My diet got me this far

Sometimes I can’t believe what my 82-year-old mother has been eating. Living now in a retirement home in Durham, North Carolina, she told me she recently had cherry cobbler for breakfast. Apparently she’d had French toast stuffed with bananas and Nutella for lunch the day before, and after lunch had gone to dessert theater (“You know, like dinner theater, but with desserts”), where she’d gobbled down a lot of cookies. “So when they served cherry cobbler for dessert that night in the dining room, I thought, I better take this back to my room and eat it tomorrow. For breakfast.”

Nancy Cardozo shares a house with her friend Aileen Ward in New Milford, Connecticuit; both are writers in their 90s. “We eat everything we like,” Cardozo said. “Any kinds of eggs, blini, any good red or beluga caviar with creme fraiche, cheesecake, chocolate souffle with whipped cream, creme brulee, filet mignon, pasta with pesto. Aileen drinks Lillet, and I’m vodka and tonic. We drink as much as we can.”

The cartoonist Mort Gerberg, now in his late 70s, went to a bat mitzvah in Denver last year for his great-niece. “Usually at these things they have a table with desserts or chocolate, but at this one they had a sour cream table,” Gerberg said. “They had all these cockamamie things to put on the sour cream: candies, chocolate. I had heaping portions. It was thrilling. And all I could think was, where are the potatoes?”

It’s a common belief that life as we know it ends in old age. Gone are the little joys that make existence worthwhile – bearnaise sauce, pancetta, cake batter – all subsumed under a banner reading, “Doctor’s Orders.” For older people, the irony of eating is that your metabolism slows down, so you need less food, but your body needs just as many nutrients, if not more.

Declining health and the voices of authority only dampen the proceedings further. The latest dietary guidelines from the federal government recommend that people older than 51 (along with African-Americans, children and adults with hypertension, diabetes or chronic kidney disease) eat only 1,500 milligrams of salt a day. Everyone else can have 2,300.

Constantly badgered by the medical establishment, family and friends to adopt a healthier approach to food, the older gourmand soldiers on anyway. Why? For my mother, it’s the thrill of transgression.

“I’m a sneaky eater,” she told me. “Inside me is a very naughty girl. I like to eat in the privacy of my own room – sticking my spoon deep into the jar of Mrs. Richardson’s caramel sauce so it sticks straight up, maybe sprinkling a little salt on it – and not telling anyone.”

For others, eating well is a way to keep traditions alive. Mary Pyland, 92, of Abilene, Texas, was raised on a ranch. “We had a fried chicken dinner every Sunday,” said Pyland, who ran a cosmetics store until she was 84. “I lost my husband 16 years ago, and I try to keep up everything we always did. Honey, I just had fried chicken with cream gravy and biscuits and mashed potatoes for dinner last night. And I made a caramel pie that was just about the best thing you ever put your lips around.”

One trope that comes up often in conversations with older gourmands is that eating what they want is, at their age, a right or privilege. For some of these privileged or righteous folks, it’s a question of not curbing one’s impulses.

Pyland said, “My little cousin Mary Kay Place, the actress, is always telling me not to eat stuff, but then she’ll eat it right off of my plate.”

Or consider Bobby Seale. A founder of the Black Panthers, he wrote a barbecue cookbook in 1988. Now 75, Seale cooks and eats “Bobbyque” 10 times a year. His lust for animal fat once caused his colleague Huey Newton to ask, when served some food Seale had made, “Hey, Bobby, how’d you get ham hocks in this chili?” But because he had a heart attack 10 years ago, Seale now takes precautions that make him sound like someone preparing to smoke an electronic cigarette.

“Now I used smoked turkey parts instead of ham hocks,” he said. “And I do a jalapeno corn bread with Cheddar cheese and crushed bacon bits that’s low sodium. I wash each piece of bacon – there’s loose salt in the fat. Then I microwave the bacon.”

In the end, older gourmands – their doctors’ orders and their bodies’ demands ringing in their ears – are each responsible for themselves. “Everything is a matrix that you function inside of,” Seale said. “There’s about 10 miles of atmosphere at the Equator, and five miles at the poles. That’s the matrix we all survive within. You apply your knowledge to that, and figure out how to survive. I’m limited to six ounces of beef that’s 95 percent lean every day. That’s my matrix. But when I barbecue, I want that flavour to go right down to the bone. Down to the bone!”