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Jewish World Review Dec. 26, 2003/ 1 Teves, 5764

Suzanne Fields

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A little junk food for thought | This is the week for giving, receiving, eating and drinking, nearly always to excess. Some of us celebrate Chanukah and others Christmas, but we're united in the common purpose of gluttony. Even my Muslim friends, who fasted during the day during Ramadan, got up for big breakfasts before dawn and enjoyed gargantuan dinners after night fell.

We live in a country obsessed by weight - gaining it, losing it, suing those we imagine are responsible for it and paying doctors to rearrange the results of it. We count calories, units of fat, cholesterol and carbohydrates as we seek the magic numbers to live longer by. We celebrate success with extra helpings.

The Wall Street Journal, which religiously (no irony intended) follows the ups and downs of the stock market, describes how the liquor industry exploits the highs and lows of drinking on a diet: "In an effort to cash in on the popularity of trendy low-carb diets like Atkins, makers of vodka, whiskey, and other hard liquors are starting to pitch their products as low-carb and diet friendly, following the success of low-carbohydrate campaign this year by Michelob Ultra beer."

Rum and Diet Coke may be low on calories, but that doesn't include the calories in the cashews and peanuts you munch on to stay sober.

Never have the pleasures and politics of food been so intertwined, creating snobbish table manners that have nothing to do with which fork you use but everything to do with what bread and coffee you serve. Only yesterday, sliced spongy white bread (Wonder Bread became the generic) and instant coffee were staples of the dinner table.

Today we pursue happiness through dozens of different breads (sourdough, French baguettes, pecan loaf, Jewish rye) and a zillion coffees (French roast, Colombian Supremo, Jamaican Blue Mountain, double-dark Mexican) line the shelves at supermarkets and specialty stores.

Moms, liberated and not, must please vegetarians, vegans, low-carb, high-protein, or environmentally correct free-range chicken eaters. By comparison, the dietary rules of my kosher-keeping grandparents, which we thought complicated, were pure simplicity.

Coinciding with sophisticated palates in food is the dressing down of diners at expensive restaurants. In three-star establishments with tabs that can run into hundreds of dollars for dinner for two, men are no longer required to wear ties or jackets and women who once displayed elegant décolletage are more likely now to reveal a less appetizing décolletage of the backside, often in duds that look as if they were shunned at the Union Rescue Mission.

Beautiful women crave thinness and both men and women tone tummies and buns on expensive gym equipment, but the epidemic of obesity spreads long before middle age, and falls hardest on the poor.

Surveys estimate that three of five Americans are overweight and the cost of groceries, the size of incomes, demands of work and the abundance of fast food contribute to 68 percent of the "fat" problem. The more hours a mother works in a week, according to the Joint Center for Policy Research, the greater the likelihood of an obese child in the family.

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Food fashions run from serious concerns for health to absurd arrogance in seeking control of food production. Environmentalists in America, where food is the cheapest in the world and where we're free to eat as well as speak as we like, take sides in controversies over genetically modified food that have little effect on their own lives. In the Third World, famine and malnutrition are real.

"Why did Zambians go hungry in the midst of a drought-induced famine last year while millions of tons of food aid were allowed to go to waste?" asks the Wilson Quarterly, in a cover story on the pleasures, pomposities and politics of foodies. Answer: "Because the corn was genetically modified."

Environmental extremists - none of whom go to bed hungry - argued that it was better for Zambians to go hungry than "risk" supping on genetically modified corn, even though the "risks," such as they may be, are far from substantiated by scientific research.

Andrew Natsios, administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, is outraged. "They can play these games with Europeans who have full stomachs," he said, "but it is revolting and despicable to see them do so when the lives of Africans are at stake."

Arguing over what to eat is old stuff, of course. When the serpent persuaded Eve to try the forbidden fruit, and Adam (who was not very bright) dutifully agreed, the First Couple stocked a full pantry of troubles for their descendants. Instead of feasting in the Garden of Eden, we settle for junk food for thought.

But no more arguments today. There's Christmas turkey and Chanukah latkes on the table. Scrooges, keep your scolding to yourselves. Bon appetite

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© 2001, Suzanne Fields. TMS