Over the past few months, I have relished the apparent collapse of the low-carb industry. Low-carb specialty stores and magazines arrived with much fanfare but soon crumbled like a tired soufflé.
Good riddance to them, I thought -- especially the magazine that tried to bilk me after I wrote an article for them. Low-carbism was just another sorry scheme to part consumers from their hard-earned bucks and their bagels.
And who could afford the stuff? I tried an insanely expensive low-carb pasta once. It was heavy, gummy and tasteless -- and those were its finer qualities.
But I realized my satisfaction was premature, when I was confronted with the ghost of Dr. Atkins. She was draped in a Size 2 dress and toting a sorry slice of flourless bread between scrawny fingers.
The timing couldn't have been worse. I was happily toting a batch of homemade bread and a broccoli quiche to a pot-luck birthday party, eager for some good fun and good eats. But I had barely crossed the threshold, when Sandy, the hostess and erstwhile birthday girl, announced that she had lost another 10 pounds on the Atkins plan.
Sandy had always been as slim as an asparagus spear. Why she felt compelled to whittle down to as thin as a blade of wheat grass was beyond me. And telling me bordered on the cruel. I forced a smile at her "achievement" as I placed my culinary contributions on the table.
"Mmmm, smells good," Sandy said, leaning over to inhale the bread.
If she were still Atkinizing herself, could I blame her for wanting a little inhalation therapy of a wheat product?
"This is home baked, isn't it?" I detected a plaintive quality to her question.
"Yes, and I made the broccoli quiche, too."
Hope returned to her voice: "Is it crustless?"
"Uh, no, I'm sorry. I didn't realize you were still no-carbing it."
"I'm not no-carbing it; I'm low-carbing it," she clarified.
"But Sandy, it's your birthday, for crying out loud. Can't you allow yourself a measly 50 or 60 carbs today? I mean, look at you. When you turn sideways you disappear."
Sandy was saved from answering by a knock at the door. Linda and Rachel had arrived, the heavenly aroma of something Italian wafting in after them.
Soon, all the guests had settled around the table. I sliced my bread and passed the basket around. Sandy immediately passed the basket to Linda. Meanwhile, I saw her stealthily uncover a very dark, very thin slice of bread filled with sprouty-looking things from under her napkin.
"What is that?" Linda asked.
It appeared to have been made from at least 40 percent recycled paper products.
"It's flourless protein bread," Sandy explained. It was called Ezekiel 4.9, "as described in the Holy Bible," according to the package, made from lentils, barley and spelt, whatever that was.
Just what we all needed: a "friend" seemingly bent on becoming skinnier than Lindsay Lohan and a loaf of bread that quoted scripture. Sandy offered us all a piece, and we each took polite little bites.
"Who says there's no truth in advertising?" I asked. "This actually tastes biblical."
"I thought the Atkins thing was over," Linda chimed in helpfully, washing down her Ezekiel 4.9 with an eight-ounce cup of H2O.
"Not for me," Sandy said. "I'm almost at my high school cheerleading weight, which is my goal. You may think it's silly," she admitted, ejecting a carrot curl from her salad as if it carried the avian flu.
Rachel was busily serving up a nice portion of the broccoli quiche and some low-fat manicotti: "My sister-in-law is going one better than you, Sandy. She's only eating raw foods."
"That sounds exhausting," I said. "Who has that much time to chew?"
"She says it makes her feel light," Rachel answered.
"If I want to feel that light, I'll float in the Dead Sea," I said.
Was I sounding a tad snarky? I couldn't help it. I had been looking forward to this birthday party, and the guest of honor was ruining it for me. If only Sandy had warned us all in advance, we could have saved ourselves a lot of trouble and prepared a meal that she could have eaten without picking out half the ingredients, such as a plate of cheese slices and broiled zucchini. Rachel had made her famous Big Fat Greek Salad, but I was distracted by the sight of Sandy making a little hill of the croutons and shunting aside all the tomatoes, as well. What a waste of all that Vitamin C.
I didn't say so at the time, but it didn't seem to me that Dr. Atkins' dietary brainstorm helped him very much, either. After all, he died after taking a fall. Seems to me that if he had had a little more padding on him, he probably could have just gotten up, dusted himself off and went on his merry way.
Of course, the Atkins people like to keep this quiet, but I also heard his cholesterol was higher than the Dow Jones Industrial Average. Despite all his efforts, you still never hear anybody say, "That's the greatest thing since sliced celery."
Inevitably, dessert time arrived. We all sang "Happy Birthday" to Sandy, but I wasn't feeling so happy anymore. The unspoken pressure during lunch had made me peel off the pasta from the manicotti, and even I was reduced to foregoing the croutons on the Greek salad. It's amazing how fast mass hysteria can spread.
Rachel served her luscious carrot cake, and Sandy blew out the candles before eating a piece. But no matter how long she sat there, no way could Sandy pick out all the microscopic pieces of carrot from a slab of carrot cake.
However, it all worked out in the end. While the rest of us ate the actual cake, we scraped off the cream cheese frosting and gave it to Sandy.
Judy Gruen (www.judygruen.com) is the author of two award-winning humor books, including "Till We Eat Again: Confessions of a Diet Dropout" (Champion, 2002).