Watching what we eat

These days, we pay way too much attention to food.

You can hardly open a newspaper or watch television without being bombarded with information about food. It's become a national obsession, and some of us are ready to choke on it.

The food wars are fought on two fronts. On one side is the steamroller of news about foods that are bad for you. On the other is the national fascination with fancy meals prepared from exotic ingredients you can't find at the store. Most of those ingredients, it should be noted, fall into the category of "foods that are bad for you."

All this conflicting information results in people wandering supermarket aisles, overwhelmed by uncertainty and misguided ambition. We'd like some eggs, but they're bad for us and must be avoided. We'd like to create an colorful quiche like we saw on TV, but the recipe requires eggs.
Such clashing desires result in a zombie-like paralysis. Night of the Living Hungry.

Complicating matters is the fact that health news changes every few minutes. Scientists say steer clear of red wine and olive oil if you want to live past 50. The next week, they say red wine and olive oil prevent heart attacks and must be consumed immediately. Then a competing herd of scientists warns that red wine and olive oil should only be used for bathing . . .

Is it any wonder we're confused? We’d just like to sit down and eat something without concern over whether it'll kill us. According to the latest obesity statistics, the majority of us are doing just that. In fact, we're apparently eating everything but the family cat.

Americans absorb all the admonitions to watch what we eat, then we watch it go right in our mouths. Even foods with zero nutritional value, snacks so fattening they should be glued directly to our hips, get wolfed down with only the barest inkling of guilt. After all, we tell ourselves, scientists will inform us any minute that Twinkies prevent cancer.

The flip side to all this dithering is food as entertainment. Have there ever been more cooking shows on TV? Celebrity chefs with hilarious names like Emeril and Nigella whip up sizzling dishes composed entirely of ingredients that are -- not to get too technical here -- exceedingly nasty, and we watch with such rapt interest, you'd think it was the Super Bowl.

(That there's such a job description as "celebrity chef" says something's gone very wrong in this country. Chefs shouldn't be seen or heard. They should be hidden away in the kitchen, working their magic with eggs and red wine. It's bad enough that every talkative waiter seemingly wants to be our friend, regaling us with intricate descriptions of food origins. Now we have to be pals with the chef, too?)

There's even a food slang. Cooking shows are known as "food porn." People who stand in line at fancy restaurants or obsess over complicated recipes are called "foodies," just as people who obsess over heroin are dubbed "junkies."

Some foodies spend thousands of dollars on rare truffles. Others eat disgusting fare such as quail eggs or sashimi or oysters (also known as "slime on the half-shell") in an attempt to tickle their ever-more sophisticated palates.

Exotic food has become the latest way of displaying one's wealth and superiority. Tobacco, alcohol, drugs and sex all have been declared health hazards. Food's the only bad habit we have left.

Most of us refuse to take sides in the food wars. We ignore equally the health alerts and the exhortations of the foodies. We waddle into the supermarket and buy the same items every week. We manage to exist from day to day without truffles or quail eggs.

For all the attention paid to food, the bottom line remains that most of us eat what tastes good. Yes, it's too fattening. Yes, it's slowly killing us. And, yes, it shows we're not foodies with refined palates. But we've got to eat something and it might as well be something we enjoy.

So eat up, America. I recommend the free-range Twinkies.


John McFetridge said...

So, are you saying that American news networks aren't going crazy about the price of food going up so much, the shortages and the food riots in dozens of countries?


I really need to get cable.


John, this column (written some years ago) doesn't address the latest food prices, but yes, the news here has begun paying attention to the food shortages. Soon, it seems, we may have a good reason for our food obsession.