The Cap'n Does Lean Cuisine

When I'm out in public with strangers and my occupation comes up, reactions vary. Some people want to immediately start buying me flaming shots and do head butts. Some people want to tell me the secret ingredient that makes their chili so great. Some people want to know what my High Density Lipoprotein count is.

It is this last group I find most amazing. We seem to be going through a period of time in which it's totally acceptable to pester other people about their diet and exercise habits. As far as I can tell, this is a peculiarity of life in the middle demographics.

Grunts, laborers and disadvantaged persons couldn't care less that a diet of Chee-tos and beef sticks will nip you young. At the other end, rich people spend their evenings in restaurants, blithely slurping martinis and rich sauces. Both groups get plenty of exercise, whether it be robbing convenience stores or having sex with their servants, respectively.

Sadly, there are lots of middle people reading this article right now who can't drive past a doughnut shop without cranking a filmstrip through their mind's eye that depicts the gradual-but-deadly accumulation of shower- curtain scum on the walls of their arteries. Beep! Work-too-hard, don't- earn-enough, what-the-hell-let's-run-the-Visa-to-the-limit-honey slugs like me are the ones who have to do the worrying about nutrition, health, life and death.

Health extremists have made us this way. I've always considered myself to be less than extreme. I like to eat, and my choices don't always include the fruits, vegetables, stems and twigs that are supposed to make your diet a healthy one.

Which is why I was a little shocked to receive a lunch invitation recently from a couple of babes who are nutritionists. Shirley Strembel and Robyn DeBell are official nutrition experts for the county, and essentially it's their job to make taxpayers think twice about loading down their systems daily with grease, suet, flesh and vodka. Their big idea was to get to you through me. Me, I wanted to force them to eat French fries and bacon and cheese soup and burgers with extra mayo. Har!

We agreed on the phone that we would eat in two different places, one of their choosing and one of mine. At their place, they would show me how to eat sensibly, with an emphasis on low-fat food choices. At my place, I would show them how to eat like a real person.

By the time I arrived at joint one, the Lean Ladies were already inspecting a menu. The Middle Eastern Bakery and Deli makes all kinds of swell change-of-pace stuff, including excellent gyros, plus a long list of unspellable dishes from OPEC-land.

We had decided that we were going to be trying the vegetarian combo, a ground beef thing, plus some kind of chicken stuff in a pita. After a few minutes of cordial-but-firm negotiations, I talked the Diet Deputies into a round of the soup of the day, a red lentil, but only after Robyn had me ask the counter person if it's made with oil.

This was a new experience, this oil business. I've always considered soups of all kinds to be healthy, regardless of their contents. Now oil was suspect--in a Middle Eastern joint, no less. When the counter person answered that yes, indeed there may be some olive oil in this soup, I turned back to the table for the go-ahead. Looking worried, the Good-for-You Girls quickly~ called a huddle. Seconds later came a thumbs-up sign--olive was one of the few semi-approved oils.

While we waited for our order, I grilled the food experts, who were not at all off-the-wall dogmatic about food, unlike many of the sincerely vapor-brained characters you run into in health-food stores, who, despite the air of superiority they try so desperately to cultivate, will die someday, too. In fact, both Nutrition Nellies claimed to be huge fans of a certain local columnist who tends to write about cheeseburgers a lot. Shirley quoted from memory several of my best lines, which is something even I can't do. They also freely admit that they occasionally bolt out of their office and scarf several tacos each.

Once I realized that my lunch partners live in the real world, a place where the occasional vat of onion-soup-and-sour-cream dip appears on the table next to the potato chip bag, I let them try to convince me about their program. Project LEAN (Low-fat Eating for America Now) is a Maricopa County Department of Health Services effort, underwritten by a big grant, designed to drop the fat content in the average American diet from about 40 percent, where it is now, to about 30 percent. Robyn and Shirley are conducting supermarket tours and seminars, as well as the occasional lunch date with a hostile media figure, in hopes of convincing the eating public that maybe a diet consisting wholly of Velveeta cheese and Polish sausage is not such a hot idea if you want to live long enough to be senile. (Note to readers: I partially swiped this last joke from Mike Royko, the greatest living American newspaper columnist.)

Of course, I wasn't about to let them off easy. I've written many times that the two principal flavor-giving ingredients in most foods are butter and sugar. Without any fat content, many dishes begin to taste quite a bit like hedge clippings.

Which is what I was prepared for this lunchtime. But then the food came, and it all tasted great. According to the experts, who admited they were just making educated ballpark guesses as to each item's fat content, most everything on the combo plater was acceptable. So was the chicken stuff, and so was the ground beef stuff. The red lentil soup was spectacular, some of the best dadgum soup I've ever eaten. I'm almost embarrassed to admit that something so tasty might be even remotely good for you.

The Hussies for Health were pretty pleased with themselves at this point. First they had managed to totally ingratiate themselves to me via unceasing compliments about my writing. Second they had managed to make me eat food that might not be terribly unhealthy. Third they had inspired me to write a paragraph about fat content in food. Up until that point we had not discussed my selection for our next educational lunch. I could tell they were a little nervous about it, so I tried to break the news to them gently.

"Har!" I said, cackling. "We're going to . . . Denny's!" They gasped. "Meet me there and we'll eat pizza omelettes!"

We met several days later at the primo Denny's of all time, in my opinion, the one at Seventh Street and Camelback. This joint, I knew, would be a challenge for anyone attempting healthy eating. Burgers, fries, eggs, biscuits, gravy, fried fish chunks--your basic loading-dock cuisine. I knew there would be salads on the menu, offering the Fatless Femmes an out.

We were seated at a booth. We opened our menus. The very first thing I dropped my eyes onto was a color photo of a plate of onion rings. The very first thing Robyn did was reach over, point to that picture on my menu and say, "No." Further vetos included all grilled sandwiches, all cream-based soups and everything fried. That left us with the two grilled-chicken dishes on the menu--one a salad, the other a sandwich.

I was not going to order a salad in front of the Wellness Wenches, so I went for the chicken sandwich, which came with--say amen somebody!--fries on the side. I also went with a bowl of chili, and was pleasantly surprised when Shirley explained that sometimes chili is okay to eat, especially chili with lots of beans. The rest of my party went with the chicken salads, dressing on the side. By the time the food came, we were all best buddies. The Lite 'n' Lively Ladies were I think kind of surprised that I wasn't being more of a jerk. I was still in shock over this semi-great news about chili, which my occupation sometimes requires me to eat five days a week. We ate. It was okay, although everybody at the table except me flinched visibly when I dumped a whole big flagon of icky white dressing on my sandwich before eating it. "For flavor," I explained. After everyone was done with their food I noticed that both Self-denial Sallys had partially eaten the deep-fried tortilla bowls their salads came in. I also noticed that both of them wanted to at least taste-test some of my French fries.

For persons who truly care about what other people eat, these two are okay. I learned a few things from them about food, and I'm a better person for it. For example, did you know that some of the cracker companies have stopped using lard in their crackers? Because of pressure from suddenly health- concerned cracker eaters? Me neither, until I met Shirley and Robyn.

For further information about their program, feel free to call them at 258-6381, extension 211. And for the next two weeks they've got a special offer. If you tell 'em Cap'n Dave sent you, they'll try to guess your percentage of body fat over the phone. Not really.

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Cap'n Dave