the family without ingesting even a crumb. Not ideal conditions for any extended fast, you’ll agree.

But if there was one thing that surprised me over the subsequent eight days it was how not hungry I was.  I desired real food, of course – desired it like crazy – but it became clear to me that it was just that: desire.  The constant intake of juice kept my hunger at bay, and left me to face the real problem I had with food – I was attached to it. I mean, we all are, right? If you could go for as long as you wanted without any hunger at all, you’d probably still crave your mother’s meatballs, your dad’s famous barbecued chicken, your grandmother’s killer martinis. I know I did. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Food isn’t just for sustenance, it’s for our pleasure and comfort – but it’s this very attachment to past pleasures and comforts that is at the core of many of our issues with food. It’s one of the things those Buddhist types are always saying: take away your attachments to things and you’ll be fine, even if the things you were attached to are still around, making faces and holding their extended index fingers a centimeter from your face.

When I woke up the morning of day two (after a restless night), the bathroom scale indicated I had lost five pounds. Five pounds. In one day. This should have alarmed me, but I have to admit I was thrilled. My elation, however, was premature; after that first precipitous drop my weight went back up the next morning, bounced around a bit for a couple days and then leveled off, ending the week right on target: eight pounds lost for eight days fasting.

And so I made it through the juice fast without much incident. My energy level was fine throughout the week, and I never experienced any negative side effects, unless you count being grumpy about everyone else enjoying home-cooked meals in my presence as a negative. I learned which veggies worked best (carrots, celery, beets and fennel), that throwing an apple or some grapes into every batch made the juice more palatable, and that I could enjoy a little bit of green tea each day without too much guilt. I also learned that, after each successful day of avoiding solid foods, managing my attachments to them, and honestly addressing my issues with food and alcohol, I will still lay in bed at night and think, “Fuck it – I’m getting some meatloaf and a bottle of Jack Daniels.”

But I never did cheat, and I have to admit I was even a bit disappointed when the eight days had ended. I really thought that I could keep going, and even felt some guilt after carefully consuming my first post-fast salad. True, I felt and looked better, but shouldn’t I have experienced something more intense? Maybe some visions, a glimpse of Nirvana, perhaps a moment of unity with the universe?  Something, you know, transcendent?

Wait – what’s this I’m reading…you mean there’s a thirty-day juice fast? A whole month?  No fried chicken products, buttery pastas, greasy burgers or rich desserts for thirty days? I mean, for the love of God, no cheese? I couldn’t, could I?

When’s that farmer’s market again?