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Life's sweet, even without the sugar

Photo by Jim Hendricks

Photo by Jim Hendricks

Not much says The South quite as convincingly as sweet tea and cornbread.

If fact, I frequently over the years have been known to repeat a particular pronouncement about the immense value of these wonderful culinary delights. "Anybody tells me I have to give up sweet tea and cornbread," I said, "just tell 'em to go ahead and start chiselin' my tombstone."

Then a funny thing happened sometime in 2003. Not in the sense of actually being funny. Maybe more ironic than anything else. And scary. I remember it being scary.

A blood test for glucose that checks it for a three-month period showed mine was high.

Too high.

My doctor, Charles Gebhardt, told me, more or less, that I had to give up drinks with sugar in them. The cornbread was an issue as well, since my weight had crept -- well, not so much crept as steadily, inexorably strode -- up to Nero Wolfian proportions.

Those familiar with Rex Stout's fictional armchair sleuth, Nero Wolfe -- some accounts by later writers, by the way, trace his birth to a romantic fling between the inimitable Sherlock Holmes and the only woman who ever bested Holmes in an Arthur Conan Doyle tale, Irene Adler -- recall how his man on the street, Archie Goodwin, described him. For those who aren't, what Archie said was Wolfe weighed "a seventh of a ton."

Do the math. It's pretty heavy. And I was maybe a plateful of Southern fried steak, potatoes and biscuits, two Cokes and a pitcher of sweet iced tea from catching him, which would have been a problem given his sedentary lifestyle -- one I shared.

So, there was the plot, all unfolded. I was at a crossroads.

I could continue as I had pledged to do -- eat biscuits and cornbread with abandon, drink copious amounts of Coke and sweet tea, grab fast food for lunch every day, fry everything else and start chiselin' on that tombstone in a strong defiance of fate, or ...

Or I could change my habits, something I'd done in 1991 when I went from two-and-a-half packs of cigarettes a day to tobacco-free. That was a difficult thing, by the way, going from 50 smokes a day to zilch. I'd tried and failed numerous times to quit. Stopping was no real problem. I found I could quit anytime I wanted. The trick, however, was not starting back. Then, I hit upon a two-step plan that worked exceedingly well.

Step 1 -- Quit buying cigarettes.

Step 2 -- Quit bumming cigarettes.

Seriously. It works.

But before I decided what to do this time, I needed to feel sorry for myself a bit. I got my prescription filled, took my new glucose meter and test strips home, walked into the bathroom and sat on the floor, staring at the wall in disbelief that Dr. Gebhardt had used the "D" word.

Diabetes. Even today I prefer insulin resistance. Just doesn't sound as bad.

Then I stood up, looked in the mirror and said to myself: "Damn. This is what you're going to die from."

Now this is a funny thing. Just then -- right in the middle of my pity party -- I remembered an old story my preacher, Brother O.A. Collins, told me when I was a kid in my granddaddy's grocery store in Newton. Preacher Collins would drop by regularly, and he was telling my granddaddy and me a joke while we all drank Co-Colas the way God intended -- in ice-encrusted, 6 1/2-ounce glass bottles that had raised lettering.

He was talking about a farmer who, regardless of what faced him -- too much rain ... not enough rain ... crop pests ... you name it -- always responded with the words: "Praise the Lord. Life just gets sweeter and sweeter."

Turns out this farmer -- and we're talking the 1960s here, a much grimmer time for diabetics -- got diagnosed "with sugar."

"Praise the Lord," he told the doctor. "Life just gets sweeter and sweeter."

"How can you say that," the doctor asked, "after what I just told you?"

"Well," the farmer said, "I knew he'd make it sweeter and sweeter, I just didn't know it'd turn all the way to sugar."

It boils down to what that fictional farmer symbolized -- the right attitude. After getting over the initial shock, denial, fear and uncertainty, I decided to do what I thought would give me the best opportunity to live to see grandchildren and, with any luck, great-grandchildren.

I decided to attack in two areas -- diet and exercise. I dropped a good bit of weight (80 pounds lighter at one point) and said goodbye to Cokes, sweet tea, white bread, rice and anything that was fried. I told my doctor I wanted to delay starting any diabetic medication, and I was lucky in that my personal program enabled me to keep my glucose well within normal range without it.

It's fortunate that these days there are a great many ways of getting information about what you're eating and drinking. I read food labels religiously, turned to sweeteners like Splenda, began to eat a lot more vegetables and, for the most part, ran from sugar like a scalded dog.

Over the past decade, I've stuck with it pretty well. Overconfidence, however, can be a covert enemy, just as big an enemy as what you're actually fighting.

The further you get from a crisis point, the less vulnerable you feel and the more you start to believe you're the one person who can, for lack of a better phrase, "get away with it" and do what you want. Over the past couple of years, I've let longer hours at work give me an excuse to put off exercise and given in to urges to eat stuff I shouldn't (nothing helps you handle stress quite like a hot pizza, and turning down cake is socially rude, particularly when buttercream icing is involved).

Those bad decisions are, literally, weighty ones -- though, thankfully, I'm still a long ways from nudging Wolfe again. They also lead to glucose numbers that (in my case) aren't horrible, but certainly a far cry from spectacular.

Tomorrow, for a while, always had been the perfect day for me to get back on track. Of course, tomorrow never gets here. So, I've gone back to the basics. Today. No sugar, fewer carbs and daily exercise, such as walking and dumbbells. Not tomorrow. Today.

I reinforced that decision not too long ago, walking with my grandson, Jacob, who'll be 2 years old in May. It's something I want to be able to do for a long, long time. Sometimes you just need that kind of small, simple reminder that life can be sweet, even without the sugar.

Email Jim Hendricks at


southwestga 3 years, 8 months ago

Thank you for this column and the related articles. They were all well done and an important public service.


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