Sandy Hook instead of Holiday Cookies. My own family’s shooting and gun laws.

I was going to put up a last minute Swiss cookie blog this weekend, but this week’s events at Sandy Hook have me eating all the cookies I baked compulsively. Somehow cookies seem inappropriate in view of 27 dead, eighteen of whom would have put out cookies for Santa in a few days.

The name of this blog, culinary promiscuity, promises a level of obscenity it doesn’t deliver. This week’s events and some of the comments made since by gun rights’ advocates are, however, purely obscene.

The news blindsided me. I have been there. First hand. I’d just managed to forget it. Crazed shooters are not a new phenomenon. They are simply a more frequent one, as massacres have become more efficient with the availability of semi-automatic weapons to the average homeowner. We actually refer to them as “events like this.”

My personal encounter with gun violence was about fifty years ago when an unhinged client began calling my mother threatening my father’s life. My parents protected me, but fortunately I had learned how to eavesdrop on their calls without being detected. I understood clearly what was going on. I told only my best friend Dianne Estrin.

Dianne and I were alone in my  house a couple of weeks before my 16th birthday. When the doorbell rang I knew it was Jerry Cousins, the husband of a my father’s client who was making the threats. Cousins owned a gun and had threatened his wife (and my parents). Having heard the threats I had been locking and chaining the door. We usually did not. When he tried to break in,  I knew he was armed. “My father has a gun,” whispered Dianne, “Let’s go get him.” We climbed onto the roof through the kitchen window and ran across the roofs to her house. Instead of grabbing his rifle, Milt Estrin called the police. Despite the incident my parents’ request a police guard was refused, even though the Sheriff’s office heard Cousins state that he had intended to shoot me and would kill us all on our tapped phone.

My father went to court to apply for a restraining order.  While he and Mrs Cousins waited outside the courtroom Cousins came towards them, pulled a repeating handgun (“you just pull the trigger, and it keeps shooting, pop pop pop,” he had told my terrified mother on the phone.) and started shooting, “pop, pop, pop.”  My father stumbled into the courtroom and told the judge, “Your honor, I regret that I cannot proceed. I have been shot.”  Then he collapsed.

A doctor testifying in the next courtroom disobeyed the judge’s orders and ran to hold the two ends of my father’s shattered carotid artery together with his fingers, until he was in the operating room. The Ambulance drivers defied  instructions, instead taking him to the nearest hospital where he had the best chances of survival. The surgical team defied FDA orders and implanted the first artificial artery a few days before it was officially released for trial.

I was shielded from the events.Ida, Dianne’s mother, picked me up from school and kept me protected from theTV at their house under some pretense, but I knew.   I slipped out of the house and found the newspaper reporting my father’s death on my doorstep. There was no trauma counseling at the time, and I was the least important part of the events,so I just told them I knew. Ida gave me a cigarette and said something like, “Try this. It always works for me.” We had brisket for dinner. I continued smoking for fifteen years.My mother fell apart and spent the next week in bed on tranquilizers and rum Coke.

The hospital called to say my father had in fact survived but was brain damaged due to loss of blood, and he would never recover, probably never again speak or walk. I went to school the next day, but nobody talked about it. I think they didn’t talk to me at all, as they usually didn’t.

We visited my father in the hospital. He had no neck. His head topped an angry red, purple and yellow tent of flesh which sloped down to his  shoulders without any indentation.  He was drugged and drowsy, but lucid.  He eventually recovered, thanks to a lot of people who had the courage to do what was needed instead of doing what was required, although it took him years to completely recover the use of his left hand.

That week/month was all a blur and has remained one for five decades. I watched from outside. I don’t remember crying or even being frightened.

The massacres at Aurora and Columbine and a spate of disgruntled workers “going postal” left me only with the usual shared horror and general distaste for guns and abhorrence of lame brained gun rights bromides, but for some reason Sandy Hook somehow ripped the lid off of 1961,  perhaps because I can so vividly envision my own child at six years with his ram rod straight back and skinny shoulders trembling as a crazed shooter fills one classmate after another with bullets from a gun that just goes “pop, pop, pop.”

My personal can of worms finally being opened,  I am now trying to  reorder the contents and find a larger can to put them back in. It may take a while.– When I start thinking about it, I tremble. Not figuratively. It makes me feel cold and ..well, how would you feel? I realize what it did to my life, which was much and not good, and it makes me angry and just a little lost in resentment in what James Taylor calls “Places where I should not let me go.”

And so what? Really.  I got off easy. Think of those people in Newtown and Columbine and Aurora. What has just happened to the rest of their lives? It is beyond comprehension. I buried my father fifty years later at 96. They will bury their loved ones next week at six and their teachers in their twenties and thirties. How did we allow this to happen?

Everyone connected to a shooting carries lifelong wounds.  A couple of years ago Cousin’s daughter read my father’s obituary and called me. She, too, had been protected, but having learned of the tragedy, she was distraught. She seemed nearly suicidal, wanting absolution. She was perhaps twelve at the time of the incident and had not lived with her father for years then. I had no way to comfort her. Nobody walks away.

Today,  three days after the shooting, the NRA has not issued a statement and has refused to appear in the media. That is the least decency they could exhibit, although their motive is more likely political sense than empathy or civil consciousness.  After all, there isn’t much to be said to justify the death of eighteen babies, and the timing for the NRA, an organization most of whose following feels strongly about Christmas, is going to be hard for them to justify.

The less disciplined gun loving ranks, however are speaking their minds and protecting their dearly held beliefs with pitiful utterances. Even before the victims were identified or their blood was dry people like Huckabee opined that the culprit was godlessness and the usual mindlessly delusional ideologues are repeating phrases like “2nd Amendment right” and “Duty to protect the Constitution,” not to mention that when guns are outlawed only outlaws will own guns. Or, “It’s a mental health issue.”  A gay friend who plans on adopting a baby has said that this has convinced him to go out and buy the 45 he’s always wanted. Aside from the unlikely marvel of having a gay redneck friend, you have to marvel at the disconnect.

I’ve been doing too much self medicating with Facebook. It works a little. At some point I shared the fact, probably unwisely, that I consider gun advocates to be sociopaths and met with nastiness from a woman named Kelly who feels it is her duty to support the Constitution.  “Sociopaths is an odd term,” she opined. No it isn’t. It is accurate. I stand by it. Sociopaths are individuals with no sense of or care for the effect of their actions and beliefs on others’ welfare. The term is perfect.

We have more than a gun problem a democracy problem. The tail is wagging the dog.  Those dealing with cognitive dissonance by vocally and financially supporting the extreme lobbying successes which facilitated the Sandy Hook tragedy outspend and outshout the saner majority.

It is time for that irrational imbalance of influence to end. Sandy Hook needs to be the turning point. It is time for reasoning and experience to speak loudly, for individuals to write their Congress people, to sign petitions and to rally in the street. It is time for Republicans to reflect on the true meaning of the 2nd Amendment and stand up to the small, unhinged segment of the population that fears we will be taken over by a government conspiracy unless we are allowed to store a semi-automatic rifle in every garage. It is time for our lawmakers to buckle down and make the burden and liability of gun ownership a priority over the ease of gun possession.

It is time for bone headedly single minded gun lovers to drop their pride and quit trying to justify their fixed ideas with inane arguments. Is the death of eighteen small children not enough to shock them to perspective? Each and every person who has stood up for the right to own any fire arm produced, who has supported the production by buying one or who has sent money to the NRA has the blood of those eighteen babies on their hands.It is time for people who believe they might after all win the lottery to stop justifying this horrible incident with statistics that show you are more likely to be killed in a car accident or shot by a police officer than murdered by a semi automatic in kindergarten. It is time to draw logical consequences of illogical events.

Really. It’s time. Now is the time. Do what you need to do.

Addition: It is good not to be the only blog feeling unable to rejoice in Christmas Food. Luisa Weiss reveals her sentiments on The Wednesday Chef.

 

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A Swiss Thanksgiving: How I Introduced Thanksgiving to Switzerland with the Help of the Swiss Army, Several Bottles of Vodka and a Hairdryer.

As California enters the more challenging stages of seasonal cuisine when  we keep up our spirits by assuring each other that broccoli and kale are as much fun as tomatoes and peaches – more entertaining versions of seasonality come to mind.

That is: when food isn’t limited by the season but instead celebrates it,  so the smell of spices or stuffing summons waves of nostalgia and, depending on where one finds oneself, the lack of it brings on  homesickness.

Autumnal food in Switzerland means new wine and, where there are orchards, fresh pressed cider and Metzgete – the celebration (really just a big meal) of butchering and then eating a pig made into sausage and divided onto plates full of boiled potatoes, sauerkraut and little simmered apples in the village restaurant, where everyone knows everyone.

Turkey isn’t nearly as much fun as a squealing pig being butchered on the village square, the butcher drinking the blood, and the entire village chowing down the spoils, but years ago when I lived in Switzerland I got the notion that I absolutely had to have a Normal Rockwell Thanksgiving complete with Turkey served to the entire bi-continental family plus as many friends as we could fit around our new, massively over-sized table. I pictured women all sharing the basting, laughing men in the living room, then everyone sitting around the table, their faces bathed in Rockwellian golden light, awed by every culinary cliché in the Family Circle cookbook and an epic spread with the Swiss Jura mountains as a backdrop.

I decided to make it happen.

It was going to be a piece of cake. I could get the Kraft baby marshmallows and Ocean Spray jelly from Globus’s overpriced basement delicatessen, get a big, ugly pumpkin from a farmer and cook it down, make clover leaf rolls and the rest,  but the only turkey I knew of was the one Mrs Schoeneberger used to look after orphaned chicks. Turkey hens make great chicken nurse maids , but Mrs Schoenberger’s turkey was old and sinuous, and Mrs Schoeneberger would never have given her up far any amount of money.

Without the turkey the chicks would   all run out on the road and get run over just as  their mothers had. I had got good at hitting their mothers with my tree frog green Citroen 2CV(or very bad at avoiding them). “They don’t call them dumb clucks for nothing,” said Dorli Schoeneberger the first time I carried one of their limp bodies up her stairs. She sold eggs to pay for the education that would take her away from hardscrabble small farming. , “Do you want her plucked?”  I bought several  hens from Dorli this way, and while Dorlis’ eggs were magnificent, the old laying hens were good for not much more than soup and stock.

When I asked around the farmers about a turkey the general response was, “You want to eat what??” As if I had suggested I wanted cat or one of Farmer Nebel’s pet pixie goats for dinner, but I learned from an expat friend that Migros, the first real supermarket in Switzerland, was taking orders for frozen turkeys.  I put one in for biggest bird that could fit in my industrial sized oven and invited everyone we knew and my parents from San Francisco for Thanksgiving dinner.

When I went to collect it, the butcher said, “Es tut mir leid. Wir haben ihr Truthahn verkauft.” (Sorry. We sold your turkey).

“Then please get me another one,” I said. “a BIG one.” “Sorry, said the butcher. They are all reserved.”  “MINE was reserved,” I snapped.. “You sold it. Now  it’s first come, first served. I need a turkey.”  “This is Switzerland.” he said – people tended to say this to me a lot, as if I were too dumb to notice and expected the Swiss to be as unprincipled and corrupt as we Americans obviously were  – “We don’t do things like that. We are an orderly people.”  The store manager couldn’t or wouldn’t do anything.

No matter where you are, if you want to get something done, you need to know the right people or people who know the right people. In Switzerland all of the right people were a) men and b) officers in the Swiss Army. They took good care of their own.

My husband, Marcel, was an officer, so  I ended up blubbering about the tiny marshmallows, my parents coming from San Francisco, Ocean Spray and tradition to the President of Migros, somebody’s cavalry buddy,  who  promised a turkey in “plenty of time for the dinner”,

By the day we had chosen for our Thanksgiving dinner I hadn’t heard from him, so I didn’t think there was much hope,  even though Swiss officers always keep their promises. It was Sunday, and no stores were open. I was about to send Marcel to Dorli to see if we could cajole her into doing in the entire scrawny, molting flock at any price she wanted to charge, when the doorbell rang.There stood the Vice President of Migros beaming with pride, as he handed over a bag containing an icy 20 pound  turkey. Frozen solid. After he turned down my invitation to join us later for dinner, I closed the door and despaired. Then came Mother.

She arrived by taxi from Basel, where my parents preferred to stay when visiting, sweeping through the door ahead of my father, dressed in her designer winter white knit pants suit and knee length mink, bright and beautiful and elegant, radiating the scent of Femme ahead of her. Assessing the situation she announced: We can do this, slapped on an apron, kicked off her heels and turned the rock solid animal upside down under a stream of hot running water. Once we had douched the bird enough to pry out the frozen gizzards, she stuffed a wine bottle full of hot water up it’s rear and immersed it in hot water protected by a garbage bag.

The in-laws arrived sometime around 11:00. The wine bottle wasn’t working fast enough, so Mother got my  hair dryer.  My husband opened a bottle of Veltliner and cut off some speck from the slab we had hanging in the basement. That, along with a couple of boxes of crackers, was about all we had in the house except the dinner fixings filling our tiny refrigerator.

My father had brought his own vodka and dry vermouth  – he never traveled without a couple of bottles after the bartender at Michelin starred Euler had served mother a sweet aperitif in response to her request for a martini, which she had spewed all over the bar in astonishment. He didn’t trust the extra bottle we kept for their visits. We had blood oranges for screwdrivers. Father poured one for my mother, Marcel gave me a glass of Veltliner. Mother and I alternated at shooting hot air up the turkey’s ass.

Sometime after noon Marrius, my father-in-law declared loudly that he had come for real Thanksgiving food, not smoked speck. Dismissing the possibility of baby food or cat food as a dip I spread some of the jealously hoarded peanut butter I had carried all the way from San Francisco crackers and told my in-laws it was an American Thanksgiving tradition from the South; Southerns give thanks for the peanuts on which they survived after Sherman’s March. I left my husband and his brothers fill in the gaps and pour.

We ran out of Veltliner and My husband stuck a few bottles of Twanner in the freezer.. Mother and I were hot-tubbing  and blow-drying the turkey, chopping giblets and doing what little hadn’t been done the night before.  We ran out of oranges, so my  parents switched to martinis with the little cocktail onions we kept for fondue. So did I.

Whenever anyone asked about the hairdryer,  Mother explained that it was the secret for a tender beast.

Mother sacrificed the oysters as for hors d’oeuvres. The guests, warned that dinner would be “a little later than planned”,  arrived with food.  Mother and I collapsed in front of a burning fire in the living room. Someone poured me a glass of Nuits St Georges, which did not go all that badly with the peanut butter. Mother had another martini.

Marcel brought up some of his prized reds from the cellar, but most of our Swiss guests were more interested in the vodka, which  paradoxically in the middle of the Cold War they perceived to be quintessentially American. At some point we ran out of cocktail onions, so my father, substituted cornichons. Everyone found them dandy.  One of our friends kept filling my glass. Mother had a cornichon martini. One of our guests had brought early chocolate-hazelnut  and gingerbread Christmas cookies, which I found  paired as well with the martinis as with the wine. Mother agreed.

Mother started telling filthy jokes, which Markus translated to my in-laws as harmless vignettes, so as not to get my father-in-law started.. He did that a lot.

Somehow everything got cooked at the right time. I think my neighbor stepped in, but it could have been me. I’m pretty sure it wasn’t mother. Somebody put the stuffing in the oven and the caramelized onions and  sweet potatoes, which had been prepared the day before, glory be. I do know that once they got the concept of basting that everyone in the room wanted to try their hand. The bird must have turned out moist.

When we finally sat down, my father gave thanks and everyone around the table said what they were thankful for. “I am thankful that we finally got the fucking turkey thawed out,” said mother. “What did she say,” asked Marius. “She said,” translated Markus, “That she is thankful to have such a wonderful family assembled around the table to share this American feast.”

We had the whole nine yards from caramelized baby onions to pie at about eight thirty at night. When the pies came out my father-in-law and a couple of the guests opined that pumpkin was cattle fodder and how clever we were in America to make “permkin pees” of them. They finished off all three. There were no leftovers. I think it was a success. That’s what they told me later, anyway.

At some point toward the end of the evening the schnapps appeared, with it a bottle of the tax free Kirsch brewed by a local farmer. One guest drank half the bottle.  He later recounted how the street lights had bowed to him as passed on his way home. We found the last bottle of Twanner still in the freezer, exploded in perfect extended bottle shape with shards of glass sticking to it.

We celebrated Thanksgiving every year after that, although that was the only time my parents joined us. Nobody sold my turkey again. The Swiss celebrate Thanksgiving today, or some of them do, and turkey is no longer exotic. I think frankly I started that, but we all like to feel as we’ve made our mark in history..

Nobody died or went to the hospital.  I hear the meal is still legend.

 

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The Best Worst Cookbooks

 Russ Parsons of the LA Times recently reached out to ask the industry’s opinion on the most important cookbooks.  Most of the contributors ponied up Joy of Cooking, the Times Life Series, Escoffier Larousse Gastronomie and a few other classics. James Beard, Craig Claiborne and Dianne Kennedy made the list. Emeril, Martha Stewart and  Jamie Oliver did not.

About five years ago I did my own important list, or more accurately, my not important list. My books followed Parkinson’s Law: Matter expands to fill available space (Cookbooks multiply to fill then overwhelm available shelves.)

My collection over-filled three walls of shelves. Some  had to go. The only way to make the cut was to determine not what I wanted to keep but what I didn’t want. I’d watched an unhinged family hoarder try to make a path through the material chaos of her home enough to realize the futility of the “Lets keep this and I can do away with that” approach on anything with the emotional burden of cookbooks. Fortunately the real rotters in the cookbook field are childishly easy to categorize.

The Culling list:

1)      Any book mentioning speed or time. The speedy gourmet cookbook. Ten minutes to French Cuisine. These byproducts of women’s liberation which promised women that they could pursue their careers and still put out a health meal on a napped table. Take out made the obsolete.

2)      Any book mentioning human body parts, processes or infirmities: The Lower your cholesterol cookbook, Chef Markus cooks for a healthy liver, The Good Digestion Cooking Bible.

3)      Hollywood celebrity cookbooks including the Vincent Price cookbook ( now selling for about $300). Somehow Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings’ Cross Creek Cookery and The Rich and Famous Cookbook survived the cut.  Rawlins included recipes for venison. Cookbook irony is good. If Hollywood celebrities could cook they’d have restaurants. You wouldn’t buy an acting guide written by a chef.

4)      Dinner party and cocktail party or hors d’oeuvre cookbooks: The Perfect Party. The Perfect Hostess. Cook For a Crowd! (Whoopee!!) Having lived the Mad Men years, I have no desire to revisit their food.  If I remember correctly, most of the guests were usually too inebriated to know if the dinner tasted good or not.

5)      Appliance specific cookbooks including a few food celebrity books for the first Cuisinart, microwave oven and, of course, the blender.

6)      Any books with pinkish pictures of tomato aspic, stuffed mushrooms and spinach soufflé or gray veal in gray sauce.

7)      Cooking with wine books. You need a book for that?

8)      Anything gender specific. Sunset had a few inane paperbacks announcing the wondrous fact that men, if the recipes were simplified and the heat source charcoal could actually make food. Men? Imagine that.

9)      Any book which, if opened to a random page, included canned soup or flavored salt in an ingredient list.

10)   All but the earthiest and simplest ladies’ guild self-published cookbooks. I have no idea how the Flavor of Pittsburgh slipped past me (French Fried Ice Cream Balls? Tangerine Pie?) but it’s staying just for funkiness.

11)   25 years of Gourmet Magazine. Except the cookie issue.

12)   Porn disguised as cookbooks. Very seventies.

I recently went to the local book store in search of a book in pickling by Sandor Katz. I found a new category that I didn’t need to deal with : TV Celebrity Chef cookbooks. I rarely watch food shows, so perhaps I am missing something, but I suspect that ten years from now cooks buying these books now will be loading them into bags for the Good Will.

Just in case you have too much book space and are bemoaning not having had a shot at these books, you still have a chance to own books chock-a-block full of thoroughly superfluous mediocre  recipes: Every year the San Francisco Public Library has a book sale crammed full with the culinary literature ripped from shelves like mine.

 

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Seasonal you: Your inner caveman, circadian rhythm and food

Culinary memes die hard. Like baby carrots in the eighties and nineties – or the original fusion, which half a generation of chefs found to be their passion and pursued long after the ovine dining public had shifted its attention to the next thing, which if I remember correctly was $20 servings of mac ‘n cheese and meatloaf.

The current meme is the Chez Panisse triad: Local, Seasonal and Artisan with a side of Organic – an endless restatement of the obvious which is getting a bit old these days. ( You expect any restaurant that charges seventy dollars for perhaps fifteen bucks worth of groceries to serve good food, which in general will be seasonal and not have been in storage for months.) For my part I am pretty tired of hearing about seasonality and wish we could get on to whatever comes next, just so long as it tastes good.

There is, however, another kind of seasonality, which resides in us rather than the list of available groceries: Circadian rhythm. The drive to put seeds in the ground or law away stores according to time of year.

Bears curl up in caves. We make soup, regardless of the outside temperature or our awareness that you can also get great soup at the Easy Freezy or Whole Foods.  When the sun begins getting up after we do, we start acting differently with food. At least I do.

I’ve been subject to culinary circadian fits since my first German winter and definitely since a Swedish year when the Sun give a short guest appearance every day, but they seem to be gaining on me. Even now, with blinding late autumn sun over San Francisco’s hills, I am behaving like a squirrel storing nuts for the winter or a hedgehog building a nest under leaves and stones.

Circadian rhythm, at least the culinary version, is an atavistic,  visceral drive, an urge rising from the marrow and sweeping aside rational resolutions not to make bread or cookies this year – not to put up fruit. It commands metabolism and metabolism hijacks everything:  insulation packs on like the shaggy coat on a winter horse. The same diet that stripped fat for seven months stalls, then goes into reverse. I crave fat, warm bread and jam. After months of never being able to get enough Caprese and watermelon salad with feta, every cell nags for pork or grilled cheese sandwiches.

oven baked tomatoes

Real nesting behavior sets in about the end of September.  A freezer blissfully ignored for half a year demands to be cleaned out then filled again with baked peaches, corn kernels and baggies of stock for barley soup. Not baking requires an act of will. All this food will all be wonderful, but I was not going to do it this year. I made a promise to myself not to. But: Ten pounds of peeled early girls are baking down in the oven now for pizza or pasta, after I swore only to buy grapes at the farmers’ market. Butternut squash and apples for frozen packs of curry soup followed me home.  As for the cookies I have definitely decided not to make, an order for ten pounds of peeled hazelnuts has already  been placed.

This late summer cooking drive may be genetic – I remember my mother doing the same thing, flying out of her elegant working clothes and cooking down apricots and baking bread well into the night as the days shortened. The night before I was born, although she had no idea I was going to arrive the next day, she got up and  baked a week’s worth of bread. Who says we aren’t connected to the earth’s rhythm – or the sun or the moon.

Everyone has some sort of seasonal circadian rhythm – I assume the culinary version is stronger in people who cook and who cook for quite a few years, although I would have no way of knowing the alternative. I know plenty of cooks who, although they are probably not aware of it, follow the pattern. So do you. They will say, “I didn’t intend to do this this year, but then …”. It’s the call of our ancestors telling us to get in the root vegetables or we won’t make it to spring.

Atavistic, by the way, means something like “throw back”. It’s  usually used to describe things like tails on babies, but I figure circadian cooking is precisely that. Instinct over intellect.

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About those baked tomatoes:

I used to can tomato sauce, but I was never comfortable with the thought that tomatoes can be sub acidic and thus carry  some danger of botulism. Several years ago I decided to freeze them but needed to get rid of the water.

The answer is baking them. Simply peel the tomatoes by giving them a few minutes in boiling water, letting them cool and slipping off the skin – early girls are wonderful for this – and cut them up in a a roasting pan. Put them in the oven at about 375 to 400 F and let them cook for one to four hours, depending on how many you use. You needn’t stir them, but it will prevent the tops from getting caramelized. When the liquid has baked in, ie they  no longer bubble, let them cool then put them on zip lock bags, which you lay flat on top of each other in the freezer. The reduced tomatoes will be sweet and intensely flavorful – perfect for pizza or sauces – allowing the five minute pasta. You can, of course,add herbs and garlic, but I generally leave that for later.  If you just need a little of these concentrated tomatoes you simply break off a corner of the block by whacking the baggie against a counter and reseal the rest for later use. Note: If you pack all of the bags together in a larger bag, they will not develop freezer taste. (Baking soda in the freezer also prevents it).

You can do the same with any fruit. Baked peaches are velvety and have an intense flavor. They make fabulous sweet snacks or easy desserts (dash of something white and sweet on top, or not). They should be baked until the syrup that develops is brown but not black. I usually freeze three in a baggie, which also lies flat, so I can take them out individually.

baked peaches, stll frozen

 

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Food a Politics: The Chick-Fil-A Dustup..

The short odds are that you know the current state of the Chick-Fil-A debate. If not, here a short recap:

On the 16th of July Chick-Fil-A president Dan Cathy stated his clear and unequivocal opposition to  same sex marriage . He did so in the Baptist press and raised a hullabaloo.

Gay Activists rose to the tossed gauntlet, The Muppets refused to sell them any toys for their children’s meals.

Politicians with a claim to family values picked up the gauntlet and slapped everyone, Sarah Palin made a celebrity appearance holding big bags of chicken and sides , while Mike Huckabee proclaimed Wednesday a National Chick-Fil-A day (Can he do that?), and the mayors of Boston, Chicago and San Francisco vowed not to let Chick-Fil-A open any restaurants in their towns. (Can they do that?)  Ironically New York’s Mayor Blumberg, a man with a proven proclivity for banning things having to do with restaurants, thinks banning Chick-Fil-A inappropriate.

I have no dog in this fight. I am straight, not particularly (at all) interested in marriage and a bit perplexed at the number of people who are. I count devout Christians and people of various gender walks among my dear friends  and never thought of same sex marriage as having any particular connection to restaurants aside from the terrific financial boost to the industry San Francisco received when Mayor Gavin Newsom declared San Francisco the first city to legalize them – you couldn’t reserve an event space for months, our hotels were full and our retailers delighted.

If I don’t understand why people who don’t have to get married are so eager (I understand the legal implications, however, and in fact, my wedding was a great party, dancing bears and all) , I sure as hell don’t get why people who are or could get married feel it their mission to stop others from doing it. For the love of God (That is the point of Christianity, isn’t it? God’s love? The quote as I remember it is, “I am an angry god”, not “I am a small minded, petty god”) if two people want to get married, let them – it’s good for the economy, there will be more happy people on earth, there will be some fabulous parties, and most of my gay friends have shown a better commitment than a lot of us in mixed gender marriages manage to keep.  Why does the religious right want people to be unhappy?

Don Cathy of course, has a right to say and think anything he wants, no matter how bombastically and sanctimoniously stupid, as long as he doesn’t scare the horses, and the public has an absolute right to vote with their feet and wallets and to express their opinions about Cathy, his church, his chicken and his values – screaming with signs outside his restaurant, if they feel so inclined. (That’s pretty much a given).

I personally think the man is a blowhard ass, I’m glad he’s not my neighbor, and if I owned stock in the company I would demand his removal from the board, then sell (although this seems to be a boost for their sales – they are not fools and playing to their audience very well).   I’ll bet so did their VP of Public Relations, Donald Perry, before the stress of the whole affair did him in.  But that’s just my opinion.

It is remarkable, as an aside on Perry’s death, that no activists, liberals and friends of couples dying to walk down the aisle haven’t made the sort of comments about Perry’s death as conservative icons of the religious right like Gene Beck, Sarah Palin and Michelle Bachmann have been known to do about God’s wrath causing various national tragedies. There is little question here as to who takes the high road.

For one thing, Cathy/Chick-Fil-A  donates funds (a little less than $2 million) to organizations like The Marriage & Family Legacy Fund and others, whose lobbying  efforts extend to areas well beyond  one man one woman, so two thighs, biscuits and a side of coleslaw at one of their locations may mean giving money to the enemy. Of course Citizens United has made this perfectly legal, but none the less, it’s sure disconcerting. I for one would like to know if a dime of my super-sized Coke is going to anti abortion or gender discrimination or immigration lobbies (either way) or whatever.

Since the Cathy Brothers’ billionaire status is to some extent attributed to their followers in faith, the restaurants are in effect donation machines. I can’t think of any other business..certainly on that level…that functions in this way.

On the other side of the oh-no-you-did-not coin is the rush to political correctness by Boston, San Francisco and Chicago.  It’s bone headed posturing, since Chick-Fil-A would be fools  to open in any of those cities – nobody would eat there – but the hubris of any mayor or city council barring a business based on their political views is beyond outrageous. Freedom of opinion counts for both sides.

There’s something more insidious about the Cathy’s amygdala hijack: the conversion of restaurants into political vehicles.

Once upon a halcyon time civilized eating meant avoiding religion, finance or politics during the meal. I never really observed the rule, but then I am occasionally ill mannered and not a gadzillionaire with a restaurant chain.  Cathy should have done. He crossed the Rubicon by polemicizing what ought to be civil, neutral ground, the tables we share. Breaking bread with people of different opinions civilizes us. Eating in political conclaves does the opposite.  Apart from the quality and the mean mindedness of his sentiments, dividing our tables by politics is indecent.

We should be concerned that or resigned to the fact that he may have opened Pandora’s Box – that our tables could  come to represent not only our culinary tastes but our political stripes.  That would be disastrous.

A senior member of the California Legislature recently mourned the civility of the time when  members of Congress went out for drinks or dinner together after the day’s session, and contributes the eroding of decency to the loss of that. Democrat and Republican congressmen/women in DC eat at separate dining clubs. No need to wonder why they can’t find common ground.

Ojala Mr Cathy’s self obsessed foolishness remains an isolated phenomenon. Let tire shops and newspapers and department store owners express their prejudices and beliefs, if they are dumb and crude enough to do so  – the places where we break bread need to be inclusive meeting places in which we our paths cross with people of opposed opinions.   Switzerland made a lot of money staying neutral during WWII. Let’s hope the rest of our watering  holes and eateries do likewise.

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Kids and Food: Don’t waste childhood. Put it to work.

The Blog Title, “Culinary Promiscurity” allows musings on about anything related to food.

As anyone who has had or known one or its parents knows, kids have a lot to do with food. Either they won’t eat it, or they want more or they eat like a herd of wild boars on two legs. They’re allergic to dates or spit out the pablum. There are picky eaters and insatiable walking stomachs. Some are fat, some are not fat enough, and some are irritatingly food precocious   (Headlines like “12 Year old Culinary Phenom cooks with the top chefs of Poughkeepsie”  make one glad to live on the other end of the country so one is in absolutely no danger of running into him or his mother at Safeway.)

My son the empty pit, who oddly turned into one smart eater after years of begging to be taken to McDonald’s (He wasn’t), didn’t want to cook or eat anything from the ocean until well after he left home. He figured it out too late for my benefit.

I feel deprived in hindsight. It could have been otherwise. When John was young we sent him to  canoe camp and we sent him to Whale Watching Camp, which turned out to be a radical environmentalist propaganda machine – he was kicked out for standing up for the rights of “Big Oil (he was an odd child), Most camps then were pretty much all about horses and canoes or basketball. Boy oh boy, has that changed for the better.

Young parents take note. Camps today offer everything from hacking to foreign affairs, but the real deal is Cooking Camp. Wow! Cooking camp can, suggests a recent article, teach your child to respect food and choose health and nutritional elements to promote his lifestyle.

Yeah. Nice. As if anyone who sends their kids to cooking camp doesn’t already do that. The article misses the point: Cooking Camp teaches the munchkins and revolting adolescents to cook! For you! Brilliant! For a price you can turn your picky eater or undiscriminating empty legged gobbler  into your own personal chef.  Strike that: GOURMET chef.

Not only that, any cooking camp worth its salts is going to teach them to clean up!  After themselves. After you!

Exploitation? Hardly. Imaging the experience, the camaraderie: Can’t you picture the campers, all in their adorable white uniforms with camper badges, seated around 2500 BTU burner making s’mores with marshmallows they made themselves and Scharffenberger 60% Chocolate while they sing camp songs – “Does your sauce Bernaise lose its flavor overnight, can you stick it to the bedpost, can you toss it left and right..”  Imagine the bragging rights they take back to school: “Yeah, Dimbrain, you may have learned how to break into the Kremlin’s cyber vault, but I bet you can’t even make a decent Tarte Tatin, and your Genoise sucks!”(neener neener neener).

Why would you want Jennie to learn to saddle and groom ponies or paddle canoes and identify moose droppings, skills poorly suited to daily life, when she could come home and beg, “Mom, can I make a soufflé tonight? Puhleeeassssse! PleasePleasePleasePlease. You like promised.”

I have stinging regrets of opportunities missed: “Hey John, want to cook for a party of twelve? Got your Vitello Tonato game on?” – “ will you lend me a hand with this piglet I am stuffing? Or “Would you mind watching the fritto misto?”

I wish I could have said, “If you don’t like it, cook something better,” knowing that I’d at least be able to expect a Caprese or coque au vin.

If I still had small children or were expecting one, I’d be rushing to doors of every cooking camp in the country to sign them up at birth.  Voluntary child labor. What a stupendous idea.

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Carpe Doughnut: Nora Ephron’s uncommon food sense

How could Nora Ephron die? How could a wit that vibrant and a spirit as sassy and gracefully robust as hers not guarantee immortality?

Among her legacy is the wonderful wisdom of the relation of mortality to pleasure,  constantly proposing a Weltanschauung roughly equivalent to “Eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow  at some point. You may   are going to die.

Ephron’s quotes suggest nothing of a “foodie” or a food snob or a gourmet, although surely she was one (gourmet, that is..she claimed an all encompassing love of, even obsession with food.)  . Ephron’s love of food was visceral. Her knowledge of it profound. Food pervaded her work and her interviews. Heartburn, the book that buoyed me up through a miserable divorce, shifts from snide comments on “Mark” to recipes for key lime pie, all of them treasured then and still.

A collection of her commentary on the Huffington Post repeats her unapologetic, all encompassing  love of good things to eat and either contempt or pity for those who complicate their diets with the various rules fashionable in foodie circles that she espoused in her writings

“I have a friend whose mantra is: You must choose. And I believe the exact opposite: I think you should always have at least four desserts that are kind of fighting with each other.”

“Everybody dies, there’s no avoiding it and I do not believe for one second that butter is the cause of anyone’s death. Overeating may be, but not butter, please. I just feel bad for people who make that mistake. By the way the same thing is true of olive oil. What difference could it possibly make if there’s a little olive oil in your salad dressing? It does not take one day off your life.”

Newsweek, August 2009

In interviews on NPR  and with Charlie Rose  she asserted that waiting for the last meal (hers would be a Nate n’ Al’s hotdog) was foolish – you might be hit by a bus the next day..  Eat more Nate n’ Al’s she directed. In another she advocated eating doughnuts, not later but now. “it’s very important to eat your last meal before it actually comes up.”

I  hope that Nate n’ Al’s had a direct delivery line to MS Eprhon’s house in her later days, that the people who loved her brought dozens of doughnuts and trays of desserts.

My appetite channels Nora Ephron, as probably does yours. As for the pitiful party-line locovores,  egg white omelet fanatics, glutenophobes, fussy eaters, vegans, nutritional activists and sadly misled, loud-mouthed foie opponents in our midst, may I propose that you simply hold your peace and follow Ephron’s advice. Eat more doughnuts.

“Are we really all going to spend our last years avoiding bread, especially now that bread in American is so unbelievable delicious? And what about chocolate?”

I Feel Bad About My Neck: And Other Thoughts on Being a Woman

Plagiarism admission: Most of the quotes here are p;lucked from the above linked Huffington Post article. You should read it. Reading all of Ephron’s pieces on the site has just hit the top of my own bucket list.  I don’t think they will object.  Ephron was the voice behind the Huffington Post’s exquisite food writing, or much of it. We all who eat with joy owe them gratitude for this.

 

 

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Food math puzzle. There will be a test.

Remember the math puzzles your high school teacher used to give you to solve? Here’s one from real live.

Recent polls, studies and surveys have revealed the following trends:

  1. More Americans are cooking at home.
  2. Americans are eating out less often.
  3. Americans are spending less on groceries.
  4. Americans are throwing away  more food.
  5. Americans are gaining weight faster.

To summarize: We are cooking at home more but buying  fewer groceries and throwing more of them away. We are eating less in restaurants.  From fewer groceries and less dining out we are still getting fatter.

Huh?

Tonight’s homework: reconcile these statistics.

There will be a test.

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Forget the Louvre. We really go to Paris for the croissants (because we can’t get them here)

Tartine at Cafe Tourelle in the Marais

Cafe Tourelle in the Marais

Until recently I had unlimited access to a couch in Paris and used it as much as courtesy and time permitted. The apartment was in an intoxicatingly romantic, creaky floored ancient building across from the police station in the Marais, the old Jewish quarter, which had not been raised to build the grand allees of Paris and thus retained its charms. Among these were a bakery on the corner and another half a block down. In addition the café Tourelle with solid day to day food and a terrific Café au lait with either tartine or croissants was three minutes away, as was the quirky café muse.

I spent my mornings there sipping on my fat cup of chicory redolent coffee and licking the jam off my fingers, envying the chatting French couples around me who take this for granted.

The croissants were always perfect – flaky and buttery, soft with a just a enough tooth, crying to be undressed one flaky layer at a time and devoured. So were the macarons at the corner shop, which my hosts pronounced far superior and less expensive than those from LaDuree (where I gladly spent $40 on what was essentially 2 glasses of bubbly and four cookies).

LaDuree macarons

Macarons at La Duree

Now and then I picked up a box of diverse pastries, breakfast suited tartlets and assorted treats to take back to the apartment to share – an excuse, as my hostess keeps her admirable figure by not eating pastries, leaving them mostly for me.

I value good pastries. When I bought a couch of my own in Berlin,  my first requirement was a bakery within walking distance. There are three, but they are not French, While the Germans are no slouch at baking, they can’t hold a candle to the Parisian croissants, but they are generally far better than what  we can find at home.

Most European bakery goods, in fact,  blow our American selection out of the water . They are made by better and differently trained artisans using different wheat and fatter butter . European bakeries play to a more demanding audience. Parisians  would rise up in arms at our low American standards.  The French complain loudly and immediately that the baguettes are endangered.  The average American wouldn’t k now a good baguette from a sandwich roll.

The majority of American pastry is produced in commissaries from mixes of a sort or par baked and finished off where it is sold. Hotels which used to vie for the top European and American pastry chefs now buy their goods pre-baked from wholesalers. A recent promising breakfast at San Francisco’s once exquisite Campton Place served a selection of breakfast breads which would have been equally in place at an IHOP.  The Maitre d’ gliding by with the inquiry, “Isn’t everything absolutely fabulous? “ It was not.

The main reason American pastries and “small” breads, known as Vienoiserie, are third rate is because that’s what Americans expect and want – hockey puck scones, cardboard Danish, huge cookies tasting of baking soda and an assortment of  sticky things kept in a cool case, which alters the proteins making the pastries them tough, stale and stickier.

Most bakery items are over sized – The French appreciate the the tiny, flavor packed macaron. We tend to prefer the sweet only six inch cookie or the half pound muffin, an overly sugared giant cupcake in reality.  A nice coffee shop I frequent tried selling a few higher quality small pastries and ended up throwing them out, because nobody would buy them. We are used to big and sweet as opposed to flavorful with mouth feel, and that’s what we buy.

There are some very acceptable, even good volume small item pastry/bakery producers/wholesalers, but their good work is foiled by the ignorance of retailers unaware of how to store and sell them, so cool cased palmiers end up tasting like glue covered shoe box covers.

La Boulange Palm Leaves

La Boulange Palm Leaves Correctly Stored

Of course we are not to blame, because most of us have no way of knowing any better. We get our sense of what is possible from the market, and coffee shops like Starbucks set the bar very low. We have scant basis for comparison.

Every once in a while a great bakery shop opens, then disappears.  A wonderful artisan Italian bakery in West Portal sold as a turnkey business to an operator who quickly switched to Costco before closing his doors last week. Creighton’s, another neighborhood store offering excellent, rustic pastry switched hands and products to the standard mass market trash.

The most recent sad story of short lived great bakeries, at least for its many fans,  is that of  La Boulange, the small business triumph of Pastry Chef/ entrepreneur Pasqual Rigo, which opened it’s first unit in San Francisco’s Pacific Heights, then began to expand with a a cafe in that neighborhood and another grand little cafe in the Metreon building, where lines formed out the door within a month.

Latte and pastries at La Boulange

Rigo, a smart, skilled artisan, with a little help from his friends created a line of French style pastries and lunch snacks which would surely pass French muster. He manages to sell small items – macarons, madeleins, financiers – at profitable prices and offers home made tasting jam and butter for breakfast items, and a selection of savory sides – cornichons, sauces, etc –  and the coffee, served in warm bowls like a French farmhouse kitchen, is delicious (for the moment). It is a growing corporation with a single unit feel. Or at least it was.

La Boulange has just been purchased by Starbuck’s for $100 million with the explanation that they need the group to improve their quality. I don’t buy it. As a matter of fact I predict that this will be the short of long death of La Boulange.

Rigo’s skill and vision have about as much chance of uplifting Starbuck’s quality as the Titanic did of raising the iceberg.  “They needed a place to produce their pastry,” said a local LB manager. With more than 25,000 total units (including the Starbuck’s owned Seattle’s Best outlets) Starbucks would need a “Place to produce their pastry” half the size of Texas.  At this point La Boulange’s production is artisan, which means among other things that it is produced in proximity to the outlets. It also means that it is not too large to be overseen and quality controlled by people who both know and care. Those people are hard to find and probably won’t flock to Starbucks. Starbucks will not be able to do that, even with dispersed commissaries, which means cooled product transport. (Again, cold is the enemy of great baked goods.)

So why did they buy the company at that price? Starbuck’s management team must have known that La Boulange’s products could not inspire their national audience. I think Starbucks acted out of a different motivation:Corporate intervention.

If a growing, vibrant company threatens to outshine an existing larger corporation, then that corporation has two options: 1)They can expend the money and effort to meet the higher standard, or 2) they can kill or consume the upstart  it before it grows and becomes a threat.  Hostess Brands failed to see the threat when California’s Acme Bread and La Brea Bakery started America’s bread revolution. Now they have filed for Bankruptcy.   La Boulange CanellesStarbucks could not afford to lose business to a group which could attract a substantial portion of their business. If Starbucks had not subsumed La Boulange, It’s probable that an investment firm wold have taken it national.

This kind of competition intervention is legal and from the shareholder standpoint, justified.  Google bought Skype and Microsoft purchased Yammer for $1 billion for that reason. But this is different.  There is a vast difference between smart aps and social networking and food. As the grandfather in Johanna Spyri’s novel tells Heidi, “you can’t bite into a coin.”  When corporate interests reduce the quality choices of the greater public, questions of integrity apply.

Why do I think that Starbucks’ motivation was not a sincere desire to serve their customers better treats? Because the company could have addressed their quality issues more easily and economically.

I used to walk the Fancy Food Show with the culinary director of one of a local airline catering company – he may have been working for one of the large San Francisco production bakery café groups at the time – who was charged with sourcing most of the Starbucks’ pastries. His criteria were clear: nothing over $0.40 per piece. “I’d love to get this, he’d say, but they won’t pay for it.”   If Chef J. was squaring with me (I am not sure he always did this), then the goodies now sold by Starbucks  have 200% to 400% markup as opposed to an industry standard of about 75% to 100%.

If Starbucks had wanted to address the quality of their food and snacks, they could have started there. They could also have hired a great baker / pastry chef for as little as $300K a year – a lot of money, but far less than what they paid for La Boulange. American Pastry chef and baker come Paris expat David Lebovitz comes to mind – he surely would have saved them a few million.   Finding these people is my livelihood, and I can attest to the availability of highly qualified individuals who could have worked with the company to create attractive and financially  effective product .

La Boulange's Condiments

La Boulange Condiments

They could simply have hired a completely independent consultant to assist them with the selection and storage and showcasing of the product they already sell.

It is in fact possible, if Rigo and his team stay on, that Starbucks’ products will be a little better, but it is an absolutely sure thing that La Boulange’s selection will be dragged down.  The staff  at La Boulange stated they will start serving Starbucks’ coffee on Monday. (A new face there stated today that they would continue to serve the LaBoulange selection).  It will be interesting to see if it comes in the big, frothy cups. That is not improvement.

Macarons at La Boulange

Macarons at La Boulange

San Franciscans are murmuring that Rigo sold out. He did not.  He cashed in, and deservedly so. He achieved the American dream by hard work and smart business, and he and his partners deserve everything they have earned.  The fault, if it is one, lies with Starbuck’s. Quashing the quality competition before your own brand is subjected to negative comparison shows a regrettable lack of integrity along the Michael Douglas “Greed is Good” line of corporate thought.

Unlike many of my friends, I have nothing against Starbucks. I never thought that being large or successful is evil, although it clearly may corrupt ethical decision making. In the past Starbucks found “a need and filled it.” For all the condemnation of their pushing out mom and pop coffee shops with sour, stale brew, they introduced America to a wider and better range of coffees than most of us knew and provided common spaces with WiFi, setting a standard others picked up. Kudos for all that, but  scant respect for this caper.

Miss Maudie’s explanation of  Atticus’s admonition to Scout in To Kill a Mockingbird comes to mind: ““Your father’s right,” she said. “Mockingbirds don’t do one thing but make music for us to enjoy . . . but sing their hearts out for us. That’s why it’s a sin to kill a mockingbird.” Can you say the same thing about a nascent corporation based on tradition and quality?

It is unfortunately too late for Starbuck’s to put down their BB gun. Their contrivance will be a loss to hoards of Americans who will never know what they missed.  Pity.

Perhaps Starbucks will prove me wrong. Let’s hope so, but even supposing that their intentions were not to keep the product quality bar low, the size of their operations poses a surely insurmountable impediment to maintaining La Boulange’s promise. I’d love to eat my words and good if not great croissants at any of their 17000 locations, but that’s pretty improbable.

Then again, there are more than one smart, talented and skilled bakers in the world, and with the possible incentive of $100 million (or a percentage of that sum – Rigo unfortunately  needs to share with investors and deal makers), who knows which young Turk will bless us with financiers? Look what Nancy Silverton kicked off with La Brea in the bread world.  Let the games begin.

 

 

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Rolly Polly Nation, the Law and the Blindered Prophets

So we’re fat. And now what?

Mayor Bloomberg has been proposing one of those simple save the world solutions to just about everything, also known as an administrative Brain Phart, in the form of a Big Gulp fiat. By limiting the size of sodas he suggests, New York can get a grip on its citizens’ girth and health.Zip Zap Zum.. Problem solved.

Now that Alice Waters’ sensationalized cerebral flatulence on (0 calorie) bottled water has petered out, the nation appears to be flocking to the soda is evil camp and willing to curtail its consumption with any possible means including taxation and prohibition. Public shaming and caning cannot be far behind.

The science behind the ardor attributes every nutritional and plenty of the physical ills of our culture to soda: Obesity, heart and circulatory disease, kidney and  liver damage and diabetes to name a few.  According to the USDA the average American ingests 360- “added” sugar calories a day, enough to add 36 pounds a year, half of them from soft drinks.  If you calculate in Americans who drink no soda, someone is piling on unimaginable tons of blubber and endangering themselves and the health economy.. A UC Davis study predicts that a soda tax would save 2600 lives a year.

Advocacy groups like the nattering CSPI, who have finally found a cause to legitimatize themselves with a National Soda Summit, are riding the wave out front while agrandizing themselve by elevating a congress to a summit.   Both the CDC and USDA support the concept of state soda taxes. Pop producers and interest groups like The American Beverage Association  have taken up the challenge and deny their claiims, smacking of Gordon Gecko self interest and insincerity as they do. Salvo’s are flying like bullets over the Alamo.

You really have to enjoy a good fight. They bring out the jesters like Brokelyn.com  and the worst and most entertaining in politicians straining to gain favor with the masses, but this one is unsettling on many counts.

For one thing the crusade against soft drinks is simplistic. Demonizing one thing, in this case soda, promotes the idea of a silver bullet as the solution to a tangled mess of complex issues, here obesity, disease and the financial burden of paying for little buddy scooters for  Mountain Dew addicts. It is the lazy approach we Americans like to take to just about any problem. Remember when Obama ran on “Change”, and a country voted for him in the assumption that he would solve all our problems in a few months, but he didn’t?  Now his approval ratings have plummeted and we blame him? It doesn’t occur to us as a Nation that things are complicated and solutions take time, so attacking one thing – token or substantial – appeals immensely to our lazy nature. This is the same.  Sensational gestures rarely reap sensational results.

Soda isn’t the only contributor to the “obesity epidemic”. There are a slew of other factors in our national weight crisis. My favorite is convenience food, mostly because I don’t eat much, so I can feel smug about damning those who do. The Huffington post just published statistics showing that processed foods, which are generally less healthy and higher in calories than fresh foods, have risen to the top of the American grocery list from near the bottom, while dairy products have dropped to last place

The most obvious and my least favorite culprit is lack of exercise – I rather prefer chairs and chaise lounges to Pilates and would rather drive than hike, even though I know I lose much more weight from physical exertion than deprivation.  French women, who by the way DO get fat – just not as much as we do – walk a lot. The French and European Paradox is fairly easily explained by their greater exercise in the run of their normal days. Life in Europe is not harder but requires more motion than in the US, which burns pounds. They also don’t eat the junk so many of us like.

Fast food, famously caloric and cheap due to farm subsidies and the use of sweeteners where one does not expect them – namely in meat – coupled with America’s growing nutritional ignorance and the convenience for working families earns the obesity blue ribbon.  The statistics mentioned above also show that Americans are buying fewer groceries. Since they obviously aren’t eating less, it’s a good guess that they are getting fed at Quick Serve Restaurants. A simple McD’s hamburger contains only 250 calories, but their most advertised items like Angus Bacon and Cheese Burger have nearly 800. That’s without the fries and the Coke or the Blizzard. A Starbucks White Chocolate Mocha Frappuccino® Blended Beverage delivers 330 – ten of those and you’ve gained a pound.

I personally also attribute nationally increasing girths to the disappearance of vanity. My shallow sense of worth by appearance is the main reason that I stay  under the four hundred or so pounds my genes keep screaming for me to gain. The younger generation does not seem to mind large amounts of flesh drooping over their tank tops or low rise shorts.  In the dark ages at college there was one fat girl in our dorm. We loved her, but it was clear she would never have the success we envisioned for ourselves (marrying well, above all – we weren’t as smart as we thought we were) .  Groups of young girls roaming downtown today are more likely to be convex than concave and they are apparently just fine with it. Maybe Bloomberg out to ban chic clothes in plus sizes. Or dictate full length mirrors on school doors and strewn around restaurants and food stores.

Despite the nutritional left’s cries that food is too cheap and you can make do with fresh produce as economically as with convenience food, the cost of fresh produce versus convenience food is repeatedly cited as a major factor in the poor American diet. The supposed impact of posting calories and nutritional content not only on groceries but at chain eateries – another silver bullet – has not brought the expected success.

Too few people know how to cook and really understand nutrition. Cooking used to be taught at least to seventh grade girls.No more.

Add to the above that we eat too much. Before we settled on blaming soda  for everything there was a hue and cry about candy, fats, salt and sweets. David Kessler, former Commissioner of the FDA , maintains, possibly correctly, that sugar and fat are addictive and that America’s tendency to treat itself to more carbonara, King Size Snickers and multiple Whoppers is due to a kind of conspiracy by the food companies, who act like dope pushers, hooking us young and stringing us along until our common food caused illnesses shorten our national life span. Kessler has also stated that he supports government intervention in food choices and costs.

This is where it gets scary.

Kessler’s and others’ complete lack of hesitation to support government intervention into personal dietary choices is troubling. When we find that the soda tax doesn’t work, a new demon will be found and regulated (remember trans fats? yet another silver bullet). Whether it is a junk food tax, a fast food intervention or an age ban on selling ice cream or candy to minors is unimportant. What does matter is that some politicians will at least try to do public good by invading personal choice. .The New York Health Commission has already discussed control of other high energy foods.  Britain is already debating a 20% “fat tax” on unhealthy items. Denmark has initiated a butter tax.

There is another problem with panacea, single demon of the day thinking of the obesity problem: We imagine immediate results (think Obama again). This is scientifically improbable as far as fatness is concerned. Changes in national average weight and health are more likely to take generations than years. Enough studies have revealed that excessive weight once gained sets the brain and body to continue to demand energy intake.  Individuals with strong will power can lose weight and keep it off, but we cannot suppose that demographics will do so. Yanking on the anchor chain will hardly turn the Queen Mary.

And this: Polls show a large portion of the populatoin in favor of bans and interventions of one kind of another – that means many people telling many other people what to do, “If it solves the health problem” (it won’t). or “saves us money spent on health care” (it can’t). When we begin to tell our neighbors how to live their lives, no matter how good we believe it might be for them, we cross a very dangerous line. It’s not quite drowning Salem witches to save their souls, but their dinner is simply none of our business. If you want to intervene, you can tell your congress person to stop funding mobility assistants for people who eat too much, but one should be careful at handing the keys to someone else’s cupboard to politicians. It could backfire.

Tax and ban proponents liken themselves to anti tobacco campaigners and the taxes they support to cigarette taxes, an interesting comparisojn but false.  There is no such thing as second hand Coke, and drinking a Pepsi in your home will not give your children earaches.  While cigarettes are the proven cause of many miserable deaths, sugared drinks are contributors to some.

East Virginia promotes its proposed Soda tax with the promise that the money will be used to sponsor nutritional education, as are many cigarette taxes. Good idea? Certainly, but if it please the sovereign state, why the Hell weren’t you offering nutritional education without a tax, if it’s so damned important? (It is).

This is where I offer a solution, and if I were God, I’d be glad to. I don’t have one, but I have a couple of ideas: Start working for long term success by educating children and young adults, use media to get messages out to the country – our English channels could take a cue from Spanish speaking television’s impressive public service announcements “Salud es vida”- health is life. Stop subsidizing sugars.

Rather than banning large portions, require that any outlet selling super-sized portions also offer reasonably small servings of popcorn, soda and ice cream for reasonable prices, increasing rather than reducing consumer choice.  You just try now to get a one man popcorn at the movies or an edible portion at Cold Stone Creamery, where every cone is family sized.

As long as you are at it, legalize fruit kiosks like those in New York in all cities and insist that inner city grocers selling liquor and snacks also stock fresh fruit. It’s invasive, true, but not as much as preventing them from selling empty calories.

If the government really wants to make an impact, might we suggest that instead of reducing the amount of time allotted in schools for physical ed they increase it. John F Kennedy’s school fitness programs, aimed at making us competitive with the dreaded Russians, were effective.  So we’ve got drones doing our dirty work – so what.  Fitness is still in our national interest.  Let the kids climb rope, do jumping jacks and run races again. It supposedly helps their brains as well as their physical health. If you say it is too expensive, then please quit bellyaching about the cost of health care for the unfit.

There are a lot more suggestions out there.  Let the Senate form one of their famous committees for something both useful and attainable. Obese children and food sick adults clogging the system  should give them some common bilateral ground, for a change.

Bloomberg is hardly a stupid or simple man, although touting National Doughnut Day as he introduced his plan was not all that astute.  I suspect the proposed Big Gulp Ban is conceived as much a statement as a fix. Unfortunately as we have all seen there are many less astute politicians urged on by public advocates, who will hustle to follow suit and outdo it with perverse creativity.

I realize the desire is illusionary, but it would be so uplifting to see measured common sense minus the sensationalism injected into the obesity, diabetes, health care debate. I don’t know about you, but I had a terrific mother once who told me to eat my broccoli and not the candy bar. I loved her, but that was really annoying, and I don’t want my mayor or state senate stepping into her unfortunately empty shoes. (For one thing they wouldn’t stand a 500 calorie snowcone’s chance in Hell of filling them.)

Don’t expect the same results from Bloomberg’s program and other states’ proposed soda taxes as the smoking bans achieved. You may see a change in your lifetime, but I am sure I will not. My family lives to 100.

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