Eat What They Want You To Eat

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Now, you all know I'm the kindhearted, gentle sort, right? That I would never write anything harsh about mindless poseurs ordering dirty martinis or suggest a certain rank dish should be dumped over the offending chef's head?

Never ever.

So it may surprise you that I consider Boston Globe columnist Ellen Goodman a...well, best not to use those words in print. Let's just say her 2001 piece calling for a new national anthem almost sent me into a Bobby Knight-worthy tantrum. She considers the lyrics warlike, obviously failing to comprehend what is happening in the song.

This weekend she succumbed to the message of America's new 'food progressives.'

Now, progressive is generally a positive word. But I mean it in the sense of America's progressive movement in the late 19th-early 20th centuries--the one that brought us Prohibition. Food progressives, in other words, seek to control how and what we eat.

Like the original progressives, they start with good intentions--in this case hoping to make the citizens of this country healthier. But they are taken in by faddists (the raw foods thing, for example), shrill lunatics (Center for Science in the Public Interest) and the growing mass of local-seasonal proponents stirred by Fast Food Nation, Food, Inc. and the like.

Of course the big corporations are manipulating supply and demand for foods without our best interests necessarily in mind. Certainly vegetables grown the old-fashioned way and served fresh, in season taste so much better than those things in grocery bins. And obviously most diners who profess a love for local-seasonal-sustainable are not part of this 'progressive' movement. They just like good food.

What bothers me are the pushy sorts.

Their weapon in the war to tell you how to eat is a mix of real information and plausible misinformation. For instance, we know incidents of diabetes in American youth have increased and we know that Body Mass Index (BMI) numbers show a major obesity problem. So they use this to "prove" that two-thirds of Americans are overweight--a bit of "information" Ellen Goodman plants high up in her column. But only the childhood diabetes is a disturbing trend. BMI data proves nothing. In fact, in a nice feature this weekend published by the Dallas Morning News, Jeremy Singer-Vine explains that obesity researcher Ancel Keys, the man responsible for BMI, "never intended for the BMI to be used in this way." The article points out "his original paper warned against using the body mass index for individual diagnoses, since the equation ignores variables" such as age, gender and muscle mass.

So there's no proof of that two-thirds number, although we all sense that Americans are growing in size.

Profit hungry corporations completely disrupted the normal food chain and crushed the family farmer--we sense that, as well. If I remember correctly, only two percent of the country's farm land remained in the hands of small growers back in 1986. But Goodman turns to David Kessler, who asserts in The End of Overeating, the corporations deliberately produce "hyperpalatable combinations of sugar, fat and salt" which "have the capacity to rewire our brains, driving us to seek out more and more of those products."

People like the taste of fat, salt and sugar. Who knew? How devious.

This is essentially the same argument used by the ridiculous Centers for Science in the Public Interest when they sued McDonald's because a guy named Caesar Barber ate there two or three times a day, failed to exercise, and got fat. I would simply argue that people have the capacity to eat less and exercise more. If they fall prey to fast food chains, it is their own damn fault.

And don't bring up the helpless young tykes. Good parenting can teach them that McDonald's is fine in moderation, with moderation being the key.

As a side note, for all the evils inflicted on farming and food processing by the giant organizations, McDonald's--according to Fast Food Nation--imposes more stringent standards on slaughterhouses than the U.S. government.

That fact, of course, doesn't make the cows' lives any happier.

Food, Inc. and people like Alice Waters complain about the availability of cheap food. Knowing the damage wrought by 'big food,' it's hard to dispute this. Yet the unseasonal and inexpensive vegetables you find in grocery stores does ensure that working class Americans can afford necessary vitamins all year long. I'm aware of Waters' passion for the local farmer. But I've always wondered why she wanted the poor to suffer from scurvy.

What I don't want is for Dallas--and the rest of the country--to follow the example of Vancouver, Canada. Good article in Bon Appetit about the pressure chefs there are under not to import ingredients produced outside a 100-mile ring. "Vancouver is the heartland of every admirable (and sometimes infuriating) food cause you've ever encountered--local, sustainable, organic and eco-gastronomical among them," writes Alan Richman. Speaking of the demand from these people for diet conformity, one chef says "If we served [Chilean sea bass], there would be so many protesters, our doors would be closed." Another likens the progressives to a fundamentalist religion.

My point is that, instead of turning things over to these food progressives--as Goodman would have us do--we learn to moderate ourselves.

Goodman ends her column with this: "The honchos at McDonalds may never confess how the Big Mac made us bigger, and the food scientists at Frito-Lay may not expalin why we 'can't eat just one' potato chip. But maybe this will be the year when an entree of chicken quesadillas with bacon, mixed cheese, ranch dressing and sour cream--1,750 calories--begins to look just a little bit more like an ashtray."

I say this: sometimes you want a quesadilla--and there's nothing wrong with that urge. Just take it upon yourself to walk somewhere, eat something smaller the next day and buy good produce and free range meat as much as you can.

Then we won't need to be bullied, by either the marketing executives from food industry giants or those annoying progressives.

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