Tuesday, October 9, 2007

Health takes birthday breather

Simply Living

(First appeared in Orlando Sentinel October 7, 2007)

I just finished eating several walnut-raisin rugallah, a gift to myself for my birthday. It's not actually my birthday -- that happens a few days before Halloween -- but about five years ago, I decided that birthdays were too important to warrant only a single-day celebration. They deserve an entire month.

So, that's what I'm doing.

On Oct. 1, to kick off the festivities, I bought a small box of rugallah, a cream cheesy, buttery pastry with far more saturated fat than I'd normally permit my ingredient-conscience self to sample. Not only did I savor every bite of the white flour, flaky treats, I did so without worry.

That's part of the deal. No fretting about empty calories or the buildup of artery-clogging fats is allowed. Such concerns are not permitted in October, the month of my birth.

The banishment of bad feelings is a co-tangent to my monthlong celebration. Along with permission to eat anything I fancy comes a pass for guilt-free indulgence. That means that many foods I love but no longer eat because I know they're not good for me are up for grabs during October.

High on that list is Brie cheese, another heavy-fat food with few redeeming qualities other than its sublime texture and nirvana-inducing taste. For the past few Octobers, I've purchased a wedge of Brie to eat with slices of crisp new apples. Usually, thanks to judicious nibbling, one wedge will last for several weeks.

The same is true of maraschino cherries, another treat on my bad-for-your-body-but-good-for-your-mouth list. Red Dye No. 3 is the culprit there but, for an entire month, I turn a blind eye to cancer-causing chemicals and savor the flavor of juicy red cherries popped into my mouth straight from the bottle.

My final indulgence is candy apples. I don't mean the caramel kind, but the real thing -- bright red, shiny and extremely sticky. There's no denying that candy apples are a terror to teeth. Made of sugar, sugar and a bit more sugar mixed with some artificial colors and, oh yes, an apple, they may not be high on the good nutrition list, but they sure are yummy. Not only do they tickle my taste buds, they trigger fond memories that transport me back to my childhood in Bucks County, Pa.

When I was little, my parents always took me to Styer Orchards in October. There, among freshly baked pumpkin and pecan pies, were barrels of fragrant apples fresh off the tree. If I close my eyes now, I can almost smell the aroma that used to fill that open-air farm stand.

High on a glass counter where the cashier waited, stood the candy apples, lined up like glimmering gems on a stick. My mother always let me pick one as she paid for our other purchases and I would eat it in the car on the way home. That was back in the 1950s and early 1960s.

Thanks in large part to Styer Orchards and candy apples, I perfected the ability to make sweet treats last for as long as possible. Often I was still licking the apple's candy exterior when our family's Rambler sedan finally pulled into the garage.

It is much harder these days to find a good candy apple. Especially in Florida. The prepackaged ones in the grocery taste terrible. A candy apple is nothing if the apple inside is not fresh, firm and crispy.

Years ago there was a confection shop in Church Street Station -- back when there was a Church Street Station -- that had wonderful red candy apples. But that store is long closed. Since then, I've only found tasty candy apples once or twice at carnivals or county fairs.

I'm not fond of birthday cake, and could care less for champagne or fancy wines. My idea of a celebratory treat is to indulge in the foods that fill me with pleasure, and part of that pleasure is the memories certain foods invoke.

Most holidays celebrate events or accomplishments made by other people. There's nothing personal about them. That's not how it is with birthdays. It doesn't matter how old you are or how much you dread the adding on of years, a birthday is your day -- the only one you have.

So, take my suggestion and give birthdays an extension. Permit yourself a treat and then give yourself another one. Indulge in the little luxuries that are normally denied. For me it may be edible treats, but for you it might be something entirely different -- a spa visit, a weekend getaway, a relaxing massage, a new book or jewelry.

Everyone deserves a free pass now and then to do whatever the heart desires. What better time for personal pampering than during the month of your birth.

For the next few weeks, that's what I'll be doing. Birthdays come but once a year, but there's no law saying they have to end in 24 hours. Savor the moment. Make it last.

After all, it will be 11 more months before another year passes, and that's simply too long to wait for a bit of rugallah, Brie cheese, maraschino cherries and a bite into a perfectly delicious candy apple.

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