People ask me now if I had health problems from being 300 pounds + for 20 years. I didn't. Guess coming from healthy stock has its advantages. There was no knee or back pain, or even high blood pressure (much to the dismay of those who were waiting to pounce with their "you've got to think about your health" speeches.) What I did have were the shackles of fat which kept me away from a lot of life...which also kept the emptiness intact. Because when I was in the cycle, it unavoidably thwarted the life force that naturally longs to course through all of us. This meant innocuous but important things like relationships were compromised. Why? Because I was too knocked out to really connect with people. I thought I was giving it the old college try, but looking back, much of my time was spent either digesting a binge or planning the next one. Doesn't leave a lot of room for building relationships with others.
So when I recently visited one of my dearest friends on the planet, I was pretty amazed at the contrast - between the time spent with her last weekend vs. my visit three years ago. I've known Aunt Connie since before I could walk or talk. She was my mom's roommate at Lycoming College and they thankfully never lost touch. Aunt Connie and I are both Libra to the core, seeking out beauty and pleasure and harmony with a passionate determination. She has always had an innate sense of how to balance pleasure-seeking while I required a few decades of fine tuning. Aunt Connie's Heart is wide, pulsating, and ever-generous. Her passion lights up a room like a joyous lightening bolt. It used to exhaust me, now I delight in it. And she has this way of making guests feel like royalty. Little touches like new bottles of shampoo in the bathroom, lavender sachets on the turned down bed, and an elegant spread she assembles within minutes of my arrival as she describes the dance-yoga-pilates class she took yesterday followed by Aunt Connie's review of her latest favorite restaurant, Zero Otto Nove (which she drives me to later to prove her point).
The one and only Dr. Connie Vance, presiding in her kitchen
Perfect heatwave repast, both chilled: sliced green apple and a flawless potato soup (no dairy) recipe from Judith Jones' excellent "Cooking for One"
All around me were the gifts the past 15 months of transformation (from the inside out...I didn't go on a diet this time, that's why it worked). It was swelteringly hot and humid. I was a little uncomfortable but not irate and moaning. Three years ago, I was irate, moaning, and slumped on her couch fanning myself.
Three years ago, I would have packed some insurance in the form of potato chips or fast food and spent a significant part of my three-hour drive down I-87 eating. Instead, I pop a few walnuts and chug herbal tea (my constant road companion). I arrive at 1:30 p.m. only slightly hungry (heatwaves sometimes do that to me). She served me the elegant spread above and I savored, no I delighted in it all, from the faint hint of garlic in the potato soup to the mint leaves and the fragrant taste they left in the iced tea.
We talk about life: her book on mentoring that's just gone to the publisher, my latest travel writing assignment, the latest books she's reading (Aunt Connie usually has 3-4 in progress simultaneously). As usual, she has a verbal list of all the things she'd love us to experience during my visit...if only there were 48 hours in a day. So we settle for a handful of them that starts with what we both believe to be the best Little Italy in the world - Arthur Avenue in the North Bronx.
It was Aunt Connie who took me on my maiden voyage there during the winter of 2001 and the experience changed me on a neurobiochemical level. Truly the next best thing to actually being in Italia: there are signs written in Italian that announce the sale of hand-rolled pasta and fresh mozzarella, lyrical notes of spoken Italian ascend above the drone of English on the sidewalks and in cafes, and then there's the food. I don't have room here to give it the full scope of justice it deserves. I'll just summarize by saying it's all good.
Espresso at Palombo Pastry Shop
I can't help the giddiness. It happens every time I step onto the Terra Santa known as Arthur Avenue
Gilbert Teitel, Patriarch of Teitel Bros. Imports
Reuniting with my hero after three interminable years. He supplies the world with Don Luigi, the best extra virgin olive oil on the planet (I've been known to tote little glass bottles of it to restaurants)
Dining at Zero Otto Nove, Roberto Pacciulo's charming trattoria named for the area code of his native Salerno
Arugula salad with Peccorino
Meatballs and polenta bathed in mind-blowingly good marinara
Broccoli Rabe - deep emerald, sturdy, and delicious
The appetizers were too appealing to narrow it down to two...
So we skipped entrees and stopped ourselves at four
No one says no to Roberto's Tiramisu
After dinner, we managed to squeeze in a wine-tasting in Pelham and a major Trader Joe's shopping spree in Scarsdale (that's actually the closet one to Lake George, so I stock up when I'm in Westchester County) before heading home to rest up for a 7 a.m. wake up call because...
A morning at Stone Barns awaited us...
But not before summoning the two non-neogtiables of my mornings: sunny side up eggs and espresso made a little less abrasive with cream. Even a quick breakfast is elegant at Aunt Connie's pied-à-terre.
It's at this Tarrytown paradise where we toured the greenhouses and fields (which always are in some magnificent stage of pre-harvest blossoming during summer months); took a food memoir writing workshop with the amazing Carol Durst, and later dined on corn soup, string bean salad, and just-picked cherries at the Blue Hill Cafe. Then we shopped the farmers market where I lavished Aunt Connie with blueberries, and she bought me a box of wildcrafted Roobios tea. We sat near some flowers and reminisced about the times she would visit me as when I was a kid growing up in Lake George. How even at age 8 I was fascinated with pink lipstick....and any other powdery smelling treasure I could pull from her quilted make up bag. It was Aunt Connie who taught me how to finely chop onions for the omelets she loved surprising my mother with. She also taught me my first few words in a foreign language (French) and whisked me around Paris on my unforgettable first visit. I guess you could say Aunt Connie has been a kaleidescope in human form...showing me uncountable wonders and ways to enjoy life - even just a drop more. The day was wearing on and she had to get home and grade college papers. I had to drive back to Lake George, my trunk packed with remnants of my travels through Arthur Avenue, Pelham, and Scarsdale. I left our time together feeling very full...and food was only a fraction of it.