Sunday, July 18, 2010

People Who Offer You the Sugar Free Versions of Things as if There's No Difference

I am fed up with this. I just spent a week as the houseguest of a very nice woman, who despite all her positive qualities had a terrible and offensive habit. She would serve her guests the low-fat, no-sugar, gluten-free, low-carb, or diet version of whatever food staple was being innocently offered. And she would offer it as if she was providing the genuine article. As if there was no actual difference between an ice tea and a diet ice tea. As if skim milk can get the job done in a cup of coffee. Because I was in the tricky position of being a guest and she was offering me hospitality, I couldn't really speak my mind and give her the verbal abuse that such behavior warrants. Instead I had to play polite and continually find new excuses of why I wasn't going to finish my bowl of no sugar added ice cream, or my bagel with fat free cream cheese.

With soda, I think you'll all agree, society has successfully managed to mentally distinguish the regular and diet versions. If someone offered you a coke, and then when you said yes, handed you a diet coke, you would look at it in confusion and say, "I thought you said you had a coke?" We view these two items (properly) as unique and non substitutable. Unfortunately this sense of clearly distinguishing diet products from their regular counterparts hasn't percolated up to the ice cream or tea markets, as evidenced in my recent experience in this minefield of a pantry.

There was a Seinfeld episode, an old one, where Kramer is down in Florida at Jerry's parents house. He mentions that he's hungry and Jerry's mom says something like "Would you like me to make you an omelet?" Kramer perks up immediately at this unexpected good fortune and says yes, please! Jerry's mom goes to work but starts advising Kramer on the particulars of what he's going to get:

Mom: "You don't mind cottage cheese, do you?"
Kramer: "Oh sure, sure. That's fine."
Mom: "And I don't actually have any eggs. I use egg beaters."
Kramer: "Uh.... sure. Ok."

And then there may have been one or two additional qualifications, and at each step Kramer signs off on it, with increasing unease, until by the end it becomes plain that this will be the most disgusting, inedible, unappetizing omelet in the history of western civilization. But Kramer by this point has committed himself. It's funny.

But at least in this frightening scenario Mrs. Seinfeld had the decency to warn Kramer at every step of the way about what was in store. And so when Kramer presumably ate the foul concoction he knew what he was getting. At least he wasn't caught unawares. This was the triple offense of my host's bowl of no-sugar-added ice cream. First you have the fact that no-sugar-added ice cream tastes like a frozen bucket of bus depot mop water. Second you have the shock factor. You were expecting ice cream when you spooned yourself that bite. You had no opportunity to steel yourself for the flavor of a barium milkshake. And third is our old friend the presumption of ignorance. My host assumed that I wouldn't know the difference. She assumed that ice-cream and no-sugar-added ice cream are substitutes, that they can be swapped without anyone being the wiser. "Is there a problem with the ice cream?" she questioned. "A problem? This is no-sugar-added ice cream, asshole!" I didn't reply.

There are some people, you'll agree, who are highly health conscious and their kitchens reflect their dietary priorities. You'll find lots of fresh vegetables, fruits, yogurts, rice cakes, protein bars, that kind of stuff. My host, on the other hand, didn't follow this model. She had, from all appearances, a kitchen full of the kind of junk food staples that I love. There were chips and pretzels, and microwavable stuff, there were sodas and Snapples, and the freezer was full of desserts. I think, in her mind, the fact that all of it was the diet-version made it okay.

But it really isn't okay. If you're eating no-sugar-added ice cream, you're eating a bowl of shit. Why not just have real ice cream, but have it less often? Or, instead of salt-free potato chips, how about you just have no potato chips whatsoever? These freakish, terrible tasting, golem like simulacrums of guilty-pleasure food are a lose lose situation for everyone. They provide no pleasure, and they still give you the guilt. Even so, I don't mind if you take this approach to your life - eating this foul chow - as long as you don't try to make me participate. You know how people who don't drink tea or coffee still might keep some in the house for guests? Keep some real food in your house just in case a person comes along who naturally recoils in disgust from things like Crystal Light.

At the end of the week, and at the end of a long day, my host asked the table if we'd all like some hot cocoa. At this point in our stay, you'd better believe, we had wised up to the reality of this kitchen. Our eyes darted around. Did cocoa sound good right about then? Of course it did. But what were we actually going to get? What kind of frightening liquid would actually appear in that steaming mug? Finally we said yes, but I watched the preparation like a hawk. First, out came the tea kettle, which our host filled with tap water. She got it going on the stove. Then out of the pantry came this box:

At this point I began the process of mentally preparing to drink sugar free hot chocolate. As the tea pot whistled our host asked if anyone wanted whipped cream. "No!" I cried out in fear before she had barely finished the question. Eventually, we all ingested a mug of this hot, watery solution, and as we did so, I privately made a vow to myself.

I vowed that when the day came that I myself would offer hot chocolate to my own guests, that it would go a little differently. On that day I will take some fresh whole milk and bring it to a simmer in a pan on low heat. Then - I bring out the block of baker's chocolate. Shaving off a chunk, I melt it separately with sugar, water, and a dash of salt. When the milk is mixed in, mmmmm - and I won't forget the marshmellow, my guests can choose full size or minis.

When my guests drink the cocoa.... some of them enter a state of pure relaxation and pleasure. Some weep. Some just whisper a silent "thank you". And some are involuntarily taken back to their earliest memories of home and family, like that guy at the end of Ratatouille.

That's my vow, and I also can state with certainly you will never be given the low calorie bullshit in any other disguise. If it took a week of watery dairy, artificial sweeteners, and fat free spreads to teach me this, well then maybe it was a lesson I needed to learn.

1 comment:

thepapers said...

I once had to stay an entire weekend as a guest in my friends families secluded mountain cabin where the only things to drink were sugar-free ice tea, skim milk and tap water. And because it was in the mountains the tap water had high levels of sulfur so the water tasted like someone ate a plate of deviled eggs and than farted on your tongue.