ROBERT ST. JOHN: Taking on the ‘Mississippi 20’ with a walking campaign

By Robert St. John

I broke another office chair last week. I wasn’t doing anything rough and rowdy, just leaned back and the welding on the swivel/tilt mechanism underneath the chair cracked and my big fat rump fell backward. Once I got back up and into the chair it fell forward.
That brings the official count to three broken executive leather office chairs in the past four years.
It’s not the chair’s fault. I purchase sturdy, well made, executive office chairs and usually test them out in the store and check the welding underneath before I buy them. An office chair is important to me as I spend a good bit of time in one each week. It is the behind-the-desk perch from which I write columns, peruse accounting reports, dodge salespeople, avoid phone calls, and occasionally take short naps. OK, sometimes they’re long naps.
The broken chairs have a simple explanation. Most know about the “Freshman 15” – the mysterious 15 pounds that attaches itself to most college freshmen’s midsection during the first semester of their freshman year. It’s a result of being away from mama’s home cooking and closer to establishments that specialize in barley and hops. I was the victim of a freshman 15, a sophomore 10, a junior 10, and since there was a 21-year gap between my high school graduation and college graduation, I totaled out at a net 60-pound gain as I ate my way toward a bachelor’s degree during a very lengthy college career.
This latest executive office chair casualty is a direct result – not of a freshman 15, but – of the “Mississippi 20.”
I recently spent six months in Europe and, at one point during the journey, had dropped 40 pounds. As we moved into Spain last December, most notably southern Spain where they fry almost everything, I added on a Spanish version of the freshman 15 – the Seville 6.8 (kilograms). So I came home with a net loss of 25 pounds (11.34 kilograms).
Like you, I’m a little baffled as to how that happened, because my main job in all of the 17 countries I visited was to eat. That’s it. Eat and write about eating. I took that job seriously and lost weight while doing it.
However, the morning I arrived back in the U.S. I weighed myself. I was pleased with the 25-pound loss and wasn’t missing the extra chins that were lost with it. Though the next morning when I stepped on the scales I had gained one pound. The next morning I gained another and the next morning another. Seriously, I was gaining a pound a day, and I was probably eating less than I had been eating in Europe.
After three weeks, I had gained 20 pounds. I had no other explanation than the “Mississippi 20.”
Yet how could it be? In Europe I ate pastries every morning. The breads in Italy and France were amazing and I visited a bakery every morning during the trip. Pasta anyone? I ate my weight in pasta during the 10 weeks we traveled from the southernmost point of Sicily to the Italian Alps. I reveled in the heavy cream and butter-laden recipes of France, and felt right at home devouring fried foods by the plateful all over Spain. All of that, and somehow I came home with a net 25-pound loss.
Last week I read a piece in the New York Times by Karen Le Billon author of “French Kids Eat Everything.” In that piece, the Oxford-educated Ph.D.-turned-blogger wrote of the French diet from baby food to school lunches. She wrote of how French kids eat broccoli, beet salad, baked endive and cauliflower casserole at school. They only have one snack a day and the government promotes that theory.
“French parents teach their children to eat like we teach our kids to read: with love, patience and firm persistence they expose their children to a wide variety of tastes, flavors and textures that are the building blocks of a varied, healthy diet,” wrote Le Billon. “Pediatrician recommended first foods for French babies are leek soup, endive, spinach and beets.”
They eat well it’s true. But there are a ton of McDonald’s over there, too. My weight gain was not due to diet, as I came home cooking most of the dishes I had been eating over there.
The “Mississippi 20” is a direct result of not walking. That’s the only thing I can conclude. Everything else is the same, or better. The main difference between my life here and my life over there was that I walked miles and miles every day and never once thought about it.
We would hit a city and start walking in the morning and not stop until it was bedtime. I imagine we averaged well over five miles a day. We weren’t running or jogging, just walking – to the Vatican, through the Louvre, up the hill to the Parthenon, into the Tuscan countryside hunting for truffles, walking all of the way.
Ultimately the problem is the problem. Sitting in the office chair is leading me to the eventual destruction of the office chair. Tomorrow I start a new campaign: Save Our Office Chairs. I will forego the short naps at my desk and vow to walk 20 miles a week and see if that will combat the “Mississippi 20” that is currently forcing me to loosen to a new belt notch. I’ll keep you updated.
Onward.

Robert St. John is a restaurateur, chef and author of numerous books.