You know, I get this whole long-winded post out of the way about how I’m starting to get my girlish figure after all these years, I’m losing all this weight, I’m riding my bike, I’m watching what I eat — I’m done with all the junk-food noshing …
And then it happens.
As if I need another test of faith at this point of my life.
Last Tuesday night, I needed to go out to WinCo to pick up my healthy breakfast stuff for the week: cereal, bananas, water, nonfat milk. I even made sure I went on a full stomach; a new Chinese buffet opened a quarter-mile from the store, on the way there, and I wanted to try their sushi rolls. OK; fine. No big deal. No temptations.
Until I was finished and making my way from the dairy section to the checkout.
One of the endcaps leapt out at me.
No, not just any potato chips. Had they had they anything to do with Frito-Lay, the 8-million-pound gorilla of the junk-food world, I would’ve walked right past without a word.
No — they were a brand from back East that I never would have imagined showing up in a California store.
Herr’s Potato Chips, out of Pennsylvania, is a company known for its wide array of exotic-flavored chips, most prominently Heinz Ketchup. I’d bought them occasionally on infrequent trips to Pennsylvania, and once in a blue moon they’d show up in Connecticut, but not often enough to hook me.
And here, on an endcap in a store in the thick of California, were siren red bags of Herr’s Heinz-flavored chips. Which I was able to resist at first glance with just a raised eyebrow. But then the fatal blow: Next to them were bags of Herr’s Horseradish & Cheddar chips. I love horseradish, be it in traditional or wasabi forms. And on chips, to boot? Herr’s chips?
Wow. I felt my knees chopped out from beneath me.
And I found myself backsliding. Or did I?
Well, yes, I did buy the damn things. I needed to rip them open for the ride home like tearing clothes off a lover. And goddammit all, I’d been so good for so long! I hadn’t bought potato chips since somewhere in the middle of winter. But here I was, getting my fingers stained red with the blood of my guilt the seasoning of the ketchup chips, then delving into the yellow-coated horseradish chips and not being prepared for the kick that shot back at me through my sinuses — just like real horseradish.
And I felt like shit.
I know where this all started, too — the summer of 1983, my first summer out of college, when I was just around the 170-pound mark. I was pretty much living with my first New Haven girlfriend at that point — that lasted a few months — and I would stop at the convenience store/gas station near her place and pick up a bag of Ruffles Sour Cream & Onion and, if feeling deeper cravings, a box of Entenmann’s chocolate chip cookies. And thus an addiction was born.
It became a habit, one I didn’t break until the beginning of this year, well after I had gone from skinny young thing to Jabba the Hutt.
And I would seek out exotic flavors wherever possible. The usual sour cream & onion and barbecue weren’t good enough after a while, especially the extremely bland Lays varieties. The regional flavors were always the best.
My all-time favorite flavor was one I had just once. In 1988, I was sent to cover a golf tournament in Sandwich, England, and was staying in a B&B 45 minutes up the A1 in Canterbury. On the way back one afternoon, I stopped at a Texaco to fill up the rental, and the shop had bags of Golden Wonder Worcestershire Sauce-flavored crisps. I can eat just one — bag, that is. But it was the right bag. And the flavor never left my memory banks. For years after, I would sit at the Anchor in downtown New Haven and occasionally shake some Lea & Perrin’s into a bar bag of Ruffles and enjoy a messier, soggier version of what eluded me.
A close second popped up on my screen in the mid-’90s. A brand from a small factory in Maine appeared in local stores for a brief spell, both convenience stores and the old Yale Co-Op in downtown New Haven. Humpty Dumpty was a brand out of Scarborhough, a small town on Route 1 between Old Orchard Beach and Portland, and they made a Sour Cream & Clam chip to kill for. I even stopped in at the tiny building on a vacation in Portland just to see them being made and pick up a few bags to hold me … well, maybe a few days … (The company was eventually sold to a Canadian firm and my second-favorite flavor of all time disappeared.)
Coming in a close third was New England Clam, a brand made by a regionally legendary snack food company. State Line Potato Chips, based across the Connecticut border in Wilbraham, Mass., was ubiquitous in Southern New England grocery stores — even more prevalent than the scourge of Frito-Lay — until the late ’90s, then vanished. And in the mid-’90s, their New England Clam was right up there, just a notch below Humpty Dumpty.
And I tried other regional flavors as they appeared on my screen. Snyder’s of Hanover, also out of Pennsylvania, makes some bizzaro flavors as well, but somehow, Steak & Onion didn’t taste right in a dry chip, without the juice from the steak, and Coney Island Hot Dog? Well, that was one best left aside …
So as I write and you read, you can see the problem emerging, right? I’m writing about these junk foods with a fondness some people reserve for lost loves. It’s pathetic, really.
But as I ventured further into my spiral of depression from the mid-’90s through the entire ’00s — and my depression noshing — I would be picking up bags of chips every couple of days. The store would be different (Stop & Shop back home, WinCo or Food Maxx here) and the flavors would be different (I discovered the joys of Granny Goose Sour Cream & Onion, out of Oregon, and California Earthquake Chips out here), but the M.O. would be the same: Feel down, go out, buy a bag or two of chips, some sour cream and dip, maybe ice cream, too, and drown my sorrows. And get big. And develop sleep apnea. Then repeat the cycle.
As mentioned in a recent post, the hormone replacement therapy I’ve been on since April with my gender transition has curbed almost all of my depression noshing. It’s brought me a sense of emotional balance I really hadn’t felt before.
But I’ve been a sea of storms lately, thanks to the prolonged unemployment, which hits the year-and-a-half mark this coming Saturday. And that, combined with seeing the bags of Herr’s, was enough to send me back into the arms of my old lover.
Well, for one night. I think.
I left most of my two bags of chips sitting to the side of this here desk in my room as I carried on with my laptop ways. Occasionally, I would reach over and pick up one or two chips, but I had it under control.
Until the next morning, after breakfast. I was back here writing and perusing the Web, blindly reaching down for either flavor. And while I got the ketchup chip craving out of my system by that point, the horseradish chips were crying out loud and clear.
OK — enough.
The voice of reason asked me, “Do you really want to go back to that? Look at all the progress you’ve made, girl! You’re getting into shape and you’re really starting to look good. You’ve come too far to go back. Doesn’t it feel good when people tell you you’re beautiful? Do you really want to do this to yourself again?”
Plus, putting this much of my life on a blog, in the public eye, where people can call me on my transgressions, should be enough to keep me in line, right? I mean, how credible a writer can I be if I can’t walk the talk?
And besides, was it as good for me as it was for Her(r’s)?
One thing I’ve learned about my longtime relationship with food is that it never loves you back the way you love it. It’s not a fair playing field. It took me decades — and the hormones — to fully realize that.
And did the chips really taste that good? Really? Basically, they tasted like dried food product with some intense flavor clinging to the surface. The ketchup-flavored chips kinda, sorta tasted like ketchup, but then again not. And the horseradish chips? They were indeed intense, but if I need a horseradish fix, there’s always wasabi, to be spread over something much healthier.
So basically, I encountered an old lover and tried to see if the old spark was still there. There was some small spark, as there tends to be when many relationships end, but not enough to rekindle the old romance. I’m really not feeling it. I’ve moved on with my life and I’m a much better, happier person for it. Maybe I’ll run into Mr. Chips at a holiday party or other special occasion, say hi, get into a little small talk, but the relationship is over.
So I placed what was left of the two bags in the trash. And as my penance, I went out and did 17 miles on the bike. And felt pretty damn good about it.
UPDATE 9/8: It’s about 1 a.m. and I just got back from doing my weekly cereal-and-milk-and-banana run to WinCo (the first time I’ve gone grocery shopping as my better half, by the way). This time, the cases of Herr’s chips were up near the front, on my way to the produce section. I gave them a look, even slowed down a half a beat, but kept on walking. Very slight temptation, but nothing to make me want to backslide again … Minor victories …