The current hue and cry over childhood obesity would have puzzled my mother and her friends in the Bronx back in 1932, the year of my birth.
In those Depression years, baby fat was a sign of prosperity. Today you can't pick up a magazine without a story warning about life-threatening fat. But in the '30s, good mothers worked hard to fatten their kids like pagan sacrifices. If you had a fat baby, everyone envied you. A fat baby sent a message to the world: "My parents are not down and out. Look how well they feed me."
My parents were among those who were down. But out? Never. Not while my fiercely determined mother had breath in her body, or while my gentle father had the energy to seek a job -- any job. And so I was pumped full of milk and pureed bananas and oatmeal and junket. Remember junket? It was a thin, pink pudding that was so slick you couldn't wrestle it onto your spoon. If it sat too long, it oozed water. However, it had the Bronx Mothers' seal of approval because it was cheap, colorful and kept kids quietly occupied for long stretches of time while they chased the slippery stuff around the bowl.
I loved junket. I suspect it was pure sugar. Anyway, Mother stuffed me with all this until my pink flesh grew so plump that I must have looked good enough to eat.
However, passersby couldn't see enough of me to be tempted to take a bite because, in the custom of the day, I was immobilized in my carriage, swaddled to the eyeballs under layers of itchy wool blankets. My carriage, lined up with a dozen others, was parked outside the large window of the Horn & Hardart Cafeteria on Fordham Road. We babies were displayed there, a neat row of oblong lumps, like a batch of fresh rolls just out of the oven.
Imagine it -- our mothers left us alone outside, while inside, next to the window, they chatted over coffee! In those days people didn't think that made you a negligent mother. To the contrary, the mothers of these wooly lumps were considered excellent moms for making sure their babies got lots of fresh air. We were parked there in all weather. In winter our bright red, tiny, fat, chapped faces glowed. It was a sign of health -- and it was good.
In the spring of 1933 my mother's dream for me came true. In an annual baby contest, I took first prize as Fattest Baby in the Bronx. Mother talked about this achievement until the day she died. In the eyes of the other young matrons, to Mother's everlasting credit, she had managed to feed me well despite the Depression. She was so proud, I'm surprised she didn't have me mounted -- I was already stuffed.
When I was 4, two new things entered my life -- lamb chops and a skinny kid named Marvin. In the usual way that food fads come and go, a lamb chop cult suddenly sprung up in the Bronx. Good mothers, who, until then, had lived by the code of meatloaf and calf's liver now declared that only lamb chops could save their children from turning skinny and sickly.
Mother was an instant convert to the lamb chop mystique -- but there was a problem. Lamb chops were expensive, and we were barely making ends meet even with my father working late into the night handcrafting little key chains that he sold for 25 cents each.
At this point, Marvin entered.
"Marvin's family is rich," Mother announced. "I bet Marvin eats lamb chops every day."
"Marvin is so skinny, I don't think he eats anything," Dad replied.
"Hmm." Mother pondered for a moment. "You know, you could be right."
Her eyes got that gleam that they never lost in all of her 93 years -- the gleam that meant she had an idea.
Mother investigated the Marvin situation. A subtle question here, a casual comment there revealed that the boy was a picky eater. His mother was at her wits' end with him.
And so Mother struck a deal.
I was "rented out" to Marvin's mother at mealtimes. Mother supplied me; Marvin's mother supplied a lamb chop dinner. Mother's theory was that if I sat next to Marvin and ravenously devoured everything on my plate, I'd shame him into eating. Marvin's mother clutched at this theory with wild-eyed fervor.
A psychiatrist might cringe at the enthusiasm with which she adopted this ploy. At every meal she deliberately humiliated her son by crying, "Look, Marvin, see what a good eater Barbara is! She belongs to the Clean Plate Club. You don't want to be shamed by a girl, do you?"
And skinny Marvin, forced to defend his boyhood, valiantly matched me, bite for bite (he, gagging dramatically; I, smug and smiling). The beaming smiles our mothers shared over coffee and bagels were the '30s equivalent of high-fives.
And so, between us, in those hard Depression days, Marvin and I gnawed our way through enough lamb to feed all the starving Armenians that our mothers told us about when we balked at eating our peas. Of course, in the process I acquired an overabundance of fat cells which -- curses! -- will follow me to my grave. And Lord knows what complexes were taking deep root in Marvin's battered psyche.
I'm convinced that my subconscious has retained that old fear of not getting enough to eat. At the first sign that my body is on a diet, my fat cells instantly panic and send desperate signals to my brain: "Quick, send Hershey bars with almonds!" What's a woman to do? And so today this child of the Depression is Rubenesque -- to put it kindly. Actually, that's not 100 percent accurate because, as fat as they are, Rubens's ladies don 't have a trace of cellulite. Check it out at a museum. Study the thighs on those roly-polies. Pink. Disgustingly smooth. Chubby as those ladies are, they obviously had bad mothers who didn't stuff them enough. I'll bet not one of them ever won a fat baby contest -- and I hope none of today's kids do either.