But the diet I remember best, because I joined her on it, was Dr. Atkins's low-carbohydrate diet. People who became wise to it only in the 1990s tend to forget that it made its initial splash back in the early 1970s, which was when Mom and I first gave it a whirl. Here was Dr. Atkins, saying that someone with an appetite that wouldn't be tamed — an appetite like mine — didn't have to tame it. He or she just had to channel it in the right direction, away from carbohydrates.
Of course I had never heard the word ''carbohydrate'' before, but I was thrilled by all the consonants and syllables in it. To me they meant that something terribly scientific — something nutritionally profound — was at hand. I interrupted whatever latest Hardy Boys mystery I was plowing through to crack open ''Dr. Atkins's Diet Revolution,'' which Mom had bought in hardcover, anxious to get her hands on it, convinced it was a keeper. I read about blood-sugar levels and these chemicals called ketones and this charmed metabolic state in which you began to generate them or expel them or swirl in them or something along those lines. I didn't exactly understand it but knew that my goal was to achieve this state, called ''ketosis.'' Ketosis was my preadolescent nirvana. It was what I wished for: ketosis, along with a new five-speed bicycle.
The Atkins diet prohibited certain things I loved, like pretzels and ice cream, but it let me have as much as I wanted of other things I also loved, like cheddar-cheese omelets with pork sausage at breakfast or hamburger patties — three of them if that was my desire, so long as I dispensed with the bun — at dinner. It allowed snacks like hunks of cheddar and roll-ups of turkey breast and Swiss cheese. I could even dip the roll-ups in mayonnaise and not be undermining the Atkins formula. According to Atkins, it was important to stay sated, because any empty crevasse of stomach was nothing but a welcome mat for a Reese's Peanut Butter Cup. So I left no crevasse unfilled. And I felt relieved — liberated. Silencing taunts and getting into smaller pants wouldn't mean going hungry.
For lunch on most days I had tuna salad. Mom tried to make it seem more special and eventful by presenting it in geometrically interesting and colorful ways. She used the largest dinner plate she could find. She covered the plate with several overlapping leaves of iceberg lettuce. She molded the tuna salad — always Bumble Bee solid white tuna, never chunk light, never Chicken of the Sea — into three large scoops, which she put over the lettuce, within a ring of cherry tomatoes. Three scoops looked prettier than one or two. Besides, there wasn't any doubt I would be able to finish that many.
''Aren't you going to have some?'' I would ask.
''Maybe later,'' she'd say, and then I'd hear the crunch-whoosh of the metal peel coming off another bright pink can of Tab, the worst diet cola ever made, the diet cola Mom never betrayed, her diet cola, its distance from sweetness and its metallic taste a way of patting herself on the back. When it came to beverages, was anyone more virtuous and penitential than she? Tab was her rosary, and she said it as many as eight times a day.