In part two of my wonderful conversation with Tommy Tomlinson, author of the impossible-to-put-down book The Elephant in the Room: One Fat Man’s Quest to Get Smaller in a Growing America, we talk about how he decided he was going to have to do more than just diet to successfully deal with his weight issues.
Tomlinson describes asking his friends and family about what they thought about his eating habits. “I learned a lot from them about how they would watch what I was eating. And they would be surprised that I would eat the same as them, but I was the one getting bigger. They didn’t know that I would stop again at the drive through on the way home and get a second dinner or something. But I also learned about their concerns about me, and their worry that I was going to be gone too soon, those sorts of things. And then I had longer conversation on the record that I taped with my wife, Alix Felsing, and my mom, who are two people who’ve been with me for most of this journey.”
Tomlinson credits his wife in a major way for helping him confront what he calls “the one big problem” in his life. “Alix has been this incredible kind of guide for me,” he says. “Without ever nagging or hectoring or browbeating me about it, she has gently and lovingly nudged me to become a better and more healthy person.”
Tomlinson writes in his book about something Alix once said to him, which I asked him to repeat on ai because I found it so moving. “She looked at me and said, ‘You made my life.'” he remembers. “That was probably the best moment I will ever have as a human being, to know that I made her life. She has certainly made mine.”
I hope that exchange, which brought at least one Serious Eater to tears, gets you to check out the rest of our conversation. This episode is as moving, as wise, and as human as a Special Sauce episode gets.
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Ed Levine: Welcome to Special Sauce, the Serious Eats podcast about food and life. Every week on Special Sauce, we talk to some of the leading lights of American culture, food folks and non-food folks alike.
Tommy Tomlinson: You know, I miss those moments of just being kind of by myself, just me and Price’s chicken, like you were talking about before, and a little box sitting in my car somewhere, just savoring that moment. I miss those types of pleasures.
EL: Tommy Tomlinson is back with us. He wrote one of my favorite books of the year, called The Elephant in the Room: One Fat Man’s Quest to Get Smaller in a Growing America. And Tommy, now we’re on the journey with you. You’re at 460.
EL: And you realize that it’s not enough to just vow to eat less. You need to dig deeper than that. And so how did you start that? What was that process like?
TT: In writing the book, a real role model for me was a book by a guy named David Carr. He was the media critic for the New York Times for a long time.
EL: Oh yeah. He wrote a book about his heroin addiction.
TT: He did. It’s called The Night of the Gun. And he talked about the time in his, I guess in his 20s, when he lived in Minnesota. And he was a drug addict. And there were large portions of his life that he didn’t remember anymore. And he went back and talked to the people that he hung around with then, and he treated terribly in some cases. And basically said, “Could you tell me about that period in my life? Tell me what I was like. Tell me what you thought of me,” all those things. And I always admired the way, as a journalist, he went back and sort of re-reported his life. And so I did that to some extent. There were not periods in my life that I didn’t remember anymore. But I emailed maybe 30 or so of my friends, people I was close to, and some family members, and just sent them a few questions about my weight, and stuff like: Do you ever think about it when I’m not around? When you’re talking to other people about me, does this come up? What are your kind of thoughts about my life as an overweight person? And so most of the people answered. And I learned a lot from them about how they would watch what I was eating. And they would be surprised that I would eat the same as them, but I was the one getting bigger. They didn’t know that I would stop again at the drive through on the way home and get a second dinner or something. But just also learned about their concerns about me, and their worry that I was going to be gone too soon, those sorts of things. And then I had longer conversation on the record that I taped with my wife, Alix Felsing, and my mom, who are two people who’ve been with me for most of this journey.
EL: Alix sounds like an amazing person. I always tell people when they ask me for advice, because I’ve been married 30, I don’t know, 36 years now. You marry up and you hang on for dear life.
TT: That’s pretty much what I’ve done. Alix has been this incredible kind of guide for me. She has without ever nagging or hectoring or browbeating me about it, she has gently and lovingly nudged me to become a better and more healthy person.
EL: And what’s that great thing she says to you one night in bed, which I thought was just an amazing moment in the book?
TT: She looked at me and said, “You made my life.”
TT: And that was probably the best moment I will ever have as a human being, to know that I made her life. She has certainly made mine.
EL: Sure. In the beginning, you asked what other people think of you. I think you start one chapter with that very notion. And that’s when you really find that there’s two people. We are all two people, the one that we think we are, and the one that other people think we are. And so what did you find?
TT: Well, I found that they were certainly concerned about me. They certainly worried about my longevity. And that’s one thing. But the other thing I realized was that there was always a distance between me and even the people I was closest to because I never talked about my weight. It’s not that other people brought it up and then I shut them down, it’s just it was just sort of a given between us that nobody ever talked about it when they were around me. And so it was the biggest secret of my life, as I said at the beginning of the book. When I wrote down those four words, I weighed 460 pounds, that’s something that nobody else knew. My wife didn’t know. My closest friends didn’t know. My family didn’t know.
EL: And you didn’t know until you stepped on the scale.
TT: Well, that’s true too. I mean, I’d stepped on the scale as little as possible before that moment. But I certainly knew I was in that range. But that was always a secret, and my weight and how I felt about it, and how it sort of tortured me, was just something I didn’t talk about even with my closest friends. And so there was always that little distance between us because I didn’t give of myself. And so I couldn’t expect them to really give fully of themselves either. And so our friendships were shallower than I had hoped they would be. And so that’s one thing, I think one of the many things that I’ve lost or sacrificed by being so big for so long, is that I don’t think I ever had the blood on blood, down close in the foxhole friendships.
EL: Yeah. You talk about your weight keeping people away. You talk about your belly literally is a physical impediment to intimacy almost.
TT: Well, it is. I mean, certainly, it’s difficult for you to get as close to me as you can to somebody with a flat stomach. But I think much more than that, it was sort of a psychological barrier and an emotional barrier, and that I wouldn’t let people get too close because then they would know the guilt and the shame that I felt about being so big and not being able to be in control of it. And so because I was putting up that, my wife called it the invisible wall, and because I was putting up that wall, there were just things that I never talked about with my friends and that they never talked about with me as part of their deep feelings because there was that distance between us.
EL: I think the most I ever weighed was 265. But it had the same effect, by the way. I think that if you feel you’re fat, you feel you’re unworthy. As a result, you’re really reluctant to talk about it with even your closest friends, except to joke about it in passing.
TT: Right. And this certainly is not limited to people like me who are severely overweight. It’s on the other end too, people with anorexia or bulimia, who are underweight, but they still in their mind, they see themselves as fat. So they do what they do to make themselves even smaller. And so it’s relational. It doesn’t really matter what you weigh. It’s what you feel like you weight and what you feel like you present to the world.
EL: If your wife calls it the invisible wall, but she still fell in love with you, you must be a charming, funny dude, man.
TT: I’m a hell of a guy when I’m not having a rack of ribs for supper. Well, that’s part of what has been baffling and frustrating to me and to my friends and loved ones my whole life. I have this other life where I’m a successful person. People like me. I have lots of fans here in Charlotte especially, where I’ve been a journalist for a long time.
EL: Right. You had a column, so you had your picture in the paper.
TT: Right, right.
EL: You probably know my friend, Kathleen Purvis.
TT: I do, absolutely, very well. We’re good friends.
EL: She met me at Price’s, the finest fried chicken in the universe.
TT: Yes, Price’s Chicken, one of my favorite all time places, and somewhere I don’t even drive by now because the temptation is so great.
EL: For sure.
TT: But all those things where I’m a success in other parts of my life, I just had such a problem reconciling it with this person who I felt was an utter failure at trying to figure out the one big problem in my life. And so that has been a mystery to me for as long as I can remember.
EL: It’s almost like it sounds like what you embarked upon was kind of self administered therapy without reading self help books and without going to a therapist.
TT: Well, I did go to a therapist a little earlier in my career, in my life, in the early 2000s. As you mentioned, I was a columnist at the Charlotte Observer. And there were a lot of sort of dark stories that I covered in a condensed time period. I covered the Virginia Tech shootings. I went to Hurricane Katrina twice. I covered an execution at the state prison here, lots of really dark stuff. And it all kind of fell in on me. And I decided I needed some help. And I went to see a therapist. And she was doing what at the time, I guess it’s still called. I think it’s EMSR. It’s electromagnetic sensory-
EL: Oh, yeah. You write about this.
TT: I’m botching the name. You go in, and you sort of stare at a screen. And for people as old as me, it sort of looks like Pong, the old video game, where there’s little white dots going back and forth. And I think the idea is to sort of get you into a meditative sort of blank state. And then you can talk about your feelings in a way where you’ve cleared out a lot of other things. When I started, I thought that was the stupidest idea ever. But it turned out to actually be good and useful for me. And as I talked about that other stuff going on in my life, the conversations always came back around to my weight because I felt almost unworthy to be doing what I was doing because I’d never solved the major problem in my life. And if I couldn’t do that, how was I supposed to do anything else?
EL: And yet, you embarked on this even after what you would consider to be a successful bout of therapy without a therapist and without weekly meetings. You didn’t go the Overeaters Anonymous route, or the Weight Watchers route.
TT: I did all those things at one point or another over the years. I went to OA meetings. I went to Weight Watchers two or three different times. Everybody, as I always say, your mileage may vary. You may have different experiences than I do. And whatever works for somebody, I pass no judgment on that. Those meetings always felt a little creepy to me, especially-
EL: First of all, they’re always in really depressing rooms. Have you ever noticed that?
EL: Have you ever seen a Weight Watchers meeting in a beautiful room overlooking the mountains?
TT: Well, the reason that doesn’t happen is because at some point, everybody strips off most of their clothes for the weigh in. It’s like when they weigh in at boxing tournament, boxing matches, and they peel down to their underwear because they want to make weight. That was the one thing I remember about these Weight Watchers meetings was that everybody was unloading all the stuff out of their pockets and taking off their shoes because that number meant everything.
TT: And the other thing that I have to say really pissed me off about the Weight Watchers meetings is even there, their scale was not big enough for me. So I had to weigh in at the Y, or at my doctor’s office, and then tell them what I weighed. And so it was like a double embarrassment that I couldn’t weigh in at the weigh in.
EL: Yeah. Wow.
TT: Which was like the focal point of that meeting. And so I just never felt comfortable there. And so I’ve had experience with all those things. And I certainly took in and absorbed I think the good parts of them. I mean certainly the diet plan I’m on, even though I sort of just came up with it, is basically what Weight Watcher does.
TT: They just put a numerical value on stuff instead of calories. But I’m doing it without the meetings.
EL: Even your attempts to reach out to people, in a way that’s related to what they do at AA. Right?
EL: Because you talk to all the people that you’ve hurt, or that have negatively been affected by your addiction.
TT: Yeah. If you look at it in that way, she would probably cringe to hear this, but my wife has been my sponsor for quite a long time.
EL: Right. So you embark on this, and it’s not a straight line. Right? I mean, what are the impediments that you noticed?
TT: Well, there are lots of them. The first ones for me are obviously just I had some success right away. And then in the book, I show you what my life was like over the course of a year. I had a couple of pretty good months. My wife and I just have all these little traditions that we do, just little things, like little date nights that we enjoy having. And one of them in our past was always on March 14th, or 15th now, I forget which one, it was Pi Day because that’s pi, the number 3.14 or whatever. And that’s just sort of become this little hokey, nerdy thing that we do. We would always go get pie on pi day. And so we did. Even though I had been doing pretty well weight wise, and keeping track of calories. We went to this little diner that we both love, and where the servings are enormous. I ordered banana cream pie, not knowing what it would look like. I don’t think I’d ever gotten it there before. And the serving came, and it was massive. And I cut into the pie and I hit something solid. And I sort of cut all the way through it. And I realized the slice was so big, there was an entire banana underneath the whipped cream.
EL: That’s so great. You write about that in the book. It’s awesome.
TT: It’s like, holy shit. And then of course, the pie was incredibly good. And so those little moments where you try to preserve something little tradition or some little moment that you’ve gotten a lot of pleasure out of in the past. You run into: Does that mean I have to eat a whole big piece of banana cream pie? That night, I did. And I shouldn’t have. And so that’s one of those things that sort of knocks you backwards. And all the other just normal things in life. Like one thing that happened the year that I chronicle in the book is our dog died, a dog that my wife and I had become really attached to. He was 14 years old. At one point during the spring and summer, it starts to become pretty clear that he’s really ill. And then he dies in the fall. And that was a major blow to us, and the kind of thing that-
EL: Yeah. That’s like for you, that’s like your child dying.
TT: Almost, yeah. And so it’s one of those things that in the past certainly would’ve knocked me over the edge, and I would’ve binged on food. And I was able to… That month, I’m sure I didn’t do well. I’d have to go back and look at the book and remember now. But it was a roller coaster. It would be some months where I would just feel like I’ve got this thing licked, and I would be doing great. And then something would happen where I’d fall off the wagon a little bit, or I’d eat something I shouldn’t, or something. It could be as simple as my wife and I could have a little spat or something, and I would feel bad about it. And that would send me on the two or three days of eating poorly. You’re right. It’s never a straight line. And if you expect for it to be a straight line, you are doomed to fail.
EL: Yes. That exacerbates the problem. I mean, Thanksgiving is always a bitch for everyone.
EL: But particularly if you are really determined to lose weight. And so for me, I always devise strategies.
TT: Right. I don’t do… A lot of people diet, and they have these cheat days, where once a week, they eat whatever they want. I don’t really do that. But I do consider sort of Thanksgiving like a free space on that bingo card. I don’t indulge the way I used to, certainly. But I do give myself a chance to taste if the cousins made some mac and cheese, that’s their traditional thing. I’ll try that. But I will say, it is a good excuse also to like, “I’m going to go watch the football game now.” And so I get up from the table. I push myself away. And I don’t take a plate of food with me to the living room to watch the football game. I just take a glass of water or something. I’m able to feel like I enjoyed the moment. I’ve had fellowship with my family. I’m doing something everybody else is doing. But I’m not having that third helping of turkey and dressing or whatever.
EL: And you list all the things that make you eat. And you talk about: Why does death and mourning just produce a veritable ocean of food? Did you have to deal with them one at a time, all the triggers for your binging?
TT: Well, some of them happened simultaneously. Say I have an argument with my wife. And that was brought on because I got bad news at work that day. Or I had a difficult phone call on a story I was working on and I get home and the dog was sick. There are things that can tip you one way or the other, and you never know when those things are coming. Well, I guess some of them you do. You can sort of anticipate some things. But a lot of them you get blindsided. And so I consider, I think about the day to day battle with this, the way I think about baseball. Baseball is a long season. It’s 162 games. Nobody wins every game. And if you win a good bit more than you lose, if you win 2/3 of your games, you’re considered to have a really successful season. If I get through 2/3 of my days, and I’ve eaten right, eaten really clean, been healthy, exercised, done well, and I’m showing week to week, month to month progress, I’m going to take that because I know it’s a long, long season. And I know that if I put the pressure on myself to do it perfectly every single day, then when I do backslide, or I do fail, it’s worse. It’s way worse. And it leads me into worse areas. Where if I just think, “Yesterday kind of sucked. It was a bad day. But we’ll start again tomorrow. We’ll start again today and do it right,” that’s a much easier lifestyle for me to manage.
EL: Yeah. You were a sports writer, right? For many years, for ESPN and a sports website, and you wrote this incredible piece about Jared Lorenzen, who was a New York Giant for a little while. And he was a 300 pound quarterback. And apparently, according to you, when you did your story, he got up to 400 pounds. Was it weird being around such fanatically fit people most of the time, and being as big as you were?
TT: It’s so funny. Several people have asked me that. And the answer is the athletes are really fit, but the sports writers aren’t. And so when you go into-
EL: It’s true. What’s that guy? Jason Whitlock or whatever his name is, he’s not fit.
TT: No. And Jason and I used to work together many years ago at the Charlotte Observer. We’re two of the large Americans in the sports writing world. But if you ever went through a locker room in a typical baseball, basketball, football team, you’ll see these incredibly fit athletes. But if you ever hang out in the press box, you’ll see a bunch of pasty white guys like me. And so it wasn’t weird to be doing that because I saw a lot of people like me around, unfortunately. Press boxes, by the way, are awful for people who are trying to stay healthy because there’s a ton of free food.
EL: Right. It’s not even very good, but it’s free. It’s there.
TT: And some places, it’s really good, and some places not. But it’s always at the very least, it’s like hot dogs and potato chips and chocolate chip cookies. That’s the baseline. And so it’s really hard to have any kind of health when you do that, and when you can have as much as you want.
EL: You’ve described it as a lifelong activity. It’s not even an activity. It’s just a way you’re going to try to live. Do you wish that there was an endpoint?
TT: I think of, there’s this great book called Olive Kitteridge by Elizabeth Strout.
EL: Yeah, that Fran McDormand made into a miniseries.
TT: Yeah. It was a miniseries. Yeah. I haven’t seen the miniseries, but toward the end of the book, Olive is going through all of these travails, and she’s brought some on other people as well. She says, “Life is baffling to me, but I don’t want to leave it.” And that’s kind of the way I feel, that especially when I’m trying to figure out why I got so big and how to deal with this every day, it’s baffling and mystifying and often frustrating. But I love just being in the world so much every day that I don’t want to leave it. And I know, to get to your question, I know that if I tried to lose all this weight very quickly, that the odds are that I would yo-yo and go back the other way. My doctor likes to say that 91% of the people who lose weight on any kind of crash diet or anything like that gain all the weight back and then some. He’s told me that my job for the rest of my life is to stay in the 9%.
TT: And so that’s what I’m trying to do. And I know that the other ways have not worked for me. So yeah, it is a daunting task to think about. This is something I’ve probably got to pay attention to the rest of my life. But what’s the alternative? Not having much of a life. And so I’ve decided that’s the lesser of the evils.
EL: Do you think this mindfulness, which I think is really what you’re talking about, has affected your creative output? Does it change the way you write?
TT: I have always thought that one of my strengths as a writer was empathy, that I could talk to somebody else and sort of feel like what it’s like to be them.
EL: Could you talk to our president, please?
TT: Give me 30 minutes. I’ll just change his life.
EL: Okay. Thank you.
TT: And I felt like one of the reasons for that was that I longed for that from other people. I value, I think I’ve chosen my friends partly on people who aren’t judgmental, people who don’t look at other people and see their flaws, but they see their strengths, or see their possibilities. I think it’s likely that in going through all this, that I have gained some more empathy and more compassion for people who struggle with whatever it is that they struggle with. The struggles of people who are dealing with alcohol, or drugs, or gambling, or whatever, the patterns are very similar. And their lives erupt in different ways. And not just that, but just ordinary life. I’ll tell you one of the things that really gave me a perspective on all this. When I was a newspaper columnist, and people would call in, this was before email was quite so prevalent, I used to get a lot of calls every day from people who mostly didn’t like something I wrote. Fewer people called to say they do like something. And the people who would just blast me the worst over the phone, over voicemail, every once in a while, they’d leave their phone number. And when they did, I always called them back. And 99% of the time I called them back, they would say, “Hello.” And I’d say, “This is Tommy with the newspaper.” And they would always go, “Oh, man. I am so sorry.”
EL: Like someone had died.
TT: Well, they would always say, “The kids were giving me grief. My car wouldn’t start. I hate my job. It’s cold outside. I was so angry. And then I read your column, and you made me angry too. And you were the thing I could vent on. I can’t scream at my kids, but I can scream at you.”
TT: And so I realized that, and this was advice or perspective I really wish I had when I was younger, that when somebody is calling you a fat ass, or somebody is making fun of you about your weight, or whatever it is in your life, that it’s almost never about you. It’s almost always about something has gone bad, or there’s something rotten in their lives. And that’s why they’re taking it out on you. You’re a handy target. And so once I had a better understanding of that, that really changed the way that I processed when other people were saying bad things to me. And I hope in doing this book I’ve remembered that well, and I’m not quite so quick to anger or judgment.
EL: Yeah. That’s so interesting. I can tell you, Tommy, that one thing you should never do if you struggle with weight like I do, is start a food website. That’s part of what my memoir is about, I don’t spend much time dwelling on it, but if you find yourself surrounded by just seriously delicious food day in and day out, and people always want you to opine on the food, it’s really hard, dude. That’s all I can tell you. So no matter how much money they offer you, if I offered you, because I wouldn’t mind you being the editor-in-chief of Serious Eats, don’t take the gig, dude.
TT: I’m preemptively turning you down. Food is, in many ways, the last acceptable vice we have. You get looked down on if you smoke too much, or if you drink too much. And food carries with it all that symbolic power of being celebration and fun and enjoyment, and a craft, a skill. A good cook is a great skill. And so that’s why there are all these food channels and cooking channels. There are no drinking channels. There are no gambling channels, or shoplifting channels, or whatever. Food is still seen as something that it’s okay to overindulge in.
TT: And it is for many, many people.
EL: Yeah, sure.
TT: But not for those of us who struggle with it.
EL: Your new life, has it take away any of the joy that you derive from eating?
TT: I don’t know if it’s taken away any of the joy of eating itself because I still eat delicious stuff. I just don’t eat as much of it. And I’ve given up certain things. The one thing that I feel like I have lost is the joy in certain moments.
EL: The joy of certain moments.
TT: For example, I’ve been on the road a lot doing a book tour the last few weeks. And I used to be on the road quite a bit as a writer. And there was nothing better for me, and this is going to sound pathetic, but it’s the truth, than finishing a hard day of work on the road, going back to my hotel, stopping at Wendy’s, or McDonald’s, or somewhere on the way, getting a big, juicy burger, getting back to my hotel room, and sitting there in my underwear watching a ball game on TV, and just-
EL: I can relate. I can relate, dude.
TT: Yeah. And so that pleasure, that moment of just that, I’ve put in a hard day of work, and by God, now I’m going to reward myself. I don’t do that anymore. And so that little pleasure of that moment, I don’t indulge in. And I miss that. I miss those moments of just being kind of by myself, just me and Price’s chicken, like you were talking about before, in a little box, just sitting in my car somewhere, just savoring that moment. There are obvious consequences to that, which is why I don’t do it anymore. But I miss those types of pleasures.
EL: Yeah. You know, I’m the same way, because when I would go, even when I would go on assignment, or travel to eat, or I used to write about music, like you too, I think.
TT: I did, yeah.
EL: My back seat of my car rental would be filled with enough styrofoam to kill the planet because I couldn’t go two blocks without, “oh man. Is that taqueria any good? It says it’s the best fried chicken in town. It must be the best fried chicken in town.” When you’re on the road by yourself, there are no governors in place. Right? You don’t have your wife to say, “What the hell did you just bring home?” So I could totally relate to that sort of feeling of emancipation or freedom and having to nip that in the bud because I’m the same way. Now I just don’t do it. I think if I get one styrofoam box full of food, I’m going to end up with 20. I just don’t go there.
TT: Right. That’s the other thing you mentioned, like when you’re on the road. Every time I used to go to a new city, I would spend hours beforehand looking up the best restaurants in the city, and certainly the best ones near where I was going to be staying. And the problem is that when you see, you look them up, and you see five good ones, you want to try all five of them.
TT: And so I would do that in two days.
EL: And I do.
TT: And so I’ve learned to manage those things a lot better, knowing that if I go somewhere, I’ll find something good to eat at some point. I just don’t need to worry about getting the five best things all at once.
EL: Yeah. It’s so true. Towards the end of the book, you wrote this beautiful, beautiful paragraph. You say, “I’m still a fat man. I will probably always be one in my head, even if I shed every pound I want to lose. But I know for sure now that there is another man inside me, and I’m no longer scared to meet him.” A beautiful ending because it’s not an artificially happy ending.
TT: By the end of the book, I’ve lost some weight. I’ve tried to be coy about how much because I want people to read it and find out. But I certainly haven’t lost all the weight I want or need to lose. I’m still a big guy.
EL: But you’re still going in the right direction.
TT: I’m still going in the right direction, but I’m still a large human being. And yeah, this whole thing is just a long process. And I suspect in the same that people who haven’t drunk for 20 years still consider themselves alcoholics, if I get down to the weight I want to be, in my head I’ll still be a fat guy. And I’ll still have to look out for the little traps and danger areas that I look for now.
EL: It’s true. They’re like third rails in our lives, aren’t they? When you enjoy food as much as we do.
TT: Three years ago for Lent, I gave up fast food. And so I haven’t had McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, KFC, Taco Bell, any of that stuff, in almost three years now. But I know 30 years from now, I’m still going to drive by that damn Burger King and it’s going to smell incredible. And some little part of me is going to want to pull in there. And so those are all temptations that I’m sure I’ll spend the rest of my life trying to and hoping to avoid.
EL: Well, the Pope would be really happy about your giving up fast food for Lent. Right?
TT: The Pope. I didn’t know. Has he spoken out about fast food?
EL: He should. He’s got a lot of things on his plate, no pun intended. But now it’s time for the Special Sauce all you can answer buffet. It’s really a word buffet, so we don’t have to worry because you and I don’t fare well at buffets.
TT: Exactly right. We fare a little too well.
EL: We fare a little too well. Who’s at your last supper? No family allowed, can be living, dead, poets, artists, musicians, politicians.
TT: All right. I’d like Prince for sure.
EL: Anil Dash, who runs a software company called Glitch, is the world’s biggest Prince fan, has written beautifully about Prince.
TT: I’ve read some of his word on Prince.
EL: He’s a genius. I love Anil. His wife was the first Serious Eats general manager, and stayed with me for six or seven years of the insane joyride that Serious Eats was, that you’ll read about in my book. But anyway, all right. Prince is a great start. That’s awesome. Keep going.
TT: I’m a music guy. I would also want Aretha Franklin.
EL: How could you not want Aretha Franklin? Did you see Amazing Grace? It was very weird because it was really wonderful, but I was profoundly uncomfortable watching it because she seemed so unhappy.
EL: Yeah. I think it has to do with whatever went down with her father. There was just a weird thing. There was so much joy on that album, and there’s joy surrounding her, but she does not seem full of joy when she’s singing these songs. Anyway, I love this. Aretha and Prince is a great start. You got two more people.
TT: Sure. One of them was my… I have very few sports heroes, but Hank Aaron was one of my sports heroes.
EL: I love this.
TT: Growing up in Georgia following the Braves. And then the fourth person is somebody whose name I do not know. But when I was growing up on the beach in St. Simons Island, Georgia, there was a guy who was a beach bum, basically, who lived in New Zealand half the year, and did construction work. And then he came and lived on the beach in Georgia for six months out of the year. Did nothing except just sit on the beach and watch the girls and hang out all day. And I always thought I wanted that guy’s life. And so I would like to talk to him just about how he pulled that off.
EL: So he’s the unnamed dinner guest.
TT: Yes, the unnamed dinner guest. But he knows who he is. If I have the power to bring back Prince from the dead, I can certainly track down that guy.
EL: What are you eating at the last supper?
TT: Oh, man. Well, if it’s the last supper for real, and I’m gone after it’s over, I would have what we had almost every Saturday night and many other nights when I was growing up. And that would be fried catfish straight out of the river.
EL: Made in bacon fat.
TT: Fried in that cornmeal and bacon grease that had been in the river two hours before, french fries, hand cut french fries that my dad used to make, coleslaw, hush puppies, and sweet tea, and probably banana pudding to top it off.
EL: For dessert. Wow.
TT: And then I would go directly into a coma and I would be pretty easy to knock off.
EL: Exactly. And you don’t have to worry. Because it’s your last supper, the elephant’s no longer in the room.
TT: Exactly. I’ll have the whole bowl of banana pudding.
EL: Yeah. And it can have whole bananas in it, and you won’t feel as guilty.
EL: What’s in your fridge now? And your case is a particularly resident and relevant question because I imagine what is in your fridge now may be different than what was in your fridge before you started to come to grips with your problem.
TT: Yeah. There used to be a lot of take out stuff, pizza boxes, and that sort of thing in the fridge. Now there’s almost always a rotisserie chicken in there from our local grocery store. There is always, always, always broccoli in the fridge because that is our secret weapon. At one of our book signings early on, somebody came up to Alix, my wife, and said that she ought to write a cookbook because she’s helped me lose all this weight. And what she thought and what I thought was that cookbook would be 90% broccoli because we-
EL: And it could be called The Elephant is No Longer In the Room.
TT: Pretty good. I’ll have to throw that out, see if she’s willing. Lots of broccoli and salad greens and that sort of stuff.
EL: Got it.
TT: There is always going to be some good cheese in there because my wife grew up in Wisconsin.
TT: And she likes the good stuff. And then there will be a pitcher of sweet tea that is not nearly as sweet as it used to be.
EL: Got it, so slightly sweetened.
TT: Yes, slightly sweetened. It used to be you could pour a glass, and it could stand up on its own. And I have slowly over the years tapered off the amount of sugar in there, where it still has enough sweetness to me to be tasty, but not nearly as sweet as what you would get at your normal Southern diner.
EL: What’s the most influential book you’ve ever read as a writer and as a human being?
TT: The most influential book was my favorite book as a kid. It’s sort of an obscure book. It was called The Mad Scientist Club. It was written by this guy named Bertrand R. Brinley. And I read it as part of the Scholastic Book Club, which is this thing they used to have for kids. I think they might still have it, where they had a little catalog of books. This was pre-Amazon. And you would order books from this little catalog. I read this book so many times that the binding fell apart, and I had to buy four or five copies. In fact, I still have copy now. I’m 55-years-old. It was a book of short stories about these kids who sort of brought chaos to their small town by doing all these weird science experiments. And what it told me was that smart kids could be cool too, that they could have fun too, because they were always getting one over on the jocks and the bullies and all those people. And it made me realize that you could have a fun, interesting, rewarding, pleasurable life and not be one of the cool kids.
EL: That’s so interesting.
TT: And that’s something I’ve taken with me my whole life.
EL: That’s so fascinating. Who would you love to have a one on one lunch with just to see how he or she thinks?
TT: I would love to have lunch with Guy Fieri for this reason, because he has done, I think, an incredible thing. He has brought sort of the small town diner, the place that in many towns was probably often struggling, or the ethnic food of some sort, and he has lifted it up around the country.
EL: It’s true.
TT: In a way that I care about much more than I care about who got the Michelin stars this year. You know?
EL: Yeah. Me too. Just you do know that some of us have been doing this longer than Guy Fieri, he just has a platform. And you are right in that he has made a difference in more people’s lives than probably anyone else.
TT: And before them, I really followed Jane and Michael Stern-
EL: Right. They inspired me as well.
TT: Right. And the other part that makes him really interesting to me is that he’s caught so much heat for doing this, that people see him as a phony. I think a lot of people who are kind of hipster, cool, think he’s with his frosted hair and his tattoos or whatever, that he’s somehow inauthentic. And that may be right. I know he’s opened a couple restaurants that people thought were really terrible, and got that famous trashed review in the New York Times for his place in Times Square. But I just want to know sort of where his heart is, I guess. He obviously made a lot of money off this gig he figured out in a way that I think even maybe the Sterns didn’t. He became a TV star, so you see him at the Superbowl and places like that. And so he’s caught all this blow back from it. I’m really interested in just sort of how he sees what he does and how people perceive him.
EL: Yeah. All right. It’s just been declared Tommy Tomlinson day all over the world.
TT: Thank God. Finally.
EL: What’s happening on that day?
TT: Well, everybody gets to sleep a little later than usual because I’ve still not, even at my advanced middle age, I’ve not gotten my body clock to wake up at dawn every morning like I’d like for it to do. So you sleep as long as you want. It’s a beautiful day. It’s 75 degrees outside, so you have lots of options. You can do stuff outdoors. You can do stuff indoors. Mainly what I would want people to do was spend as much time as possible with the people they care about. I feel like our lives are almost designed these days to pull apart the sort of family bonds that we have, not just families, but friends too. Everybody’s working. We don’t all have 9:00 to 5:00 jobs like we used to, and so we’re not all on the same schedules anymore. I know when I try to get together with friends or family, just working out logistics of that is incredibly difficult most days. And so I would just love a day where nobody had any appointments, and you can go hang out with your friends.
EL: It’s awesome.
TT: Basically all I would want out of that day.
EL: Yeah. And look, what are good friends? Someone once said, “They’re the ones you choose.” You know?
EL: You don’t choose your family. But you do choose your friends.
EL: And so wow, Tommy. This has been awesome. I don’t even know how to thank you enough for sharing your special sauce with us.
TT: Well, don’t send me any food. I will just say that.
EL: I’m not sending you any food. And I’m never offering you the job of editor-in-chief of seriouseats.com.
TT: I’ve never been happier to turn down a job.
EL: Go to tommytomlinson.com to read some of his extraordinary stories. Check out his podcast, Southbound. And whatever you do, read The Elephant in the Room: One Man’s Quest to Get Smaller in a Growing America. Thank you very much, Tommy Tomlinson. It’s really been a pleasure.
TT: Thanks, Ed. This was a joy to do.
EL: And we’ll see you next time, Serious Eaters.
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