Ab of Steel

categories: Cocktail Hour


Poppy taught us to love a snack.  One of his favorites was Saltine crackers with peanut butter and horseradish, slice of sweet bread-and-butter pickle optional, about twelve crackers at a time, stacked precariously six-by-six on your palm on the way to the TV room.  Or a whole celery stalk salted hard and filled with peanut butter, or cottage cheese, or anything, really, to add some fat to the vegetable.  Or the Dagwood sandwich–as much of anything and everything as you could stack between two slices of bread.  You never ate a little dainty triangle of watermelon, but cut it in quarters or eighths, and ate it with your face.  Toasty-pies required a toasty-pie maker, two long steel handles ending in like scallop shells.  You buttered two pieces of white bread, pressed the bread into the mold, filled the resulting depression with jelly then clamped it shut and lay it over a burner on the stove long enough to brown both sides and seal the bread slices together, wow.

Poppy loves breakfast, and taught us to love it, too.  Breakfast was how you got the energy to start the day and then make it all the way to lunch.  Pancakes, heated syrup (never the expensive maple stuff, but A&P brand), bacon or sausage links or both, scrapple when you could get it.  Scrapple is a Pennsylvania Dutch specialty, multiple pig scraps in a kind of gel, nicely seasoned.  It came in a pound block like butter or lard and wasn’t far from those.  Pops dredged slices in flour, dropped them into a spider pan sizzling with old bacon fat—plenty of bacon fat—we kept a supply in a coffee can by the stove always.

I kept a coffee can full of bacon fat by the stove through college, but at some point realized I never, never used it, partly because it was astoundingly disgusting, but also because I’d lost the art.  Poppy’s biscuits were just flour and baking soda and a little salt with as many tablespoons of the bacon fat as practicable folded delicately into the batter.  The gravy was the bacon fat, again, this time cooked down and thickened with flour, lots of salt.  This was pretty good alone, but with four or five or six eggs, well, wow.

Hashbrowns?  You washed a whole bag of potatoes, then while you peeled them, you told stories about KP duty in the navy: mountains of potatoes to be peeled with nothing but a paring knife before you could go back to your hammock, the cook bombed on gallons of vanilla extract he’d ordered to get around the shipboard alcohol ban.  Grate ’em into a pile.  Then dice onions, one or so for every four potatoes.  And now, the secret: a quart or so of bacon fat so hot it spits back at you, drop the potatoes in a little at a time till brown.

Pie was good for breakfast, too, and when you ate it for breakfast, it wasn’t dessert, so didn’t count against any diet some doctor might have put Poppy on.  Once during one of those diets we kids looked out the kitchen window a floor above the driveway where he was vacuuming the VW beetle we had at the time.  It was funny to see his bald head from above, and then funnier to see right down through the windshield as he slid a full-size Table Talk pie out from under the passenger seat, ate it whole with his hands.  Mom!  Mom! Come see this!  Dad was busted.  Not that anything was going to change.  Under the seat we found his stash—two more pies, and two-or-three dozen empty boxes: blueberry, cherry, apple, Boston creme.  I made a pumpkin pie recently (from garden scratch, thank you very much), and Elysia and I ate slices for breakfast three days running–it was her idea to call Poppy and boast.

When we were done with any meal—five kids, remember—we all passed our plates up to the head of the table where Poppy finished every bite we missed.  After breakfast, you discussed what you’d have for lunch and possibly dinner, got all the day’s eating straight.

And in fact we ate pretty well for the time—which was the late fifties through the sixties—very little restaurant food, very little fast food, tons of vegetables (many from Mom’s garden).   But every meal was big, very big.  Seconds, thirds, fourths.  Always desert.  In our house love was measured like data is now, in bites, mega-bites, gigabites.

In high school I thought I was fat at times, but that can’t have been true: I remember clearly the weight listed on my draft card (since burned): 140.   By college I definitely had a beer belly started, from my habit of drinking a six-pack or two of beer every night and sometimes a few tots of whisky, too.  Talk about love!  I played piano in bands and my Wurlitzer electronic would have a forest of bottles on it, end of the night.  My girlfriend Robin excoriated me for my nascent beer gut—it couldn’t have been much—and I remember how I lost it: she broke up with me and I stopped eating for a couple of months, or ate only desultorily.  All calories came from alcohol, a handful of Fritos here and there, and cigarette smoke.  I lost my beer gut and more, got that waifish appearance, long hair, scraggly beard, ethereal eyes.  Friends said I looked great.  I called it the broken-heart diet.

But I liked to smoke pot, too, and not even the broken-heart diet could hold up in the face of the munchies.  I avoided the Ithaca College dining hall with its institutional blobs of watery plant and animal remnants steeped in Crisco (college dining has changed dramatically everywhere, I’m here to tell you, and certainly at IC).  My nostalgio-geographical memory of Ithaca, New York, includes several diners (the State, the Rosebud, the Aurora), also several sub shops (what was the one in College Town called? With the MBC?), and at least 10,000 bars.

After graduation, I adventured to Nebraska to help my Uncle Carl on his post-ministerial retirement farm.  We ate beef on beef with more beef, one of my cousin’s beloved 4-H calves, whose name had been Pucky.  They loved Pucky well done and I never thought the meat was much good till I got put in charge of the barbecue one night and was able to cook my own meat rare.  As it turned out, Pucky was the best meat I’d ever eaten, grass-fed, beloved.  With all the beef (about two pounds each per meal) my aunt served my cousins and uncle and me Jell-o salad and huge mounds of mashed potatoes and parker-house rolls (fresh rolls every day), and gravy made from the morning’s bacon, and peas, always peas, dressed with butter.   Lunch was the same, but brought to you in the field, big wedges of cake for dessert.

Breakfast was dozen-egg omelets and bacon, bacon on bacon, and toast, and pints of jam, bowl of cereal for dessert.

But we worked sixteen-hour days, much of many of them on horseback.  I thought I’d lose weight but did not, instead reached 190 pounds, all while losing every pocket of fat on my body.  My shoulders grew wide, my back grew strong, my belly was flat as the Nebraska plain, rippled like armor.  I was buff, and there wasn’t a girl in sight.

This is the Amish Diet: eat all you want of whatever you want, but work your ass off every second you’re not eating or sleeping, forget about women.

Back home I resumed the Drinking Man’s diet—there was such a thing, expounded in a popular book of the sixties, which basically said drink very heavily if it suits you, just don’t eat, and don’t forget to walk around and stuff.  After that I moved to New York City, where I was lonely but played in pretty good (if destitute) blunt-edge bands and worked as a kitchen-and-bathroom contractor.  I’d eat a mountainous breakfast at one diner, a voluminous lunch at another: triple hamburger deluxe, double fries, nothing else, every single day.  I used my muscles all day, danced on stage behind my piano all night, stayed hard.  Dinner was the same as lunch, or maybe a steak, or maybe the greasiest possible Chinese food, which I regarded as healthy eating, given the vegetables.

And that’s how it went in those years.

I got to be thirty, then thirty-three, when two things happened.  One, I quit smoking.  Two, I went back to school.  The Grad School Diet involves no changes at all except a complete cessation of physical activity.  Suddenly, I was a library worm and a desk fixture. After a year I’d lost five pounds or so.  Sounds good, but I’d lost all muscle tone, as well.  And then the numbers started going up.  I hit 200 for the first time, not a happy milestone.  At a friend’s wedding I put on my old surf jams and joined the party at the hotel swimming pool, and everyone laughed, jeered.  The fat of men, unlike that of women, is fair game for wiseacres.  The slender bride-to-be balanced her margarita on my belly as I floated around the pool.  Pretty soon I looked like a coffee table in a frat house, everyone’s old beer bottle and a couple of ashtrays on my prodigious self.  I laughed with the crowd, why not?  At least I wasn’t smoking, more than you could say for them!

Back in New York after the weekend I went to the somewhat less-than-excellent health service there at Columbia University.  The doctor said, and I quote, “You aren’t young any more.”  He thought I should lose 30 pounds. Thirty pounds!  He drew blood.  My cholesterol was over 300, nearly all the bad kind.  My blood pressure was up.  I sucked in my gut for the EKG nurse and she scowled, stuck sensors to my ample bosom.

That summer in Colorado I got back down to 169 pounds by eating little but trout and by hiking hundreds of miles, got back into my 32-inch-waist Levi’s.  But that didn’t last, because you can’t catch trout in Manhattan (though I caught a few PCB-laced striped bass off the West Village piers), and because I was back at my desk.

Poppy always did a lot of the cooking, even more during my mother’s decline, and all of it after her heart attack.  He really did try to follow the sheets and sheets of suggestions and commands dietary that the hospital handed him on the way out.  I arrived at their house one night and found him jolly in front of a bubbling huge pot.  “You’ll be proud,” he said.  “I’m making Weight Watchers!  Only 500 calories each!”

I peeked in the pot.  Fourteen dinners in there, seven dinners apiece.

“They’re so little!” he said when I ribbed him.  And mounded their plates.


My friend Jon Zeeman gave me the diet that finally worked, more or less, so call it the Jon Zeeman diet: Eat half as much, exercise twice as much. And we all love Michael Pollan’s advice: Eat food.  Not too much.  Mostly vegetables.  Between Zeeman and Pollan (and a little of the drinking man’s diet), my weight outlook has improved considerably: blood pressure good, cholesterol within the healthy range, bra size halved, ab of steel!

As the wonderful writer Alicia Erian once told me: A man who gets to middle age without a belly hasn’t lived.

  1. John E. (Jack) Roorbach "Poppy" writes:

    Maybe just a wee bit exaggerated – I had a friend read this essay Bill and got the comment – “Good Lord, you and most of yours are mighty lucky to still be alive” – indeed we’re all mighty lucky and breakfast is still the most important meal of the day, albeit my “store teeth” and “required blood glucose readings” have made most of the really good stuff (sausage gravy and biscuits-scrapple, eggs and hashbrowns, waffles and cheap syrup, etc) just a very pleasant memory!!

    • Bill writes:

      Poppy, you’ve outlived a lot of more sensible eaters of your generation! Like Jack Kerouac, born the same year, 1926… But I guess he only ate alcohol…

  2. T writes:

    I think it’s fascinating how the food we grew up on sticks with us – literally and figuratively I guess, LOL. No matter how much knowledge I gain regarding nutrition and how to feed myself and my family in a socially responsible way, when stressed or emotional my first instict is to go for something processed to within a inch of it’s life – like pizza bites or more likely, some deep fried carbohydrate/fat combo which when done boiling in grease can then be dipped into some equally fatty substance. I had a double whammy childhood – I grew up in the South with a New England Mom who thought cooking meant opening the can of Spam for you.

    Great post….Poppy reminds me of my Grampa who spread cold bacon grease on his toast every morning. He lived to be 96….so there you go.

  3. SunRose writes:

    I read this before breakfast this morning. My blueberries and yogurt didn’t quite satisfy after reading your poppy’s pancakes and sausage. Having grown up in a born-again household, eating was the one of the few pleasures my parents allowed. We could never go to a dance or to the cinema, but we could eat our way into oblivion if we wanted.

    Nice blog post. Thanks!

    • Bill writes:

      I love that–eat your way to oblivion! Which is exactly right, come to think of it…

    • Peter Peteet writes:

      The” few pleasures my parents allowed”were the same as yours;and like the fingertips of the blind,our appetites and taste buds compensated and we plumbed the limits of both gluttony and subtle flavors.In Art school a series of drawings of breakfast items drew a more powerful and visceral response at critique than any of the ones exploring the areas between pornography and eroticism-so overworked in our age of advertising.
      We each were required to recite a Bible verse before eating,this one never came up
      Proverbs 23:2 “And put a knife to thy throat, if thou be a man given to appetite.”
      As Saint Alphonso(perhaps after that pancake breakfast)wrote”it is, generally speaking, impossible to eat without experiencing the delight which food naturally produces. But it is a defect to eat, like beasts, through the sole motive of sensual gratification, and without any reasonable object. Hence, the most delicious meats may be eaten without sin, if the motive be good and worthy of a rational creature; and, in taking the coarsest food through attachment to pleasure, there may be a fault.”