More of Us to Love

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Chances are good that you’ve never heard of Cambridge, Ohio. It’s a tiny hamlet located in eastern Ohio, near the West Virginia border, that happens to be my ancestral home. My maternal grandparents, along with relatives and fellow immigrants from the same region of Lebanon, made their way over in the first decade of the last century, set up shop, and had a lot of children, my mother being the final installment (she moved to Columbus, where I was born, to attend nursing school, and has lived there ever since). Cambridge is nestled at the foothills of the Appalachians, and there are some beautiful state parks nearby. It is God’s Country; quite literally, as “The Living Word”, a popular outdoor drama depicting the last week of the life of Jesus, is performed at an amphitheater outside of town on weekends during the warm months. Collectors of glass know Cambridge for its historic glassworks factory that closed in the 1950s. The name “Cambridge Glass” is associated with a high quality, distinctive product line that eventually fell out of favor as tastes moved on. Cambridge has a picturesque Victorian county courthouse, and a quaint main business street. And that’s about it.

Oh, and Cambridge has LOTS of fat people. I’ll never forget an experience I had when my daughter and I were back in the States for a family visit a few years ago. We were in Cambridge, and decided to head down to the charming, and miniscule, downtown area for lunch. The restaurant we had decided upon, we were informed, was famous for its pies. Now, I love pies -blueberry and pumpkin being my two favorites – and as we headed over, one of these was what I was looking forward to wrapping my mouth around. However, to my disappointment, this place didn’t have either on offer. They only served cream pies, which were proudly displayed in the storefront window to attract passersby. These pies; how to describe them? They were gargantuan! They rose up from their dishes like puffy souffles, but they were all cream. Banana cream, lemon cream, chocolate cream, and another one that I couldn’t be sure about, but perhaps it was cream cream! No longer in a mood for pie, but still plenty hungry, I wandered in with my group, and things got surreal.

My family is blessed with a metabolism such that we generally don’t put on excess weight. In actuality, I considered this more curse than blessing for much of my life, as, to my humiliation, I was rewarded with the unlovable nickname of “spaghetti legs” by my second grade classmate Carla. Carla is of Italian descent, and her mom was a great cook, so I can easily imagine that she wouldlove to be called “spaghetti legs” herself these days, but I digress. Anyway, we sat ourselves down, five or six skinny folks at a table in the middle of the restaurant. It was then that my daughter and I, accustomed to seeing Japanese bodies all around us, observed that everyone else in the restaurant was enormous! One of whom was the waitress, who brought menus to our tables and, while walking off, told us to “be sure and leave room for some pie!”

I’m not exactly sure where she imagined that room might be, as the portions of food at this eatery were staggering. The only thing remotely healthy that I could make out was the Greek Salad, authentic enough because the proprietor was Greek, but still an Olympian mountain of feta cheese and olives. Almost everything else was grilled, or deep-fried to the point that one may as well have inserted Super Glu directly into one’s arteries. Barely able to finish what was on our plates, dessert was out of the question. The waitress was aghast. Surely we couldn’t leave without tasting this restaurant’s specialty. As she persisted, I began to get a weird feeling that I had entered a Twilight Zone episode. Perhaps just one bite of pie would have been enough to transform us into the restaurant’s typical patrons. I could practically hear the chant from the movie “Freaks” in the back of my head as I doggedly refused: One of us! One of us! Gobble Gobble One of us! We left, as the waitress saw us off by shouting, “Y’all come back and have some pie next time!”

The U.S. has a weight problem, and Cambridge is hardly outstanding in this regard. As someone who only visits the country occasionally, I may be less inured to this fact then my fellow countrymen, but people from other parts of the world are looking on in amazement. Nearly every Japanese who has visited has a story to tell about the giant portions served in restaurants, and the fatties who order said along with that ultimate gesture of futility, a Diet Coke. If our blubber was just the (elephantine) butt of jokes, it would be bad enough. But with the number of Americans suffering from diabetes, heart disease, clogged arteries, etc. the country’s obesity curse is far beyond a laughing matter.

How did we get here? There are numerous explanations, and as I am not a dietary expert I shall limit myself to my own observations and thoughts on the matter, coming from someone who has spent twenty years in a country highly regarded for the nutritional value of its traditional cuisine, and the longevity and slimness of its citizens. Let’s begin with that Diet Coke mentioned earlier. Leaving aside the hopelessness of doing anything positive for one’s health by slurping one down, one might begin by asking: why have soft drinks with meals in the first place? Japanese people don’t. Certainly, for most of the country’s history, neither did Americans. Where did this habit, of drinking fizzy, sickly sweet beverages with meals come from? And that is the right place to start, because much of America’s fat problem can be attributed to the brilliant (and tragically so) promotional schemes of America’s junk food purveyors. Here is how cokes became a staple of America’s restaurant (and eventually home) meals. The Coca Cola company made a “generous” offer to all food establishments, large and small, all over the country. Install a soda fountain that serves our drinks, and we’ll buy you an electric sign to display outside! What could be better for attracting clientele than a brightly glowing sign? Only one little thing: half the sign space had to be used to advertise – you guessed it – Coca Cola.  And thus it was that a triumverate of American cuisine, an Axis of Dietary Evil, was now complete; a burger (or a BLT, or a grilled cheese sandwich), fries…..and a Coke!

Burgers! Aw, yes, now we are really getting to the meat of the problem!  For burgers mean fast food, and fast food, in two fell swoops, delivered the coup de grace to America the Beautiful (or at least beautifully built). I remember when there was only one Wendy’s on the entire planet. It was a fantastic and hugely popular eatery in downtown Columbus, at the intersection of Broad and High, which, as Columbusites will inform you, is smack in the center of town. It may also be the epicenter of American fast food culture. For not only did it provide the birthplace of America’s third most successful burger chain, Columbus itself is known as an ideal “test market city”. So many of the things that Americans devour in fast food restaurants, from chicken “nuggets” to burritos the size of your head, appear on the menu because they tested well in Columbus. But back to that first Wendy’s. The burgers there were not just good; they were amazing! Pretty much everyone who walked out of there, when it was just the one store, was certain they had just consumed one of, if not the, best burgers they had ever tasted in their lives. They were nothing like the burgers you get in Wendy’s chains nowadays. They were handcrafted antique Swiss watches to today’s mass produced gadgets. But, success breeding excess, Ray Thomas, Wendy’s dad, was not content to leave well enough alone, and Wendy’s was soon challenging McDonalds and Burger King for American burger supremacy. The only thing he had to squander was the impeccable quality that made his burger joint a star in the first place.

Mass production: that was the first ingenious, and disastrous, step that fast food restaurants led the American people down into today’s dietary fiasco. For perhaps the first time in human history, all pretense of there being something special about food, and a human being’s relationship to it, was trashed, or at least drastically altered. Prophetically so. Long before fast food, everyone in the U.S. had heard the expression, “you are what you eat”. That expression could thereafter be modified to say, “…and what I eat are mass produced food thingies that do more harm to my body than good”.

The second step flows naturally, or unnaturally as it were, from the first: drive-through windows. Only in America could such an insult to dining have come about (the first McDonald’s drive-thru appeared in 1975, six years after the first Wendy’s was opened. This period of time should perhaps be thought of as the beginning of the modern American diet). Food had now morphed into what most Americans think of it as today: fuel. Nothing more, nothing less. Your car runs out of fuel, you pull into a filling station, plonk down some money, fill up,  and you’re all set. Same with the body. As all too many Americans practically live in their cars, the metaphor was now complete. Americans are cars! Large objects that move around from place to place, filling up on fuel when necessary, and continually getting bigger. SUV, you ain’t got nothing on us!

Food as cheaply mass-produced fuel. This, I believe, is the key to understanding the obesity problem in America. Truly, you are what you eat. If you think of food as merely fuel, then you do not love it. You do not revere it. You, I believe, dishonor it. 

And then you put it in your body. So this stuff, that was never loved, not by the farmers who factory-produced it, not by the hands and machines that processed it, and not by the person actually eating it – is it any wonder that when it gets inside it  becomes more ravaging marauder than nourishing friend? When you love the food you eat, really love it, it loves you back. There are plenty of French and Italians and Swiss and Belgians and Austrians stuffing themselves with rich concoctions, washing it down with beer or wine or cream dolloped coffee, and still not bloating up like beached whales. There are Chinese and Japanese stuffing their faces with foods that are too salty, too oily, too sweet. But their mentality as they do so is totally different. They love food! Ask the Japanese. Better yet, ask any person who comes here from overseas. They turn on the TV and it seems like all they see are images of Japanese, almost worshipfully, stuffing food into their faces, and then gushing about how delicious it is! Ridiculous? Perhaps, but telling as well. These are very old cultures, and they retain a relationship with food that, even in this age of mass production, of nearly everything we eat coming out of a box or a can or a jar, acknowledges a simple truth that the majority of Americans have lost altogether. What you eat becomes you! You wear it as your cells, and your cells keep you alive, keep you vital and healthy. Or not. Americans have got to relearn that simple truth, as valuable in its own way as The Golden Rule. Otherwise, we may as well just change the “four food groups” to Sugar, Salt, Fat and Artificial Coloring. And save room for some pie.