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Wicked Food Hell 

During the holidays, it's easy to be tempted by the dark side.

This holiday season has been rich in torments, heaven knows. There has, of course, been Christmas music. There's been the inexorable grind of canned media coverage. We've lurched through the shopping news--"My God! Are we all spending enough?"--the bankruptcy news--"My God! Are we all spending too much?"--the Barbie news--"What is that darn toy up to this year?!" (always accompanied by lovely photos of the doll herself, en box)--and, of course, the ever-escalating "What you need to give your loved one if you want to continue to get laid" ads.

This year? The traditional diamond-you-can't-afford if you're poor; a Lexus or a Jaguar you can't afford if you're comfy.

I don't know. There's something about an SUV with a bow on top that just doesn't say "manger in Bethlehem" to me.

But that's all the airwaves. Here on the ground, in midtown Tucson, we're dealing with the giant Swiss Colony assortment from Ruth and Wayne.

We used to always get this gift, until a couple years ago we fought with them, or actually, with Wayne (Ruth is my husband's sister and Wayne is her husband) over a family issue of a Gothic, deep-Southern nature about which too little cannot be said. Christmas boxes stuffed with ersatz cheese and weird cookies stopped appearing. Fine.

Then, this fall, the breach was miraculously healed by an even more Gothic, deep-Southern-type event: My mother-in-law's house blew up. (Gas leak, she's fine and it's a long story.) Wayne, or, more specifically, Wayne's truck, saved her life: The porch roof crushed the truck instead of her.

So, we went back, saw the hole in the ground where the house used to be, heard about Mom-Mom's gratitude towards Wayne, took her shopping for shoes and underwear--she swapped near-death-experience stories with the shoe salesman and nearly killed a woman in Wal-Mart with one of those motorized carts--and we all made up.

So the Swiss Colony gift is back and we are once again slightly queasy and intensely conflicted. Every year we look in the box and turn our noses up. Us? Consume a shrink-wrapped beef log containing corn syrup solids, dextrose and sodium erythorbate? Hah. And yet, readers, it is gone, along with the squishy little tube of spicy flavor pasteurized process cheese spread (mmm, caraway seeds, and that great lava-lamp texture) and the 1 5/8-ounce Summer Sausage (beef, corn syrup solids, salt and pork.) The cunningly wrapped 14-gram triangle of Smokey Cheddar is not long for this world.

I should explain that my husband and I are ordinarily grocery snobs of the first water. I mean, we once lived in Italy for five months, OK? I edited a cookbook for Canyon Ranch, and while my main contribution was making sure that Parmesan was consistently capitalized and all eggs were "whole," I was in complete sympathy with the project. And Ed is on a first-name basis with not only the checkers at the Speedway Wild Oats, but with the baggers, too. They know he wants paper, not plastic, without even asking.

We like our coffee organic, shade-grown and fair-trade produced, and our salmon Alaskan and line-caught. We don't eat out much and our cars are old, but we cheerfully spend a fortune on groceries because we like things to taste good and be good for us.

Obviously, we have no business with the strange array of food-like items in that evil box, and the sensible thing would be to just throw it out as soon as it arrives. (No, not donate it to the Food Bank--why should we poison the poor?)

Yet, we don't. It just seems like a cold, heartless thing to do with a present. Inevitably, we keep it. And inevitably, mysteriously (neither of us likes to get caught getting into it) we eat it all.

Actually, we draw the line at the sweets--those peculiar strawberry hard candies (I've never seen one unwrapped, now that I think about it), the rectangles of fruitcake (oh, tough one) and the Petits Fours whose ingredient-list is several hundred words long and features no less than six different food colors. Not to mention nonfat milk-derived solids, invert sugar, polysorbates and xanthan gum. We don't eat the sweet stuff not because we have any self-discipline--clearly, we don't--but because there are levels of Wicked Food Hell too nasty even to be tempting.

Somehow anything of a cheesy nature comes in above of this cut-off, unfortunately.

And now, having expended at least 10 calories here at the computer, I'm off to the kitchen, where I hope and pray Ed isn't looking and hasn't yet eaten the Smokey Cheddar.

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