I have a confession to make. Today I ate a hot dog. I haven’t done that in like, oh, maybe forever. That’s because I don’t like hot dogs. Of course, I love the idea of eating Fenway Franks and Dodger Dogs as much as I love baseball itself, so it’s not without great shame that I forgo the American icon and order a pretzel at the ballpark. My aversion to the hot dog was a particular disadvantage as a child (back then, I didn’t like peanut butter either). So when lunchtime came at a friend’s house, I prayed for grilled cheese! But today, I ordered a slender, gently steamed hot dog wrapped in a delightfully airy bun. The Wonder Bread kind that is stark white and packed with more bad carbs than you can count. And I drenched it with yellow mustard and watery green relish squeezed from tiny plastic pouches. I liked it. In fact, I may have liked it a lot.
But wait. That’s not all. I have another confession to make.
I also ate a bag of Cheetos. This may not seem like such a big deal either, but if you know me, and you know my philosophy towards food, you know I’ve been railing against Cheetos now for a long, long time. Even before I began my cooking school, Kitchen Kid, I made Chester the Cheetah the scapegoat for all things bad in our nation’s children’s diet. But the hot dog “deal” (it was $6.99) came with a bag of chips, and when that dashing cheetah winked at me from behind his seductive black shades, I figured what the heck. I’d already crossed over to the dark side with the hot dog, there’d be no going back. In minutes my fingers were stained neon orange – the telltale mark of a Cheeto fanatic — and I was in some kind of junk food euphoria. They were so good I had a hard timing sharing just one. It wasn’t until my family threatened to take a photo of me gorging on those crunchy bits – blackmail for the next time I blogged about the sins of the Frito-Lay company – that I realized just what I was doing. I had suspended my idealism about what food should look like, how it should taste, where it should come from, and what it should be made of. I was eating like the average American kid.
Let me back up.
My in-laws are visiting from New Hampshire, and we decided to spend the day at Universal Studios after my mother-in-law got wind that Terri Hatcher and Felicity Huffman would be filming on Wisteria Lane. And like everyone else who goes on death-defying 4-D rides and moves through lines at a sloth’s pace, we got hungry. As anyone who has ever been to a theme park, or a ball park, or a mall, or an airport, or a road-side rest-stop knows all too well, our options were far from healthy. Pepperoni pizza. Romaine lettuce swimming in dressing. Cinnabon. Chicken fingers. Hot dogs. Cheeseburgers. Churros. Cotton candy. But I anticipated this! I had been toting around a granola bar, some peanuts, and a bottle of water in my purse, waiting for this very moment to strike. But what was I going to do, nibble my organic snacks while my family ripped into a heart attack of saturated fat? It was while I surveyed my predicament — my devotion to kids’ healthy cooking, the growing movement to bring an organic garden to the White House lawn, and a genuine concern for the future of our national food supply – that my craving for a hot dog overcame me. That’s when I ordered up 6 inches of “all-natural” beef and some MSG laced “cheese” puffs. They didn’t tell me the $6.99 combo deal came with a side of guilt.
But, um, I wasn’t that guilty. Really. It’s probably been, I don’t know, 5? 10? years since I last ate a Cheeto. Maybe a lifetime since I finished a hot dog. And while I wouldn’t choose to eat this way every day, (like many school children in cafeterias across America — schools may ban soda, but bags of chips have been for sale at lunch in every school at which I’ve worked) today I learned it didn’t kill me.
Even as Wal-Mart markets its new line of organic produce, sustainable eating is still considered an expensive luxury fit only for the Prius-driving culinary elite. It shouldn’t be. (And considering the prices of theme park food, I honestly believe healthy food is accessible to all.) But those of us who live and preach the world of healthy, sustainable, deliberate eating sometimes forget that it’s okay to have a little transgression here and there. We spend a lot of time at Farmers’ Markets, turn our noses up at ingredient lists cluttered with preservatives, and have been known to walk down grocery store aisles like a great-grandmother listening to rap music — totally aghast at the products for sale. Just last week my mom, recently diagnosed with osteoporosis and determined not to let the disease get me, handed me a chocolate calcium “chew” and ordered I eat one each day. “But mom,” I cried reading the label, “These are loaded with high fructose corn syrup, sugar, and dyes. Why would I EVER get my calcium that way?!”
Today I ate a little outside my comfort zone, and not only did I learn something from it, I found I liked it a tiny bit, too. The culinary elite could take a page from this. Rather than pine for local bok choy, dreaming of watching kids run around school gardens instead of the Simpsons ride, and judging the families wearing “All You Can Eat!” passes around their necks, once in a while it’s okay to embrace the experience and culture of being an American kid and lick orange Cheeto crumbs from your fingers.