About Me/Who is Sausage Boy?

Tuesday, March 20th, 2012

Who is Sausage Boy?

Sausage Boy.  Yes, that's the name I've given myself as I undertake this new path and this (new) blog, my attempt to document and share this journey.  As I lay awake last night, having spent at least two or three hours reading websites and blogs about health, food, nutrition, lifestyle, vegetarianism and veganism (as I'd done the previous few nights as well), it struck me that the food that best exemplified my (sometimes intense and damaging) lifelong relationship with food was sausage. 

Sausage.  Just saying it, I see it, I taste it.  Is there another meat, another food that so bursts with flavor when you cut into it?  Is there anything else so hot, salty and delicious?  So juicy, so fat-melting-in-your mouth scrumptious?  So sizzling?  So Italian, so scrumptious?  For me, the answer is a resounding "No!"  It represents quite a bit to me, it looms large in my food subconscious.  It has a power over me rivaled by little else.  Clearly I have loved it.  I have loved lots of other terrible food as well, which, if you read on, you will soon see.

So other than being (the self-proclaimed) Sausage Boy, who am I?  The briefest bio is this: I'm a 42-year-old father of two (Phoebe, 7 and Felix, 3).  I was an actor living in New York City until about 8 years ago when my wife and I moved, with our three-month old daughter, to Charlottesville, VA (a place where we knew exactly no one), built our own home (much of it with our own bare hands) and I began a second career as a high school history teacher.  Very little of that bio, however, has much to do with what's going on in my life right now and why I started this blog.  Well, probably some of it does - the stresses of going through three great life changes (new home, new career and (new) children) at the same time certainly didn't lead to the healthier lifestyle I thought the move would lead to.

However, since this blog is about food, health, nutrition and lifestyle, who am I in those respects?  Well, that story is quite a ride (not a short one either ), so sit back and hold on.  This may end up being one of the longest "About Me" features in the blogosphere.  I apologize in advance.  If I ever publish this in print, I suppose I'll call it "Food: The Story of My Life" or maybe "The Confessions of Sausage Boy."

Perhaps it's best to start with the stereotypes.  I'm Italian.  There, I said it.  There are some parts of that stereotype that hold true, other that don't.  On the affirmative side, yes, I LOVE food.  I’m sure a lot of people say that, but really, ask my wife, “love” is an understatement.  “Obsessed with,” “addicted to,” or “infatuated with” are equally appropriate here (and, to be fair, it’s both the cooking and eating of said food that oft possesses me).  Food has always been incredibly important in my family, as it is in many.  All the holidays had their signature dishes, made either by my mother (sometimes my father, like the baccala) or my grandmother, back when my granddad was still alive and we saw them often for the holidays.  And yes, it was GOOD food - incredible home-cooked food, made with love, toiled over, adored reverently by all of us.  Food WAS my childhood.  Turkey, ham, lasagne, my mother's unbelievably delicious homemade tomato sauce (with meatballs (three meats -beef, pork and veal), big country-style spare ribs, and of course, sausage).  There was the Italian store, DeMarcos I think, where we would get delicacies like marinated mushrooms and bread stuffed with pepperoni and, yes, sausage.  I think that's also where we got the pinwheel sausage - a six-foot long thin sausage rolled up into a spiral with wooden spikes through the pieces to hold it together in a circle, flavored with fennel and perhaps black peppercorns.  There was gram's Hot Milk Cake (with chocolate frosting), my mother's cheesecake (cherries in heavy syrup on top), the biscotti and guzziginni (Italian cookies), the deep-fried cookies in the shape of butterflies, the tri-color cookies, the peanut butter balls.  There was the bakery in Hazlet, New Jersey that we went to every Sunday after church to get cookies, a big box of those Italian bakery cookies.

There were the summer weeks my sister and I spent at my other grandmother's house on Long Island.  This grandmother (my mom's mom) was convinced that there was a global conspiracy to rid all meat of the most important part, what she called the gristle - the fat.  She would come to our house for dinners in later years when she lived closer to us, and, no lie, would eat only the fat off the meat she was served.  (She also went to her grave convinced, like her sister, that pro wrestling was real and that the moon landing was the greatest scam ever perpetrated on the American people.  FDR was one of her heroes though, so I was very willing to forgive her those eccentricities.)  Those summer weeks on Long Island though, were culinarily special not just for the greatest grilled cheese sandwiches in the world she made for us for lunch, not because we could walk to the local IHOP and often did for breakfast.  Nor was it even that we could also walk to a local shop we called “the candy store” and that she was known to give us lollipops at nine o'clock in the morning, much to my mother's chagrin.  No, the highlight was always when her sister, Aunt Clara would come home from work (my grandmother lived with her).  And where did she work?  Yep, you guessed it (no, sadly it was not a sausage factory), it was a bakery.  She came home every few nights with those white boxes (tied with the red and white bakery string) filled with all those same cookies we ate at home from our own Italian bakery.  The black-and-whites (my sister's favorites), the butter cookies (with maraschino cherries or Hershey's Kisses atop them), or the chocolate-dipped fingers (with either chocolate or fruit filling in between the cookie layers).  They were probably my favorite.  Oh my god, those chocolate fingers!

Cookies.   Pretty much a co-equal partner with sausage in my food paradigm.   The queen to my king.   Actually, I could probably eventually get my fill of sausage, but it has always been incredibly difficult to stop eating chocolate chip cookies.  Again, ask my wife.  Better yet, ask my recent BMI.  In high school I can remember scrounging nickels and dimes to buy from the cafeteria little prepackaged soft chocolate chip cookies made by a company called Linden's I think.  The name may escape me, but forever etched in my memory is the image of the plastic wrapper, half brown and half clear - I lived for those cookies.

And then there were the pretty typical American foods I ate growing up in the 70s and 80s.  The nighttime snack of choice in our house was either Snyder's Hard Pretzels with some cheese or the original (crunchy) Chips Ahoy! chocolate chip cookies.  Another option was a personal favorite of my dad and me, Entenmanns's chocolate covered donuts - perfect for a nighttime snack, or great with orange juice as breakfast.  Ring Dings, loved those. 

And then there was Delicious Orchards.  Delicious Orchards.  This place started as a roadside farm stand back in the 1950s in Colts Neck, NJ and grew through the years into this enormous palace of incredible food a Shangri-La of deliciousness.  And I mean enormous.  There were two or three walk-in coolers that, if memory serves me correctly were almost the size of a modern-day Sam's Club.  Fabulous farm-fresh fruits and vegetables, to be sure, but in time they added a deli counter, a candy and coffee section, a gift basket department and maybe the best bakery east of the Mississippi.  Around Thanksgiving and Christmas people lined up for hours (no joke) to get their baked goods, especially their pies.  Sweet Jesus, their pies.  My dad’s favorite was Coconut Custard, mine was Boston Crème (even better, if you can believe it, than my favorite Dunkin Donut of the same name).  Delicious Orchards was my first job at 16.  I worked in the maintenance department.  All the food was amazing and impossible for young addict to resist.  Once, my co-workers and I (quite a group of juvenile delinquents) were reprimanded for breaking into the deli-counter (after the store closed and we were supposed to be doing our cleaning) to make these enormous roast-beef sandwiches with fresh tomatoes on these huge loaves of French bread.  They only caught us because I had not yet developed my knife skills and apparently, in the words of my supervisor, "the roast beef looked like it had been attacked by a wild animal."  That incident aside, they treated their employees well.  In the break room there was always a tray with one of their signature baked goods, the Apple Cider Donut.  Three varieties: plain, powdered and cinnamon.  Soft, sweet, I could eat them all day long.  Also, since the baked good contained no preservatives and the store was closed on Mondays, they would put out, on back loading dock, dozens of trays of unsold bakery items for us to take home.  Tins of brownies, loaves and loaves of bread, bags of doughnuts and sometimes even pies.  Never sausage, though, now that I think about it.  But without a doubt my favorite thing to do at Delicious Orchards was to take my little two-piece broom and dustpan unit out to the sales floor and over to the racks where the chocolate chip cookies were.  The dustpan and the broom both had long handles and the dustpan was hinged - you could put it on the floor and it fold down so you could take your little broom and sweep the debris right in, very professionally and discreetly.  I would go to the cookie rack and "accidentally" drop a package of them (8 or 10 big, soft incredible cookies to a package) and surreptitiously sweep it right into my dustpan, very professionally and discreetly.  I'd then go find a quiet corner of one of those enormous walk-in coolers, find a comfy seat on a box of lettuce or cabbage and shove every single one of them into my mouth.  I can SO taste them right now.  They even sometimes gave those cookies away on Sunday nights – that was the jackpot!  I later moved into the cashier department and worked there on and off through college during my breaks, but, don't kid yourself, I still always found ways to stuff myself silly there.  The chocolate éclairs were to die for, and if you had an “in” with one of the girls behind the bakery counter you could get one of those on the sly, too.

And then there were the atypical things about my family.  We had a small 6-acre farm.  We raised cows (steers, technically) chickens and pigs.  My dad had an enormous garden, especially considering we lived in suburban New Jersey.  We raised our own beef, veal, pork and chicken.  We split cord after cord of wood during the summer since our house, from when we moved there in 1977 until a big renovation many years later had as its only heat source a wood-burning stove.  We ate fresh eggs from the hens (soft-boiled, in these great black and white ceramic egg cups).  We slaughtered our other chickens (capons actually) and the cows and the calves and the pigs.  I can so distinctly remember sitting on a bench in the driveway with my sister and our two friends as they lifted one of the cows up with the front-end loader of a tractor.  It was already dead and half-slaughtered.  The whole scene, while pretty much commonplace for our family, was something out of Upton Sinclair's The Jungle.  Our childhood friends Chris and Greg, who had never seen this before, were grossed out to say the least.  My sister and I sat watching interestedly, eating chocolate-covered Entenmanns’s donuts as they looked at us in disbelief.  One year we raised a 40 pound Thanksgiving turkey.  Really, it was 40 pounds.  I believe we had to do a bit of surgery with a reciprocating saw to get it to fit in the oven.  Most of the meat we ate was at least, according to today's standards, pretty darn good.  No factory farming, no antibiotics, just healthy animals raised on grass and treated humanely (except when my friends and I would torment them). 

But, we did eat something from those cows that, even just a few days ago, made my lunch colleagues wince when I explained it to them.  It was a family favorite and it was called Cannibal Mound.  It was either the ground beef from one of our animals, or freshly ground meat from the butcher.  My mother mixed it with at least some bread crumbs, onion and garlic powder.  I'm not sure if there was egg in it.  It was served like that, in a big mound on a plate in the center of the table.  Perhaps there were a few leaves of iceberg underneath to make it somewhat more presentable.  We took rye bread, spread it thick with butter and then took a few big spoonfuls of the meat and made sandwiches with it.  The more astute readers will realize at this point that nowhere have I mentioned that this meat was cooked in any way.  It was not.  Hence it's name.  I can still almost taste that, too.  Like salty raw sausage and butter sandwich.

And the garden.  If there is one thing I must give my father serious credit for, it is his green thumb.  Every year we had a pretty large garden.  Probably 75 feet long and 35 feet wide.  We grew beets (which I came to detest), beans, peas, tomatoes and corn (it was New Jersey after all), zucchini, cucumbers and honestly I really cannot remember what else, but I know there was mote.  I vividly remember going into the garden with my sister and eating the tomatoes right off the vine.  With salt, of course - we brought the shaker out with us.  My mother pickled beets, put up beets, we turned our cucumbers into pickles in crocks in the basement, we put up tons and tons of tomatoes for my mom's sauce, we put up beans and filled up our kitchen pantry with mason jars stuffed with the bountiful harvest.  I started a garden for the first time last year, and it’s clear so far that it’s not nearly as intuitive for me as it was for my dad.

The home-grown aspect notwithstanding, we were still a family that loved all kinds of food, not just what was healthy or from the garden or barn.  When I was younger we would meet my aunt and uncle, who lived in Pennsylvania, at various restaurants, often some Amish smorgasbord, (I seem to recall one named "Good and Plenty") places where we could pretty much gorge ourselves.  Along Route 78 in Pennsylvania, is also where we would stop frequently at Peters Brothers Meats, so we could buy pounds and pounds of their amazing bacon and the tenderest, tastiest (and saltiest) beef jerky in the world.  (Someday I’ll retell the famous story of the NYC subway rat that ran off with a piece of mine).  One favorite restaurant during this time period was Haag's Hotel in Shartlesville, PA (also home to Roadside America, an enormous model train exhibition hall that we loved going to).  Haag's served food family style and all-you-can-eat.  You chose three or four meats (turkey, chicken, ham, sausage - from column A) for the table and they just kept the meat and the side dishes (veggies, rolls, apple butter potatoes) coming until you couldn't move. 

And then there were the buffets.  O heavens, put the Giordanos near a buffet, and the faint of heart best run for cover.  We scare my wife sometimes.  Now I've never been on a cruise, but my family goes crazy for them and the biggest topic of conversation when they return is what they ate at the "Midnight Buffet" and how many whole lobsters they downed at the "Special Captain's Buffet."  Don't get me wrong, I'm entirely with them on this one, I freaking LOVE buffets.  It’s pretty much the reason I WANT to go on a cruise (it’s conversely the reason my wife refuses to go with me).  Seeing one (“Only $8.95?”) triggers this primordial switch inside and I simply cannot stop cramming as much food as possible into my mouth until I practically can’t get up from the table.  Hardly healthy. I know.  “But it’s there.  I mean, my god, look at all of it.  And I paid for it, one low price.  I have to take advantage of it.  Don’t you understand the math?  The more food you eat for that same low price, the cheaper each piece of that food becomes.  Isn’t that what it’s all about?”  From Great Wolf Lodge to Cafe Mickey at Disney World's Contemporary Resort to our local China King Buffet, to the Golden Corral my parents go to (and which they often call "The Trough"), we have eaten our way through likely hundreds of them through the years.  The idea of all you can eat just destroys any sense of decorum or reason and we go at it whole hog. 

But no buffet experience tops Duff's.  Duff’s was just outside of Baltimore, Maryland (where my dad is from and where my grandmother lived until just a few years ago.)  I'm pretty sure it's closed now.  I'm not sure who discovered Duff's, but we went there a number of times growing up.  Duff's was unlike any buffet we had ever been to, because instead of the diners moving around a buffet line or going from station to station to get your food, the food items circulated through the restaurant on an enormous stainless steel conveyor belt, like the luggage carousel at the airport, or, since much bigger than the carousel, like the assembly line at the local Ford plant.  Serpentine scrumptiousness.  You stood in a little gated spot, like a cow in a commercial feedlot, and all the food came rolling out of the kitchen one item at a time.  It was glorious.  We thought we had reached the promised land.

As I write, it seems like pretty awful picture.  But even through all of this, there were glimmers of hope as well.  The idea somewhere that I could have a more “moderate” and healthful relationship with food was always there.  “Moderate” is probably my wife’s favorite word, especially when used in contradistinction to my usually extreme involvement with food.  I never felt good after overeating.  I knew it was unhealthy but felt powerless to stop it.  There was the fact that my grandmother made the best lentil soup in the world with pretty much only healthy ingredients (no sausage!), and I loved it.  There were our own fresh vegetables from our garden.  There was the time in college when I rode my mountain bike to the nearby state park, built a shelter in the woods and fasted for two or three days there.  Growing up we never ate the awful sugared cereals like Frosted Flakes or Captain Crunch.  It wasn't until the college dining hall that I saw those in their enormous dispensers and went wild with glee.  There was the fact that I had in the back of my mind for a long time an idea for a comic book character called Juice Boy.  He was me of course, or some idealized version of me.  Sort of like a young Tarzan, I guess, living in the jungle, drinking juice.  I could never figure out who his "Jane" would be - Carrot Girl?  Mmmm, didn't have the ring that "Juice Boy" did, I thought.  There was the fact that for a long time, as an actor, I knew I couldn't let myself entirely go and that how I looked was somewhat important in my career.  In grad school we had compulsory aerobics classes for goodness' sake and I did stage combat for quite a while as well.  There was the fact that I've always known, unlike my father, that water was good for me.  And I drank it plentifully (water and wine, those were my liquids).  Except as an early-morning hangover cure in college, I never really drank much soda.  I did go through a pretty intense Snapple phase back in high school, though.  Mmmm, Mint Tea was my favorite.  For the past few years, we've loved making fruit smoothies with first our daughter and now both of our children on the weekends.  I've always known what was good for me, it was putting any of it into practice in a consistent way that always eluded me.

The point here is that my life was by no means literally "all sausage all the time."  Well, except for those two times I did the Atkins Diet in my twenties.  "You mean I can eat all these microwaveable breakfast sausage links and all this cheese, and all this kielbasa and lose weight?  I am so in."  I think one of the times my mother and I did it together.  I did sauté green peppers and onion with the kielbasa at least.  And speaking of kielbasa, that was pretty much my daughter's first solid food.  She went crazy for it - "basa, basa!"  Considering she's now 7, can understand the notion of good foods versus not so great foods and she loves my newly-discovered Triple Cabbage Zinger Salad, I'm not going to feel too bad about that.

But even in my adult life, food has continued to dominate.  Is it in my genes?  That's certainly what some people think about themselves, whether it's food issues, weight or other medical conditions.  I am beginning to doubt that now.  My parents are hardly the pictures of health.  They've both had and have various medical conditions stemming from poor diet and health - all the those preventable chronic conditions known as "lifestyle diseases."  A by-product of what most of us grew up eating, the Standard American Diet, SAD for short.  Fitting, huh?  In our house growing up, nothing could ever have enough salt on it.  We used to put salt on our CANTALOUPE, for goodness sake!  My sister has struggled with weight on and off her whole life.  She recently discovered and embraced Weight Watchers, does triathlons and has turned herself around in that regard, and is rightfully proud of herself for it.  My dad has had a number of conditions, and surgeries to remedy them.  It stands to reason as his favorite breakfast meat is scrapple and he quite literally believes that "water is poison" and rather prides himself on never having drank a glass of the stuff.  How his medical practitioners think they're doing him any service is beyond me if they can't disabuse him of this ridiculous notion.  I've told him so myself many times.  I love both of my parents, but they could both stand to pay more attention to their health.  I can just imagine how much better they would feel and how much longer and fuller their lives might be.

And as for myself, well, it should be pretty obvious to those of you who've managed to read this far that I've got some pretty strong emotional attachments to food.  I've often used it as a weapon in my arsenal of self-destruction, along with some other vices.  I've smoked my fair share of cigarettes, through college and beyond, knowing full well I was being foolish, rationalizing it as a stress-reliever.  Polishing off a bottle of wine on a weekend night wasn't only easy for me, it was something I felt entitled to after a long week.  Even after a short week.  Heck, after any week - I couldn't really think of a reason not to.  I used to eat when I was down, eat when I was up, there was always a reason.  "We're celebrating" I would say, "This is what we do when we celebrate.  We eat, we drink."  I often took the whole "food is joy" thing a bit too far.  On the "down" side I remember living in Queens and walking to the subway to go to an audition about which I felt anxious.  How best to suppress that anxiety?  Stop at the bagel place on 34th Avenue and scarf down two big buttered bagels.  At social functions I could eat and avoid having to talk to anyone.  Pretty anti-social, huh?.  Clearly I haven't minded being cut off from people and from myself.  And if free food is being served and free liquor is flowing, well that night ends only one way, with me full and drunk, having gorged myself on the food (like a buffet, right?) and drank as much as I possibly could while remaining upright (like an alcohol buffet!).  My wife and I have had many, many, many, many "discussions" about this.  I've always known, intellectually at least, that she was right, but that knowledge has never translated into action, until now.  The one thing I have come to realize, and I guess it's one of the realizations that has put me on this new path, is that overeating is nothing more than another form of aggression, aggression aimed at myself.  How better to destroy oneself?

On a lighter note, I think there's been element of my love and enthusiasm for food that some people find endearing.  My wife's cousin and his partner, who sometimes take us out for the most extraordinary dinners (that we could never afford on our own) seem to really enjoy my enjoyment of the decadence they can briefly offer me.  My mother-in-law gets a kick out of my excitement over food, especially if she's cooked it for me.  Friends we've had over in the past and for whom I've made my mother's incredible tomato sauce, get a kick out of the huge "bowl of meat" that comes to the table with it (some have been a bit frightened by that bowl as well).  Cooking for people is an absolute joy for me.  For all the serious baggage I have about food, there are very few things I would rather do than stand in my kitchen all day and cook - for my family, for friends, for myself.  It is what keeps us alive, for goodness sake.  Is there some element of ego involved?  I imagine there is.  When people "ooh" and "aah" about the Salt-Crusted Beef Tenderloin, sure, I get off on that a bit.  But when it is really good and they love it, I truly am happy.  That goblet of red wine that's usually in my hand doesn't hurt either.

One final story to bring us full circle.  We get to see my brother-in-law and sister-in-law (my wife's sister) pretty frequently (and I love to talk about food with them, too).  They have a great dog, a boxer named Tyson.  Tyson likes me and I like him.  When we do get to see them, one of the running jokes is that Tyson absolutely just loves to lick me.  He's a dog, so yes, he licks everyone.  But when I say he licks me, I mean he parks himself next to me and unless I tell him to stop he will lick every bit of my bare skin that he can, nonstop.  The joke is "Well, of course he likes to lick you Sal, you taste like..." yes, you guessed it, sausage.

The Transformation Begins

So, here are the cold hard facts.  It stands to reason that at age 42 my body is likely carrying around one seriously toxic load of crap inside.  And that's where this story begins. 

It's January 2012, I'm about to turn 42, and I've begun more and more to feel the extra weight on me.  I get on the scale and am rather shocked.

Two hundred and nine pounds.  209.  It's the heaviest I’ve ever been. 

I go to the Weight Watchers website and plug in my height and weight.  A colleague at work had started a Weight Watchers group a few months back, and considering the success my sister's had with it, I'd been considering giving it a try.  I'm a little over 5'10"  (I would love to call myself 5'11" or even 6', but alas, that's not my build, I'm a bit stockier, what in Middle School is often called "husky."  Yuck.).  So I enter my stats, and according to Weight Watchers I am "obese!"  Freaking obese!  Are they kidding me?  Really?  I mean, sure, I'd love to lost 15 pounds, but obese?  Isn't that the term reserved for those insanely grotesque examples of fatness we have walking around in America?  Well, apparently not.  To be fair, I'm just over that line by a pound, but it's a pretty severe psychological shock.

For a "second opinion" I look up BMI. Body Mass Index, which I recall as being some measurement of your body's fat as a proportion of its weight.  I end up at the website for the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute where you can again plug in your height and weight and presto, blamo, up comes by BMI of 30, 30 or above being categorized as, yes, freaking obese.  Holy Crap.

Anyone who tried to describe me probably wouldn’t even call me “fat” or even “overweight,” (at least I'd like to think they wouldn't, but maybe they would, who knows?).  But if you ever saw me at the beach, you'd certainly think I could lose a few pounds.  The pictures of us at the beach have been hard for me to look at for a while, just ask my brother-in-law.  All of my vitals, blood chemistry, etc., have been right on the borderline since I started seeing a doctor in 2006.  Cholesterol just at the edge, glucose levels and blood pressure all just one Wendy’s Bacon Cheeseburger Deluxe away from nudging me, like so many Americans today, into the realm of serious and chronic medical issues.  And boy, do I love those value fries from Wendy's.  I'm feeling pretty guilty right now about the times in the past two years when I'd go pick my son up from my wife while she was dropping our daughter off at gymnastics.  We'd be on our way home, to make dinner, and would almost always go through the Wendy's drive-thru and get at least fries for the both of us, if not one of those value menu Bacon Cheeseburgers for me.  It's amazing how they tasted so good and yet led to some pretty serious feelings of failure afterwards.  Talk about a vicious cycle.  

It slowly became clear to me that I was headed in the wrong direction.  It was obvious that even with all my "great intellect" about what the right food was, about what the right relationship with food was, I was only getting heavier and moving further and further away from good health, not towards it.  The possibility of developing some of those chronic health conditions began to seem real and more likely than ever, and that was SO not what I wanted for myself.

So it's the end of the story of Sausage Boy, but the beginning, it seems, of a new story.  I could go on and on even further about food and its role in my "past" life, but in the interest of finally getting this blog started (I've been working on these "Confessions" for a good two weeks now), I'll end it here.  It's clearly time for Sausage Boy to mend his evil ways and to go, quite literally, green.  That's the purpose of this blog, to document this journey.  Please join me and please, keep your arms inside the ride at all times.