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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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Tarians and Vores

What kind of Tarian are you?

When I was a kid everyone ate about everything unless you happened to have the misfortune of being Catholic with Lent or Vatican imposed meatless Fridays, Seventh Day  Adventist or Orthodox Jewish and had to adhere to theologically imposed dietary restrictions. Or poor, of course, which came with its own set of limitations.

As Episcopalians we were theologically/nutritionally unencumbered. My mother, who railed at people who came to dinner then disclosed their dietary restrictions (there were fewer back then), never invited the one Seventh Day Adventist she knew and invited our Catholic friends on Saturdays rather than Fridays unless she happened to expect bluefish or crab off my uncle’s boat on a Friday.

A Friday dinner invitation from Catholic neighbors was cause for some nose wrinkling, but then most of the Catholics we knew back then were Irish, who, apologies to the sons and daughters of the Green Isle, are far from the best ambassadors for Catholic cuisine. Had we known Josephine Gasparro, things surely would have been different. Josephine cooked a mean salmon.  Kosher was never an issue..the only Jews we hung out with were reformed and were lavish eaters and phenomenal cooks.

Times have changed.

The Vatican lifted it’s fiat on meat, thus removing its negative image of an imposed food and possibly contributing to the endangerment of hundreds of species, as seafood became not only interesting but hotly desired for any night you wanted to have it. The Adventists may still be meatless, although the two I know eat non garden burgers with gusto. My Jewish friends now are staunch proponents of all things porcine. Religion no longer rules the plate. Instead we have made our self imposed food limitations to our religions.

Vegetarianism has gone secular-mainstream and highly vocal and spawned a score of variations, some extreme, some simple variations, and we have named them all.

The equal and opposite reaction to the steady surge in demanding vegetarian diners sprung up in the form of testosterone laden carnivore movement under the name of the Whole Beast Movement or Snout to Ass, initially carried by chefs like Chris Cosentino, then picked up by butchery event planners like Big John Fink,  who creates butchering shows followed by orgies involving large pigs on spits.

There are nutritional crusades and tirades on both sides. Animal rights activists have effected bans of foie gras and shark fins in California and attempted to pass laws requiring that restaurants observe “Meatless Mondays”.  At a North Beach Pizzeria a young Swiss guest responded to the gorgeous Italian server’s suggestion of a porchetta spiked pie with, “I don’t eat meat,” spoken with the vehemence of a Jonathan Edwards holding out a cross and snarling, “Get the behind me, dead animal.”   Professed carnivores also have their obnoxiously vocal moments.

Most of us omnivores in the middle eat just about anything anyone sets down  in front of us, or at least it around our plates or feed it to the dog, so people think you liked it.

That was the Readers’ Digest version – our personal nutritional sects are considerably more complex.

The Administrative Director of the Culinary Institute of America told me years ago that the Institute had done a survey of eating habits. Among those who stated their diet as vegetarian a large number – I believe over half – also stated that they ate seafood and/or poultry frequently, and a smaller number occasionally meat. I eat vegetables, ergo I am vegetarian.

There is now a term for that:

Vegetarians remain vegetarians, at least in theory people who don’t eat meat, poultry or seafood.

Seafood eaters but not meat eaters, on the other hand, are either Pisquitarians or pescatarians, the word being so new that nobody has settled on a proper spelling.

Vegetarians who avoid eggs, honey and milk are vegans. Vegans believe in making life more challenging by foreswearing eggs, honey and cheese, which supposedly exploit chickens, bees and cows.

There’s more.

Vegans who don’t cook their food are Raw Foodists.

Vedic Vegans reduce their options by the entire nightshade family, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant and potatoes.

The most radical vegans are the fruitarians, who eat no live fruit – that is, eat nothing that is  picked from the tree on the theory that picking it would be killing a living thing.  In other words, they live from vegan road kill. One suspects that the pharmaceutical company is not producing sufficiently effective meds, but perhaps the fruitarians reject them because their production exploits some bacilli or fungi.

Omnivores don’t get away with a simple label, either.

Those of us who eat meat but not huge steaks have recently been dubbed “flexitarians”, which apparently means that we are not huge meat eaters. That would be in less pretentious food speak “omnivores”, or perhaps nothing, since we are still the people who generally eat what is put in front of us (or push it around the plate.)  Most of us still consider ourselves, probably irrationally, the default.

My son’s best friend’s mother is a socially conscious vegetarian with an irresistible taste for salami, which makes her a salmitarian (or salumitarian, if you include things like coppa and sopressata, which she probably does. )

My father’s second wife who actually ate mostly Cheetos and taco chips unless they went out  was a poultry eater and pronounced herself an “avitarian”. Actually she also ate some seafood, preferably fried, which would probably make her a pisqueavitarian.

And then there are the locovores, who, donning one of the rougher nutritional hair shirts of our times, swear never to eat anything grown more than a hundred miles from their homes. There aren’t many locovores in Minneapolis, and God bless the others. More bananas and Prosecco for the rest of us.

Fortunately the dining community, omnivore, flexitarian vegan et al, have not yet come to the point where we define ourselves by what we don’t eat – I am an antiglutenitariian or a non-lactositarian, but for an identity starved society who craves labels, it’s probably not far off.

The poor are still around, but they would probably just as soon renounce their dietary restrictions.

As for me, you can ask me to dinner any time. I’ll eat it if you’re a good cook. Unless it’s steamed spinach, in which case it will be neatly distributed around the plate.

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Swiss Cherries

This year’s cherries are nearly compensation for San Francisco’s bleak and endless winter – plentiful, fat sweet and juicy. Vendors at the Alemany Market have so many that they pack up bags of four to five pounds of the nearly perfect fruit for $5 two hours before the stalls closed.

“I’m cherried out,” says Naomi, as she passes them up. “I can’t get enough of them, ever,” swears Lisa., “I can’t stop eating them.”

I used to live an a cherry economy. They were the life blood of my village on the slopes of the Swiss Jura. We were surrounded by orchards, where the white blossom lace covering the hillsides brought buses of Germans out the Basel city dwellers in hiking knickers and boots to hike the winding trains between the stands of trees in bloom and stop at Restaurants Kreuz or Roessli to wash down cold meat or cheese with a beer and a shot of local Kirsch.

The Kirsch came from the Schwarzbuben distillery in Nuglar, which processed the local fruit into a delicately cherry scented eau de vie that burns with a pure blue flame. It was the villages only real industry. The owners, the Morrand family, also owned the grocery store, which carried baby booties and tools in addition to a full line of respectable schnapps – the signature product of course being Kirsch – and a meager assortment of groceries.

For the farmers they brewed a stronger schnapps for the tax free liters allotted per cow.

Schwarzbuben

Cows and orchards are symbiotic. The Cows graze the hills too steep for mowing in summer and live off silage from late summer grass in winter. In return the trees are fed with the runoff from the stalls sprayed on the snow around the trunks. The two liters, well above the 90 proof commercial schnapps,  are purportedly for washing down udders. The cows, the farmers maintain, like it better than rubbing alcohol. It probably gets used for that now and then.

If you are lucky, you will be offered the good stuff straight or in Kaffee Kirsch, the Swiss equivalent of Irish coffee, in warm farmhouse kitchens smelling just a little of the adjoining stall.  The farmers prefer to drink at Kreuz or Roessil, where they sit on the warm tiled oven and grumble about the cherry crop.

Cherry farming isn’t an easy way to make a living.  Even if the blossoms don’t shoot prematurely in the treacherous warm days of February die in the ensuing freeze, the “Ice Saints”, killing frosts on the saints’ days of Pankratius, Servatius und Bonifatius in late May, can wipe out an entire crop. A thunder storm can bruise and decimate the fruit hours before harvest. Too much rain, and the cherries split or mildew. Not enough rain stunts or shrivels them. A good year producing an abundance of cherries lowers the prices.  Cherry farmers are completely content only one day a year: when the trees have been picked bare of all but a few stragglers, the square, slat wood baskets filled with perfect, sweet black cherries have been loaded on the truck and the check for the fruit is signed.

Harvesting is communal. Children, cousins, and friends climb into the crowns of twenty foot trees with deep willow baskets belted around their waists. They descend to dump the full baskets into crates, then return to the tree tops

Most summers we picked with friends, standing high on wooden ladders handed down for generations. Their round rungs pressed through the soles of our thick boots. The sticky cherry juice stung the twig scratches on our hands and signaled to wasps that we were fair game. I miss it, none the less – the smells and buzz of summer, the shade of the tree crowns, the increasing weight of the basket hanging from my belt and the feel of the hard, cool cherries in the summer heat. I can still pick cherries out of a pile with my eyes shut. My fingers see the flaws.

The health authorities cautioned seniors not to go up the ladders, because old people now and then either died of the heat or a stroke on the ladders and fell to the ground dead, or fell off the ladders, or drop off and perished on impact. It was a sort of chicken and egg question, and, in the end, it didn’t really matter which came first. Few were deterred. There are worse exits.

Cautious elders, sore footed pickers and kids with stemmed pairs hanging over their ears sort through the crates being filled for the silver flatbed cannery truck that followed the one lane road winding along the hillsides from orchard to orchard. The buyers, usually Hero A.G., demand flawless fruit with stems. A few bad pieces in a crate get the entire lot rejected.

A day of picking probably produces enough fruit to fill thirty 20lb slatwood crates. The pickers take home a basket or two plus the culls for jam, Kirschpfannkuchen (Clafoutis), Weihe, a fruit and custard tart, and cherry pound cake.

Except for the jam, the pits stay in. Otherwise the cherries bleed and make the cake soggy. Everyone expects pits and either swallows them or spits them out. Competitive distance spitting makes cherry picking more entertaining than the plum harvest.   My pastry chef friend Paul tells me that he tried real clafoutis with pits in here in San Francisco, but he gave up. Every customer complained, despite the servers’ warnings. Management had liability concerns.

For the jam I had a manual two barreled cherry picker. It sprayed everywhere, so it could only be used outside. Mostly we just ate them with the stones or stood on the edge of our porch and vied for the longest shot. I never won.

Everyone agrees that the cherries this year are magnificent. Maybe miserable winters are the secret of a perfect crop. I have four pounds in bowls around the house. I’m thinking cherry pancake, pits and all. Three or four eggs with the whites whipped a little, the yolks stiffened with a few tablespoons of flour, a little salt, a bit of milk, folded together and poured over cherries strewn on the bottom of the frying pan with plenty of melted butter, then cooked until it’s hot and sweet with dark cherry tops shining through the golden brown crust.

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