You can’t imagine how badly we ate or how much we loved butter. In our small household in western Pennsylvania, we ate food inspired by two basic ingredients—fat and salt—and disingenuously attributed some of our worst concoctions to Southern cooking, as if we were standard-bearers of regionalism, and our diet quaintly wholesome.
I grew up eating food influenced by Southern cuisine and the immediacy of farm—and gun—to table. My mother was raised in eastern North Carolina, where everyday foodstuffs were fried or cooked for 12 hours with salty pork. And although both my parents were raised in close proximity to animal fats, it was my dad, who grew up on a Northern dairy farm, who took the Southern laissez-faire approach to fat and salt to extremes.
Take for instance, the potato chip sandwich: angel-soft white bread, a thick slab of butter, handful of crushed potato chips. Or the cracklings sandwich, in which the potato chips are replaced by crispy things that can be found in a skillet after floured chicken has been fried. Or his favorite comfort food: cracker soup. Heat milk and a few tablespoons of butter in a pan and pour the oily white broth over a bowl of saltines or large soda biscuits. Cover and steam crackers into buttery carbohydrate pillows.
Although butter was our fat of choice, Crisco was the staple of frying, baking, and delivering trans fats. And there were ubiquitous meat fats—bacon and ham hocks that flavored over-cooked greens and beans; orange oil bubbling up in a pork-venison lasagna bake; parsnips and carrots marinating in pot roast tallow.
That was the oily foodscape we waded through for decades, passing around glistening plates of brown food at home and in restaurants—fried chicken, fish, shrimp, potatoes, lace corn bread, hush puppies, corn fritters, onion rings—adding a little more butter to the sweet potatoes and waffles, to the corn pudding and spoon bread, to the rich flaky biscuits and dinner rolls.
If my father was shameless in his fat-seeking, my mother was equally unapologetic about what she salted. Watermelon, cantaloupe, honeydew, pumpkin pie, and all custard pies were enhanced by shaking on the salt.
At some point, I began apath away from my parents’ predilection for saturated animal fats, largely through the rejection of meat. But I remained faithful to dairy, rationalizing the amount of cheese I consumed during the 24 years I later lived in Wisconsin as another form of food loyalty, as if blood fats don’t count when you’re eating local.
I continued to salt my pumpkin pie. And to pile on the whipped cream.
Add the unexpected
Once I had agency over my own food choices, I could avoid my parents’ reckless consumption of animals and their parts. There was a lot to elude. They enjoyed organ meats—mountain oysters, giblets, sweetbreads—and conglomerates of snouts and tails—scrapple, souse, strange sausages.
They relished tough squirrels, rendered soft by a pressure cooker and made festive with Bisquick dumplings and thick, squirrely gravy. (Decades before anyone on our town had heard of Creutzfeldt-Jakob disease, my father spoon fed squirrel brains to the baby in a high chair that was me.)
As the Post-War Era introduced more and more packaged convenience foods, we began our exchange of perishable meats for a descent into chemicals, adding to the unnatural staples of Spam, Velveeta and Miracle Whip the astronauts’ orange Tang, Fizzies (a seltzer tablet that turned ordinary water into a soft drink), diet sodas, and a rainbow of manufactured snack foods, including airy, follicle-speckled pork rinds.
Post-War America was also the era of nerves. For both parents, there was a bottle of Black & White scotch, secreted away in a kitchen cabinet near the partially hydrogenated crackers.
And there were cigarettes and television—all consumed as if nothing in the modern age might be anything but deservedly good. Like butter and salt, they took it all in with confidence and entitlement.
My mother was contemptuous of obesity. It was not what she ate, but how much she ate, that framed her food sensibility. And so she was surprised when one spring morning, when she was 65 and getting dressed to leave for her weekly hair appointment, she was stopped in her tracks by pain. A day later the blanket of pain enveloped her, killed off the anterior wall of her heart and stopped its beating for almost an hour.
Later, the nurses would tell her that that the ones whose skin cooks beneath the defibrillator paddles, as hers had done during the hour they worked on her, can be saved.
And she was. She returned home to a cautious existence, one with many new pills but without cigarettes and caffeine, and with a tentative grasp on healthy eating and a brief enthusiasm for walking. Ultimately, she only gave up smoking. Given a second chance, she lived much as she had before her heart attack for another 21 years, watching television and eating what she liked from even smaller plates.
My father was not so lucky.
Embalmed with blood fats and minerals, his arteries narrowed until their delivery system skipped parts of his brain, which had already been damaged by a series of injuries. Even though he’d stopped smoking long before my mother and was far more active, his body was less forgiving, less able to rebound from fats and alcohol, less able to tolerate long-term stress.
Against a memory-sucking backdrop of coronary artery disease and carotid artery disease, something else began to emerge: a shuffling gait, a blank stare, dwindling affect. Later, there were hallucinations and sun-downing. When he was admitted to the VA hospital where he would die 18 months later, his diagnoses now also included Parkinson’s with dementia and probable Alzheimer’s.
Their medical fates—the sudden slap-down that can be survived, the slow turn-to-stone—have haunted me for the past decade.
I’ve had elevated blood pressure since my 20s; elevated cholesterol since my 40s, and am well aware of what constitutes a heart-healthy lifestyle and yet, it has been so very difficult to forgo the buttery grilled sandwiches that I love. Grilled cheese with chutney. Tuna melts. Brie en croute.
The secret ingredient
I saw the butterheads at the Minnesota State Fair in the summer of 2012. My daughter, a marathon runner who has served as my unofficial and often uninvited health coach for more than a decade, led me to the kitschy central display of the dairy hall, where a chorus of dairy princess candidates had been carved out of large blocks of butter. Their 12 eerie likenesses were slowly rotating in a refrigerated display case. The fleshed version of one of them would soon be crowned Princess Kay of the Milky Way.
Butter, cream, ice cream, and cheese were everywhere, sweet and melting. How could something so American as dairy fat, something that inspired patriotic contests, sculptures and crowns, be both embraceable and dangerous? Didn’t we suspect there was a dark side to the butterheads—that their long, yellow locks were covering waxy brains filled with pale fat deposits and globs of protein?
After the dairy hall, we hit the health tent, with its screenings for eyes, BMI, hearing, and bone density—happy fair-goers collecting body data as we went, like Mylar balloons.
And that was the day that I found myself wanting the most definitive information available, a test that would predict my fate, go beyond the body’s surface and catapult me into a world of hard evidence and motivation. Even more than the honey-sunflower ice cream I bought on the way out of the fair, I wanted to know what the Zoltar of health predictors would tell me.
The popular genotyping test that I eventually took cost only $99, and although not currently FDA-approved, provided me with predictive risks for 122 diseases, 53 genetic carrier statuses, 25 potential drug reactions, and 60 genotypical traits.
More than just quantitative information, my genetic fortune was oracular.
In July 2013, a month after filling a test tube with saliva and sending it back to 23andMe, the secret ingredient in the family recipe was revealed. It was Fate, buttered with Variables, salted with Inertia.
Each of my parents had given me their special variant of the apolipoprotein E (ApoE) gene. The ApoE gene makes a protein which, when combined with fat, becomes a lipoprotein and is tasked with removing cholesterol from the bloodstream.
Variations in the ApoE gene affect cholesterol metabolism, skewing the risk of heart attack or stroke and the odds of developing Alzheimer’s disease.
Both of my parents gave me a copy of the ApoE4 variant, presenting me with the ἑ4/ ἑ4 allele, a genetic recipe for butterheadism, for hyperlipidemia and atherosclerosis.
Having a single copy of the ApoE ἐ4 gene is associated with higher odds of developing Alzheimer’s disease. Having two, as I do, raises the odds to about 40 percent that I will develop Alzheimer’s between ages 50-79, the slice of life I currently inhabit.
I am not just what I eat. I am a being whose eye color, hair texture, and predisposition to heart disease and dementia were secretly imprinted at conception.
Keep it warm
It’s been almost six months since I discovered the secret ingredient to the family recipe, and while I know that having the ApoE ἑ4/ ἑ4 allele does not guarantee that I will get Alzheimer’s, current thinking is that its heritability is 60 to 80 percent, and that genetics contribute more to risk than environmental factors.
When I told my internist the results, he said There are things you can do. (What’s good for the heart is good for the brain.)
When I told my endocrinologist, he said If someone told me I was likely to get Alzheimer’s, I’d live for now!
I am trying to write a recipe for both.
There’s a lot to do: books to write, landscapes to paint, countries to visit, people to know with honesty and humility.
There are worlds of meaning and sensual delight to explore.
There is the need to revisit the mysteries of spirituality, the poetry of relationships, brief loves.
It’s time to picture the body’s sustenance as bright bowls of fruit, slow-cooking Greek or Jamaican vegetable stews, armfuls of wet chard leaves. It’s time to love food that is not white, beige, or viscous as melted pizza cheese.
I’m ready to wipe the butter off my face and cut out saturated dairy fat and salt, maybe even kick out all dairy and wheat, go Paleo. Ready to stick with my veggie-pescatarian lifestyle, with more pesca. To up my two-mile walks in pleasant weather to daily four-mile walks, no excuses, no lattes with whipped cream.
I’m ready to embrace family, travel, volunteerism, writing, teaching, and printmaking without half and half in my coffee. To add yoga and dancing and hiking—without cheese—as if this was the only life I’ll have.
I believe there are healthy steps I can take while living in the moment, starting on this cold, winter day.
I’m jotting down the ingredients—fill my head with the image of a million gallons of blue water, add a half-pound of sun dress, a pinch of hibiscus fragrance, two tablespoons of coconut oil, rubbed deep into my skin.
Garnish with a laptop, a sunset, music in the distance. Feel the breeze against my neck.
Forgive and forget.
Stir it up.
Deborah Fries is the author of two books of poetry — Various Modes of Departure (2004) and The Bright Field of Everything (2014). She teaches writing workshops that explore our relationship with the human body and healing, writes for the Penn Memory Center at the University of Pennsylvania, and is currently working on a book about genes, memory and race.