I can’t stop thinking about the new “Skinnylicious” menu at The Cheesecake Factory. Or rather I can’t stop thinking about how disappointed I am with The Cheesecake Factory for creating a menu called “Skinnylicious.” I mean, come on. Isn’t there enough pressure to be skinny in our culture? Does one of the most famously size and calorie indulgent restaurants really need to remind us that we should watching calories when we go out to eat? For goodness sake, they serve cheesecakes that range from 700-1300 calories per slice.
I am perturbed because I am a longtime fan of The Cheesecake Factory, and this “Skinnylicious” menu business goes against everything I’ve always loved about the restaurant. One of those things being the unspoken understanding that you will overindulge at The Cheesecake Factory and it is okay because you are at The Cheesecake Factory and that’s what you do at The Cheesecake Factory. I am a big fan of thoughtful overindulgence. And of sitting down with people I love to share a meal. I love talking about menu items, about what other people will be overindulging on, what the waiter or waitress loves to eat. And I love the experience of ordering exactly what I want without thinking about calories. That’s why I love that long glossy menu filled with gustatory possibilities. Minus the calorie count.
I have a history with The Cheesecake Factory. My family ate there practically every week in the days long before they had French limestone floors and decorative columns and a two-mile long menu. It was a time when my family would come together in a civilized manner, eat politely (rather than in our usual Lord Of The Flies dinnertime way). My brother always ordered the Cajun Jambalaya Pasta. I would get the Evelyn’s Favorite Pasta (pine nuts! broccoli! olive oil!). My dad had the Thai Chicken Pasta and my mom ordered the Chinese Chicken Salad. We would talk as we waited for the food. We’d eat the warm bread with salted butter. When the food came there were “oohs” and “aahs.” And each time, just when I’d get to my favorite part of the meal, my dad would say, “Jen, look! It’s Michael Jackson!” and I would whip my head around just in time for him to wield his shiny fork and grab some tasty morsel off my plate that I’d saved for last. As the meal wound down my brother and I would start making our cases for why we deserved to have a slice of cheesecake. My brother would only eat a plain piece of cheesecake, he would not share any (which made my dad crazy), and he would scarf it down in about four bites. This particular location was in Agoura, CA, before it was called Agoura Hills.
In college, my roommate (and now lifelong cherished friend) and I would ditch lectures on a weekly basis to go to The Cheesecake Factory. We would have long leisurely lunches over our chin-high salads and review all of the heartbreak, humor, insecurity and dreaminess typical of life when you are eighteen. We filled each other in on our childhood woes, our career aspirations, love interests, and roommate drama over steaming bowls of pasta followed by cheesecake and whip-cream. We didn’t worry about butt size, double-chins, or the dreaded Buddha belly when we were at The Cheesecake Factory. We were indulging, we were bonding, we were building a best friendship between the high walls of those booths.
Now, while I admit that I am a big fan of overindulgence, I should mention that there was a time when I would barely indulge in any culinary delight. Growing up partly in Southern California as a short, chunky Jewish gal (zaftig/ plump as my grandmother would’ve lovingly called me while squeezing my cheeks) is painful. My school friends were tall, blonde, lanky, adorable. I was going to Weight Watchers by the time I was twelve. I weighed my food on a tiny white scale. I kept meticulous notes on how much I ate. I took many aerobics classes in black spandex and pink leg warmers. It took a long time and many months of therapy to work out a healthy way to approach food and exercise. Eventually I began to love food again, and the first place I wanted to go was to The Cheesecake Factory, with my dad. I ate without self-consciousness, and I ordered cheesecake for dessert. Without thinking about calories, without writing anything down, without self-recrimination in the back of my head. I wish you could’ve seen the look on my Dad’s face. I’ve never seen him so happy.
This all leads up to date night last weekend. My husband and I sat down in a booth at The Cheesecake Factory in Portland. The hostess handed me two menus. Two menus? There must be new specials, I thought. Yum! Then I saw the word “Skinnylicious.” My heart sank. All week I’d been eating moderately and taking long walks and I’d been looking forward to this time when I could sit down, discuss the week with my husband, and, well, overindulge a little. And there it was, that word: Skinny. I opened up the menu. There were calorie counts, pared down menu items, and even a margarita (made with Splenda…gross) on this menu. I started thinking about cellulite, how I am finally fitting into jeans I like, and about how many calories the dish I really wanted to get must have. The regular menu suddenly became menacing. It was now the bad, Fattylicious, menu. I felt compelled to order from the “Skinnylicious” menu. I felt guilty about considering something from the Fattylicious menu. And most of all, I felt pissed off at The Cheesecake Factory. Who were they to ruin my moment of sweet indulgence?
Hasn’t it been hammered into our heads how overweight and out of shape Americans are? Don’t we read it in magazines, see it on TV, and on the internet, and on and on and on? Can we not have this one moment to enjoy our food? I believe we should eat healthfully, exercise moderately, model good eating behavior for our kids. I believe in healthy school lunches. I am on board with moderation. But for goodness sake, let me eat my freaking cheesecake.