So we’re down in Venice, Fla., a few weeks ago, sitting out on “the cage” — that’s Gulf Coast speak for screened-in patio — when Bob’s cousin Jerry Olinger starts enthusing about his sister-in-law’s cooking.
The only child of a working single mother, Toni learned to cook as a child, absorbed the secrets of Italian cuisine from her first husband’s family and went on to waitress and maitre d’ at some fine restaurants. As concierge at a Chicago luxury hotel, she doted on everyone from Johnny Cash to Cesar Romero.
Her hospitality knows no bounds. And so when she and Dan stayed with Jerry and Mary while their house was being built nearby, Toni prepared lavish spreads night after night.
“I gained 20 pounds while they were living with us,” Jerry says.
He’s grinning as he says this, as if gaining 20 pounds is no big deal. Or maybe he feels like it was worth it to be treated to such bounty.
But I already know Toni’s a fabulous cook. We were salivating over her lasagna before we left Indiana. What I want to know is this: What happened to that 20 pounds?
Jerry never did give me a straight answer while we were in Venice. But I called him up a few days ago, and he agreed to do his best to explain how he’s kept his weight from ballooning since retiring to Florida.
Q. Were you joking when you said you gained 20 pounds from Toni’s cooking?
“I am not joking. I may be exaggerating a little bit. But it was 15 to 20 pounds, I swear. I couldn’t get into my clothes!”
Jerry’s quick to point out, though, that he’s not blaming Toni for his weight gain.
“It was just that when you have food laying in front of you all the time and you have nothing to do but sit down and eat it … I was eating things that Mary and I were not used to eating, I’ll put it that way.”
Q. So how did you take the weight off?
Jerry says it was mostly a matter of getting back to their normal routine, which is eating fairly light, a change they made in conjunction with his retirement and their discovery that Mary had developed diabetes.
“I’m the kind of person who, when I put my mind to it, I can lose a few pounds.” He cites as an example a time many years ago when he went to Weight Watchers with Mary and decided he wanted to lose 20 pounds.
“And I did. I lost it pretty quick, too. … If I make up my mind to lose 10-15 pounds, I do it. Now, I’m not going to say it will stay off … but I can do it.”
Q. Have you ever worried about being overweight?
“Yes I have, and I still do. The older you get, the harder it is for you to lose weight. When I was younger, I didn’t have a problem with that. In fact, when I was younger I couldn’t gain weight.” He even remembers asking a doctor how he could go about gaining weight. “As you get older, your body changes, of course.”
“Before I retired, I weighed 10 pounds more than I do now. But it wasn’t all fat. I stayed in shape, because I had a kind of physical job.” (He worked at GM’s Fisher Body plant in Marion, Ind.)
“When I was working, I had to have my meat and potatoes. We just don’t eat like we used to.”
Q. So what is your “normal routine” now?
“Usually at home we eat a lot of veggies, and Mary eats a lot of fruit. (He doesn’t). We’ll have baked potatoes two or three times a week. For veggies, we’ll have Brussels sprouts, lima beans, broccoli. For dessert, we’ll slice an apple. She likes apples and nectarines. I eat a lot of cottage cheese and applesauce — no sugar. We eat bananas, try to get enough potassium. We try to do things the right way.”
“I drink a lot of water. Nothing’s any better than a good cold glass of water.”
Jerry is a meat eater, but Mary isn’t, so because of that he doesn’t eat as much meat as he might otherwise. When they go out to eat he’ll order spaghetti or a large salad — though he’s backed off how much salad he eats, on his doctor’s advice because of medication he’s taking for a heart rhythm condition.
They eat dinner early, 4:30 or 5 p.m., which gives him time to burn off some of those calories in the evening. Now he wonders if that may be another reason he put on those 20 pounds.
“Dan and Toni eat late, and they stay up late. But we weren’t used to that. So we would eat dinner, and then we’d got to bed.”
Q. What do you eat for breakfast?
A banana and coffee.
Q. What’s your biggest weakness, food-wise?
“I just eat too much sometimes. I don’t have it in me to turn down some things…. ice cream … Every once in a while, I get the urge to eat chocolate cake or a candy bar.”
Q. Does it bother you to get too full?
“Yes, it does. As a matter of fact, I am right now,” he says, explaining that they just returned from Sarasota to pick up a chair they’d ordered, and while they were there they ate dinner at an Amish restaurant run the by the same family who owns Das Essenhaus near Shipshewana, Ind.
“It’s good cooking. I only had one plateful, but it was a big plateful. In my younger days, I would’ve had two or three platefuls. But I just can’t eat that much anymore.”
Q. What’s your favorite meal?
“Oh, I don’t know, I like so many things. A good steak and a baked potato, I guess.”
Q. Imagine you’re on death row, and it’s the final meal of your life. What would you ask for?
“Probably if they told me you’ve got one more meal to eat before you die, I probably wouldn’t eat anything.”
Q. Do you exercise?
“I’m an active person, always have been. I never sit still. I love the outdoors. I mow my own yard. But when my doctor asked me that … I don’t exercise the right way, I guess. But I’m always moving.”
Q. When it comes to keeping track of your weight, do you use a scale or the fit of your clothes or what?
“Scale, definitely. Not every day. But I do get on in the mornings, when I get a shower or whatever. The other day I got on after I’d been working outside. It was really hot, and I was down six or seven pounds.”
Q. You’ve said everyone in your family was thin. What did you eat at home, growing up?
“Everything was homecooked. Homemade bread. Homemade butter. I used to help churn the butter. Pies from scratch. We never really had much money when I was growing up, but my mother always had food on the table. We had a large garden, and we raised our own potatoes, corn, everything. We had apple trees. That’s just the way it was.”
Q. You do the cooking, now that Mary has vision problems, and you said you worked as a short-order cook at one point when you were younger. How did you learn to cook?
“I’ve cooked ever since I can remember, going back to when I was 10, 11, 12. I was taught to put stuff in the oven. Mashed potatoes, gravy. Spaghetti. Stuff like that I can do. I don’t cook like Toni does. I cook just enough to keep somebody alive. I wish I’d learned to bake. My brother did that.”
Q. Do you eat while you cook?
“No, I do not. I just don’t. I can’t tell you why.”
Q. Anything you want to add, or wish I would’ve asked?
“I guess I would offer this advice: After you retire, do not become a couch potato. Do other things besides go to the mail box and back. I’ve met a lot of people that that’s all they do. Some people tend to create more problems than they really need.”
Jerry notes that he has some arthritis, and sometimes he feels a bit stiff in the morning. But moving around, working in the yard, doing things outside — all those things make him feel much better than if he just sits around all day.
“The more I move,” he says, “the better I feel.”