How I Got Fat (food, food, food, and more food)
Chinatown has been and will always continue to be a community of working-class immigrants. Those who choose to come or stay struggle to keep the family connected across rifts caused by psychological economic trauma. You do what’s required for survival. You work hard to achieve the tragic success of working yourself out of poverty with the goal of transforming your next generation into something that you are not.
Many years ago I watched a short documentary on being old and living alone in New York’s Chinatown. When I say short I mean 10 minutes short. Despite being just 10 minutes It was one of the most powerful short pieces of film I’ve ever seen. It hit home because I can relate. The film is accompanied by various viewer comments and replies from the filmmaker. I started this chapter with an edited version of a viewer’s comment.
The tragic success of working yourself out of poverty to transform the next generation into something you are not are words that eloquently describe my own parents. Chinatown was a dead end. Instead of the squalid streets of lower Manhattan the family settled in Newark, NJ.
“Early north Jersey industrial skyline I’m a all set cobra jet creepin’ through the nighttime…hey ho rock n’ roll deliver me from nowhere.”Bruce Springsteen
Nestled in northern New Jersey 16 miles west of midtown Manhattan is the city of Newark. When you tell people you’re from Newark, the response is usually surprise, indignation, or both. I never understood these reactions. Over the years I have just come to expect them. Newark New Jersey is where I spent my childhood and while it is no longer “home”, the city does hold a treasure trove of memories.
The West Ward of Newark includes the Vailsburg and Ivy Hill sections of the city. These neighborhoods consist of small frame houses stacked upon one another as is common in the Northeast. More upscale towns like Maplewood, West Orange, South Orange and Irvington surround Vailsburg and Ivy Hill. You wouldn’t be able to distinguish between these towns and Newark if it were not for one particular block of housing. Imagine strolling in your neighborhood and all of a sudden, the rows of houses just stopped. The mammoth structures before your eyes, while not unusual, all seem to be out of place. Here the skyline is dominated by a conclave of 15 story tenement apartment buildings. This is where I grew up. Not in one of those small, wood frame houses with their postage stamp front yards and front entry detached garages. Having two feet on one side of the house and a 10-foot wide driveway on the other would have been luxury. No, that idyllic lifestyle was not mine. I lived in the tenements.
Newark was hell.
Crime, poverty, and unemployment are the landscape of my hometown.
My father worked his way as far up the ladder away from poverty as he was capable of. Mom stopped working after I was born. Dad worked two jobs seven days a week for as long as I can remember. His kids always came first. We were the number one priority. As in many cultures on the planet Food = Love and there was always plenty of food even when money was tight and the credit cards maxed out.
I ate too much. My parents encouraged and supported my gluttony. I’m not blaming my parents for turning me into a large human. You can’t blame your parents for everything (most things, not everything). But when you add an unhealthy food environment with binge eating the results are predictable. I developed very bad habits that took a long time to correct.
I ate too much of the wrong foods. Growing up my diet was SAD (Standard American Diet). The following list is a short sample of what to eat if you want to gain an ungodly amount of weight. Calorie counts come from various internet sources and should be considered estimates.
The BK Whopper with cheese. As a kid I would routinely eat two of these monsters at one sitting. 1500 + calories.
Cheese pizza, one entire large pie. I still eat cheese pizza but not an entire large pie in one sitting. 3000 calories.
Plain fast food burgers. In college there was a local fast food place called Caroll’s. I always got a sack of six. 1500 calories.
Tuna sub. Also back in college. Around 11 pm The Truck would roll around to College Ave. My favorite late night snack was a foot long tuna sub. Minimum 1000 calories but the tuna was more like “tuna flavored mayonnaise” because the tuna to mayo ratio had to be around 50/50. I kid you not.
Cold cut sandwiches. Imagine taking a half loaf of bread and making sandwiches which when stacked looked like a Dagwood meal. I don’t do this anymore.
Coffee, light and sweet. You could order coffee this way which was probably half coffee half whole milk with a ton of sugar. Two or three of these? A hell of a lot more calories than black coffee.
Pork roll and egg sandwich. I’d estimate around 600 calories. Back east in NJ they have a product called Taylor Pork Roll. It’s kind of like Spam on steroids. A classic breakfast would be an egg, slice of pork roll on a white roll. Yum.
Italian Hot Dog. Another NJ food staple. The Italian hot dog was invented in Newark in 1932 by Jimmy “Buff” Racioppi, founder of Jimmy Buff’s Restaurant. What’s an Italian Hot Dog you ask? Two deep fried beef hot dogs stuffed into a half moon pizza bread roll, mustard on one side, ketchup on the other, grilled onions, red and green peppers topped with sliced deep fried potatoes. Not fattening at all. Calories unknown. Currently, I don’t eat hot dogs at all.
There is a web page devoted to this sandwich “the perfect late night snack”. https://www.newarkhappening.com/restaurants/foodie-guides/italian-hot-dogs/
Fried seafood. As in the Fisherman’s Platter. The fried platter at Legal Seafood contains 1,645 calories. Fish is healthy, right?
Fettuccine Alfredo traditional with butter and heavy cream. There’s 415 calories in one cup of this dish. Guaranteed the restaurant servings I chowed down on were between 3 and 4 cups of pasta. Do the math.
Chicken Parmesan. I still make and eat fried breaded chicken tenders but without the sauce and cheeses common to the restaurant style dish. Each home prepared chicken tender is approximately 100 calories. The restaurant style dish is at least 1500 calories. And that’s not counting the side of spaghetti. Or Italian bread with butter.
Sausage and Pepper sandwich. See Italian Hot Dog. Basically the same sandwich, different sausage with different bread.
Philly Cheesesteak. To be honest, I never had a real Philly Cheesesteak in Philadelphia. The closest I came to a true Philly Cheesesteak was in Pennsauken New Jersey. The sandwich was as large as my forearm.
When I was 25 my company transferred me to the great state of Texas. Had I remained in New Jersey I’d probably be obese with diabetes and heart disease on 20 different prescription medications.
My favorite high school health teacher screamed at me constantly.
“Lee! You’re fat! You’re going to die young!”
Nope. Not yet.
Take Home Lesson
Change what you eat to change your life.