Much as people might envy my job -- getting paid to eat -- some recognize it as hazardous work in this cholesterol-conscious era. I am constantly encouraged to eat. It's not simply a temptation; it is my responsibility to eat -- often the most luxurious and richest of foods.
Fried potatoes are a better measure of a chef than boiled. Buttery sauces are crucial to the arts I study, and my dinner is far more likely to start with foie gras than carrot sticks. In short, I live in a world of poulet a` la cre`me, homard l' americaine, eggs benedict, chocolate mousse torte, cre`me brule'e.
You'd think, therefore, that my annual cholesterol check would be an anxious time for me.
Nope. Not since the first time my doctor called me to discuss the results: My total cholesterol was low -- not dramatically low, but nice and respectable, just under 200. What's more, my total cholesterol-to-HDL ratio -- a measure of the "good" cholesterol -- was something to cheer about, 1.9, which put me in the 0.001 percentile. I certainly didn't have a problem, and my doctor wondered why. "I know what you eat," he marveled.
I called a friend who is a health writer and told her the good news. It set her laughing. "That's lower than a vegetarian," she said.
How could this be? We decided I should check this phenomenon further.
So I called Dr. William Castelli, the cholesterol expert who conducted the famous Framingham, Mass., study on risks for heart disease. Given my rich diet, I asked, how likely am I to have such a good HDL ratio?
At first he didn't see it as particularly unusual, since other factors might contribute to low cholesterol levels in the blood and a high HDL ratio. I must have good genes, he presumed.
No, my father had just had a sextuple heart bypass, and my mother has angina; they both have high cholesterol levels, I told him.
Certainly I must exercise a lot, he suggested; some runners have cholesterol profiles like mine.
I assured him my exercise level was just above a couch potato and insufficient to change anything.
Do I drink much? Lots of alcohol sometimes raises HDL level, he said.
No, I didn't drink often enough or greatly enough to account for my level.
Castelli had run out of possibilities. He had no explanation except that, as he put it, a third of the population doesn't get diseases even if they do everything wrong.
And maybe my job and my HDL ratio explain each other.
"You'd have to have such a ratio," he joked, "or you would have died along the way."
Phyllis C. Richman is the restaurant critic of The Washington Post and editor of the Food section.