For the most part I’ve come to accept my guilty pleasures. I’m only a little bit ashamed that I rock out in the car when “Man, I Feel like a Woman,” is on the radio. I admit that I much prefer the chemical slime that is Nair to the onerous task of shaving.
Also, I have been witnessed crying at the end of “Bones” episodes. I’ll even own up to my celebrity crushes: I go for the older guys, often in younger roles: Bill Nighy, David Tennant and David Straithern, lovely and naked as a jaybird in “The Return of the Secaucus Seven.” Yep, Kevin Bacon, too.
This is why I was so confused at my ever-so-guilty reaction to the package of American cheese I found in the refrigerator of my new home when I bought it last summer.
In purchasing the house from people who were making a long-distance move I became the beneficiary of a range of items they didn’t take with them—some exquisite Italian linens, thirsty bath towels that came in handy those first few nights when I couldn’t find where I’d packed my own. I also inherited some leftover foodstuffs: cornstarch and confectioner’s sugar, jars of yeast and capers, fancy coffee beans and rice wine vinegar. And a tempting package of sliced American cheese.
I had become very self-conscious about my not-quite-really-a-vegetarian approach to food. And I still cook carefully, conscientiously, making sure to cut down on fat, ration the use of eggs, buy organic, local—the whole schtick.
But when I go out to a diner and order a tuna melt I always hope the waitress just assumes my cheese choice and doesn’t pose the weighty question “Swiss, cheddar or American?” because I don’t want to have to proffer my low-brow, guilty-pleasure answer.
Then, all of a sudden, here I was with a whole package in my brand-new refrigerator in my brand-new house. Like the delicious Italian sheets and pillowcases, I wasn’t expecting such bounty. And unlike with the linens, I wanted to but couldn’t quite let myself indulge. During those first few days in the house, I was miles away from making a tuna melt.
Instead, I made an exquisite ratatouille. I peeled and sliced the eggplant, salted it and left it to drain. I peeled the tomatoes and sautéed them with onions, garlic, thyme and bay till just slightly thickened. I sautéed peppers, then zucchini, then the eggplant, each in turn, adding them to the tomato sauce, the way you do with a well-made ratatouille. I squeezed lemon juice on the finished dish and covered it with a chiffonade of basil, fresh from the garden. I warmed up some French bread and made a dipping sauce of tarragon-infused olive oil. Then, hoping no one was watching too closely, I peeled off a tempting slice—no,two tempting slices--of American cheese, tore them into bits and watched as they melted, gooey and luscious, into my perfectly-crafted plate of ratatouille. Obviously I didn’t need to add any extra salt.
The next night I vowed to be more abstemious. I decided to grill a Vidalia onion and a Portobello mushroom cap, serving them atop a bed of arugula, lightly dressed with some picholine olive oil, a drizzle of violet balsamic vinegar and a palm’s worth of snipped chives. Then, right as I sat down to eat, like a woman in a trance, I headed for the refrigerator, peeled off—that’s right—two slices of American cheese, tore them into bits and watched as they melted, gooey and luscious, into my perfectly grilled mushroom dish.
It was clear to me then I had no self-control. My processed, packaged, pre-sliced cheese jones was getting the better of me. Already I was thinking how nice it would be to chop up some bits and toss them with popcorn as a bedtime snack while I watched a couple of episodes of “Arrested Development.”
What was happening? Where had I misplaced my couth? And what about my blood pressure?
I vowed I could do better. I threw out the cheese. I took a hot soak in my tub and dried off in my thirsty towels before lowering myself into my luscious sheets. I’ll get by, I’m sure. But summer is coming again.
And I remember how good it is top perfectly healthy ratatouille with that shroud of melting, fake and tasty wonder!