I HAD A BRIEF ACTING CAREER, beginning in London, England, in the late nineteen-eighties and continuing in Toronto in the early to mid nineteen-nineties, and the scary quotes around acting are so much a given that I spared myself the trouble of including them.
In London I awarded myself the status of “alternative theatre performer,” often regaling audiences of one whole person, whom I would have bribed with beer to leave the actual drinking area of the pub and follow me to the tiny pub stage.
On certain red-letter days, and how intoxicating they were, I entertained real audiences of tens of people at venues such as the “Mandela Theatre Company,” at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe (this was, of course, the brainchild of a bunch of overly-earnest white boys from London’s East End).
Then London was over, it was time to head home again after sixteen years, and somewhere above the mid-Atlantic, with a couple of Valium and a few gins-and-tonics under my belt, I graduated from happy-go-lucky, alternative-weird singer-songwriter cabaret artiste to grimly determined official union-status-seeking commercial auditioner.
My London adventure, three thousand miles from the raised eyebrows and tut-tuts of my family, had given me the anonymity to be whoever I liked, which frequently turned out to be a self-consciously eccentric, head-turning, leotard-wielding androgyne singing Sondheim with sparkle on my cheeks.
Once home again, however, I downgraded the quirk and upgraded my leotard to a suit, lost the piercings, combed my neatly cut hair and basically transformed myself into the dullest employee in the Acme Widget Corporation so as to maximize my chances of offending no one.
I’d had the naïve idea that acting would liberate me from faceless dronery, and ended up presenting for these new, commercial auditions a more conservative persona than I had ever presented at a real job.
Highlights of my gigs included spokesperson for an early cell phone infomercial, where I was undone by a sudden, total inability to pronounce the word “cellular;” an audition where I accidentally, I think, let a baby fall flat on its little back; and a student filmmaker’s version of a wonderfully nasty short play by Harold Pinter, whose principal role I ate up like a handful of Smarties and in which I gave my best performance in anything, ever—and which could never be screened because the student filmmaker hadn’t bothered to acquire the rights.
Then the day comes, as it must to any actor, that tests one’s commitment to The Muse. This test can take many forms, but for me it was the day I was sent to audition as a tomato.
Oh, you heard.
East Side Mario’s bada boom bada bing was the restaurant, I was to be Mr. Tomato Head and a young boy was to be my son, the small, possibly cherry, or even grape, tomato. We were fitted with gigantic papier maché tomatoes that covered our actual, human heads but contained no eye holes, and the audition was that dad and son, tomato-headed like prisoners at Guantánamo Bay undergoing sensory deprivation, were to move our dadly-sonly tomato-heads from side to side, rhythmically, to music.
Does this not sound like a shoo-in? Alas, little Tommy Tomato, apparently taking after his mother’s side of the family, lacked a truly swingin’ sense of rhythm, or at least the same sense as me. We held hands, we swung our tomato heads to the left, two three four, and to the right, two three four, and every so often my little sun-ripened offspring would get out of step and add a five or forget the four and our hollow tomato-heads would clunk resonantly together. This was only funny the first time, if by funny you mean desperately or, in fact, not remotely.
I didn’t receive a call-back for this one—some evenings I still fall to my knees and ask forgiveness of the Black Virgin of Katowice for briefly hoping that little Tommy Tomato might spend his final days in Sick Kids’ Hospital as mascot for the Make a Wish Foundation—but at first I took my failure as a tomato with a measure of resilience.
I left the casting call full of swelling pride, thinking, “Is this why I studied Shakespeare and read the complete works of Charles Ludlam? To play a tomato? I think not! Pastafazool’—!”
But, as I am easily discouraged, my mojo was consumed by a slow-simmering ragú of resentment, and my acting career from that day seemed to me nothing but sour, tomato-y leftovers..
MY NEMESIS THE TOMATO HAS returned, but in a more apocalyptic form, as the latest food scourge terrorizing the public, for tomato skins are brimming with lectins, the new bad thing that once again wipes the slate clean of what you thought was safe to eat.
Grains, pulses and dairy have already bit the dust, and I gather we will soon be celebrating brunch with no-salt flax chips washed down—a phrase perhaps intended to evoke Sir Galahad and his fellow lusty knights clinking their tankards together, but which actually makes me think of waste sluicing down a drain—with gulps of flavor-dropped water, to ease through our gullets a pomegranate cutlet, a raw, unwashed organic carrot and either lots of eggs or lots of tofu, depending on whether you want a coronary for yourself or breasts for your new boyfriend, who’s cheating death by breathing slower.
Lectins—and this is just off the top of my head, but as I’m reporting on a shaky-science food fad masquerading as doctorly concern, accuracy is the last thing we need—are something that tomatoes, potatoes, beans and eggplant all devised through natural selection to make themselves unpalatable to predators, including us.
Thus, goes the reasoning, they will shred your gastrointestinal tract more efficiently than if you’d swallowed a box of safety razors and chased them with Javex, and are additionally responsible for your overweight, your loud expulsions of gas during client meetings, your allergic response to getting a job, your surly mood and your dwindling Rolodex of people you can call for a good gossip at three AM.
Besides, most of these culprits are also nightshades, like tobacco, as I learned when I was macrobiotic, which is the spiritual system of eating according to the seasons, your health and your geography, except just throw that all out and if it’s Japanese, it’s ok.
Breakfast, already captioned “heart-attack-on-a-plate” by the British, who recklessly fry slices of bread in bacon fat and would fry the cutlery and place mats if they could figure out how, must now be consumed wearing a nuclear jumpsuit, so hazardous to human health are its grilled kidneys, sausages, hash brown potatoes and rashers torn from a pig who was deliberately given a heart attack, just for fun, before it was hauled up on a medieval torture device to have its penis sliced off.
But for the lectin-wary, there is hope. Maybe, just maybe, goes this week’s new-old wisdom, maybe if you follow the Italian method and peel your tomatoes, sieve out the seeds and cook the tomatoes for twelve hours while wearing nonna’s black wool knee socks, cardigan and kerchief—occasionally fiddling with the hairs sprouting out of the mole on your cheek—maybe then you can have the occasional tomato without actually having your stomach prolapse out of your rectum one night as you’re ordering a drink during the first intermission of “Parsifal”.
But don’t say I didn’t warn you.
This whole thread reminds me of the endless negotiations I have with my roommate about vegetables, which Mike considers a crime against humanity or a least a gradually evolving plot.
I spend time trying to figure out what the common factors might be: Is it, for example, squishiness? No, he hates raw carrots because they involve biting into and crunchiness. I see, it’s anything that’s work—this is all coming together!
So, would he like carrots that have been cooked with a roast until meltingly soft and glazed? “Maybe,” he says, with obvious suspicion about what I’m planning to pull on him.
“I had some peas when I was about fifteen,” he says. I know that he’s humoring me by saying nice things about vegetables, hoping I’ll go away. “I didn’t mind them too much. They were small and I could swallow them whole, so the taste wasn’t a problem. Otherwise I might have hurled.”
I only mentioned broccoli once, before I learned that Mike was Secretary of the Toronto Anti-Brassica League, Abuse Recovery Division.
“Most people are highly allergic, or at least sensitive, to a compound in broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cabbage,” he says. “Like, a squirrel can die after eating Brussels sprouts.” He gives me a moment to let this sink in.
I respond that at pushing forty he will need to get accustomed to at least pretending to like certain things, or any dinner party that’s not a table for four at Swiss Chalet and a box of Cracker Jack will be, how can I put this, a social challenge.
This is, of course, only relevant if he plans to leave the house any time soon.
“Maybe you could shred Brussels sprouts,” he says, “and put them in a cake.”
WHO KNOWS WHEN THE ROT SET IN? I remember that in the late fifties and early sixties my mother, like millions of others, was in thrall to the convenience and space-age wonder of instant beverages, pudding mixes, canned or dehydrated soups, cakes made with Miracle Whip, and TV dinners, though technology had not yet advanced to the point of having the alien-tasting Salisbury steak and the apple crisp simultaneously hot.
Soon, we were certain, we’d be squeezing boeuf Bourguignon into our mouths out of toothpaste tubes, thereby maximizing the two extra days we’d have for leisure by the swimming pool once computers had relieved us of workday drudgery and we’d all decamped to the Riviera arm-in-arm with a wealthy industrialist.
That wasn’t science, it was marketing; food voodoo. In the nineties, it was Stop the Insanity! (remember Susan Powter?) as we were scolded about fat. Fat makes you fat! What could be more obvious? And we measured out our oil with teaspoons and bought hydrogenated margarine, and had salads with just vinegar for dressing, and took the crispy skin off chicken. Boneless, skinless! No monastery could have devised ceremonies more penitential than our “fat-free” meals.
Until it became equally obvious that “carbs” made you fat. What do they feed cattle to make them fat? Carbs! Grains! (Yes, and to make them sick, too; cattle evolved to eat grass, but that’s another horror story.) At the height of the Atkins craze, I heard a member of something like the Citrus Fruit Production Board interviewed, and I still remember her exasperated cry: “People are not getting fat eating oranges!”
Oh, please! Fob us off with your agenda-pushing, self-dealing, half-assed nod to common sense, why don’t you?
For me, the lowest point was the anti-bread hysteria. Bread is such a potent symbol for nourishment, home, togetherness: the staff of life, our daily bread, breaking bread, companion (someone you share bread with…) even, for the religiously inclined, a substance that might represent the physical presence of God… that to reject bread was to throw out a body of knowledge that was not exactly scientific, but at least empirical, amassed by means of trial and error, and from that perspective concrete, demonstrable. To curse bread was to reject our particular cultures, daily lives and even language; to pretend that all this time we knew nothing.
How did mankind manage to survive this long? I wondered.
And, sadly, in our collective amnesia, we’ve forgotten that food is a sensual pleasure. Taste those Omega-6 fatty acids! Thrill to those bioflavinoids! Seriously. This is not the way we need to think about food.
We feast on pseudo-science and quackery, and forget that strawberries in January, flown in to Ontario from California, are as bloated and tasteless as they are inappropriate to the season. We’ll buy anything branded “natural,” but, really, our all-consuming greed is impatient with nature’s timing. If we’d wait until June or July, we’d remember—and experience—exquisite strawberries that we’d treasure for their taste, as glorious and ephemeral as summer.
Humans are omnivores, eaters of potentially everything, and the “omnivore’s dilemma,” as explained by Michael Pollan, is basically, “How do we know what to eat?”
The answer is culture—remember culture? Yeah neither do I—our collective knowledge that’s passed on to to us subliminally, at every meal. Culture is the cumulative wisdom of generations, of, eventually, our entire species, that’s passed down to us.
This is why I celebrate Canadian multiculturalism, above the ‘melting pot’ model of the U.S. Americans, for all of their talk of individualism, aim for a vague “American” culture which turns out to be an aspiration to blank walls surrounding suburban conformity. Melting-pot minds, wiped free of useful traditions ask, “Should I have olive oil? or margarine?” The answer is obvious to Italians (the first) and marketers (the second).
To find food culture again, we may have to think back two or more generations, to our grand- or even great grandparents, who weren’t afraid of food, who knew what was good and what was garbage and who trusted their great grandparents more than the shills promoting fake food and fake ideas.
And now I’m going to lie in a dark room, staring at the ceiling, with a can of Betty Crocker vanilla frosting and a spoon. But no cake.
Are you kidding?
Cake is the worst thing.