Pass the Butter Please


With gratitude to Doctors Rafael Espada and Michael Madani, for fixing my father’s heart, twice.


When Michael Phelps was interviewed during the Beijing Olympics, the world first learned about the extraordinary amount of food needed to fuel the swimmer with the wingspan of a pterodactyl. He said that he ate 12,000 calories a day, and no one believed him except for me. I believed him because I too was a swimmer in my youth, and a distance swimmer at that. Breakfast consisted of two scrambled eggs with cheddar cheese, a few slices of bacon, buttered toast, and a half grapefruit or cantaloupe. Lunch was a sandwich and chips followed by a whole package of Hostess cupcakes or snowballs—I particularly liked the snowballs because I would peel the pink marshmallow and coconut topping off the chocolate cupcake and eat that separately “for dessert.” Dinner was typically a slab of beef, potatoes au gratin or baked with butter, cheese and sour cream on top. Oh, and there was always a vegetable—to this day I can eat two heads of broccoli all by myself. After dinner, an entire bag of Chips Ahoy cookies usually kept me company while I did my homework. And this being Texas, barbecued beef or ribs, or both, fried chicken and biscuits slathered with butter and honey were Sunday treats. I swam four to five hours a day, and I was skinny, and I never gave heart disease a single thought, not even when my granddad dropped dead of a massive heart attack at age 75.

When my father turned seventy five, the same age we lost Grandpa, he thought that maybe he should have a stress test. He never had any symptoms—he was just a tiny bit superstitious about the fact that seventy five seemed like a good age to have a heart attack, or perhaps to avoid one. His internist obliged, somewhat begrudgingly since there was no history of chest pain or palpitations. His stress test was floridly positive, and before he could say “Boo” he was in the cath lab having a coronary angiogram. As the dye flowed, the images showed triple vessel disease, with greater than 90 per cent occlusion of the left main coronary artery. They call that lesion “The Widowmaker”, and that’s what it had done to my Grandma. As the interventional cardiologist tried to pass a stent, my father experienced a run of ventricular tachycardia—an arrhythmia which is basically “pre-death.” The next thing he knew, he was waking up from triple bypass surgery and he was madder than hell at all of us, his family, because he knew all along that there was nothing really wrong with him and we made him go through with surgery.


A week ago at age 87 my father had his second open heart surgery, to replace a worn out stiff old aortic valve. He’s a pretty tough old bird, and he made it through, although his post-operative course has been a little rocky. About a month ago, before the surgery we went out to dinner with some new friends that Dad had made in San Diego, a couple that live across the street from me. They warned us ahead of time that they were a little bit “fanatic” about their diets. I did not know what they meant. He, like Dad, is a retired plastic surgeon, handsome and fit. She is a realtor, elegantly dressed, thin and very persuasive. We went to an Italian restaurant, and as drinks were served, the waiter brought out warm freshly baked bread and butter. As is our habit, my father and I reached immediately for the bread and butter. Our hostess eyed the butter Dad had placed on the little bread plate, and then proceeded to snatch both butter and plate, depositing them on the other, unoccupied side of the table. She said authoritatively, “Mel, you can NOT go on eating butter. Not with your heart being the way that it is.” I was astonished. I had never seen anyone do that to a virtual stranger in a restaurant. Not to mention the fact that it was a tiny bit late to be taking the butter away from my father. He was not happy about it either.


This got me to thinking. I haven’t been particularly good about restricting my calories, watching my fat intake or about exercise as I have gotten older. The pounding of my hip joints repeatedly against the cement walls of the pool during endless flip turns, coupled with another 30 plus years of jogging on asphalt roads, taken up when my swimming years were over, have taken their toll on my joints. I adore butter and ice cream and red meat. I’ve gained 20 pounds over my “fighting weight” and love comfort food in the truest sense—I use it for comfort in times of stress. But it seems now, as I sit by my father in his hospital bed, that there is a choice to be made, since my genes have declared themselves as least as far as heart disease is concerned.


When we lived in Boston thirty years ago, we used to like to eat at two restaurants in Somerville. There was a barbecue place right next to a health food restaurant. I can’t quite remember the name of the barbecue place but I think it might have been Sam’s. The health food restaurant was called Jaye’s. Each of them had a big sign out in front—they were competitors of course. The health food restaurant sign said, “Eat at Jaye’s, Live Forever!” The barbecue restaurant sign said, “Eat at Sam’s, Die Happy!” The question for me, and in fact for all of us is, “What’s it going to be?”


  1. Yes,THE question as on all things…what choices do we make? Real butter is better than margarine, it simply may be a matter of amount and frequency. I am glad your dad is recovering and continue to send energy. I so enjoy your blog.

  2. I would have taken away the bread and let him have the butter.

    I have been a “food fanatic” for over 30 years and I find that it is better to just shut up and not attempt to proselytize. No one wants to be told what is best for them, even if it may be.

  3. There’s a quote that is goes something like ‘when you know better, you will do better’. I struggle with this in my food choices. Note how I obediently avoid the word ‘diet’. That’s what it is, but the word is so un-PC, so hated. Bugger that, it’s diet. Mine is bad. That’s my own weak pathetic and perverted nature talking, the evil little demon on my shoulder.

  4. I think making better choices, and not eating the “bad” stuff everyday is the way to go. Diets are inevitably doomed because you feel deprived. You just have to take baby steps. What is life without Blue Bell and Land o Lakes (sometimes)? By the way if you have time for a good movie watch Fat, Sick and Nearly Dead. That was an eye opener. I remember our swimming days – you left out the part where we’d stop at the 7-11 after morning practice for giant slushees and candy bars. Now we’re talking. (hope your Dad gets well soon).

  5. We have to die of something- may as well enjoy it…
    I facilitate a women’s cancer support group & today we had a registered nutritionist come & answer questions. She said if she had her way, all diet books would be thrown out. If we would just get back to eating whole foods & everything in moderation. My problem is the moderation part…

    1. Yeah, me too about the moderation part. Now where did that whole bag of pistachios go while I was writing? M

  6. Thank you all for your comments. I am so glad to know that I am not alone in my struggles! Miranda

  7. I am an old lady………read a lot of bad stuff about butter, but I know for a fact that – butter is better

  8. Eat butter from grass fed cows and also beef and pork, tho’ that may not be an issue for you.. 😉 … and stay away from any pre-prepared foods …. and moderation….always eat and do everything else in moderation… except living, never live your life in moderation…. I’d rather die at 75 having really lived than at 95 and missed out on so much….that’s my advice… and I am a crusty older rancher… I told my wife when the big one comes, just let me die, I have achieved about all in life I wanted to, about the only reason to stick around now is to enjoy my grandkids and bug my children.. I am planning on going at 85, but i am ready to go anytime….

    1. Robert, I buy all my beef from these guys– Family owned, local here. As for pork, bacon was my “gateway drug.” I buy it a pound at a time and pretend I am cooking it for the dogs. Right. And I am with you–I’d rather die happy at 75 (as long as it’s quick) than live to be 87 having open heart surgery! M

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