What Not to Eat

Wednesday, February 8, 2017

I was in graduate school at UNC’s Kenan-Flagler Business School from May 2014 to May 2015 and I took the TTA bus (since rebranded as Go Triangle) from Durham to Chapel Hill almost every day. The grocery shopping strategy I had used for the prior 16 years, from when I relocated from Arlington, Virginia to Durham, North Carolina in 1998 and began working from home, was no longer an option. No more shopping every few days getting a few things at a time. No more  waiting until I felt like cooking something to look in the fridge and see what I had then go to the store to get what I needed.

My life was changing. I needed a plan.

The perfectly sensible plan I came up with was that I would shop and cook on the weekend to make food for the week. I would take my lunch, and I would try to keep on hand simple things I could eat for dinner.

This is what I had recommended to other people who couldn’t shop and cook like I did due to schedule constraints. Try to be organized and take care of it on the weekends.

This is a good plan.

Did this plan work?

Let’s start from the beginning.

My first day of school was on a Tuesday, which was also the day when I did my Scrap Exchange bookkeeping work. So I got up at the butt-crack of dawn and got myself over to UNC and figured out how to get from home to the bus and from the bus to KFBS and did orientation and all that and then figured out how to get back to the bus and back home. And then once I was home, I got my stuff together and rode my bike over to The Scrap Exchange and did my bookkeeping.

It was a long day.

I was riding my bike home from work, happy and relieved to have made it through this Olympic decathlon of a day, and I had a moment where I was very proud of myself for going through what I had gone through to make it all happen. It was the culmination of a long process that had been a lot of work. But I had done it. I had taken the initiative to find out about the program, to call and talk to the admissions people to find out if this was something I should even think about doing, to figure out how you even take GRE’s these days, to study for them and sit for them and do well enough on verbal section that the first thing the admissions counselor said to me when I walked in to her office was “Wow, you did great on your GRE!” (Which I hadn’t actually, I did great on one part and terrible on the other but if she wanted to just look at the part I did great on then that was fine by me.) I had put together the application, gotten letters of recommendation, scheduled the interview. Actually showed up for the interview. And I got into a program that is very competitive, it is one of the top accounting programs in the country. None of that was easy, especially when you are 47 years old and your last (and first, and only) experience with higher education ended in 1989. And when  you don’t actually want to work as an accountant (separate story there…).

So at the end of my first day of school, I’m riding my bike home down an empty Main Street, past the fancy restaurants that had sprouted in downtown Durham  over the prior few years, and I think to myself, I’m really proud of you. This was a lot of work, and you didn’t have to do it. You had a lot of hoops to jump through, but you did them all, you got accepted into the program, and you did what you needed to do to enroll, and you actually  enrolled.  And then after all that you actually went to school — you got up early and got dressed in real clothes and made it to school on time and made it through the day, got yourself back home to Durham, and then went and got your other work done. That’s a big accomplishment, you should be proud of yourself.

And then I had this sudden, awful realization that this was the FIRST DAY.

This was not the end of anything, it was just the beginning. And I was going to have to do the same thing over and over again, every day,­ for the next 11 months. And I didn’t cry, but if I had had any idea how hard the year would turn out to be, I would have.

So anyway, I made it through the first day, and the second too, and the rest of the week. I got up a few minutes earlier  to  put together a nice lunch in the morning, using  a bento box I got at Crate & Barrel a few weeks before school started. (As any kindergartener can tell you, there’s nothing like a new lunch box to make you feel excited about going to school.)

I felt very competent and on top of things. Cutting up carrots and an apple then heading off to the bus stop.

We were in class for three-and-a-half hours in the morning, 8:30 to noon, and then an hour break, and then afternoon class from 1 to 4:30 p.m. For unknown reasons, KFBS is FREEZING. It was so cold in that building. So after three-and-a-half hours of sitting in a classroom that was approximately the temperature of a walk-in cooler, for lunch, I would go outside the back door, near the cafeteria, and sit on the little brick divider wall  that ran along the stairs and try to absorb whatever heat I could from the hot stones I was sitting on and the humid air hanging around me. Like a skink sunning myself on a rock, trying to raise my body temperature back up to something that made me feel like I wasn’t dead.

It was nice and peaceful back there and I brought good food. Fruit and vegetables, and chicken or some other protein, and maybe a cookie or some other sweet.

I shopped on Sunday, got food for the week, cooked it up, got everything ready.

This all sounds lovely, no? And how long did this last?

Well, in the middle of week three, I got sick and missed part of one class and a night of studying, which seems like it shouldn’t be a big deal except it is when you are in class seven hours a day, five days a week.  Every day is like a week — we did financial management in six classes, which included a quiz, a midterm, and a final exam. Missing anything is no bueno. You are hanging by a thread to start with, anything that disrupts the routine could easily be the end of the line.

So it turned out the organized shopping/cooking/eating strategy lasted exactly three weeks.

The weekend leading into week four, I was like okay I can spend three hours shopping for food and cooking or I can try to catch up and pass my exam. Given how much I had gone through to get in to the program, I decided that studying was more important than cooking. And I never fully recovered. That was the end of the shopping and cooking on weekends.

For a while, I was able to keep it rolling by making things like empanadas (recipe from the More-With-Less Cookbook), which are simple and put everything (meat, vegetable, carbs) together in one convenient package so you can make a batch in half an hour and have week of grab-and-eat meals.

But slowly I began the inexorable slide to eating out more, and eating more packaged food. Take-out Chinese, Clif bars, Pop-Tarts. Usually once a week I would time my trip home so I could bike to Franklin Street,  go to Cosmic Cantina for a burrito, then catch the bus back to Durham.

As the weeks wore on, it became harder and harder to figure out what I even wanted to eat — nothing appealed to me, whether I was fixing something at home or buying something at the grocery store or going to a restaurant. When that happened, I would go to McDonald’s and get a McChicken sandwich and a yogurt parfait for $2.14. Food problem solved.

Unfortunately that happened a lot.

I also started drinking soda, much more than I had been. I drank pop when I was younger, in high school and college, but I stopped almost entirely when I was just out of college making $15,000 a year at my first job, because I had so little discretionary income, I couldn’t afford to spend any of it sugar water. And after that, I would tend to drink it when I was on a trip, but not as part of my regular life.

Bit that changed when I was in school. I’d drink coffee in the mornings — which I never had before — and Coke or Pepsi in the afternoon and evenings.

During the fall and spring when class started slightly later than they had over the summer, I’d still take the 7:30 bus, which gave me time to get breakfast before class. I’d get a bacon, egg, and cheese bagel, which was one of the only things I liked in the cafeteria. Every now and then I would drive, and I would take the route that took me past the Biscuitville on Durham-Chapel Hill Blvd and I would stop and get a sausage and egg biscuit. (I love love love Biscuitville.) In the spring, I became hooked on the spicy chicken sandwich in the cafeteria, the combo meal with a large Coke and fries.

I read recently about a study that showed that sleep-deprived people experience food cravings similar to those of marijuana users. And I was like oh, hey, that would explain the bacon egg and cheese bagels, and the fried chicken sandwiches.

The few times I did try to cook during that year, I found that the smell of food in my house made me feel sick. It was sensory overload, I couldn’t handle it.

And all of this felt like it was a cumulative problem. The longer school went on, the worse it  got.

At some point during the spring term, I was discussing my food problems over email with a friend who is a corporate lawyer and has a crazy busy work schedule. Her suggestion was sandwiches —she said you can get a bunch of sandwich stuff at the grocery store, it keeps for a long time, and you can almost always make yourself eat a sandwich. Also it doesn’t use hardly any dishes, all you really need is a knife and a paper towel, you don’t even need a plate.

That made sense, so I stopped at Trader Joe’s on one of my trips back from Chapel Hill and bought deli ham and turkey and cheese and lettuce and tomatoes and wraps and that’s what I ate if I hadn’t eaten at school and was hungry when I got home, a sandwich wrap. My friend was totally right,  it’s pretty easy to eat a sandwich, they are filling, there were no dishes, and it didn’t make my house smell.

This definitely helped get me through to the end.

I also broke down and started buying boxes of Clif bars and jars peanut butter and dried fruit and nuts and things I could keep in my locker, so I could have something not terrible without having to spend quite so much money. And I stopped feeling bad about buying meals out, because at that point I was going for survival. How much I spent and what I spent it on didn’t really matter.

I did manage to survive school … barely … but the experience was so mentally exhausting that it took me nearly three months before I could cook anything more complicated than scrambled eggs.

I was finally starting to get back on track with shopping and cooking when I started studying for CPA exams, while also working at Scrap Exchange and working with a few of my long-time Filemaker clients (both of which I had also continued to do while I was in grad school) which more or less derailed me all over again.

At first, I started to revert to my in-school pattern of eating out more, but that comes with its own challenges — first you have to figure out where to go, and then once you’re there you have to figure out what to order. And of course it takes time to actually get there and get your food and eat it. This initially led me down the McChicken/yogurt parfait road — all of the decisions are already made, and you only spend $2 — but I decided I didn’t want to do that again, I needed to figure out something else.

And then I made a slow-cooker barbecue pork for a Scrap Exchange Boot Camp lunch, and I realized that this was the solution to all of my problems: you cook a five-pound pork shoulder, it takes about 20 minutes of prep time and 8 or so hours in the slow cooker and you end up with two weeks of meals. (If you live by yourself … much less, obviously, if you are feeding other people in addition to yourself.)

I cooked one pork butt, ate it every day for two weeks, then tried to move on to something else for some variety but gave up after a week and cooked another one. And then another one when that was gone.

I ate it on slider buns, so I could eat one or two or three, depending on how hungry I was, and I bought full seeded watermelons at King’s, and that’s what I ate all summer. Pork barbecue sliders and watermelon. For breakfast I’d fry eggs and eat them on a tortilla with the barbecue. For dessert I’d eat watermelon.

I couldn’t decide if this was fine, because who cares if you eat the same thing every day for weeks on end, or bad, because what is wrong with you, you’re eating pork barbecue for every meal. My god.

But I did it anyway, because I didn’t have to decide what to eat or think about what I felt like eating, I didn’t have to shop but once every few weeks, I didn’t have to do hardly any dishes, my house didn’t smell like food (except for the first day when I cooked the pork), and I didn’t have to spend $12 a day on prepared food. And the pork barbecue is really good, and it’s REALLY easy to make. If you have a slow cooker you should make it. (And if you don’t have a slow cooker, you should think about getting one, they are cheap.)

Here’s the recipe, which I found by googling “nc barbecue slow-cooker pork” , or something like that,  and got from The Domestic Front, and adjusted slightly:

Slow-Cooker Pork Barbeque
(Eastern North Carolina style)

4-6 lb pork butt
1 or 2 onions
1 Tbsp liquid smoke

2 Tbsp brown sugar
1 Tbsp paprika
2 tsp salt
1/2 tsp ground pepper

1 cup cider vinegar
1/3 cup Worcestershire sauce
1-1/2 tsp crushed red pepper flakes
2 tsp sugar
1/2 tsp dry mustard
1/2 tsp garlic powder
1/4 tsp cayenne

Combine ingredients for the spice rub and coat all sides of the pork with the spice rub.

Combine all ingredients for the sauce and stir to mix.

Quarter the onion(s) and place in the bottom of a slow cooker.

Place the spice-rubbed pork on top of the onions. Pour the liquid smoke over the pork. Reserve 1/3 of the sauce to serve when eating; pour the remaining 2/3 of the sauce over the pork. Turn the cooker on low and cook for 8-10 hours.

At the end of the designated cooking time, take the cooked pork out of the slow cooker and, if desired, drain off the fat. Pour the sauce out of the slow cooker and allow the fat to separate. When cool enough to handle, chop or shred the pork. Pour the de-fatted sauce  over the shredded meat and stir to mix.

Serve on sandwich buns, with the reserved sauce

Whether or not you have to remove fat from the pork and from the sauce depends on how much fat is on the pork to start with. The first time I made it, I didn’t drain the fat and it was very greasy. However other times I’ve made it, there was hardly any fat to drain off. So I think that just depends on your pork. (With one round, I saved the fat and later used it in a batch ginger snaps. They were good.) You could also try to brown the meat and drain off some of the fat before you put it in the slow cooker, but that adds complication so it’s hard for me to recommend that since the point of this is that it’s extremely simple and takes hardy any time.

I’ve made it with fresh garlic and without garlic, because I never have granulated or powdered garlic around, and I’ve made it with various kinds of paprika (half-sharp, smoked) and haven’t noticed a difference between any of them. The original recipe calls for smoked paprika.

This freezes very well. Though you will have to get yourself to stop eating it before it’s gone in order for that to work.