A favorite story of my mother’s ran thus: mere weeks after I was born, long before I was supposed to be on solid food, I cried all the time. She took me to the doctor, who took a look at me and simply said, “he’s hungry.” (Dr. Davis, my pediatrician, had already demonstrated great wisdom by pronouncing, as soon as I made my entry into the world, that I would grow to be 6 feet, 3 inches.  I beat him by a mere inch).  So my mother hauled me home, filled her baby bottles with oatmeal, cut the nipples off the bottles to allow me easy access, and I shut up.  I’ve been eating on demand ever since.

I was lucky in that my mother, while not a “gourmet” cook (this was a rarefied designation during her 1940s and -50s heyday) was adventurous.  She loved onions and was never afraid of garlic.  She gave us milky oyster stew and smoked finnan haddie as a matter of course–these seafood delicacies were things she herself had grown up with.  I can remember when oregano made its first appearance in our house–she called it or-a-GA-no, thinking it had come from Oregon, I guess–and it went into anything Italian.  She loved eggplant but nobody else in the family did, so she went without until those breaded eggplant sticks went on the market.  We all loved them.  And then there were Chef Boyardee Raviolis. (Yes, raviolis.  Who knew “ravioli” was the plural in Italian?)  She opened up a can of them for lunch one day and I was hooked for life–I could barely stop eating them then, and as a guilty pleasure I will very occasionally snarf down a can even now.

As I entered my double-digit years I became interested in the sandwiches my parents made for their weekend lunches.  There came a day when I decided I was tired of cream cheese and jelly and I asked my mother to make me a sandwich like the ones the grownups were having.  She came up with a comely pile consisting of Lebanon bologna, Swiss cheese, onion, mustard, and lettuce, encased in two big slices of pumpernickel.  It was my favorite sandwich for years.  It’s only in retrospect that I marvel that these exotic ingredients–smoky and sharp Lebanon bologna, pumpernickel bread–were regular fixtures in our suburban 1950s kitchen, but then again, they were always available in the plain old A&P store where my mother shopped.  (So was liverwurst, another relative rarity today.)  Maybe these foods were entirely run-of-the-mill back then and they only seem exotic now, since we have become so conscious and afraid of cured meats.  Nobody eats these things any more.  More’s the pity, but I have to admit we are having fewer heart attacks.

Given this happy and loving relationship with food,  it’s only natural that I should have become a cook.  My mother started me off down that road, too, leaving dinner ingredients in the kitchen for me to prepare when she and my father went out on a Friday night.  I started cooking for myself in earnest when I finally got into off-campus housing in college.  A favorite recipe was the “Pepper Steak” in a Good Housekeeping meats cookbook I found at a grocery checkout counter somewhere in the 1960s.  I put the name of the dish in quotes because it wasn’t fancy French steak au poivre–no, this was just round steak cut into strips and cooked in a tomato sauce with green peppers.  Over rice.  Delicious!  And I had a favorite comfort food decades before that term ever even came into use: beef stew.  I clearly remember calling my sister from my attic apartment on Maxwell Street in Lexington, Kentucky, where I was going to school, asking her how to make it.

As I moved into adulthood, I became friends with people who were actual gourmet cooks.  They helped me put a few fine points on my native appreciation for good eats. And then came Julia Child and her inestimable influence on American foodways.  She ushered in a true culinary revolution for which I, for one, was completely prepared.  I and millions of others have been kids in the candy store (no pun intended but it is cute) ever since.

The very best part of this love affair with food, for me, was the fact that for the first three decades of my life I maintained the metabolism of a teenager. I stayed rail-thin no matter what I ate, or how much–there was never any penalty to pay for these profligate eating habits I was born with.  It was only as I entered my 40s that I began to notice that my clothes were becoming tight in all the wrong places, and I was presented with a problem many people have always had but I was flummoxed by:  I was gaining weight.  At first it was a novelty, but soon enough it became a nuisance and a grave matter of vanity.  Ralph Cherry?  Fat?  No way.  My first encounter with the word “slender” was when I overheard my Aunt Grace use it in reference to me.  I was less than 10 and I had to ask what it meant.  “Thin” isn’t just what I am, it’s who I am.

So I came to sensible eating habits and exercise relatively late in life–and again, I was helped in these endeavors by the national revolution in health-consciousness that seemed to come hand-in-glove the fore-mentioned culinary awakening.  I have ceded a few pounds to the years through compromise:  I am not a natural exerciser, and if the weather doesn’t allow me to take my usual strenuous walk I go without; and, dammit, I love my food!  I’ve come to a way of thinking that sometimes allows food to be mere nutrition: breakfast is always nonfat yogurt with some fresh fruit (unless we are splurging on a Sunday brunch), and lunch is usually a salad, even when dining out.  We do not have the usual American snacks in the house.  No cookies, no crackers, no crunchy grease flavored with salt in plastic bags.  My reward for all this discipline is dinner, which most times is cooked by me, and I let myself go with it.

The hardest things to deal with when you’re perpetually trying to be “good” are the Christmas holidays, and visits with friends who are also good cooks.  I enjoy baking but never do it because there are only two of us to feed, and a typical cake or batch of cookies will blimp us out in no time.  I had great fun over the recent holidays making five different kinds of cookies to give away to our neighbors.  I exercised some neglected kitchen muscles and we even saved ourselves a few cookies.

Cooking friends are something else again.  How do you say “no” to the offer of yet more cookie recipes or a couple of jars of to-die-for home-made pimento cheese spread?  Politely, I hope, and in the full and respectful knowledge that we’re all just trying to share the love.  All I have to do is try to button my pants to remember that too much “love” renders normal clothes downright uncomfortable and makes me short of breath going up the stairs.