Food for thought

When I was young, back in those idyllic antediluvian days, we all knew the national pastime was baseball. Now I think it’s diets.

Holy moly — get in the town hall clock tower and throw a half-brick in any direction, and you’ll hit someone on a diet. And the variety seems infinite, running from the sensible to the downright bizzare. Matter of fact, the only thing they all have in common is no one sticks to them, so ultimately they work about as well as that dreck they sell on TV that brags it’s not sold in stores anywhere.

There’s the Mediterranean diet, the DASH diet, Intuitive Eating, Mindful Eating, liquid diets, Carnivore Diet, Keto diet and for all I know the Cheetos diet as well. The one I found most out there was macrobiotics.

It first came to light in the 1930s by a lad named George Ohsawa, was based on Zen Buddhism and had something to do with the ancient Chinese concept of the balance of Yin and Yang, whatever that means. But as opposed to most other diets, macrobiotics had less to do with losing weight, per se, than with raising consciousness. Because it was somehow in tune with the forces of the universe, you not only achieved great health but enlightenment as well.

I knew a guy who followed that diet for a bunch of years, and like all devotees to diet, he talked constantly about it, a look of adoration in his eyes you see only in true believers and golden retrievers.

His name was Lyman Pankurst IV, and once the ’60s went supernova, so did he, getting involved in all sorts of alternative schemes and themes. He was at various times a convert to yoga, transcendental meditation, bioenergetics, Sufism, primal scream, Eckenkar and at least a dozen other such systems I neither knew about nor paid no attention to. And since he was a trust fundament, he could KEEP getting into all sorts of mishegas, ad infinitum, so I figured macrobiotics was only one part of his natural progresson.

He wanted to be called Ly, but due to my love of word play and dislike of cutesy nicknames, I refused. Instead, I dubbed him “Babbitt,” since BT Babbitt’s was a brand of lye, plus the title of a Sinclair Lewis book about a classic middle-class dullard. Since he’d been been passed through “exclusive” prep schools and colleges, based on Lyman Pankhurst III’s generous donations rather than any achievement on his behalf, he was functionally and culturally illiterate. Thus, he actually liked the handle and had no clue it was a goof.

Babbitt lived in Gotham, and on one of my visits there in the late 1970s, he asked me to meet him for lunch at a macrobiotic restaurant. It would be, he assured me, a rare experience. Truer words were never spoken.

At the time, I knew nothing about macrobiotics, and still don’t know very much, but have gathered a few things about it. It was very basic, avoiding any processed foods, sugar and milk products, and cutting way back on meat and fish. Instead, it pretty much centered on stuffing one’s maw with brown rice and soybean products. It also had guidelines for the specific ways to cut up fruit and veggies, and what kind of cookware and tableware to use (no electric ovens and plastic bowls). One of its tenets was you should eat foods grown locally, which for six months in My Home Town would consist of snowball souffle and pine needle tea.

Many food experts criticized the diet, saying quite simply, it was no good for you. Yeah, sure, you’d stay thin, but mostly because the longer you stayed on it, the more malnourished you became. I’m pretty sure it doesn’t have many followers anymore.

Recipes for disaster

I met Babbitt at the restaurant, whose name I forgot but whose setting is burned into my mind. First, there was nothing fancy about it — all basic tables and chairs, simple white walls, recessed lighting — but all of it top of the line. Next, one entire wall was a cooler full of all sorts of gourmet wines. And third, it seemed every man jack in the joint was smoking a cigarette. Every time I took a breath, I also took in a good hit of Winstons, Marlboros, Virginia Slims and Kents. I figured I’d be lucky to get out of the joint without being in Stage One COPD.

“Uh, macrobiotics is all about bein’ healthy, right?” I said.

“Of course,” he said.

“So how come tobacco and plonk are allowed?” I said.

“That’s not up to me,” he said with his usual “no one home” look in his eyes. “Greater minds than mine have already decided that.”

Greater minds than his included only about 99% of humankind, I thought.

The waiter glided over to our table.

He was as thin as a reed, and his complexion was the same color as Dijon mustard. I thought to myself if he was an advertisement for the food, what awaited me would not be delightful. And it wasn’t.

He handed us the menus and glided off.

The first thing I noticed was the prices, which were astronomic. The second thing was I didn’t know what I was looking at. For all I knew, it could’ve been written Mycenaean Linear B.

First, each dish had a Chinese name. And second, the foods themselves were foreign to me. For instance, take Hung Pam Loo. Please. It was “Baked papa criolla smothered in tofu remoulade, garnished with shredded paw paw and lemon grass.” All the other items were equally unfathomable.

Ole Babbitt was right in his element, though.

“I’ll take the Sum Dim Goi,” he said.

It was described as “Brown rice on a bed of arugula and kale, surrounded by asparagus spears and lichee nuts, topped off with baked wheat groats.”

“And to drink?” said the waiter.

“How about a sparkling kumquat juice?” he said.

The waiter nodded, and then turned to me.

“And for you?” he said.

Not wanting to look like the total rube I was, I decided to play it safe.

“I’m not hungry,” I said. “So how about just a cup of coffee with cream?”

“Sorry,” he said, looking anything but sorry. “We don’t carry coffee … or cream, for that matter.”

“OK,” I said. “How’s about a pot of tea?”

“What kind?” he said.

“Lipton?” I said.

“No Lipton, either,” he sniffed.

“So what kind of tea do you have?”

He rattled off a bunch, the only one I caught was cinnamon something, so I ordered that.

When he came back, he put Babbitt’s meal I front of him. It was in a huge wooden bowl and looked like something my cat yacked up. It didn’t give Babbitt even a second’s pause, and he picked up his chopsticks and dug in. Sum Dim Goi indeed.

I took a sip of my tea. The good thing about it was the taste wasn’t overwhelming. The bad thing was it was tasteless.

And so it went — me drinking lukewarm pishuks, him woofin’ down that mess like the Cossacks were in Keene Valley. He was finished in short order; I was finished after the first cup.

At last, getting the point

And that was my first, and I’m glad to say my last, experience with macrobiotic “cuisine.”

It was also the last time I saw Babbitt, though we stayed in touch on and off over the years. Not long after my visit, he gave up macrobiotics and took up astrology and numerology. After that, he traveled to India, where he and the Sadhus got down in the Ganges. Which was followed by him getting down with amoebic dysentery.

Then it was to France to study Savate. Then Siberia to shmooze with shamans. Then Egypt to acquire pyramid power. And on and on …

I last heard from him five or six years ago, when he called from somewhere in New Mexico.

After the initial greetings I asked him what he was up to now.

“I’ve got a great gig,” he said. “I’m a part-time student adviser in an acupuncture college.”

“Sounds fascinating,” I said, meaning anything but. “So do you like it?”

“Oh yeah,” he said. “I don’t really do much work, plus I get all my acupuncture free.”

The convo kept on like that — me asking him obvious questions and not listening to his answers, and him being oblivious about my disinterest. Finally, he said he had to go.

“So soon?” I said, him missing my sarcasm.

“Yeah,” he said. “I’ve got a terrible headache.”

And suddenly I remembered an ancient Henny Youngman bit I’d been waiting probably 30 years to put into play.

“I know how you can get rid of it,” I said.

“Really?” he said. “How?”

“Simple,” I said. “Take two pins every four hours, and call the office in the morning.”

There was a long pause. Then, without speaking, he hung up.

As I said, I haven’t heard from him since. And for some strange reason, I don’t think I ever will, either.


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