Saturday, January 31, 2004

Something rotten with Atkins

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If you ask me, I think the Atkins diet stinks.

As in, it smells bad.

For those of you who have been trapped under something heavy for the past several months, the Atkins diet is the latest thing in the growing intentional-starvation industry. As pioneered by the late Dr. Robert C. Atkins, the plan essentially forbids dieters from eating anything with carbohydrates in it for a while. That means no bread, pasta, rice, sugars, most fruits and many vegetables.

To keep from collapsing into translucent piles of jelly from malnutrition, Atkins dieters eat meat — tons of it, from every animal imaginable — and cheese.

Atkins’ theory is that carbohydrates make people fat. And here we were thinking fat makes people fat. I guess that’s why we’re not all doctors.

Also, I wonder how to explain Atkins to Asian people. Statistically, they’re the thinnest ethnicity on the planet (even if you factor in the sumo wrestlers), and the two biggest staples of Asian cuisine are rice and noodles, not 24-ounce steaks.

For a while, the low-carbohydrate fad diets of Atkins and its less-strict, Protestant cousin, the South Beach Diet, were sort of funny. They were almost cute in a way, the way that kids are cute when they say the darndest things. Low-carb dieters say the darndest things, too:

“Eating bacon and Cheez Whiz as a snack will help me lose weight.”

“For lunch I’m having half a tub of butter, two boiled eggs, what’s left of that pepperoni stick in the fridge and three tins of sardines.”

“I’ll have two Whoppers, extra cheese, hold the bun, and a large Diet Coke. I’m trying to watch my figure.”

Aww! See? It’s kind of cute.

But upon doing some research into low-carb diets, I realized how insidious they can be.

Friends, in the interest of public service, I must inform you that Atkins has been known to give dieters bad breath. Not just bad breath, either, but really bad breath.

There are other side effects, I hear. Something about increased risks of colorectal cancer, blah blah blah, and heart disease.

But getting back to this bad breath. With all the steak that Atkins dieters eat, one would think their oral effluvia would carry the deliciously sweet aroma of Worcestershire sauce. But I guess I’m mistaken.

The Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine recently took a yearlong poll of Atkins dieters. As posted on www.atkinsdietalert.org, a whopping 40 percent of those polled reported the diet gave them obnoxious breath.

(Forty-four percent reported constipation and 5 percent had the gout — but I’m saving that for next week.)

All over the Internet are messages from current and former low-carb dieters who are worried that small rodents have crawled into their mouths and died. This is from www.atkinsdietbulletinboard.com: “My boyfriend has started complaining of how bad my breath smells! ... Feel a bit embarassed, clean teeth and use mouth wash, but still horrible.”

Another person on www.epinions.com said she should’ve been suspicious when “people were now standing two feet farther away.”

But leave it to good old Atkins to make bad breath something to strive for. Keep in mind that Dr. Atkins is the same guy whose company has made millions convincing people that pork chops are healthier than oranges.

You see, doing the diet causes ketosis, a state in which your body thinks it’s starving and burns its fat reserves for fuel. You release ketones, chemical byproducts, in your breath and urine.

This, from Atkins.com — the horse’s mouth, so to speak: “Ketones ... do not cause bad breath so much as a different breath odor.”

I confess I’d never thought of it that way. So someone who doesn’t shower for a month doesn’t have so much of a lousy body odor as a different body odor, and somebody with leprosy doesn’t have rotting skin so much as different skin.

Everythingatkins.org concurs with the good doctor’s findings: “Bad breath is an indicator of the production of ketones as you burn body fat, and is a good sign that the diet is working.”

So you can take a couple of Tic Tacs and be happy, right?

Wrong! Atkins.com also has this to say: “We discourage the use of most breath mints while doing Atkins because they may contain either sugar or artificial sweeteners. Even so-called ‘sugar-free’ products are often full of carbs.” That’s true — we’ve all heard about people who pig out on Tic Tacs and gain, like, 40 pounds.

Instead, Atkins suggests chewing parsley.

So if you’re thinking about hopping on the low-carb bandwagon, here’s what you have to look forward to:

You’ll wake up in the morning — hopefully you’ll wake up in the morning — and eat a fistful of bacon for breakfast. You’ll limp over to the bathroom, your feet swollen from gout. You’ll gaze at the toilet and think, “I know this thing does something, but for the life of me, I can’t remember what it is.”

For lunch you’ll sit down to a bunless Whopper for dinner with a hunk of brisket for dessert and a glass of au jus to wash them down. Then you’ll chew a cup or so of parsley, and your friends will keep subtly pointing at the leaves stuck in your teeth. You won’t get the hint, though, because they’ll be standing far, far away.

But this is the good part: When your friends talk to you from the other side of a five-foot distance, think of how little you’ll look.

Saturday, January 24, 2004

Iowa carcass post-mortem

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When I was a kid, I thought everybody had a Massachusetts accent. This theory was borne out by TV commercials for local furniture stores and weather reports by Art Lake, two of my main links to the world outside Fall River.

So when election season came around and national newscasters mentioned the Iowa caucuses, I thought they were saying “Iowa carcasses.” As in, “Bob Dole has defeated his opponents in the Iowa carcasses.” My imagination raced with images of blood-streaked cornfields strewn with the hacked corpses of Republicans, one goofy-looking old guy in a business suit and broadsword claiming nothing less than total victory.

I was closer than I realized to the truly brutal nature of politics in an election year.

This election season, of course, Sen. John Kerry is standing atop a pile of Iowa carcasses. He’s predicted to smite some carcasses in New Hampshire on Tuesday, as well. Not long ago, political writers were saying he’d be a carcass, and former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean would be smiting him. Instead, it ended up like David and Goliath — except the really tall guy knocked down the really short guy, so no, it's not like that at all. Sorry.

As much as I like most of Dean’s politics, I just don’t think the man has electable teeth. Friends, have you paid much attention to Dean’s teeth? Veritable choppers they are. When he smiles, he bares all 32 of them, like he’s reminding you how straight and sharp they are. It’s creepy, frankly.

The scary nature of Dean’s teeth is worsened due to their frank whiteness. Don’t get me wrong — I like a leader of the free world to have clean, white teeth. But because Dean is always yelling at someone, and because his face turns a vivid cabernet purple when he yells, his teeth seem that much whiter.

I’m worried that Dean will eventually use them on a person, and that’s why I have doubts about his ability to run this country. I can clearly picture him appealing to the United Nations for help in rebuilding Iraq and biting Kofi Annan in the face.

He hinted at his overly aggressive tendencies in his bizarre war-whoop after finishing poorly in the Iowa carcasses. Dean seems to have turned off a lot of his supporters by waving his arms like a goon, his face turning a heart-attack indigo, and having a disturbingly public conniption fit. If I may quote the frighteningly fanged doctor:

“Not only are we going to New Hampshire … we’re going to South Carolina! And Oklahoma! And Arizona! And North Dakota! And New Mexico! And we’re going to California and Texas...” It continues in this vein, leaving no state unscathed, until a sweaty Dean finishes thus: “And then we’re going to Washington, D.C., to bite George W. Bush in the face! We’re gonna bite all those right-wing special interests in the face! YEE-haa!

Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina is a bit more cool-headed. He’s always got a smile for the camera — and one of those nice, human smiles, too. That’s probably why he did so well in the Iowa carcasses.

On the minus side, he looks like a 14-year-old who should be in overalls with a slingshot hanging out of his back pocket. I feel like if I ever met Edwards, I’d end up accidentally calling him “kid,” as in, “Hey, kid — what are your plans to reduce the deficit?” or, “We really need health care reform, kid,” or, “I heard Edwards is supposed to be in town. Seen him around, kid?”

I worry about Edwards’ temper, too. Politics is a vicious business. Last week, on TV’s “Face the Nation,” responding to questions of electability, Edwards said he could beat Bush “like a drum.” I may have been imagining things, but I could have sworn he then started pounding his fist into his other palm.

Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, whose Iowa carcass was buried with full honors this week, went still further in his withdrawal speech. I was a bit sleepy when I heard the story, but I thought he told reporters if he ever met Bush face-to-face, he’d “open up a six-pack of asswhup on him.”

Maybe the most egregious examples of election-year bloodletting was exhibited this week during President Bush’s State of the Union speech. He finally decided the executive branch of government had stood by long enough while professional athletes take steroids. Watch your backs, sports junkies!

It was a bold move to take on big, hulking linebackers and hockey players, instead of his competition. It was an even bolder move to take on this hot-button issue instead of, say, helping old ladies buy prescriptions. I’m not exactly sure where he was going with that idea. But I think we’re all in agreement that athletes taking drugs is a nuisance to our daily lives, kind of like the way cloudy days are a nuisance.

But perhaps it was the way that Bush brought up the topic that disturbed me so. According to a slightly drunk friend of mine who watched the State of the Union speech for me while I was out doing something else, Bush told the joint session of Congress, “And then we’re going to New Jersey to test the Giants for steroids! And then we’re going to Foxboro! And then Kansas City! And then San Francisco! And then Minnesota! And then we’re going to Houston to test the Super Bowl! YEE-haa!

Saturday, January 17, 2004

Customologist, hold that whip!

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America is divided into three social classes: Dunkin’ Donuts, Starbucks and “other.”

I used to be a Dunkin’ Donuts person — practical, easygoing and simple. There’s something nice about waltzing into any of the 73 Dunkin’s on Greater South Main Street and receiving hot, liquefied caffeine with fewer than four words, like, “Medium regular,” “Tea, two sugars” or, “Same as him.”

Also, Starbucks is confusing as hell. Every time I wander into a Starbucks store, I stare at the menu board and think, “I have no idea what to order.” Sometimes I know what to order, but I’m not sure how to pronounce the beverage name.

But like a hazelnut-flavored beacon from the heavens, I recently received a press release from Starbucks beginning thus:

“Have you ever walked into a Starbucks store, stared at the menu board and thought, ‘I have no idea what to order?’ Do you know what to order, but are not sure how to pronounce the beverage name?”

For the love of Mergatroyd, yes! Call me a dunce, but I don’t know a Frappuccino from a latte, a Venti from a demitasse, a breve from a half-caf ristretto light whip macchiato. But I’m willing to learn the hip Starbucks language.

According to the press release, the Starbucks chain is now making a sincere effort to teach people how to order a goddam cup of coffee.

“With more than 19,000 beverage possibilities and a unique vernacular, it is easy to understand how ordering Starbucks drinks can be overwhelming,” states the unhappily named Michelle Gass, vice president of Category Management at Starbucks. So, starting now, the company is “offering customers new tools for easy beverage ordering.”

After reading over the eight-page, single-spaced press release and its accompanying 24-page illustrated owner’s manual entitled “Make It Your Drink: A Guide to Starbucks Beverages,” I realized they were right — ordering from Starbucks is childishly simple. Did I say “simple”? I meant “complicated.”

We don’t have a Starbucks in Fall River yet. Something tells me with our low average incomes and at least 10 Dunkin’ Donuts solidly planted, we’ll see Satan draping an afghan over his chilled shoulders before Starbucks comes to town. But you never know. There are 7,225 Starbucks branches as of this writing, with more cropping up nearly every day — and the stretch of Robeson Street between that one Dunkin’ Donuts and the other Dunkin’ Donuts is woefully underserved in the coffee department.

So I took the initiative and became fluent in Starbucks. Here, then, is a brief Q&A lesson on how to order a coffee. Apologizes in advance if it’s a bit jittery, because I visited that Starbucks in Seekonk and I’m a little buzzed on a with-legs quad Venti soy milk no-whip with room Caffe Mocha:

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Q. What size coffees does Starbucks have?

A. Short, tall, grande and Venti.

Q. What’s up with that?

A. Using confusing words keeps away the riffraff.

Q. Are they ever going to offer a super-Venti, because I got a Venti once and, like, it was all foam and no coffee.

A. The easy solution to your problem is to buy three or four Ventis. They’re cheap at $5 each.

Q. What do I call the people who make my coffee?

A. Starbucks actually prefers to call them “customologists.”

Q. Can I get my hair done at Starbucks?

A. No. You’re thinking of a cosmetologist.

Q. I like macchiatos, but am absolutely petrified of ordering one. The mere thought of buying a macchiato gives me cold sweats. What can you tell me about cappuccinos?

A. Here’s what the press release says: “A cappuccino is similar to a caffe latte, but contains more foam. ... A cappuccino with less foam than milk is called a ‘wet cappuccino’ and one with more foam is a ‘dry cappuccino.’” Also, a cappuccino with equal foam and milk is a “slightly damp cappuccino.”

Q. I am unwilling and/or unable to pronounce “frappuccino.” Am I wrong?

A. Try another of the 19,000 Starbucks drink combinations. In fact, advises the press release, “try them all — at Starbucks you can create a beverage with endless options.” At an average of $4.50 a drink, it will take a mere $85,500 and 52 years to do it.

Q. My local customologist is a bit of a nincompoop, so I don’t trust her to tinker with my coffee. Is this common?

A. Just tell your friendly customologist, “Give me room, you bloody nincompoop!” The press release addresses this: “Ask for ‘room’ and your customologist will leave about an inch of extra space at the top of your cup, so you will have room to add cream and sugar.” Alternatively, you could tell the customologist, “Please rip me off by not filling it to the top.”

Q. I’m on a diet where my daily intake of whipped cream is limited. But I can’t seem to stop drinking Starbucks mocha beverages, which come with whipped cream. I crave these delicious drinks so badly it frightens my loved ones. I often hide in the closet and consume illicit mocha espressos under cover of darkness. It’s costing me my sanity. Help!

A. “If you are looking to cut calories,” the press release states, “ask your customologist to ‘hold the whip.’” This is one of the principal differences between Starbucks and Dunkin’ Donuts. Asking a Dunkin’s server to hold the whip is a quick way to get accused of sexual harassment.

Q. Mmm ... Dunkin’ Donuts. Is there one around here?

A. Wait up — I’ll come with. The quad Venti breve extra hot hold-the-whip mocha’s wearing off.

Saturday, January 10, 2004

Give me my daily bread, right now

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The most painful way I can think of to lose a finger — excepting the old mousetrap in the Triscuits box gag — involves flour, eggs, yeast and two heaping tablespoons of bearded Portuguese man between 5-foot-6 and 5-foot-7.

I’m generally a nice guy. I say “please” and “thank you.” Old ladies crossing the street near me can usually count on a piggyback ride to the other side. But do not come between me and bread, buster. Deny me my bread, and you might as well deprive me of oxygen.

I don’t kid around with bread. Almost every meal I eat has bread on the side — and for snacks, it’s usually dry bread. For special meals, I visit that Panera store in Dartmouth to indulge in some Expensive Yuppie Bread. I can have a refrigerator stocked with cooked turkeys, platters of filet mignon, cupboards full of pasta, a fruit bowl so overflowing I have to wade through oranges to reach it — but if I have no bread, I’ll whine to my wife that there’s nothing to eat in the house.

As a kid, my favorite bakery (yes, I had a favorite bakery, thank you very much) had a sign behind the counter that read, “A Day Without Bread is Like a Day Without Sunshine.”

So why do Atkins dieters insist on living in permanent darkness?

“No carbs!” I thundered to my wife the other day over a bread sandwich (two slices of bread with bread in the middle). “No bread! They can eat the burger but not the bun!”

“Doesn’t sound healthy to me,” she said.

“It’s nutty — certifiably insane!” I said, spewing crumbs. “Dr. Atkins is a fraud! Why hasn’t somebody arrested him yet?”

“Dr. Atkins is dead, honey.”

“Brilliant. So people are taking health advice from a man who’s the complete opposite of healthy!”

I especially like heavy breads — rye, pumpernickel, pão do milho, or cornbread. Softer breads are fine, too. Sweet bread is also wonderful. What the hell — I’ll eat any bread that doesn’t eat me first.

One of my uncles is a Portuguese baker in a Canadian town with an appallingly low number of Portuguese bakeries but a good number of Portuguese people. So, on average, my uncle’s company bakes as much Portuguese bread as all Fall River’s Portuguese bakeries combined.

When my family visits his bakery, we’re always roped into helping knead dough — the cockles of my heart are turning a golden, crusty brown just recalling it. My uncle has these colossal ovens that bake thousands of buns every 15 minutes, almost every hour of the day. The baking room is hot as hell and smells like heaven.

Part of the reason why I love — cherish! — bread so much is because of my Portuguese heritage. Bread is to us what smelly cheese is to the French. I have bread flowing through my veins — which may account for why I’m such a lousy athlete. Bread has minimal viscosity at best.

Portugal has an entire museum devoted to bread. It’s the Museu do Pão in Seia, central Portugal, and yes, I’ve checked hotel rates nearby. Quite reasonable.

According to its Web site, www.museudopao.pt/eng, the museum contains four exhibit halls with paintings and dioramas about baked goods, a bar-slash-library (I saw pictures — there’s more booze than books) and a restaurant.

“This is the place,” it reads, “where the traditional flavors of the Portuguese gastronomy are recovered through an always renewed investigation.” Avid gastronomers with 12 and a half euros to spare can investigate a dozen varieties of the golden loaf. And just recently, the museum hosted a traveling exhibit of sculptures of men and animals done in bread. Did I mention that hotel rates near the bread museum are quite reasonable?

Bread isn’t just the stuff of arts and letters — it’s a political statement. A flaky, crusty, hot-buttered political statement.

According to the AFP news service, a prison in the town of Belas, Portugal, served its inmates a special Christmas lunch. But 50 of the prisoners refused to eat it. They went on strike. Why?

“They said the bread included in the meal had not been freshly baked,” acccording to the story.

Seems reasonable to me. Stale bread ticks me off, too.

It’s perhaps a lesson that Sheriff Tom Hodgson should heed — the Bristol County House of Correction has a few Portuguese people in residence, I hear. The inmates can’t watch TV, lift weights or smoke. Substandard dinner rolls could easily be the prison’s breaking point. Here’s a free tip, Mr. Hodgson: fresh bread is squeezable, should have a firm but yielding crust and is best served warm under a clean napkin.
I can see it now: some tattooed guy chips a tooth on a stale bun. Before the guards know what’s happening, the prisoners are up in arms, sniffing their rolls and tossing them to the ground in utter disgust. Some of the bread is so stale it shatters to pieces like glass. A guard desperately tries to radio for help, but is clonked on the noggin by a mousy-looking car thief wielding a submarine roll like a baseball bat. Sirens blare. Someone yells, “For bread, compadres!” and is heartily cheered. German shepherds begin to run the prisoners down, but most of the dogs are too busy licking crumbs off the ground.

It’s too late, anyway — day-old Vienna loaves are heaved through the windows, and in a matter of minutes there are hundreds of escaped convicts charging across Dartmouth in a mob, noses in the air. Someone catches a whiff of warm flour and they change direction — they’re on the move, searching for fresh rolls and probably a cup of coffee to wash them down.

Friday, January 02, 2004

Ataractic: This is a word not often seen in headlines

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I’m hoping 2004 is a good year. I don’t want to die, I want to have a few laughs and I want my wife to keep liking me. I’m rather easy to please.

But I am through with making New Year’s resolutions. I don’t mean that I’ve finished deciding what they are. I mean I’m not doing it again, ever. It only makes me feel guilty.

I need your help. If you ever see me on the street and I’m clearly making a list of New Year’s resolutions — like I’ve got my special New-Year’s-resolution-making pen out and everything — I want you to grab me by the shirt and bust me in the chops.

Or scratch that. You should just talk me out of it.

Why should I bother making resolutions? I never keep honestly to them. I cheat on myself, thinking I won’t notice. What am I, a fucking idiot?

They’re always ridiculous. One year I resolved to copy out the dictionary by hand, doing a little bit every day. I decided to copy out, word for word, letter for letter, my copy of the American Heritage Dictionary, third edition. My reasoning was that it would improve my vocabulary.

Incidentally, I made it to the late A’s. Here is a sample word from the late A’s: “ataractic.” As an adjective, it means when something produces a calm, tranquil state of mind.

This is why this word is stuck on page 86 of my dictionary, and not floating around in most people’s conversations:

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Scene: A typical Dunkin’ Donuts in Fall River. A girl with miniature American flags painted on her fingernails sleeps standing up behind the counter with her eyes open. Dan enters and brushes snow off his coat.

GIRL: Still snowin out there, huh?

DAN: Yeah.

GIRL: It looks nice, though. It’s got that ata...atar...aratactical thing going on.

DAN: Oh. I know what you mean. One of those Antarctic, ataractic kind of days.

GIRL: It looks wicked atratractical over on the Braga.

DAN: Yup.

[Awkward silence.]

GIRL: Um.

DAN: Medium tea, black, two sugars, and a Boston cream doughnut.

GIRL: Uh-huh.

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As I was saying, some resolutions I frankly refuse to make. There are things I like that I know are bad for me, but I won’t give up because I like them too much — Chinese food, for example, or “Three’s Company” reruns.

Everybody resolves to shape up, to become healthier. I do it, too. But this is difficult to accomplish because I won’t give up the Chinese food. You see my problem?

Resolutions never work, which causes aggravation. That, in turn, causes guilt, which leads to self-loathing. You begin to drink. You mutter to yourself in public about broken promises to floss after each meal. Eventually, you shrivel up inside and become a shell of a human being and hit people. I have enough of that in my life.

So, this year, I’ve decided that I’m going to make anti-resolutions. Instead of resolving to do something, I won’t resolve to do something.

It sounds like the same thing as making a resolution. But it isn’t — because if I resolve not to do something, and I end up doing it, I didn’t really break a resolution because I never actually made one. Get it?

I hereby do not resolve to eat four pieces of fruit every day. If I end up doing it anyway, then right on. But I’m not making any promises. I can walk away from the whole thing at any time.

Also, I’m not resolving to exercise regularly. In fact, I don’t resolve to not exercise, either. I’ll probably end up walking a lot, or maybe trying to jog when the weather’s better — either way, my conscience is clean.

I don’t resolve to wake up earlier. I’m tired of resolving every year to quit sleeping so much, and then failing miserably. I’ll wake up when I wake up, as God is my witness, and if I use an alarm clock to help me do so, then so be it.

I don’t resolve to keep the apartment cleaner. I won’t use the new year to force myself into any arrangement. I’ll clean the apartment when it gets dirty, when my wife tells me to, or every other day, whichever comes first.

I absolutely will not resolve to drink less beer. I will drink as much beer as it takes — no more, no less.

I don’t smoke, so I hereby do not resolve to start.

You won’t find me resolving to work harder, either. It just so happens that I want to do so. But remember this — it is a complete coincidence! It has absolutely nothing to do with my anti-resolution! I refuse to be shackled by guilt! Hear that, world?

I feel more ataractic about this new year already.
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