"Mom, can we go to Old Macdonald's for dinner?" Will asked as the golden arches loomed in his back seat window. I never corrected him. I liked that he associated a childhood song about animals and farms with the fast food giant.
"Yes," I said, turning on the blinker.
"A moo-moo here and a moo-moo there," the boys sang as we waited for their order, conjuring up images of my childhood in the country and the still warm, thick milk with cream floating on top for Mom's coffee, from the farm down the road. Turning in the driver's seat to hand over their Happy Meals, I enjoyed the smiles and excitement over the small, plastic Disney toys. I enjoyed the aroma of fries that filled up the car on the way home. I couldn't eat it, but if they wanted fries and nuggets, fine by me. My all-American fantasy was coming true: fast food and Disney toys that would lead to neighborhood cookouts and Little League games.
Going to McDonald's was a special treat when I was growing up. It was the seventies and my parents were hippies. Mom baked her own bread and canned her own jelly. We lived on 100 acres of woods in Vermont, and had a pen of chickens in the back yard. There was a garden behind the house where we pulled food from the ground for dinner, and a compost heap where we threw away the leftover scraps; the brown banana peels, crusts of bread, and the pointy, green shells from the snapped peas. In the late winter, we walked across the crusty snow to the neighbor's sugaring shack where we tasted warm spoonfuls of fresh maple syrup. Wanting to become increasingly self-sufficient, Dad decided that if we wanted to eat chicken, he should know how to kill one. So he got a book from the library titled, "How To Kill A Chicken." Mom, my sister, Erin, and I hid in the bedroom while Dad walked outside with a knife. Peeking through a window, I watched Dad chase the now headless bird around the yard. From that day on, we were vegetarians. But I missed the McChicken sandwich with the mayonnaise dressing, the pile of iceberg lettuce, the crispy chicken and the chocolate milkshake that I had to suck up through the skinny straw, making my head burn with cold.
My family's dietary restrictions didn't end with fast food. As the children of vegetarian hippies, my sister and I were only allowed candy on Friday's "Candy Day." On Fridays after school, I would stand filled with anxiety in front of the display at the general store: should I pick Starbursts or a Charleston Chew? In the end, it was never the right thing. I'd chew the sweet, strawberry fruit of a Starburst and wish for the chocolate of a Charleston Chew, knowing I had another whole week to wait. Hungry at home and unsatisfied by another batch of Mom's homemade carob cookies, I'd search our shelves in vain for real chocolate. Our shelves were filled with containers of brown rice, whole wheat flour and oats for oatmeal, and I was angry; there was nothing to satisfy my craving.
As soon as I went away to boarding school at fourteen, I satisfied my cravings. I said yes to Cherry Coke and Sugar Babies during English class; yes to milkshakes and cheese steaks in the den after study hall; and yes to McDonald's following field hockey games. For the first six weeks of school I said yes to my cravings, and then I became very sick. The nurse called my mom and when she came to pick me up at school, Mom knew what was wrong when she leaned down to kiss my face. She could smell the sugar on my breath.
Diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes, I learned to say no to food again. No more Cherry Coke, Sugar Babies, McDonald's, milkshakes or cheese steaks. God seemed to be playing some sort of cruel game. Just when I'd arrived at the doors of food freedom, they were slammed shut in my face.
"Pickles are a free food," the diabetes educator told me when I asked what I could eat between meals if I was hungry. "Or nuts," she added. I hated pickles.
I said no to my cravings until I became a mother. Weaning my children from breast milk to chocolate milk, I ground up sweet potatoes, and then placed graham crackers in their fat little fingers. I was romanced by Lunchables and Squeezeables, Moon Pies and Whoopie Pies, chicken nuggets and French fries. Caught up in my children's excitement at the brightly lit grocery store, I rewarded them with the things I didn't get to eat: boxes of Dora The Explorer fruit snacks, rocket popsicles and sugar-coated cookies while I snacked on nuts. Watching them as they ate, I imagined the sugar melting on my tongue and I had to look away. I didn't want them to see the cravings in my eyes. Lining one cardboard box of processed food next to another, our pantry was full of color, our fridge was overflowing, and I was satisfied. My boys would not eat carob cookies.
I was caught between the cravings of my all-American fantasy, and the restrictions of my childhood and my illness. And I think I was using my boys to feed my repressed desires.
When my three year-old came home from his first dentist appointment with a mouthful of cavities, I had to stare down my indulgences every day. I began to question my all-American fantasy and knew, in my heart, that restricted eating wasn't such a bad thing. I didn't even want those cookies I was giving the boys after all; I think I just wanted the choice of saying yes. So I bought a copy of The Omnivore's Dilemma, and when the lights in the grocery store began to feel too bright as I searched the aisles for anything without high fructose corn syrup, I started to shop at the local health food store. I stood in front of the peanut grinding machine and let the boys work the buttons. I listened to them squeal with delight as the thick, caramel-colored liquid slowly squeezed out of the hole and into our waiting plastic tub.
"I want to taste it, Mom!" Miles shouted. I pushed the cart through the narrow aisles slowly, and told the boys they could choose whatever cereal they wanted. I didn't have to hurry them past, frustrated by their pleading for Cookie Crisp or Apple Jacks cereal. In the produce section I reached for Brussels sprouts, butternut squash and apples from North Carolina. I wondered if the food my parents gave me wasn't a restriction but an introduction.
I want my boys to know their shelves are full at home. I want to take them to the farmer's market, and teach them about growth seasons so they know to eat apples in the fall, strawberries in the spring and blueberries in the summer. I want to teach them to notice the cause and effect of the food they put in their mouths; the frantic, crazed feel of doughnuts, and the way the sugar makes them want to wrestle, yell and jump off the couch, versus the way a bowl of blueberries, strawberries or a spoonful of peanut butter will fuel their bodies and make them strong.
But I know this can't happen overnight. I know that I didn't start loving spinach until I was much older than my boys are now. I will start slowly. I will talk to Will and Miles about food so that when they look in the pantry and don't find what they are looking for, they don't feel angry. I will introduce them to something other than SpongeBob Cheez-Its, something like hummus and pita chips. Maybe I can offer them a balance and still say yes to McDonald's every now and then.
Amy S. Mercer is a freelance writer living in Charleston, SC with her husband and two sons. Her essays have been published in skirt! magazine, A Cup of Comfort for Writers, Diabetes Forecast and Literary Mama. Amy is pursuing her MFA in creative writing at Queens University and working on a book about living with diabetes. She was diagnosed with Type 1 diabetes twenty-three years ago and is in great health, free from complications. You can read her blogs at www.alsmercer.wordpress.com and www.chronicmamas.wordpress.com. "Cravings" is adapted from an essay appearing in the forthcoming anthology, Learning to Eat.