Food for Thought: I've spent a few days digesting a thoughtful new book about Americans' attitudes about eating. It's titled Consumed: Why Americans Love, Hate and Fear Food, by Michelle Stacey (Simon & Schuster, $22). Her conclusion: When it comes to mealtime, most of our notions about what's on the plate are "berserk." Stacey puts her finger on the reason behind our American lunacy--the medicalization of food. In other parts of the world, food is considered comforting, filling, nutritious and tasty, and mealtimes are ritualistic parts of the social fabric.

Here, though, we're obsessed with the belief that eating is essentially a therapeutic activity, part of an individual struggle for redemption. Just as heartfelt prayer cleanses the sinful soul, good eating supposedly redeems the sinful body. As you might imagine, people with this attitude don't get much joy from eating. What they do get, according to Stacey, are intense bouts of anxiety, uncertainty, ambivalence, dread and guilt.

Stacey's most entertaining chapter, at least from my point of view, focuses on the trials of Eric Brumberg, a New York restaurateur. Caught between his own impulses to provide pleasure and relaxation through food and the public's increasing insistence on dietary correctness, Brumberg doesn't have much room to maneuver.

Especially when so many diners are so misinformed. Brumberg's health-conscious customers ask him to leave the bread off the burger and add an extra helping of mashed potatoes, to replace butter with olive oil and to cook "on the light side" while they order potato pancakes, barbecued ribs and deep-fried pierogi. What drives Brumberg particularly wild is the mania for sauces "on the side." Why? "Normally, we put about an ounce of sauce on, say, a piece of fish," he's quoted as saying. "But when you put it on the side, you have to give them about four ounces, because one ounce looks skimpy sitting in a dish. Well, every time, they eat the whole four ounces." Another chef agrees, arguing that "people aren't fat or having health problems because they ate one-twentieth of a tablespoon of duck fat in a sauce. And they don't have respect for what one tablespoon of duck fat can give to a sauce." Stacey makes the interesting point that we won't be healthier, psychologically and physically, until we learn to love food more, not less, with "relaxed, generous, unashamed emotion." She claims that food paranoids have turned the phrase "eating well" into a nutritional fetish, balancing every last gram of beta carotene, fat and fiber. Instead, she says "eating well" ought to convey the sense of enjoying "fresh, well-prepared foods that are varied and satisfying, served in an appealing way, eaten at leisure." Once we tell ourselves that it's okay to eat, in sane amounts, whatever we want to, Stacey claims that "the need for snacking, for cheating, for obsessing and binging" will disappear. What's so terribly nutty (and oddly apropos) about our healthy-eating obsession is that it comes at a time when Americans are fatter than ever. Maybe the best way to lighten up is just to, well, lighten up.--


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