Lost Jars


I finally dropped below 200 pounds early in 2001, the first time I’d weighed that much since middle school. The “Week From Hell” kind of put an end to that, as the stress of everything after the house fire (and me going back to college about six weeks after that) made me forget about the healthier eating I’d been doing. I got back below 200 again a couple of years later, but then my senior year of undergraduate kicked my tail good, and even though I’ve had healthier periods of eating and exercise since then, I haven’t been able to stick to anything for very long. The high cost of eating well in America has a lot to do with that, but I have to shoulder most of the blame for these problems due to my poor planning in this regard.

That first time I dropped below 200 pounds came after a couple of years of dieting, inspired by the shows I was watching on Food Network (you know, back when they actually had cooking shows). I’d been making nearly all of the food I ate since I went vegetarian in 1993, but I spent a lot of that time relying on prepackaged foods like pre-made spaghetti sauce and frozen pizzas. I’d grown up watching cooking shows on PBS (I still have a soft spot for old episodes of The Frugal Gourmet, despite how Jeff Smith’s career ended), but I wasn’t allowed to use the stove back then, and things like cooking and baking kind of fell off the radar for me as I clawed my way through high school. I first got Food Network back in 1997, and I quickly became a big fan of both Emeril Lagasse and Ming Tsai, which led to me finally becoming more experimental with my cooking, especially when it came to my attempts to eat healthier foods.

I’ve always been a huge pizza junkie, but an episode of Ming Tsai’s East Meets West convinced me that instead of relying on powdered pizza crust mixes and jars of store-brand pizza sauce, I should try making my own pizza dough and sauce from scratch. I bought my own pizza stone, even though our oven really couldn’t heat up enough to make the stone more than a novelty. Still, making that stuff on my own, and seeing my weight continue to go down as I ate healthier, kept my motivation up for a long time, until life after the house fire (and back in college) resulted in the progress I’d been making there going by the wayside. I don’t think I ever found my pizza stone after we moved back into our house, and I certainly never bothered replacing it.

There was a part of me that wanted to go back to making my own pizza dough and pizza sauce, though. I was buying jars of pizza sauce for my own consumption, but I kept putting the empty jars and lids in the dishwasher, for the express purpose of using those jars to bottle up a big batch of my own sauce as soon as I could get around to make one. I lined the jars up on a shelf in our pantry (the plastic around the edge of the lids continued to smell like pizza sauce, regardless of how many times they got washed, but I was sure they’d be okay), and I figured that when the time came, I could just fix a batch of the sauce I’d been making before the house fire, freeze the jars I wouldn’t use right away, and get back to losing weight as soon as I could make pizza from scratch again.

That never happened. The jars just accumulated in the back of that one pantry shelf, and even if I’d gotten around to trying to make that pizza sauce again, I was sure that the recipe must have left Food Network’s website after Ming Tsai transitioned to public television. One of the last photos I took before I left the house for good was of that pantry, and those empty pizza sauce jars were still lined up in the back of that shelf, along with half a canister of malted milk powder. The only thing sadder than looking at all those empty jars is seeing all the canned goods on the shelf below, stuff that Mom bought but never got a chance to use.

I don’t know if I could have done things much differently back when I was living in that house after the fire — life after my father’s death was incredibly tough — but whenever I see that photo of the pantry, it’s hard to look at those empty pizza sauce jars and wonder what might have been. Maybe making my own pizzas from scratch wouldn’t have made that much of a difference (I’ve always had more of a problem with eating too much than eating the right stuff), but each one of those jars feels like it represents a lost opportunity for me, a chance I had to get into healthier eating habits that I just didn’t end up taking for a variety of reasons. I wonder if I would have put the jars into storage back in Toledo if I’d actually used them before Mom’s passing, instead of leaving them behind when I moved out of that house.

This seems like something I should have learned a lesson from, but now I find myself going through the same problems with slow cookers. I bought a slow cooker, and a couple of vegetarian slow cooker recipe cookbooks, in the years before Mom’s passing, but I only ever made a couple of dishes with that first slow cooker (including a pasta dish that was so mushy as to be barely edible) before I left the house. I didn’t take that slow cooker with me, but I did bring those cookbooks on my travels, and one of the purchases I made with my first paycheque here in Wisconsin was another slow cooker. Given how much the winter cold here makes me yearn for hot meals, and how I want to keep saving money, I figured that I’d make regular use of that slow cooker to prepare lots of healthy meals that I could reheat in the faculty office’s microwave oven.

After making one batch of spring pea soup, though, I stopped trying to make anything except desserts with my slow cooker. (Even then, I think I’ve only made two batches of peach cobbler in it this past year.) Part of this is because I can make a good vegetarian chili on my stovetop in an hour, and part of this is because the closest store with anything resembling a decent produce department is a forty-five minute drive away from my apartment, but I can’t help feeling ridiculous because of how I keep taking these first steps to eat better, and invest all this money in equipment, but then never get around to doing much of anything. Even when I keep getting bored with the stuff I eat over and over again, week in and week out, I still feel like taking the next steps towards doing my own cooking and baking again are insurmountable, and I know that’s not true.

I’ve said before that I’m not one for making resolutions at the end of every year, but I feel like I’d better make a resolution here soon to use my slow cooker more often, and to fix the healthier food I should be eating here, regardless of all the other stuff in my life I’m dealing with. If I don’t use all this stuff I’ve already bought, then it’s just going to be like those empty glass jars in the pantry back in Toledo: A reminder of how I had an opportunity to do something to help myself and took the first steps, but then abandoned my efforts before they could lead to anything. No one’s going to be around to make use of my slow cooker if something happens to me, so I’d better start making use of it myself.

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