Eating well is a family business for cookbook author Eileen Yin-Fei Lo, and her husband, veteran food writer Fred Ferretti. But it was their daughter, Elena, who maneuvered her father into eating wisely. "Hopping on and off aerobics stools and refusing third helpings of choucroute were not, to me, psychically fulfilling," he says. It was not until Eileen began testing recipes for the latest of her six books, The Chinese Way: Healthy Low-Fat Cooking From China's Regions (Macmillan), that Fred was won over to a low-fat life.
Take losing weight, America's girth industry. Over the years, we've all been subjected to incessant sermons: slimness is good, roundness bad; exercise good, indolence bad; brown rice good, confit bad. At first I swatted these platitudes away as buzzing pests, but gradually, grudgingly, I came to agree with these calorie counters, these saturated fat gurus.
Periodically I would tell myself, as well as my wife, Eileen, our children and anybody else who pretended not to be bored, that I truly intended to lose weight. Tomorrow, I would say, next week, next month, perhaps after I return from that foray into the rich underbelly of France where those fat geese live or from the truffle beds of Piedmont in Italy. When I could give complete attention to my diet, I would begin.
Then one evening about two years ago, I asked our daughter, Elena, as I customarily do, what she wished for her birthday, which was coming up later that month.
"Do you know what I'd like? I'll tell you what I'd like. Go to the doctor," she replied. "If you want to give me a birthday present, go to the doctor for a physical."
I reported this exchange to my wife. She smiled. It was one of the more serene and satisfied from Eileen's library of smiles, perhaps more a grin of accomplishment, which suggested that she just might have known what our daughter would say. No, that was not the case, she protested, adding, "After all, we have been urging you for years."
Having roped myself into that promise, I called my doctor for an appointment.
"Who is this?" he asked.
I told him it was me.
"Are you a patient of mine?"
I told him I was indeed. As a matter of fact I had been to see him only 22 years earlier.
"Oh, you! Of course." He called me a prodigal, among other things, yet gave me an appointment.
I was, as it turned out, in good health except for my weight and my blood pressure, which was a smidgen high. "Cut out the salt, lose weight and get that pressure down," he commanded.
How to lose weight? Sackcloth and ashes? Jenny Craig? Those brightly packaged and ghastly tasting low-fat, no-fat "meals" in the markets? Pills to curb the appetite? That powdered mix that helped Tom Lasorda fit once again into his Dodgers uniform? Caramels? No drinking? Weight Watchers? Perhaps, heaven forbid, a membership in one of those athletic clubs that claim to melt fat away? I rejected all of them out of hand--particularly exercise. I don't fancy $250 sneakers or baggy pastel clothing or the company of people who smile when they're in excruciating pain.
Since I subscribe to the theory that if you enjoy something it must be bad for you, I thought about what I like (besides my wife's pepper steak) and came up with a list of personal bests--all bread, all potatoes, all pastas and rice, a food group I refer to as "the white stuff." These I would give up, I vowed, until I could decide upon a well thought out regimen.
And I began. I ate no bread, no scones, no biscuits or muffins; no potatoes, fried or roasted or boiled; no pasta with fresh tomatoes or oily pesto clinging to every strand; no rice boiled or fried or steamed. Within a month and a half I had lost almost 20 pounds. At the same time Eileen was constantly whispering to me as if I were an obese Macbeth, "Small portions, no seconds. Small portions, no seconds." This mantra was later expanded to include, "There is no need to eat everything on your plate."
And at this point Eileen began creating and testing the recipes for her new book, The Chinese Way: Healthy Low-Fat Cooking From China's Regions. She used small amounts of fish and meats and greater amounts of vegetables, relying upon stocks and spice-infused oils. I became her tester for steamed-instead-of-stir-fried beef, for garlic-laced eggplant, for veal cooked with green tea leaves, for spiced swordfish, tart turkey, salads of papaya and soy sprouts. Just like that, I found myself on a low-fat eating plan without any sense of deprivation.
The weight went. Soon I took my collection of vintage Brooks Brothers suits out of their storage bags. "The lapels are too narrow," my son said. "But the buttons button and the trousers zip," I reminded him, citing the big picture. Old shirts and belts became useful accoutrements once again.
Oh, Eileen still kept her rein on me. Still does. Did I wish some fresh blueberries? Yes. She would measure out one cup, leveled. Perhaps I could have a quarter cup more? No. I became accustomed to snacks of 15 grapes, 15 cherries, one cup of melon cubes. When we dined out I tasted cakes and other sweets. "Two forkfuls?" I would suggest. "One," Eileen would say. "One large one, then?" No.
For nine months, as Eileen tested recipes, I ate her low-fat food, and at the end of that time I had lost 55 pounds. It remains off, to the joy of my daughter, who occasionally mentions her birthday present with a contented smile.