Thursday, March 1, 2012

You Are What You Eat

A last bastion of Cuban coffee and sandwiches.
This morning I had coffee with Audrey Sams at 5 Brothers on Southard Street. Audrey brings her own coffee mug to the coffee shop, pre-seasoned with almond milk and organic sugar. On top of this, Pepe, son of one of the five brothers, pours a shot of hot Cuban coffee.
    “I bring my own milk and sugar and Pepe still makes me pay for it,” she says, laughing.
Audrey and Pepe
    I still drink the old-fashioned cafe con leche, strong coffee doused with cow’s milk, which, according to Audrey, is laced with antibiotics and hormones that my cancer-surviving body should most certainly do without. This morning I ordered toast, hot Cuban bread slathered in butter, wrapped in a square of waxed paper and perfect for dunking into Cuban coffee. The butter is wrong, too, Audrey says. I should switch to coconut oil instead. So I felt a little bit like an addict, smoking my last cigarette before quitting, or drinking my last Budweiser, before heading to an AA meeting. I know this has to stop. I know there is no argument I can make to refute the wisdom of cleaning up my diet. But old habits die hard, and food is the oldest habit in the world.
    Lately I’ve been thinking seriously about my diet. I’ve been working hard on preparing meat-free meals, featuring lots of veggies, beans and grains. Milk I can live without. But butter? I’m half French, for God’s sake. How do I do without butter?  I was born in Tatamagouche, Nova Scotia, the butter capital of Maritime Canada. My husband grew up on South Carolina cuisine, a lot of the stuff I’m trying to eliminate from our meal rotation. Meat. Bacon. Ham. Cheese. How can we do this?
    The last time I was at Sugar Apple, the healthfood store, I saw Audrey. I ran into her at Help Yourself, the organic food spot where on Mondays you can buy organic vegetables. Through the years, as many locals have experienced the subtle expansion our waistlines and the slip-sliding away of our youthful vigor, Audrey seems to have gone the other way. She has never looked better. She’s driving a dent-free BMW. She’s always smiling.
Audrey. Healthy, wealthy enough, and plenty wise.
    So the last time I saw Audrey I told her I wanted for us to talk. I want to know the secrets of your success, I told her.  So we had breakfast this morning.
    It turns out that Audrey is every bit as smart as I always thought she was. She grew up in Montreal. She is Jewish. She was married once to an Air Force man. She lives on proceeds from several rental properties she owns. Managing those, and keeping up with volunteer activities, keeps her busy. She walks, does Pilates, and coaches a great number of friends on diet and exercise. But she does not call herself a coach or claim any special expertise. 
    Audrey is a very practical person, with refreshingly clear vision. And yet, she told me, from the time she was very young she has never felt like she really fit in. Anywhere. I believe this sense of being an outsider is common to intelligent people, who find themselves frequently mystified by the often silly, sometimes cruel, sometimes harmful antics of people unfortunately not blessed with clear vision. 
    “Real estate and sex,” she said, “are things you should get when you’re young.”
    “Wow!” I said. “You’re right!”
    “Don’t be impressed,” she said. “I got that off a birthday card someone gave me 25 years ago. But it’s true!”
    Michael Ingram dropped into 5 Brothers for some of that irresistible Cuban toast. I told him I loved his new antique Lincoln Continental, which I posed in front of just the other day.
    “I’m cheating,” he said to Audrey, nodding at his toast wrapped in paper. She smiled.
June posing in front of Michael Ingram's new vintage Lincoln Continental.  (See the lady behind the car taking a picture of the most photographed house in Key West?)
    The problem with meat and dairy, Audrey believes, is the way they’re raised and killed. They are given horrific amounts of hormones to make them grow faster and fatter, and antibiotics, to keep them from becoming diseased before they are slaughtered. She watched a film, “Forks over Knives” that presented “compelling evidence that a plant-based diet” would give her the best shot at good health.
    “It’s not how long you live. It’s the quality of the living. I live like a person who has battled and survived a life-threatening disease,” she said. “Even though I haven’t.”
    A couple of years ago she endured a mean bout of dengue fever, a mosquito-borne illness with flu-like symptoms. For ten days she could barely move.  From that experience she learned all she ever wanted to know about being horribly sick. 
    “Who would think a little tiny mosquito could fell a great tree like me?” she said.    
    Nowadays Audrey chooses her food carefully, and loves preparing astoundingly delicious and healthful meals for her carnivorous friends. She is generous about sharing her hard-won knowledge of diet and exercise with anyone interested. She isn’t looking to argue or debate.
    As for the BMW, it’s leased she told me. She leases a new car every couple of years because she gets a kick out of having a new car. But if she could only afford to drive a Toyota, that would be fine, too. Taking care of her body is her main expense. Everything else comes after she pays for organic food.
    “I know plenty of people who drive big, expensive cars and eat crappy food. Some people spend more money on gas for their car than they do on food for their bodies. I really do believe that you are what you eat,” Audrey said.
    “So if someone were to take a bite out of you,” I asked her, “how would you taste?”
    “You know,” Audrey said, “That’s a good question to ask yourself. ‘How would I taste?’”
    "Yeah," I said. "Like a strawberry? Or a cheeseburger?"


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