There are plenty of reasons to love the holidays—even for people like me without children in their homes or Christ in their hearts. The carols and the twinkling lights are obvious charms. So too is the scent of evergreen and wood smoke. Subtler but equally potent is the way holiday advertisements persuade me of my generosity. According to the moral calculus of Target and Best Buy, all I must do is lavish gifts on my materially comfortable friends and family, and I’m excused for the past fifty weeks of being a garden-variety asshole.
But more than anything, I love the holiday season because it’s the one month when my year-round eating habits suddenly seem normal. At Christmas dinner, nobody bats an eye as I politely exchange my china for a wooden cutting board—then methodically erect three edible tiers. Using rolls and biscuits as cobbles, I first lay a sturdy carbohydrate foundation. Next, I spoon the casseroles and potatoes into a sort of quivering, cream-based mortar. Then on top I carefully assemble a flavorful façade of meats—which, at any holiday meal in my native South, will include roast beef and turkey, as well as ham studded with cloves and salted with the tears of Gwyneth Paltrow.
For me, a holiday meal is not so different from an average Tuesday night in April. The fare may be simpler and less butter-laden—salmon over rice, let’s say—but the result is the same, calorically-speaking. Because when I say “salmon,” I mean “a salmon”—or, at least, as much of the slippery devil as I can wrestle onto the top rack of my oven. True, I may steer clear of the eyeballs and fins, but otherwise I go after sockeye like a hibernation-wasted Kodiak bear.
In my household, I do the grocery shopping and cooking. It’s good exercise to crisscross Market Basket with racks of beef ribs and a burlap sack of potatoes slung over my shoulders. Moreover, it would be cruel to force my wife to handle so much food that she will never eat—and unfair to encumber her with the ceaseless task of keeping my stomach topped off. When, as is often the case, hunger pangs awaken me at 3 AM, I only have myself to blame. That’s what I get for not capping the evening with a glass of warm milk and a large pizza from Mike’s.
My wife knows that, when it comes to food, she has only one responsibility, which is to keep her hands and arms away from the chipper-shredder that is my mouth. The comparison is only a slight exaggeration. As an eater, I am not only immoderate, but also indiscriminate. When people tell me about their distaste for olives or their gluten sensitivity, I listen sympathetically—but with profound incomprehension. The notion of a meal “not sitting right” is, for me, a pure abstraction, like division by zero or leftover bacon.
Dining outside my own kitchen, I always feel a certain anxiety about getting enough to eat. After all, at dinner parties it’s stressful to excuse myself, when everyone else is chatting over half-eaten pie, and go rummaging for more calories. I generally have a pretty good nose for the whereabouts of the hosts’ pantry. But it’s sometimes hard to judge—in the heat of the moment—which snack foods their children are least likely to miss.
At restaurants, especially fancy ones, things can get awkward. A recent exchange went like this:
Waif-like server with sleeve tattoo: “Finished with this, sir?”
Me (looking down at a bay leaf and a cleanly gnawed bone): “Yes. I’ll have another.”
Server: “Another merlot, sir?”
Me (avoiding my wife’s imploring eyes): “No. Another dish, please.”
Server (smiling and searching my face to confirm the mischief): …
Me: “Another lamb shank.”
Server: “Oh.” (Pause.) “Yes, I can box up another to go.”
Me: “No, I mean to eat. Like, now.”
Wife (helpful and considerate, as ever): “Or, you know, whenever it’s ready.”
Server (dazed, recalibrating, ashamed for me): “Yes. Okay.”
Me: “Thanks for understanding. It’s a problem I have.”
Server (slinking away): “Mm hmm…”
Me: “Another merlot as well.”
At this point, I suspect you are picturing me as a large man—or perhaps some mythological hybrid with a chambered stomach. So I feel compelled to state that I am, in fact, 5-foot-8 and decidedly stringy. You can go ahead and carry on about how lucky I am to eat what I want and get away with it. I won’t protest. But let me remind you that the calorie is a unit of thermal energy—and the laws of chemistry cannot be escaped. So you might, more accurately, picture me as one of those old-timey, coal-fired boilers. But since I’m not attached to a steam locomotive, all my heat must be dissipated through my pores.
I didn’t fully appreciate just how sweaty I am until a few summers ago, while vacationing with my extended family near Cancun. Our resort offered a variety of amenities, including six pools and one cramped gym. Inexplicably, it was the only place on the grounds that lacked air conditioning, and its ceiling was scarcely tall enough to accommodate a hoisted dumbbell. On my first visit, I hopped on a stationary bike and commenced to ride with my usual gusto. With my headphones on and engrossed in a trashy telenovela, I was at first oblivious to what was unfolding. My aerobic output—stoked by the resort’s all-you-can eat buffets—had combined with the gym’s jungly heat to generate the perfect metabolic storm. Eventually, I became aware of some commotion behind me. I turned to find two hunched maintenance workers squeegeeing sheets of my perspiration toward a drain hole in the corner of the rubber floor. Ever mindful of guest safety, they had placed yellow cones along the perimeter. Piso mojado, they read—which, I think, translates to “sweat gully.”
When I returned to the gym two days and many churros later, the gym attendants recognized me immediately. One wide-eyed woman hissed over her shoulder, “Mira! Look!” Her colleague wheeled and, perhaps dubious of American bilingual education, muttered a string of epithets that could have served as a vocabulary unit titled, “Odors of the Barnyard.”
One reason I moved from the South to New England was that I was tired of being el cerdo, the pig, for nine months of the year. Here in Gloucester, I can usually count on bitterly cold winters to provide a respite—or at least an excuse to layer over the dark stains that bloom across my chest and back. Normally, after Christmas dinner, I like to slip out the back door, open my jacket, and let the steam rise off me like a piping soufflé. But this year I’m headed back South, and word is they’re calling for record heat. Who knows: maybe this will be the year I find religion once again. If there’s any truth to those carols—“Away in a Manger” and all the rest—the Baby Jesus was never too good to consort with the likes of me.