David explains the only thing in the world that could get him to exercise—a doctor-issued threat of giving up his pistachio gelato. (An essay from 2000, but still tasty after all these years.–ed.)
I have butterfat flowing through my veins, and I have the documents to prove it. The day before my 40th birthday the universe decided to torment me with a little game of Mess With Your Head. I was happily gathering information for this month’s column about ice cream, perhaps God’s greatest gift to mankind after elastic waistbands and Entertainment Weekly. While dipping away in batches of homemade heaven (research, of course), the phone rang.
“David, it’s Dr. Rysz,” said the voice in a guttural Polish accent. I had had some routine blood work done the week before, and my doctor was calling with the results.
“Everything looks normal,” she said in even, modulated tones. Then an involuntary intake of breath: “Except for your cholesterol. It’s a bit elevated—252.”
Two hundred and fifty-two? Two hundred and fifty-two? That’s in the danger-Will Robinson zone. It should be well under 200, she informed me.
The spoonful of hazelnut crunch hovered before my mouth. I contemplated lapping it up, but this felt too diabolical considering Dr. Rysz’s pronouncement. So I just stood there dazed as it dripped onto my sandals.
Then came the death knell: “I think it’s something you can get under control with diet and exercise.” Diet and exercise? Didn’t she know I consider Häagen-Dazs Dulce de Leche to be its own food group? How could I possibly diet?—I get paid to write about food. And exercise? Please, setting a table for eight leaves me winded.
I felt defeated. This was the middle of the summer, I was charged with writing about ice cream—the one thing people regularly (and for good reason) cite as being better than sex—and I was cut off. Verboten. Where would the inspiration for rapturous prose about silky French vanilla, pull-no-punches New York Super Fudge Chunk, or exotic green-tea ice creams come from? I fell onto the couch and sulked.
This was a cruel joke. Ice cream, and all types of lusciously fatty foods, are part of who I am. Evidence: Most people mark their lives by special moments such as graduations, marriages, kids; I divvy up mine by food—especially ice cream.
The summer of 1967: Sitting in the backseat of my parents’ 1954 tan Buick Special eating a chocolate ice cream cone (sugar, naturally) in the parking lot at the now-demolished Milk Can in Somerset, Massachusetts. The Milk Can, a whimsical folly built during the 1930s when Somerset was a profitable stop on the summer straw-hat circuit, was a 30-foot high round building with a tapering roof and an arcing green handle—a huge wooden milk jug. To a seven-year-old it was so large that it seemed to tower over the Lilliputian cars that parked around its perimeter, jutting out like so many spokes of a wheel.
Friendly’s giant sundaes with their gloppy toppings and neon-red maraschino cherries dominated high school until they were unceremoniously elbowed out by Newport Creamery’s Awful, Awful—a ridiculously large ice-cream shake.
We never knew the origin of the name, but we decided it came from the wicked ice-cream headaches we got from guzzling the monsters too quickly. They’d scoop your choice of homemade ice cream into a tall metal tumbler, add milk and special sauces, and the whole concoction whirred smooth. It was then poured—in front of you—into a thick, heavy-footed parfait glass. The standing challenge: Drink two, get a third free. The only person I knew to accomplish this was Bobby Simpson. He was my hero.
In the ’80s along came two men whom I’m considering including in my will: Ben and Jerry. Who else but these two eternal boys in rumpled tie-dyed shirts could have thought of folding childhood favorites into super-premium ice cream? Nearly every night during the unremitting heat waves of New York City summers I waited patiently in line on Second Avenue for my custom-made delight.
First, a shimmering gob of vanilla ice cream was thwacked onto the chilled marble counter. Then the interrogation began: A little chocolate chip cookie dough? Why not. Crushed Oreo® cookies? Toss ’em in. Chunks of Heath® Bars? Don’t be stingy. A few deft flicks of the wrist and my personal lovefest was scooped into a cone. So what if it boasted one of the highest butterfat contents of any ice cream; I still had knees back then, so five or six aerobics classes a week kept me well out of harm’s way. Anyway, only ancient people of 40 had to worry had to about cholesterol.
Then there was the incomprehensible amount of gelato I consumed while visiting Italy in the ’90s. And what about the gallons of homemade ice cream I’ve foisted on my dinner guests during my bouts of Martha Stewart mania? Blueberry-peach, Leite’s Double Dutch Super Chocolate, ginger, cinnamon, peanut-butter-chocolate. My motto: If it can be frozen, it can be ice cream.
No! I would not give up my raison d’être. I had no other choice: I hoisted myself up from the couch, rooted around in the bottom drawer of my bureau, and pulled out my old running shorts. Tight, but serviceable. I slipped on an oversize T-shirt and my sneakers. At least I looked serious.
☞ MAKE THE RECIPE: PISTACHIO GELATO
In Central Park, after several minutes of jogging, I decided brisk walking was a passable, though somewhat wussy, substitute. I settled upon my daily regimen: Walk for exactly one hour and consume less than 300 milligrams of cholesterol and 60 grams of fat. This, I understood, relegated me mostly to salads, fruit, veggie burgers, and the occasional morsel of animal protein. But if it meant I could indulge every so often in a one-half-cup, 380-calorie, 290-milligrams-of-cholesterol bit of ecstasy, it was worth it.
Everyone doubted I would stick with my routine. Doctors before had warned me I needed to exercise, all to no avail. But now I had a valid, worthy reason. The problem now became the solution.
Every day I walked around the park, arms pumping, butt jiggling. Meals were well rounded, but a pathetic shadow of their former selves. I dutifully kept a diary listing the calories, fat grams, and cholesterol milligrams of everything that passed my lips. I threw in a few sit-ups for good measure, usually when I was lying on the floor in front of the TV and had to reach up to grab another bite of my fat-free, cholesterol-free, taste-free pudding snack.
Two weeks later I was on the phone with my mother, staring down at the scale between my feet. I contemplated leaning on the door handle as I stepped up, but I decided to come clean for once. Ten pounds! I’d lost ten pounds. I said goodbye to my mother (who herself had lost five pounds; she had joined me as a show of support), headed straight for the kitchen, and fished out that container of homemade pistachio gelato I had stashed away behind the meatless breakfast sausages.
I doled out precisely one-half cup of gelato and grabbed a spoon. I didn’t want to squander the moment, so I took my booty to the dining-room table and solemnly announced to our cat, Madame Maxine, that happy days were here again. Instead of my usual manly mouthful, I took just a dainty bit; after all, I had only a half a cup. The flavors and textures—silky sweetness mingled with the crunch and mellowness of the meaty nuts—danced in my mouth. An embarrassing groan escaped my lips. (Thankfully, my neighbors weren’t at home.) The gelato tasted richer, fuller, and more complex that it did just 14 days earlier. Abstinence had cleansed my palate; it was like tasting anew. I had unwittingly put my taste buds through detox.
I looked down at Max, who tossed a dispassionate glance in my direction (ice cream isn’t one of her favorite people foods), and I vowed to dig in again—right after my next cholesterol test.
Originally published May 27, 2000