We had a great weekend. There was lots planned. Much family time. Many outings. Many things to do and places to go. Much food that fell into the category of either “once a year indulgence” or “somewhat out of our control.” In other words…we had to kind of give up.
There are people of stronger constitution than I who would simply make, pack, and tote along meals and snacks for every eventuality, leaving nothing to chance at the various parks, playgrounds, fairs, and events of the warm weather months. There are families who HAVE to do those things, as well, usually because of an allergy or other serious health consideration that prohibits a member of the family from eating other people’s food. But I do try for moderation and for a balance between what I believe is the best way to eat, and the way that the mainstream world eats. So when we’re going to be out and about, we carefully consider what the food options are going to be, and we make informed decisions about what our family will do.
Every year, J. and I — and now the kids, as they’re getting older — look forward to the Scottish Highland Festival that takes place about 30 minutes from our house. I’m partially of Scottish ancestry, something in which I take great pride and interest, so it’s always enjoyable for me to go experience something of that culture and share my heritage with J. and the boys. (Now that L. is 4 years old, I had the distinct pleasure of also beginning to teach him about concepts like clans and tartans, which warmed my heart even though it was a blustery, drizzly 60-degree day.) Each year the Highland Festival brings with it great music, vendors, history, and of course, festival food.
The options are not widely varied. There are perhaps four basic lunch vendors to choose from: the state fairground’s typical concession-style booth, with its hot dogs, chicken nuggets, and greasy burgers; the quintessentially stereotyped medieval “Giant Turkey Legs;” the uniquely Scottish selection of meat pies and “haggis puffs,” a concept I don’t care to examine too closely; and the fish and chips shop. It’s always been a no-brainer which of these vendors will provide our lunch, and luckily, it happens to be a very good fish and chips shop, so we’re happy to pay $7 a plate for the meal.
Naturally we could bring a picnic lunch; but going back and forth from the festival to the parking is a pain, and lugging a cooler full of lunches through the crowds would be a hassle, to say the least. Also, as I consider the fish joint, which is a family-run small business from a few towns over that comes out each year to provide the food, I feel that it’s more than fair and right to give them my money. Not only do they make good food from fresh local seafood, but their kids — who are maybe 10 and 12 — work right alongside the parents to serve up the plates and keep the festival goers happy. It’s not some giant chain or industrialized food service taking my dollars. For that (and for some really tasty clam strips), I can overlook the fact that every item on our plates is — *gulp* — deep-fried.
So begins our once-a-year day of indulgence at the Highland Festival, which wouldn’t be so terrible (especially since we virtuously wash it all down with plain water) if it weren’t for the existence of the Eccles Cake Lady. She and her fellow pastry temptresses run a bakery devoted entirely to traditional Scottish and British sweets, and their booth at the festival is predictably mobbed from the moment the gates open. Not only do their wares LOOK unbelievably gorgeous, but in the realm of Rare Treats You Can’t Get Anywhere Else, the Eccles Cake people definitely rule. Which means, of course, that since it’s only once a year that we could even conceivably sample the stuff…
As always, J. and I spent the last part of our Highland Festival adventure passing a gigantic Eccles Cake back and forth between us and trying not to get completely covered in flaky, buttery, sugary nirvana. For those who have never encountered Eccles Cakes before, they’re essentially big rounds of impossibly flaky and crisp puff pastry, studded with juicy raisins, sprinkled with caramelized brown sugar, and glazed with a rich coating of honey. I’ve never had anything like Eccles Cake anywhere else in the world, so it’s well worth it to me to cast caution to the wind once a year and share one with J. For the boys, however, only one sweet treat would do: the chocolate-draped Macaroon snow creams, huge snowballs of meringue filled with coconut creme, dusted with sweet shreds of coconut, and dripping with fudge glaze.
Oh, yes, we gave up. We utterly gave up on healthy eating of any kind at the fair, and I console myself with only two thoughts: 1) Both vendors were local small businesses who pride themselves on using only real food ingredients; and 2) DAMN, was it good.
Sunday dawned with only a faint hope of getting back on track. We’d had a lovely, sensible dinner Saturday night and gave the boys a nice, healthy, normal breakfast before church, but it was Children’s Sunday — the day of pageants and potlucks, special activities and special treats. By the time services were over and the potluck lunch began, all four of us were starving. We could have just picked, I suppose, and left to eat lunch at home — but it’s a community event, we wanted to socialize, and besides, there was a magician waiting to entertain the kids. My boys were not leaving without seeing the show.
Up at the potluck table, the only main dish items in sight were “party pizza” (the RI staple, with no cheese and a thick tomato paste topping) and…hot dogs. I cast a quick eye over the sides: the corn, bean, and tomato salad I’d brought; a rapidly dwindling bowl of tossed salad with bottled dressing; a macaroni salad thick with mayonaisse; and assorted chips and snack items spilling out of their bags. Gulp. Despite my general disdain for the hot dog, there wasn’t much choice.
L. greeted the idea of a hot dog with enthusiasm, but I should point out that when I said, “How about you and P. each share one hot dog and one piece of the pizza?” he didn’t put up any fuss. We served them each a plate filled with small bits of a few things and shrugged at each other as we made our own hot dogs and sat down to eat. L. was hungry and ate his half of the dog, but then ran off to the magic show; P. took one bite of the dog and spit it out. “I don’t yike dis,” he said balefully. I offered him some cheese and crackers, which mollified him for a few moments before he, too, scampered off to find an empty seat for the show.
J. and I ate our dogs and drank some coffee and had a bit of somebody’s lovely homemade dessert. When the time came to go home, the boys obediently allowed us to round them up, faces shining as they asked: “Can we go home and have some real lunch now?”
What? They wanted…lunch? After eating…lunch? (Well, sort of.) As it was close to naptime for P., and L. had eaten half of a hot dog and a few little snacks, we didn’t want to give them a full meal. When we offered them choices of fruits and vegetables, they didn’t protest. Each child chose some applesauce and asked for a glass of milk. P. would later snack on some banana and peanut butter. L. would happily accompany me to Whole Foods, where he’d choose smoked salmon, spinach, and oranges for our cart. Neither would bring up the hot dogs again. They also quite willingly agreed that there would be no need for any sweets yesterday, today, and possibly even tomorrow — so willingly, in fact, that I almost found myself asking again and belaboring the point just to make sure they actually understood.
As for J. and I, we spent most of Sunday afternoon and evening — despite a nice, grounded Sunday dinner of roast chicken with Moroccan spiced butter and homemade hummus, tabbouleh, and whole-wheat pita bread — feeling rather ill. I had a nagging tingling sensation and mild headache which made me wonder whether there might have been MSG in something I ate; J. simply felt “nauseous to the point of chills” off and on throughout the day.
We gave up. And we overdid things. Big Time. But in a weird way, I’m really glad that we did. Not only were some of the indulgences enjoyable enough to be worth it, but having had the experience of throwing our usual dietary restrictions out the window and trying to conform to what those around us were doing, we have now proven to ourselves that food really does matter. Our kids haven’t had tantrums now that they know what they’re “missing;” instead, they seem to have realized all on their own that they prefer the way our food tastes and the way it makes them feel. And J. and I have been reminded quite vividly of the “food hangovers” and nasty aftereffects we used to live with when we were eating more processed, fried, sugary, and generally junkified food products. It’s amazing to me now to realize how normal it would have been, just five or six years ago, for us to go through a whole day feeling as lousy as we felt yesterday; we wouldn’t have even known that it WAS the food, probably. But now we’re gifted with a clear vision of just what these kinds of excesses do to us.
It can be hard to stick to a regimen of whole, scratch-made, unprocessed foods most of the time. Sometimes, frankly, it can seem that things would be easier if we were willing to make more compromises about what we eat as a family. But this weekend reminded me that it IS worth it, and it IS actually harder to eat crap — harder on our bodies, harder on our minds, harder on the environment. I guess it took giving up to refocus our priorities and help us to remember that fake food is just truly hard to swallow.