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DO IT YOURSELF


I recently took part in a discussion about food, which I enjoy almost as much as eating food, which is a lot - if the food is well-prepared. Which is what this piece is about, if I can just get past this paragraph.

While swapping our favorite dishes I asked a friend whether he likes to cook. "I used to," he replied. "But I no longer have the time." This friend is a successful business owner, so his reply seems justified. Or does it? 

The line dividing self-sufficiency on one side and dependency on the other is not etched in stone. And it seems to meander steadily in the direction of dependency the farther we go in life, as we climb both the ladder of success as well as that of age. Indeed we start out completely dependent on our guardians. We require our parents or their surrogates to feed us, bathe us, clothe us and coddle us. As we emerge from the toddler stage we grow more independent. We are able to brush our teeth, make our beds and tie our shoelaces. The more enterprising venture into food preparation, even if this means merely spreading peanut butter and jelly between two pieces of bread and mashing them together. By college even the biggest mama's boy is at least able to microwave ramen. 

A mark of coming up in the world seems to be how much of life's basic necessities we can pay others to do for us. We take our cars in to be washed. We hire maids to clean our houses, nannies to raise our kids. We go in for mani pedis. There are dentists and hairdressers and secretaries, not to mention accountants and dog walkers and masseurs. Some even have personal assistants to do their grocery shopping and buy their clothes and run their errands. The friend in question often hires a personal chef when he entertains to make vegan meals for his guests. But only on occasion. He is not yet at the level of Prince, who had a live-in cook make him food on demand. His famous last meal, something involving kale and beets, was found in the refrigerator, untouched. I'm sure this is no reflection on the chef's talents, only that with a stomach full of pills our beloved artist wasn't all that hungry.

Jimmy Kimmel once interviewed Tom Cruise and asked him about his morning routine. "Well I get out of bed and brush my teeth," said the star. To which Kimmel jokingly replied, "You mean you don't have an army of attendants to do that for you?" Because there are things that even the richest and most successful still insist on doing for themselves. Brushing teeth and washing pits and wiping butts are among these. "What, do you want me to do hold your dick for you?" is funny because it's the last straw. That is, we attend to our own toilet until we become incontinent, at which point we are dropped off at a geriatric facility and cared for by strangers. How demeaning! Though some dementia sufferers are so confused they can't even recognize their own relatives, at which point everyone becomes a stranger. Many of these patients are happy most of the time. What does this say? You can be like my Chinese neighbors. The Chinese are famous for their multi-generational homes. Often the grandparents and even great grandparents share a roof with their children and their children's children. Mr. and Mrs. Chang have their aged matriarch at home with them, and a nurse who comes every day, weekends included, to care for her. I bet grandma longs for the day when she could spoon herself her own ramen, let alone make it. 

Which brings me to my point. Where along the spectrum of self-sufficiency do you reside? Which of life's basic necessities do you perform for yourself, and which do you outsource to others?

When I was a young lad my family had a live-in housekeeper, to assist my mom, who was a stay-at-home housewife, with things like cleaning and cooking. Mom would do the grocery shopping, often with us in tow. But it was often Thelma, and after her Chloe, who would pack our lunches and make our dinner, with my mom's input and cooperation. Chloe would make french fries, mom would steam the broccoli and bake the lasagna. All I had to do was make my bed. Being relatively chore-free meant I could focus my energies almost exclusively on sports and school. And I did really well in both areas, because I didn't have to think about what to make for dinner or when to do my laundry. When homework was done and practice over, I could turn my attention to the girlies, and an active social life represented the third S in my adolescent repertoire. Ah, the halcyon days!

When I started college I was in for a rude awakening. Our maid moved back to Guatemala, my mom started working full-time, and so my brothers and I were left to fend for ourselves. My room wasn't going to clean itself, nor my underwear wash itself, nor my dinner cook itself. I was suddenly in charge of fulfilling these basic necessities and initially I struggled. Because I was also a student who waited tables and enjoyed mammoth weight-lifting sessions at the gym, so I was sore all the time. Luckily the learning curve was steep. One word: bleach. Great for laundry, great for tile grime, great even for carpet stains. Pour bleach on pretty much anything and it will disappear. Including the lining of my stomach, when I accidentally ingested some. Cooking was a habit slow to develop, and so I outsourced it for my entire twenties. Subway foot long sandwiches were a mainstay, as were seven-layer burritos from Taco Bell. The food court at UCLA had a great Panda Express with eggplant to die for and spicy noodles that still make my mouth water. Sure, I got good at boiling pasta and scrambling eggs, even making sandwiches - after all I called myself a bodybuilder and for the muscle-head such spartan meals are de regueur  - but my culinary expertise pretty much stopped at steamed broccoli.

It wasn't until I hit my 30s that I began making all my own meals. All that restaurant fare made me feel real sluggish, and no longer an iron monger I noticed a spare tire developing around my middle. Besides, eating out is not easy on the wallet. The same ingredients that go into a Baja Fresh burrito, which costs $7.00, can be had for a pittance at the store. Initially I'd just snack all day on fruit and nuts and pick up a big dinner at El Pollo Loco, effectively cutting my food bill in half, but I was so famished come the evening that I'd overindulge in those tasty sides, and there's only so much macaroni and cheese and gravy drenched mashed potatoes you can eat without blimping out. In medical school I prepared my own lunch and dinner out of necessity. There were hardly any restaurants on the island I inhabited for 2 years. By then I was in the habit of playing chef. Because no matter how busy you are, you can always find time to open a can of beans and mix it with some tinned peas. A favorite staple of mine. Preparation time: as fast as you can work the opener.

I once went over a year without patronizing a restaurant. I mentioned this to a family friend and he was stupefied because he eats out every day. And this is a different friend than the one I mentioned above, but maybe he's not unlike you. Now, after a dozen years of almost exclusively making my own food, when I do consume fare that others have prepared I feel hung over the next day. Even the healthiest-seeming food almost always has hidden ingredients that make the stickler cringe. My palate is so pure I find that even my own mother, who raised me to love whatever she makes, overly salts lentils and douses kale in olive oil. I am more sensitive to this than I was as a teenager because I have become accustomed to my own seasoning methods, which are sparing. And the excuse for eating overly-cooked, overly-sauced foods you grew up on falls flat. I ate cheese pizza most every week until my early thirties, but in the seven years since becoming vegan I have eaten it only once and don't miss it at all. Taste buds after all have a very short life span of about 10 days. 

Suffice it to say that of all the things you can do for yourself, cooking is one of the most important. Making your own meals is really just as crucial as eating them, if a lifetime of health is your goal, as well as washboard abs. So keep food preparation on the side of brushing teeth and tying shoe laces and wiping your fanny. It is one of the things about which you should say, "I got this." And if you do, you'll be wiping your fanny less, due to stool that is less greasy. Unless like my mom you go heavy on the oil.

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