Ever since I decided I should eat healthier, my husband often finds me standing in front of the open pantry, holding a box of cereal and shoveling the contents into my mouth as I stare off into space thinking about how I shouldn’t be mindlessly eating processed foods and refined sugars.
He looks at me with pity.
“I have no self control,” I tell him, cereal spilling from my overstuffed mouth. The more I think about eating better, the more I think about eating.
So when our friends invite us over for pizza, I jump at the chance to get my hands on some good, old-fashioned trans fats. I offer to bring a salad: Paula’s Strawberry Pretzel Salad.
If it’s a salad, then I’m the Iron Chef. Paula’s dish is a three-layered savory/sweet concoction of cheesecake and syrupy fruit resting on a pretzel crust.
When I attempt the recipe, the crust and cheesecake center come together just fine, but the topping looks like neon transmission fluid. We all judge a book by its cover, and food is no exception. In this case, I have the personality part down pat—it’s the outside that needs work. I love a good brownie, but if you cover it with a cow pie, I’m not gonna eat it.
I blame the grocery clerk.
“I’m looking for strawberry gelatin,” I said, standing in the aisle of a thousand little boxes. It was like trying to locate a lost kid at a Wiggles Concert: everyone is under 4-feet and wearing primary colors.
The clerk looked at me for a moment like I was the kind of woman who dresses up her cats, and then he pointed to the strawberry Jell-O.
“Not Jell-O. Gelatin,” I said. And he thought I was the idiot.
I have to make due with the Jell-O, but I double what the recipe calls for figuring that Jell-O must be a less-concentrated form of gelatin. When I pour the liquid over the strawberries and pineapple, I have the nagging feeling that this isn’t going to work.
My otherwise perfect salad is drowning in a gallon of Kool-Aid. Luckily, our friends cancel.
“At least we have salad,” my husband says.
I force a smile and retrieve the dish from the fridge.
“What’s wrong with it?” he asks, stirring around the red liquid like he’s looking for a clue. He takes a tentative bite and recoils in horror.
“Why is it salty?”
I’ve seen this face before. It’s the same one he makes when new moms talk about breastfeeding. I explain that the salad is both sweet and savory, but he isn’t buying it.
“It can’t be both. Something can’t be good and bad,” he says and refuses another bite.
The next morning, I find myself standing at the open fridge with fork in hand, digging at the salad. A series of thoughts pass through my head with each bite: “Ew. Huh. Weird. Good. More.” And so it goes until I realize that I’ve eaten half of the contents of the 9x13 dish in the span of 3 minutes.
By evening I accept that I have to dump the salad because I’m a full-blown addict. This incites a 20-minute battle with my fragile willpower. “Just one last bite” happens a dozen more times. Finally, I a grab a spoon that’s been soaking in a bowl of tuna water leftover from my husband’s sandwich making and begin shoveling the salad into the trash. But I’m so far gone that I sneak a few more tastes from the fishy spoon.
As I hit bottom, I begin to sweat. Even though it’s in the trash, I look longingly at the salad. I use my fingers to pick a few of the less contaminated pieces from the top. I feel guilt and embarrassment, but most of all I feel a deep-seeded craving for the contents of that garbage.
It must go.
I take control of the situation by cleaning my cat’s litter box. I’m ashamed to say that even under a coat of litter and cat droppings, I can still hear the salad calling my name. With shaking hands, I tie the garbage shut and run it out to the dumpster where I say goodbye to the Strawberry Pretzel Salad forever.
My husband is wrong. Some things can be both good and bad. The salad was not green and leafy and its sludgy topping was anything but good and nothing like fruit. It tasted like a pile of partially melted Swedish Fish floating in a shallow pool of sugary saltwater.
Then again, I’ve never tasted anything better.