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Austin Chronicle What Can You Eat?

By Meredith Phillips

APRIL 20, 1998:  Thank God Lent is over. I don't remember things being as extreme during the Lents of the Seventies, when my sister and I were tiny Catholics. Back then, Lent simply meant no meat on Friday. This translated to tuna melts and potato chips, which didn't really cramp our styles. Now, people seem delighted to have an excuse to give something up.

For those who have chosen to give up gambling, swearing, gossiping, or smokeless tobacco for several weeks - more power to you. Religious or not, 40 days and 40 nights is a generous chunk of time to test your resolve, to see if shedding your vice is going to be worth it in the long run.

I have somewhat less tolerance for the atheists who suddenly won't let meat pass their lips, have thrown their Cocoa Puffs to the wind, or are restricting their alcohol consumption to wine because they've put whiskey on the shelf for six whole weeks. In these cases, all we can do is patiently wait for Easter Sunday, when they'll strap on their bonnets and resume whatever eating habits they call normal. The eating aspect of Lenten Obligation would be far less aggravating if we weren't so limited to begin with. I know that entire cultures subsist on manioc and boiled chicken. I also know that those people would be a lot easier to cook for than my friends. In one of the most culturally diverse countries in the world, the melting pot, it's almost impossible to hone in on something that everyone will eat. Recently, I invited a group of friends over for dinner, and spent half the day trying to find something that wouldn't send any member of the group reeling. Heather, who adheres to a low-blood sugar diet, does not eat refined sugars or grains. Bill has lately softened his serious stance on vegetarianism to let meat - with the exception of pork - into his life. They are both on a new anti-dairy campaign. Jeremy, who is violently allergic to milk, is trying to phase out all dairy to improve his singing voice, and all meat for a reason I forget. Jen has no dietary restrictions except for squeamishness about dark meat chicken, but she's so exhausted by the prospect of more white meat that she vetoes it right off the bat. I didn't know the intricacies of Joseph's diet but made it a point not to ask.

Individually, most dietary requests are reasonable. I certainly don't want to feed pasta with cream sauce to someone who's going to throw it right back up, or catapult a guest into a deep slumber by feeding them white bread instead of wheat bread.

Collectively, these limitations are a different story. It's nearly impossible to cook something that doesn't include meat, chicken, starchy stuff, or dairy. There's miso, but I'll be damned if I know what to do with it.

That night, I finally settled on pasta with a basil tapenade. Heather and Bill brought and boiled their own whole wheat spaghetti. Sometimes it seems that with a skillfully executed pasta carbonara, I could wipe out everyone I know for a good three days....

The latest food studies show that you're only supposed to have two grams of cheese per week. Don't eat carbohydrates after three. Never have fruit for dessert, because it will sit in your stomach and fester on top of the other food you just ate.

Extreme eating habits are a sign of our times. And unfortunately, people tend to get sympathetic physical reactions to things they read and hear. But I'm beginning to believe that what I don't know about my diet probably won't hurt me as much as what I do know screws me up until I manage to forget it again.

With this new philosophy, I've been putting off research for a story I want to do about the macrobiotic diet. I know that once informed, I won't be able to continue my reign as the dairy queen in good conscience. Ignorance might also keep me from interacting socially with any macrobiotics, in which case I will never be tempted to invite any over for dinner. April is a woman with three complementary dreams: to become an aerobics instructor, an episcopal priest, and a food writer. She is famous among her friends for her devotion, but also for her habit of cracking open chicken bones to suck out the marrow; she is no ascetic. For the duration of Lent, perhaps in anticipation of priesthood, she attempted to give up everything she enjoys eating: cheese, sugar, meat, alcohol, cream in coffee, and chocolate. In the last few weeks, I distinctly remember laughing with her over goat cheese, chicken truffle pâté, ostrich burgers, red wine, and plum cobbler as she welcomed her weaknesses back into her world, one by one. Last time I saw her, she was still off chocolate, but later confessed in a phone call that she had broken that one too, apparently with His consent: "Let's just say that I wanted to have a little party with God and it needed chocolate."

As a lapsed Catholic, I'd like to make a motion that next year at this time we look for gastronomical guidance to the Lenten symbol of bounty and balance, the modern version of loaves and fish: The Tuna Melt. Aside from inspiring Lenten nostalgia for the pious and meatless Fridays of Catholic youth, tuna melts could be all things to all picky people: fish rich in protein, mayo augmenting the protein with fat, tomatoes guest starring with natural sugars and bright colors, and I know for a fact that cheddar cheese is agreeable even to lactose-intolerants. On top of all that, a sandwich served open-faced is a concept even those in the carbo-wary Zone can embrace. But by this time next year there will probably be something wrong with tuna melts, too.

Writer Meredith Phillips regularly reviews restaurants for the Chronicle's Cuisine section.

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